From my Poetry Bookshelf – John Agard – Alternative Anthem

Happy World Poetry Day!

A good day to ask whether poetry is still relevant, whether it can actually achieve anything apart from providing an outlet for creative expression. In these current times of misinformation and misdirection, where here in the UK, as elsewhere, the government is becoming increasingly authoritarian, what can poetry do?

A good day for this poem by John Agard.

Flag

What’s that fluttering in a breeze?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that brings a nation to it’s knees.

What’s that furling from a pole?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that makes the guts of men grow bold.

What’s that rising over a tent?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that dares the coward to relent.

What’s that flying across a field?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that will outlive the blood you bleed.

How can I possess such a cloth?
Just ask for a flag my friend.
Then blind your conscious to the end.

From Half-Caste and other poems (Hodder’s Children’s 2004)

A good poem to share at a time when our politicians increasingly wrap themselves in the union flag, appeal to Britishness and blame others for their failings – whether the EU, migrants, travellers, woke lefties, there will always be a scapegoat. And 30-40% of the British public will fall for it. As no doubt was the case with every other similar regime in history.

This particular poem has been widely posted online, (which apart from it’s relevance today is one of the reasons I’ve chosen it), and looks like it has been used by teachers, as have some of Agard’s other poems – notably Half Caste and Checking Out Me History which have appeared in the AQA GCSE English anthology since 2002.

Flag‘s anger is perhaps a little atypical – as Maura Dooley states, quoted on the back of the Bloodaxe Books anthology which I am recommending today ( Flag isn’t in it BTW) – ‘His poems are direct and arresting. playful, full of startling imagery, and are hilarious, passionate and erotic as often as they are political – often managing to be all these things at once.’

John Agard was born in British Guiana in 1949. He loved listening to cricket commentary and began making up his own, which led to a love of language. Agard moved to Britain in 1977 with his partner, the equally fine poet Grace Nicholls. He was awarded the Queens Gold Medal for Poetry in 2012.

A good place to start with his work is Alternative Anthem, the Bloodeaxe Books published Selected Poems, which comes with a Live DVD (and available, of course, on my Poetry Bookshelf). I’m glad the DVD is included, because whilst the poems work very well on the page, to really appreciate them it’s best to hear and see them being performed by him.

I met John Agard at a Tongues and Grooves poetry event in the Square Tower in Portsmouth back in 2013 (was it really 8 years ago?!) It was a fantastic event, and he is a brilliant performer, one of the best I have ever seen. Once these days of lockdown are over, if you get the chance to see him read live, just buy a ticket. You won’t regret it.

There are lots of recordings available of him online. As it’s World Poetry Day, I thought I’d share Agard reading Poetry Jump Up – if it doesn’t at the very least make you smile then please get someone to check your pulse.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9gA8hzmsbo

Here’s a second recording, this time of the title poem in his Bloodeaxe selected, Alternative Anthem, which if you aren’t familiar with the poem, starts with the lines;

Put the kettle on
Put the kettle on
It is the British answer
To Armageddon.

It’s a joyous way to end this post

Oh and if you want to buy a copy of Alternative Anthem, it’s available via My Poetry Bookshelf on Bookshop.org through the following link

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/5319/9781852248239

(If you do buy anything via My Poetry Bookshelf then I will make a small commission that will help towards the running costs of this website).



From my Poetry Bookshelf – Vahni Capildeo

I was introduced to Vahni Capildeo by Maria Jastrzebska, (a superb poet who I shall write about in the future), when I was organising one of several annual Poetry of Exile events for Tongues & Grooves, back in the autumn of 2009. I’d set up a poetry film project that was shown on the BBC big screens in Portsmouth and Dover, and made contact with Maria, as part of this.

The Tongues & Grooves event went well (it was one of those overbooked evenings when it could have ended in disaster if a couple of open-mike poets had overstayed their welcome, but we got away with it!) It was rammed and we had people queuing out the door – for a poetry event, in Portsmouth, in November. Maria, Vahni and Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sayegh were the main featured poets.

Anyway, back to Vahni Capildeo. Capildeo was born in Trinidad in 1973 and has lived in the UK since 2011. She has published 13 collections of poetry and has a further two forthcoming. I have a couple of them, Measures of Expatriation, which won the Forward Prize for best poetry collection in 2016, and Undraining Sea, published in 2009.

As an introduction to her work, this quote by David Millar, commenting on Undraining Sea, is as good a place to start.

