Saying Farewell to 2021

The end of another year. One that I, like most people will be glad to see the back of.

Yes there have been highlights. I’ve had successes poetry-wise;

15 poetry magazine acceptances and a couple of anthology appearances this year (which is a lot by my standards). Ten of which were for publications that I’d not had success with previously. Thank you to the editors of the following (in no particular order); Ink, Sweat & Tears, Football Poets, Abergavenny Small Press, Dreich, 192, Green Ink, Acropolis, Interstellar, Words for the Wild, Poetry & All that Jazz, High Window Press, Crow Name, Chichester Poetry, Fair Play Shakespeare Anthology and the Civic Leicester Refugees Anthology for accepting and / or publishing my poetry this year.

Also thanks to West Wilts’ Radio Poetry Place, Portsmouth Hospital Radio and the BBC for sharing recordings of my writings.

I changed job, and am in a much better place career and earnings-wise. I’m also incredibly busy, recruiting across Australia, Singapore and the US – which is one reason for this blog being so erratic over the past few months.

I almost didn’t renew because of this, but have decided to do so – I have two sequences of poems that I am finished with, so will be trying to publish this year. For a number of reasons I may end up self-publishing at least one of them. I guess this blog can help with publicity if either of these comes to pass.

But 2021 has been another year of challenges – political, environmental, societal and personal. Our narcissist prat of a PM and his cabinet of charlatans continue to wreck havoc with what remains of our standing in the world, whilst damaging our democracy and their future accountability. We should be alarmed.

Environmentally I am coming to the conclusion that we are fucked. There isn’t the willpower to do anything meaningful about it (and yes we are all complicit in our own little ways – I’m finally getting round to changing my bank account from First Direct who heavily support oil producers and other organisations that are ruining the planet – I should have done it years ago).

But we still have each other, our songs, our music, our love. We need to find time and space for our relationships, to support and thank those who mean a lot to us.

I’m think of James Rodd, who chose to end his life at the end of October. I wish I had talked to him about my own struggles with mental health and how I found a way out of my own personal abyss. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference, but I will never know.

Or John Haynes, the brilliant poet who passed in the same month. I heard about John’s death recently, via a post on Facebook. I went to a number of workshops that John ran in his home in Waterlooville. He was always kind and supportive, his knowledge of poetry and other poets immense, and his guidance to me and other writers locally was incredibly important. I never properly thanked him.

But time gets in the way. Or rather the way we use it does. I should probably write in more detail about John’s work. Restart my From My Poetry Bookshelf series. Maybe I will. Plenty of friends have had new books out in the last year that would justify greater coverage, even from my tiny corner of the poetry world – Claire Dyer and Greg Freeman for starters. But I probably need to learn to write better reviews first!

Lots of thinking on how to improve this blog over the next couple of years. Looking at the stats those posts that have got most traction haven’t actually been about poetry. Maybe that’s the way for me to go! So watch this space.

In the meantime, I hope you find the time and words to help and support those who need it within your own network, and to thank those who have been a help and have supported you in 2021. I know it’s a cliche, but the days slip by and we run out of time before we know it.

Have a peaceful and happy start to 2022.

A Crowd of Swaying Strangers

I was pinged on Thursday. Apparently I had been in close contact with someone on Monday 29th who had tested positive for Covid. My test results were negative. It’s just a stinking cold then.

I’m not surprised I was pinged – on Monday night I was at a Stereophonics concert in Portsmouth. This was, by their standards an ‘intimate’ gig, (they are due to be playing a couple of 70,000 sellout concerts in Cardiff soon).

I’m not a huge Stereophonics fan. They didn’t play my favourite song of their’s, (Local Boy in The Photograph), or my second favourite (A Thousand Trees – which someone laughably described on the radio as their favourite song about the environment – it’s actually about an allegation of child abuse), and there was a big bloke standing in front of me for much of the gig. But you could see why they are recognised as being such an excellent live act. Kelly Jones, you and the rest of the band put on a brilliant show.

And the sound and lighting was superb. The lighting in particular. I will always look at the lighting at any show with a lot more interest than I would have before recent events. I’m sure you would have appreciated it, James – and if not, I’m sure you would have let me know why.

How much have I missed this? Standing in a crowd of swaying singing strangers. It felt so good, I felt so alive, to be in this crowd of commonality. It’s why I love football, the singing, the chanting, the mass humanity (although not so much at yesterday’s Pompey match…).

With the Omnicrom Variant spreading here in the UK, and new restrictions starting to come into force, I don’t know when I’ll next be able to go to a gig.

I have a ticket for Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Bristol on January 19th (funnily enough no-one else I know wants to go and see a Canadian anarchist post – rock collective on a Wednesday night in January), and have a list of other concerts I want to go to. Because life is short. Our time is so, so, short.

