Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Don't Wear it on Your Head, Don't Stick it Down Your Pants by John Siddique

This is the second book I read in February, and it was supplied by Sarah with an instruction that I should share it. It is subtitled "Poems for young people". I did try some on Alec because he loves wordplay and rhymes -- particularly rhymes with a song -- but he wasn't terribly interested in John Siddique's verses. I think perhaps the rhyme structure was not rhythmical enough for his taste, the imagery is not concrete enough and he doesn't yet have enough of a handle on the abstract. (Do I sound like an terribly over-ambitious mama? The book is recommended for three and up. Alec might be only two, but I try very hard to avoid underestimating or patronising him and just occasionally these experiments do work out).

I was thinking back to the poetry I read as a child -- mostly anthologies. Off the top of my head I can't think of many books by a single poet -- A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and the only contemporary collection I had was Gargling with Jelly by the Liverpuddlian poet Brian Patten. This last impressed the young me with its range: from the title you'd think it was a collection of shouty daft poems, but several of the verses are very dark, some are very sad and even the laugh-out-loud poems have a sinister undercurrent.

I went into Don't Wear... assuming that it would be daft. It's not -- not all, anyway -- (even the title poem is (I think, anyway) a warning about managing your public and private identities). There are, of course, poems featuring bums and trumps -- Siddique knows his audience. But there are poems dealing with identity (this theme comes up again and again), with bullying, with complex relationships, with immigration.

When I started reading I felt a bit squirmy -- I was a suspicious child, never quite sure about adults who tried to get down to our level. I suppose I was used to being spoken down to, I think. Some of the poems seemed a bit... simple, a bit odd. 'Apples' in particular sounds as if it had been written by a child -- but as I read on I understood that this is actually the point. Siddique is imitating and raiding children's thought processes and speech rhythms, the way they create poetry by almost by accident. I know how magical this can be: every day Alec reminds me to look again at the knee-high world, and his make-do phrases have worked their way into our household vocabulary (particular favourites are "bubby noses" for nipples and "mucmic" for music.). But as an adult who no longer has a child's unselfconsciousness, to use a childlike voice as your professional voice takes a special kind of fearlessness and as I read I came to value this more and more.

You can order Don't Wear... directly from Salt or you can get it on Amazon by clicking the picture above.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Departure by Chris Emery

I ended up reading two poetry books for February (actually, I read some others as well: it appears that reading poetry is addictive). This was the one I said I was going to read and then my poetry mama Sarah Salway supplied me with a second contrasting book. 

I found it hard going -- "difficult to access" is the official term, I'm told. I talked over my fears with Sarah she said not to worry because sometimes you feel your way into a poem before you understand your way in.

At university I from time to time found myself in a roomful of people all competing to find something clever and intelligent-sounding to say about a poem that I really didn't understand. The Greek lyric poet Pindar is tremendously highly thought of by respectable ancient sources, but his verse is difficult to penetrate. I wept frustrated late night tears over the fragments we studied -- and you can imagine the mixture of relief and exasperation that swept through the seminar the next day when our tutor said (only half joking) that he suspected Pindar was on drugs and that we weren't to try to hard to understand.

This project isn't about being (or sounding) clever. It's not even about trying hard to understand. It's about the experience of reading poetry. I feel very vulnerable admitting here that I struggled to unlock this book (I feel just like the traveller in Walter de la Mare's poem The Listeners). But that was my experience of it.

I've read poetry (and short stories and all kinds of writing for that matter) before that just lies there like a dead fish and this was not my experience with The Departure. Images and tiny fragments of narrative flipped and flashed before my mind's eye -- and just occasionally I felt as if I might almost be swimming with the shoal.

The poems made me feel and put images in my head, but I never understood why I felt that way, or how these quicksilver pictures fitted into the narratives. There is something about the quality of the images ('Snails' silently drowned in "forest tears" and awkward 'Sunday Fathers' "wasting time by the swings") and of the atmospheres conjured up (for me the book as a whole has a feeling of carparks and gritty sodium lights, isn't that odd!) that tells me I should trust Chris Emery and that there are more treasures to be found. In a month or six I could revisit and find that I'm more experienced or wiser or older. Or perhaps layer upon layer of readings will help me to scribble in the details I need to make the poems complete (I once did a drawing class where the teacher told us to keep adding information to our pictures until they were complete: that phrase, to  my mind, was worth the course fee).

You can buy a copy on Amazon (click the picture) but it's more efficient and pleasing to buy it direct from the publisher, Salt.