Vahni Capildeo, to her credit, clearly doesn’t give a fig about fashion or prestige. Her poetry is utterly divorced from that unfortunately prevalent tendency to write poems where the words give way to an (imagined) applauding audience at the next prestigious poetry awards. Her poetry is sassy, sometimes scary; dark, certainly, but there’s light there, too, even sweetness, and much humour; complex, even virtuosic, though she can be simple, in her own unique way. She’s one of the best around, and I applaud her.

Here’s her poem Mercy and Estrangement, from Measures of Expatriation, which can also be found alongside several other of her poems on the Versolopolis Poetry site;

https://www.versopolis-poetry.com/poet/221/vahni-capildeo

(I hope it’s OK to share this here – I only share poems that are already online in open parts of the internet).

Mercy and Estrangement

His heart hurtling towards me
I not caring to catch it
it turns into a bird, turns:
a scavenger bird lightfoot
alights on foam, contests white
as silver tilts white, silver
as refuse seams silver, gawks,
jinks, is radiated by charts
charted inly: magnetic,
unhoming because transformed.
A rill and jitter brought me
—birdform, my heart—to the park
where state translators, laid off,
sat sad for their hospitals
prisons and schools. Laws whistled
infixes between trained ears.
And at our conference,
so many equivalents
for gracias and Verfremdung,
easy change amongst false friends.

This is, I think, a good introduction to Capildeo’s writing. It may not, on the surface, be that straightforward to understand, but repays rereading. Just picking out a few elements of this poem, from the opening;

His heart hurtling towards me
I not caring to catch it

through to the image of the state translators sitting in a park;

Laws whistled infixed between trained ears.

and then the way everything is connected with the last two lines –

for gracias and Verfremdung,
easy change amongst false friends.

I think it’s great. What do you think?

As Jamie Osborn writes about one of her other collections – Simple Complex Shapes from 2015 – Reading the poems can be like feeling our way through a darkened room, with all our senses heightened, and catching occasional glimpses of light that leave us illuminated and disorientated.

These poems aren’t for everyone – I’ve seen some pretty negative reviews on Goodreads for example – but that’s to be expected really with poetry like this, that isn’t always easy to understand on first or second reading. But isn’t that part of the joy of poetry, that there are so many distinct voices, so many different ways of imagination and communication?

I’ve really enjoyed the surprising language, distinct imagery , and varied form used in both Undraining Sea and Measures of Expatriation. Both books have a mixture of poems and prose poems, that speak of migration of individuals and language. To me they speak of alienation, of the claiming and reclamation of words and ideas and of the seemingly random conjunctions that are made when different people and cultures connect.

If you are intrigued and want to find out more, then you can listen to Capildeo reading four of her poems here:

Measures of Expatriation is on my Poetry Bookshelf at Bookshop here: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-poetry-bookshelf – If you buy a copy from that link I’ll make about £1.00 commission from your purchase. Not much, but it all helps to pay the site fees!

Undraining Sea is, I think, currently out of print. I’ve checked Amazon and Waterstones and it’s unavailable. I wonder how much my signed copy is worth?

I’ll finish with a quote from Bernard O’Donoghue, about Undraining Sea, the collection that Capildeo read from at the Tongues & Grooves event way back in 2009;

Vahni Capildeo’s profoundly intelligent poems are original in a very unusual way. They are modern, but composed without fear of traditional subjects or language. Every topic springs to life, in a way that is both dis- turbing and beautiful. These are life-enhancing poems that stay with you long after you have closed the book.

From my Poetry Bookshelf – Brian Turner – Here, Bullet

Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army. This included a year spent as an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq from November 2003. Here, Bullet comes from that experience on the front-line in the Iraq war and subsequent occupation.

I first encountered Turner’s poetry at a Tongues & Grooves reading in the Florence Arms pub in Southsea. Here, Bullet had recently been published in the UK by Bloodaxe, and Brian Turner was giving readings around the country. It’s a powerful book, and the reading did it justice (this is not always the case – I’ve seen some pretty well known poets perform poorly). I bought my copy at the event.

As an aside, a lot of the poetry collections on my bookshelf have been bought at readings – it’s one of the main ways that poets get to sell their books – about 80% of my book sales have come from events where I have read. Quite a few have been bought on the spur of the moment – if the reading has been good, or if there is a particular poem I wanted to read for myself again. Now I have my own experience of having to shift copies of my own collection, it’s a rare event where I don’t buy, or swop, at least one book.