I’m very aware that this blog has been somewhat erratic over the past few months – there are a whole range of reasons for this. But time has been a major factor.

I’ve been recruiting for roles in San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney and now Frankfurt. The clients have been based in Denver, Houston, New York and Salzburg. Working across 8 different time zones has been a challenge. Speaking to candidates at 5 AM and then 10 PM on the same day. It’s my choice – I don’t request, need, or deserve any sympathy. The main project, (thirteen roles in San Francisco & Singapore for a consultancy working onsite at Facebook), should complete in a couple of weeks, the Australian role has excellent candidates in the frame. Once these are done, things should get back to normal, or whatever that is these days.

Hopefully then, I’ll have more time for writing, for blogging, and for creating events for the South Downs Poetry Festival – I was asked to help spread events to the west of the downs, but haven’t managed to do much at all. I also have to sort out my second manuscript for my publishers, Dempsey & Windle, and have a long sequence that I wrote a few years ago that I am considering self-publishing, perhaps in online / downloadable format. Lot’s to get stuck into in 2022. So I guess I’ll keep this blog going.

A quick plug for anyone looking for last minute Christmas presents for the poet in their life. Why not buy them a book from an independent poetry publisher?

Dempsey & Windle – www.dempseyandwindle.com

There are plenty of others of course, but I should really champion my own publisher above anyone else!

Feel free to add any other publishers you rate in the comments – I’ll share them here with my small following.

Meanwhile, keep well and keep safe. I guess we all have to make our own decisions on what is an acceptable risk now and into next year. But for me, live music, live theatre and live sport are central to my life, and I really struggle without them. Even if the event is a disappointment – yes, Portsmouth FC I am looking at you right now…so much for an FA Cup run this year!

Good luck, and see you on the other side – if not at a raucous concert or football match, maybe at a more genteel poetry event, such as one I went to a very, very long time ago….

An Evening at the Haiku Club

Corduroy trousers
hush puppies and smug faces
words trapped in aspic

….NB, and yes, I know this isn’t actually a haiku, but that’s part of the point of the poem….

Remembering James

This blog has been very quiet for the past month. I have been deeply affected by the loss of a close family friend, who chose to end his life at the age of 24.

I’ve known James all his life. He was a kind, funny, warm and intensely loyal person. He was also an autistic person. Around 1 in 100 people in the UK are autistic. Statistically, autistic adults are 9 times more likely to take their life than members of the general population. Autistic children are 28 times more likely to think about, or attempt suicide.

When I heard the news I tried write something that evening, simply as a way to try and process my thoughts, to put down how I felt, my initial reaction. I did come up with something – the verses are short, ragged, and of the moment. I’m not sure what to do with them, share them here, send them out or just stick them in a drawer. I do think I need to give the family the option to see them first, which is why I’m not posting them here. Yet.

I was honoured to be asked to write a poem to be read at the funeral on Thursday. I’ve written a lot from personal dark spaces in the past. This was on another level, and the most difficult poem I have ever written. My focus was to remember James for who he was, whilst also reflecting on how he passed, and how we can try to reconcile this with how we all try to continue. We are all scarred by the suicide of a loved one – some of course more deeply than others. But all who knew James are changed by his passing.

From a practical perspective, I wanted to try and include different aspects of his life that different members of the congregation on Thursday could take from the poem. I also needed to use a form that was easy to read as I didn’t know how I would be affected when trying to read the poem.

I also wanted to reflect on society’s attitude to those who are different from what is considered the norm (whether in a neurological context or for any other reason). As a general rule it is nothing like good enough.

If you are looking for guidance from our country’s leadership on what a compassionate society looks like then you can forget it. If you haven’t noticed their attitudes towards the poor, disabled and anyone else who is vulnerable in this country then you really haven’t been paying attention. Look at their actions over the past 10-11 years, look at their policies. Look at the language they use. There is consistency in this.

If someone keeps punching down despite the evidence of how it is affecting the people they are hurting, then they clearly do not care about the consequences.

So we have to reflect and work on our own attitudes, how we engage with people in our own lives. We can’t be complacent. This is always a work in progress. We do not know what anyone else is going through. We just need to be kind. Try to help in our own small way.

The day of the funeral was a bright, cold late autumn morning. As someone who worked with light, (James was a lighting engineer working on cruise ships), I’m sure he would have appreciated its’ beauty. The service was desperately sad, but at the same time there was so much warmth, kindness and love. Each address fitted in with the others perfectly. I got through my poem, just.

I’m sharing it here, not for any weird kind of self-promotion, but purely because I want something positive to come from this tragedy. The family have set up a page in memory of James, with the option for people to make a donation to the Autism Society. If you feel able to donate, the link can be found here;

https://jamesrodd.muchloved.com

And if you are reading this, and have been considering taking a similar course of action to that which James took, then please, please, speak to someone. Ask for help. Phone the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123. You are loved far more than you will ever know.

For everyone else, please be kind. That person who is in your way or who has held you up in a shopping queue for a couple of minutes or is a bit of an irritant in your day? That person who dresses differently, who acts slightly differently to what you see as being normal? Take a step back. Think about how you are going to interact with them. And if you can’t be kind then keep your mouth shut and walk away. Go home, take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror and try to be better next time.

Poem for James

You who so lived for light’s beautiful glow,
so talented at illuminating the cast,
to make them the centre of the show.
Now in this place, we are all here for you.
There’s a black hole in the middle of the stage
as we sit here waiting, wishing for your cue.
 
But though we are broken, lost, and confused,
this darkness is spot lit with solace to take,
for each of our memories will not be diffused
like so many messages from those who you knew,
from school to university to shipmates at sea,
of how lives were enriched when shared with you.
 
I remember a boy who lived passions to the full –
Thomas the Tank and happy meal toys,
dens in the woods and light-sabre duels,
the only person I’ve known who liked attack of the clones.
But yours was a force in so many lives,
if only you could see you were never walking alone.
 
Liverpool FC and northern flat caps,
but you were at home in the Winchester downs,
riding up hills or throwing sticks for the labs,
or here in this church with congregational friends.
So we sit here wrapped in our individual thoughts,
this dark desperate sky that simply won’t mend.
 
But even though the light seems so far away,
we remember the boy who grew into a man.
That brilliant speech on Dan’s wedding day,
the way that you shined with such familial pride,
and while we are lost will never know why,
we’ll hold on to your smile, how you were so kind.
 
Everyone’s riding their own different race,
white, green, yellow or polka dot pink,
freewheeling mountains others can’t face.
And so, I reiterate to everyone here,
there is no shame in how James has passed,
keep your hearts strong and memories clear. 

This was a boy who tried to find his own path,
when at a model village and told to hold hands
he caused a queue instead of letting anyone past.
This is a man whose desert island disc choices
Were eight different finishes from the tour de France.
If only society could celebrate such different voices.
 
If there can be a legacy let it be that we do not speak
if we are tempted to fault those who are not like us.
We all have our moments when we know not what we seek,
and a fragile stem holds up each and every flower.
There is a line in Corinthians fifteen
that might help some at this bleakest of hours –
 
if there is a natural body, there is a spiritual body.
I like to think that he’s up there now,
headbanging along to Bohemian Rhapsody,
or playing air guitar as if he’s Angus Young,
or spinning wheels down the Alpe D’Huez,
or just sitting with Dobby in the morning sun.
 
For James is at peace now, free from any pain,
and while we will treasure our own memories
we will also hold tight to all those who remain.
Though we can’t turn back the clock, can’t rewrite time,
we can walk together and share in the silence
and nurture his light wherever it shines.

As Icebergs Keep Calving in the Barents Sea

We finally won the pub quiz at our local the other week. Two and a half years of trying, losing on a tie breaker twice and second place on so many other occasions, often by 1 point. Sometimes less. It was a moment of relief, a time for celebration.

And also a time for disbelief. Each week there is a news round. I have stopped watching the news. Picking up snippets here and there. The rest of the team were great, luckily. I’m still surprised we got so many right. I can’t cope with the news anymore. I won’t watch it. I turn off the radio or walk into another room.

At a time when we need real leaders the country is run by a bunch of utterly useless arseholes. From Brexit through Covid to Climate Change each crisis is an opportunity for someone to make obscene amounts of money, abetted by their friends in the media and the Houses of Parliament. The UK is in a mess. But who do the papers blame? Migrants. The feckless poor. The EU. The Labour Party from 11 years ago (to be fair they had a big part to play in setting up the conditions that led to the Middle East migrant crisis).

Yada yada yada. You know how it is. And how it grinds on. I can’t bear it anymore. And meanwhile we have incessant articles about a Llama, or cats being rescued from Afghanistan, or whatever reality show is flavour of the moment. Plus the Express wittering on about how Boris is trying so hard and is doing his best and has got another great idea and look at that Brexit bonus (these particular headlines seem to have dried up).

There’s a scene in Armageddon, that ridiculous Bruce Willis movie where they send drillers up to space to blow up a comet headed for earth, where an investigative journalist realises that the politician she is trailing isn’t running away from scandal but leaving to spend the last few weeks he has left to be with his family. Where she realises that Ellie is really ELE (sorry for the plot spoiler if you haven’t watched it).

I think of this scene pretty much every day now. The disgraced politician who is actually doing something decent as he knows what is coming and is doing what really matters. Some of the poems in my first collection, Landings, touch on a similar theme, like this one;

Taking Tea with Erwin 

I’m in the kitchen, 
making a cup of tea 
as the kids are fighting over the remote control.

The airwaves are swamped 
with the lives of near-celebrities, 
as icebergs are calving in the Barents Sea. 

Nobody is watching,
no-one is listening,
and I think of Schrodinger in ’35 

and the kids are laughing, 
and playing on the Wii, 
as icebergs keep calving in the Barents Sea.

Sometimes I feel like I am the cat, 
sometimes the vial, 
and sometimes the whole experiment; 

and I want to say, 
I want to say to them,
I just don’t know what to say, 

as icebergs keep calving in the Barents Sea.

I am so tired. Some days I feel as if I am on the Titanic (hence this particular photograph, which is apparently of the berg that sunk the unsinkable ship). Is it a recurrence of my previous bout of depression? I don’t think so. But it has affected my writing. It’s very dark at the moment. There doesn’t seem much room for light. Or for blogging for that matter, hence the silence here over the last few weeks.

But the light does get in. Somehow. It always gets in eventually. On Twitter I follow someone who asks people to share and vote on their favourite albums from a particular year. This fortnight it is 1996.

1996 was the year that the Manic Street Preachers released Everything Must Go, their fourth album, and the first following the disappearance of lyricist Richie Edwards. One of the tracks, The Girl Who Wanted To Be God is inspired by something said by Sylvia Plath. The biggest hit A Design for Life was the first song recorded and released by the band after Edwards vanished.

It’s a triumphant piece of music. The song was credited with having “rescued the band” from the despair felt after the disappearance of Edwards, with lead singer and songwriter Nicky Wire describing it as “a bolt of light from a severely dark place”.

It’s also the song that was playing on my in car CD player as I drove to the hospital to be at the birth of my first daughter. Listening to it again this week was a real reminder, that no matter how difficult the situation, there are things worth fighting for, and there is still time, there is still a chance to make a difference, with or without the fools who purport to lead us.

So I guess we’ve all got to do what we can. To work out what we can do that can make a difference. We’re not quite done yet.

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Taking Stock

I’ve been writing these bookshelf posts for a few months now – 25 posts in total – and I am starting to wonder whether there is much value in continuing with them. As with most bloggers, especially new ones, it sometimes feels as if I am writing into a void.

Am I? Does anyone actually get anything from these posts, or is it time for me to switch on to something else? This may read like some kind of existential crisis, but it isn’t – having spent a year running social media for a local recruitment company, I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of chasing page views and hits as opposed to proper engagement with content that really interests your (in my case pretty limited) readership.

There were 865 different unique visitors to my blog last month. Is this good, is this bad? I don’t get too many comments here – apart from those from all the lovely spammers of course (thank you for your deep interest in my page 😉 ), so it’s not always easy to tell.

So if you’ve enjoyed reading these from my bookshelf posts and want me to continue with them then let me know in the comments. If not, feel free to let me know why. Either way, it would be really interesting to see what people would like to see from a blog such as this moving forwards. If anything!

Do I carry on with these weekly bookshelf pages and weekly audio recordings, or do I just use this as a place for my own random ramblings? If no one is reading it and getting any value from them, is there any point?

And please, please, don’t take this as some kind of cry in the dark. I’m not upset either way – but if there really is minimal interest, then I’ll be happy to use the time in a different way.

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Saturday, 3PM – Daniel Gray

It’s 7.40 PM and I haven’t posted anything today. Family around and football on the TV. Lots of work to do on my side business – I have a licence to sell UEFA final memorabilia on eBay , Amazon and my own website. It’s not as profitable as you’d think, but it does help with the general finances. A little.

So an opportunity to mention Daniel Gray’s prose books about football. Full of nostalgia and quirks of the game, I really enjoyed reading them when I got them for Christmas last year.

They are described as prose poetry. I don’t know. Truth be told, I’m confused by what is, and what isn’t prose poetry. Where does poetry end and prose begin? I have friends who say that poetry can’t exist without line breaks. That poetry and prose do not mix.

With the utmost respect I think they are talking bollocks. I’ll side with Ginsberg, Bly, Simic, Rilke and Rimbaud etc. myself.

As for Daniel Gray’s books, (I have three), whether prose poetry or prose with poetical flourishes, does it really matter? If you love football, you’ll find something to appreciate. The first three pieces in Saturday, 3 PM focus on such important issues as Seeing a ground from the train, watching an away end erupt and getting the fixture list. There are 47 similarly titled pieces in this book.

The review from When Saturday Comes states;

Each is a precision-tooled delight. even apparently obvious subjects are described with such lyricism that the everyday is routinely transformed into the sublime. here is a book that contains nothing but pure, unadulterated joy

and a BBC Radio review states that ‘Gray writes like Lowry paints. Superb.

This is a book of love-letters to the beautiful game, it’s quirks and obsessions, moments of humour, joy, family and community spirit. Gray has written others – Extra Time and Black Boots and Football Pinks, both of which I own, and have added to my poetry bookshelf

If you want to get hold of a copy from bookshop.org you can do so here: https://uk.bookshop.org/a/5319/9781472925114

Anyway, enough of this. The Netherlands are playing Ukraine at UEFA 2020. Time to go and sit in front of the TV!

Wallace Stevens – Poems Selected by John Burnside

John Burnside, of whom I have not written yet, is one of my favourite poets, which is one of the reasons I got this book. It’s one of a series of poet – to – poet series Faber collections, where a well known contemporary poets writes about, and chooses a small selection of a another poet’s work. Like most, if not all, of the other books in this series it is now out of print (so doesn’t appear on my Bookshop.org page – my attempt to cover some of the hosting costs of this blog – currently at £6.40, which really isn’t going to help that much!).

It’s a small selection – 126 pages in total – not really enough to cover more than an introduction to a poet’s work. But in some ways for an unfamiliar reader it’s a better option. Not as daunting as a collected poems, and, as in this case, a good way to see how a particular poet’s style has developed over time.

This is particularly the case for someone like Wallace Stevens, who is perhaps most remembered, at least, here in the UK, for his earlier poems, primarily those published in Harmonium, his first collection. Harmonium was published in 1923, when the poet was 44 years old.

Harmonium includes The Snow Man, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, Sunday Morning, Peter Quince at the Clavier, and perhaps most famous of all, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, which starts as follows;

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   

II
I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   

IV
A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   

The literary scholar Beverly Maeder writing for the Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens speaks of the importance the author placed upon linguistic structure in many of his poems. In this instance, Stevens is experimenting with the application of the verb ‘to be’ in its many forms and conjugations throughout the 13 cantos of the poem. As Maeder states, the poem “uses or even focuses on ‘to be’ in seven of its thirteen variations on the blackbird. The blackbird is pictured in a different situation and articulated in a different grammatical context in each fragment’ (Beverly Maeder Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens).

Another interpretation can be found here on the poem analysis website;

https://poemanalysis.com/wallace-stevens/thirteen-ways-of-looking-at-a-blackbird/

There are plenty of others. But Burnside asserts that ‘Far too many of us still see Stevens as the poet of ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird‘ and ‘The Snow Man‘ but, as fine as these are, he was much more than that’. This selected collection includes some of the longer sequence poems written towards the end of his life, and shorter poems from his final collection. One of the most well known of the former is An Ordinary Evening in New England, which in thirty-one cantos of six three line stanzas is an extraordinary piece of writing, an extended meditation on what is imagined and what is real. A lot of Stevens’ poetry is about poetry itself (usually a turn-off for me), and is challenging and difficult to fully understand, but then isn’t that the point? Not just with Stevens’ poetry, but with poetry, and life generally? The Twelfth stanza reads as follows;

XII

The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.
The poet speaks the poem as it is,

Not as it was: part of the reverberation
Of a windy night as it is, when the marble statues
Are like newspapers blown by the wind. He speaks

By sight and insight as they are. There is no
Tomorrow for him. The wind will have passed by,
The statues will have gone back to be things about.

The mobile and immobile flickering
In the area between is and was are leaves,
Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees

And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembiling the presence of thought
Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if,

In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
the town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.

One poem that, unsurprisingly isn’t included in this book, and also seems to be overlooked by others is ‘Like Decorations in a N….. Cemetery’ – a long poem about death and disintegration into nothingness. Apparently it should be read as an ellipsis, as in (My Poetry is) Like…., and it’s been described as a modernist masterpiece. But I can’t get beyond the vile title, which compounds the use of the N word, (I originally wrote the poem title here in full, but am uncomfortable in having it anywhere on my blog), with a negative appropriation of what is, (or was when it was written in the 1930s), an African-American tradition of grave adornment.

Of course Stevens was a product of his time, something that those commentators who acknowledge this racist language are quick to point out, but does that mean we can give a free pass to someone whose response upon learning of Gwendolyn Brook’s winning the Pulitzer Prize: was to say, apparently to a shocked reaction from those others in attendance, “Who let the coon in?”

Apart from the aforementioned title, (the poem itself doesn’t appear to be as discriminatory although I’ve only read it the once, so I may be missing something), his poetry is generally seen to be ambivalent towards those of other ethnic backgrounds, as opposed to being openly hostile. His upbringing and non-poetic life as a highly successful insurance businessman meant he had little interaction with non-whites.

Of course racism was commonplace in America at that time, (and still is of course, as recent events clearly illustrate), but where do we draw the line with poet’s beliefs and attitudes to others? What about Eliot and Pound’s anti-semitism? Or Pound’s (and for a short time Stevens’) support for Mussolini?

Outside poetry, do we discount Miles Davis’ music because of his violent misogyny? Or what of contemporary musicians such as Morrissey, Ian Brown or Noel Gallagher, and their comments on Covid, or politics (or in Ian Brown’s case pretty much anything!).

Then there’s the allegations of transphobia against JK Rowling and the reaction from fans who said they couldn’t read the books any more – there are, as you’d expect, a lot of articles on that particular controversy online. If you want to find out more then try this summary from the Scotsman website as a starting point;

https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/books/jk-rowling-twitter-why-harry-potter-author-has-been-accused-transphobia-social-media-platforms-2877977

So where do we go from here? Can we separate the person from their art? Should we? Even with contemporary artists it’s difficult – adding the prism of time makes it even harder.

There’s a good article on Miles Davis here – and how the author tries to deal with their conflict over loving the music and hating the actions of the person who made it

https://music.avclub.com/miles-davis-beat-his-wives-and-made-beautiful-music-1798242163

Or perhaps we should acknowledge the flaws of the individual as a way to have a deeper understanding of their art, as this article on Picasso, who like Davis had, by all accounts, a deeply unpleasant attitude to many of the women in his life;

https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/art-politics/the_picasso_problem_why_we_shouldnt_separate_the_art_from_the_artists_misogyny-55120

I keep going round in circles on this – ultimately we all have our own lines beyond which we won’t go, (I’m old enough to have seen Gary Glitter in concert and quite enjoyed it in a mock-ironic way, but I wouldn’t go anywhere near his music now), but I think we have to try, where possible, to separate the person from their art, whilst acknowledging the reality of the creator of the work and try and help, in our own small way, towards the dismantling of abhorrent views and attitudes in current and future generations.

You can admire Guernica, A Kind of Blue and An Ordinary Evening in New England without admiring their creator as an individual.

As for Stevens, it’s instructive to bear in mind that following her award of the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks was on the awards panel for the award in 1955. When the other two votes were split between e.e. cummings and Wallace Stevens, she gave her casting vote to Stevens. If she was able to separate the man from his work, perhaps we should be able to do so (see this following article and comments on the poetry foundation website for details).

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet-books/2008/02/wallace-stevens-after-lunch

What do you think? Let me know.

Mental Health Awareness Week

Apparently it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. I say apparently because I’ve been avoiding much of social media for the duration. All the influencer posts. All the one size fits all advice from people who aren’t trained in the area or are just repeating glib suggestions. I’m being harsh. I am sure the posters concerned are trying to do good. And maybe they do reach out and help someone. Fair enough.

But those of us with closer, lived experience in this area maybe don’t need reminding every single time we scroll through Facebook or LinkedIn, (and yes, I know I’m potentially being hypocritical here, but at least if you’ve got this far you have done so by choice ).

For a lot of us every week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Something we deal with. Every. Single. Day. It’s exhausting. Looking out for signs, trigger points, anything that might lead to some kind of relapse. And along comes a well-meaning mental health awareness post to brighten our day. And then another, and then the first post again, shared by someone else we follow.

Not only this, but these articles are so full of sweeping generalisations – just because I’ve suffered from depression it doesn’t mean I know anything about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or any of the other myriad conditions that people have to find a way of living with. It’s as if someone who once had a broken leg can automatically be an expert on mitigating the effects of varicose veins.

Although as Gillian McKeith managed to build a career as a ‘nutritionist’ from not much more than an intense interest in the contents of someone’s bowels, it isn’t that surprising. Anyone can be an expert on anything if enough people are listening. Being full of shit can be highly profitable.

Back to Mental Health Awareness Week itself. It’s 2021. Surely we’ve had enough focus on developing awareness of these issue by now for this to be unnecessary? But then I hear a colleague in the office moaning because someone won’t go to work because they are ‘a bit sad’. Yes maybe I should have said something. Maybe I should have snapped. But perhaps they were just covering their own insecurities, their own issues, their own illness. Many of us are just trying to find a way to deal with our own crap (unless we’re Gillian McKeith of course).

Despite my colleague’s comment, I do think attitudes are changing – I only have to think back to what it was like in the 80s and 90s to see how far we have come, and initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week have probably played a part, despite my ambivalence and curmudgeonly annoyance. Just don’t expect me to share any chain mail social media posts on this subject (or any other for that matter).

There is so much that still needs to be done. I could rant and rage about the government’s woeful attitude an funding cuts to mental health provision in the name of austerity, but I’m not going to bother. They aren’t listening and they certainly don’t care.

On a personal level I’m not at the stage where I am willing to divulge everything that I went through. Sorry to disappoint, but you won’t see some badge of honour confessional from me in this post.

One thing I will say is that in my case there were times that I felt as if the treatment was as bad as the illness it was treating (it wasn’t). The prose piece which follows at the end of this post, (at this stage part of a much larger sequence I am writing – though it might not make the final cut), is an attempt to give an insight into one aspect of my own treatment through the use of (in my case a relatively low dose) anti-depressant medication.

Having started by criticising advice being given out during Mental Health Awareness Week, I am going to give two pieces of advice of my own.

Firstly, from personal experience and what I’ve read, I don’t think you can properly begin to deal with depression in someone until that person realises or accepts that they have a problem. Secondly, if you are struggling with depression and getting to the point of thinking that those you love will be better off without you being around, then you are wrong. The void you will leave behind is far greater than anything anyone who cares about you will be feeling right now.

Anyway, before this ends up as one of those self help articles I pilloried at the start of this article, here’s the poem / flash / hybrid writing piece. It hasn’t appeared anywhere else before. It’s entitled Sertraline (the anti-depressant I was taking for some time). To misquote The Verve, sometimes the drugs do work, even if we don’t always think they are at the time. They helped, and alongside the support of health professionals and my wonderful family and friends I was able to find my way back from the dark.

Sertraline

A comfort you said it was being unable to feel. You’d paid for the fog with your own credit card. It came in a box of bitter-white pills. Slip one from its pod and sleep not needing to dream. 

Numbness is a blanket. Tuck in the edges. The gaps where light might grow. It’s a fair price to pay for a few hours of peace.

A bus-stop shelter in a nondescript town, where stormwater guttering sluices with despair. Been waiting for years for a way out of this place. For a discourse of traffic through a diaspora of spray.

Walking the centre in a figure of eight. Stanchions of concrete stained with rain. Shopping precinct garlanded with for sale signs. The acrid scent of alleyway piss. Playing chicken with passing cars. The thrill of knee brushing steel.

Or finding a feather in the park. Look how it shimmers in the sheen of a summer moon. Remembering a smile, the whiteness of teeth, the shape of a laugh. But there is no iridescence here. I like it that way. 

I’m not the man I thought I’d become.

A World Still Ours

From the Guardian this morning…

Australia’s former finance minister Mathias Cormann has won a hard-fought election to become the new chief of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), despite grave concerns voiced by environmental groups over his record on climate change.

Outside the wind is howling. The washing line would sing if it were taut enough to vibrate a note. This is just weather, of course, not climate. But is anyone listening anyway?

Should people with records like Cormann have any say in the direction of powerful organisations like the OECD? What does this say about the people who we entrust with our children’s futures? Meanwhile, here in the UK, HS2 will continue to be built as Johnson sets plans in motion towards building a tunnel or bridge to Northern Ireland. A coal mine in Cumbria remains under consideration. They carry on. A bit of greenwash lip service to placate the masses, but nothing really changes in the minds and actions of those who purport to lead us.

Yet there are encouraging signs. I work (part-time) managing social media accounts for three different recruitment brands. One of them is an engineering recruitment company, so I am constantly looking for articles and news pieces that I can add to the company feed. The huge range of new initiatives and new products being developed specifically aimed at tackling climate change and our inefficient use of resources is incredibly encouraging. I just hope we have enough time.

In the meantime, we all carry on as best we can. The sun is shining. Daffodils are nodding in the wind. Today my eldest daughter is moving out of the family home. We will miss her of course, but it is time. In other news, Pompey are playing in the Checkatrade Final at a fan-less final at Wembley – I wrote about the cancellation of the game back in April last year;

If nothing else it’s a reminder of something we lost last spring. Zoom can only do so much. I quite enjoy an online poetry event, (I’ve been to three in the last week), and it’s lovely to see familiar faces again, but it isn’t the same. I so miss meeting people in person, whether a catch up for a coffee, a writers event in a local cafe, or being with 60,000 other Pompey fans shouting and singing together in a sea of blue.

Bur if happiness today feels so fleeting or tissue-paper thin, whether through Covid, Brexit, climate worries, or something else, we still have each other, we still have our choices, there is still much that can be done. The ending is as yet unwritten.

I’ll finish this post with the last poem from Landings , my first collection (still available from Dempsey & Windle Publishing) – the photo accompanying this blog post became the cover illustration.

At Full TIme

I hear the meaning, not the words,
the drifting lilt of tone,
a singing crowd over late night traffic.

On the other side of glass as seasons turn,
waiting for the sky to fall,
a single drop of rain and then another.

The spatter of footsteps on pavements;
water sanctifies the profane,
softens the smack of heel and toe.

Windows streaked by meteor showers.
A delta of streams will build;
to catch these words and float their meaning.

From here dark clouds cast spray-dust,
as drifting bands of stars;
the world still ours if we reach for it.

Lightning fuses earth in the distance,
this city asleep and wide awake,
voices rising over background static.

The Hospital on the Hill

I keep looking back at my posts from January and February last year. Those days before Covid. How little we knew then. I’m sure many others are doing the same, whether it be on social media, or through apps like 1 second every day ( https://1se.co ) . Our lives are lived in full view. Our thoughts, however inane, are captured for future review. Whether this is a good thing or not is for a future post.

The main hospital in Portsmouth is at the top of Portsdown Hill, on the outskirts of the city. After dark it can be seen from miles away, like a vast, recently landed spaceship of concrete and light. Think Close Encounters of the Third Kind without the music and urge to mould models out of mud. In times like these, it is a reminder of what is important, and how fragile our existence actually is. How little time we have. I hope when we finally come out of this crisis, that people take stock, reflect on what really matters, and live their lives accordingly in the future, as much as they can. I know I will.

I also fervently hope that those in this country who have made this crisis so much worse than it needed to be, get exactly what they deserve. There will be spin, of course. There will be attempts to obfuscate, to blame others, but we must not let them. The UK has had one of the worst death rates per head of population in the world. Many health professionals have died due to inadequacies of PPE procurement, whilst companies that have had no experience in the area have been given massive contracts for equipment that was not delivered, or was faulty when it was. Health workers in the sixth-largest economy in the world had to resort to wearing bin bags for protection.

Of course there is the counter-argument of the highly successful and efficient vaccine rollout. But notice how the politicians call this NHS run project the ‘government’s vaccine rollout’ whereas £22bn was wasted on an outsourced ‘NHS track and trace’. Language matters.

Oh, and as an aside, if Brexit is your thing? One country with one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world is Romania. Whereas other EU countries tried to do things jointly, (and the EU made a complete hash of it), they just went ahead and sorted out their own vaccines. As with blue passports (Croatia), we could have done the same. Don’t believe the BS.

Back to QA Hospital. Like every other NHS hospital in the country they have been close-to-overwhelmed, converting non-essential wards to high dependency units, the staff working flat-out, doing what they can, under conditions of extreme stress and exhaustion, and of course with an underlying knowledge that they are at heightened risk themselves from this horrendous disease.

Another aside: Some prat went into the hospital and filmed empty corridors on their mobile phone as a way to prove that the virus was a hoax. All the Covid patients are suffering from a highly contagious disease and are in high-dependency wards. Do you really think they would be in hospital corridors? Idiot. Anyway, I digress.

I was recently asked to provide a poem to be placed in one of the high dependency Covid wards. As someone who doesn’t work in the NHS, but knows plenty of people who do, it wasn’t exactly easy to get it right. The poem I wrote, which appears at the end of this post, has been accepted, along with lots of other poems from staff and other poets. It may not be a particularly good poem, but hopefully it will help someone in some small way with what they are going through.

A third and final aside: The poem mentions ‘grey hulls’. With the hospital being at the top of Portsdown Hill there is, from some windows at least, an excellent view of the city, including the Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard and Royal Navy fleet.

So now we wait. As we did before. Hopefully this ‘road map’ out of lockdown will work. I remain worried that with plans to open up all schools at the same time and the risk of new virus strains that this crisis still has a long way to go.

In the meantime, all we can do is keep trying to follow the rules and give huge thanks to all those who are working through the storm, whether emergency workers, NHS staff, (including cleaners, porters, back office staff and non-emergency workers without whose efforts the system could not function), other frontline employees such as those working in transport and retail, without whose work, and in so many cases, sacrifice, our year of Covid would have been so much worse. Thank you.

Pieces

Look at all the grey hulls
lined up in the Solent;
A ship needs every rivet
to stop the sea from surging in.

Stop and take a deep breath.
A jigsaw needs every piece,
a book needs every page,
to make any sort of sense.

Here as with everywhere,
this day can never be won,
by standing on our own.
We fall and rise together.

Trapped in layered protection,
around our brittled light,
forgetting who we are,
forgetting how to see.

A smile behind a mask,
is a crack in the bitter dark,
that will widen, as it always does;
these times will one day pass.

Beyond the cliches of politicians
are real words and thoughts and prayers.
I would bring them to you here,
to your exhaustion of despair,

to all that you have witnessed,
to all that you’ve endured,
to all that you have done,
and all that you could not.

I’d remind you that you’re loved.
I’d remind you that you’re valued.
Just because people are too tired,
too busy or stressed to say it,

doesn’t mean it isn’t true.