Back to Here, Bullet. It comes across as being truly authentic, a book that , as with David Jones’ In Parenthesis, ( which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago), could not have been written by someone who did not have direct experience of this particular conflict. Yet there is much more to it than just being a poetic chronicle of one man’s experiences in Iraq.

Here, Bullet is in four sections, with the exception of the first poem, A Soldier’s Arabic, which stands alone as an introduction, both for the soldier in Iraq, and the themes that run through the book. A Soldier’s Arabic begins as follows;

The world for love, habib, is written from right
to left, starting where we would end it
and ending where we might begin.

Where we would end a war
another might take as a beginning,
or as an echo of history, recited again.

As Sarah Brown in the Guardian review states; Turner proves himself an ideal chronicler, eloquent and detached. He avoids the twin pitfalls of embellishment and identification, allowing the particulars of warfare – the “bled-out slumpings / and all the fucks and goddamns / … of the wounded” – to speak for themselves, offsetting and deepening them with descriptions of the “vines of wild grapes”, “shimmering” Eucalyptus trees and minarets against which they’re played out. Above all, he affords dignity to the participants through acknowledgment of their individuality, giving names, recognising relationships, delineating histories. The power of this collection extends far beyond its harrowing subject-matter.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jan/26/poetry1

You can read four of his poems on the Poetry Foundation website, including 2000 lbs, a visceral description of the impact of a Mosul bombing on some of its victims.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/brian-turn

You can also watch and listen to Turner reading 2000 lbs online here;

When people say that poetry is dull, or too highbrow, or has no contemporary relevance, I want to show them poems like this, and other poems in the book, such as AB Negative (The Surgeon’s Poem), What Every Soldier Should Know and Observation Post #798. Despite their sadness and sometimes harrowing subject matter, they are full of humanity, whether it be for Iraqi civilians, American soldiers, or the history of the country itself. There are no easy answers offered in Here, Bullet , and no easy enemies either.

Whether or not your only experience of war poetry is the work of the World War One poets, then this is a book that is worth exploring. It’s still available to buy – from Amazon of course, alternatively at Bookshop.org here (and yes I do make a few pennies here from any purchase through this link – not a fortune but a little something to help with the running costs of the site!).

https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-poetry-bookshelf

I’ll leave you with the title poem of the collection, which I hope is OK to reproduce in full – it is pretty widely shared online;

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

Of Tongues & Grooves

I have mentioned Tongues and Grooves in a couple of previous posts. The original T&G was founded in 2006, and had two main strands, one running and promoting monthly music and poetry events, the other “community” strand running workshops. As of 2020 Tongues and Grooves in the Community is a not-for-profit body using poetry to promote motivation, well-being and social inclusion.

The monthly events are no more, though T&G do still run special / one off events, such as last month’s Snow Queen performance, the poetry recital from memory event, (see my earlier posts for details on both of these), and the occasional book launch (such as my first collection in September 2018).

T&G also ran the recent poems from memory event, in which I recited without getting it wrong (!) Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese. It was terrifying to stand there without any prompts in a roomful of people, many of who will have known the poem very well. Anyway, I managed to get through it.

I felt almost as nervous as the first time I recited my poetry in public – at a South launch and very shortly afterwards at a Tongues & Grooves evening. In both of these events I was shaking so much I could hardly read the words on the page (one benefit of memorising each poem I guess!).

Tongues & Grooves has played an important part in my development as a writer and performer, (I’m still not great, but am at least vaguely competent on stage now!). For a while I was actively involved in the community side of T&G, chairing meetings and organising workshops in Haslar IRC and the showing of poetry films of exile on the BBC big screens in Portsmouth and Dover. Unfortunately some pressures around day-to-day life got in the way, so I had to drastically scale back my activities.

Maggie Sawkins, Bernard MacDonagh and the other founders and team members involved with T&G from it’s outset have played a key role in the development of poetry in Portsmouth, and have supported numerous writers and musicians over the years. You can find more on T&G here;

https://tonguesandgrooves.com/

Snow Q – Reimagining the Snow Queen

Last week I was at a world premiere (not something I get to say very often!), held at the Square Tower in Portsmouth . Three Polish-connected artists, namely poet Maria Jastrzębska, fine artist Dagmara Rudkin and composer Peter Copley came together to collaborate on a project inspired by The Snow Queen story by Hans Christian Andersen.

Held at the Square Tower, in conjunction with Tongues and Grooves, I thought it was excellent. I didn’t understand everything, (much of the dialogue is in Ponglish (a combination of Polish and English), but to me, that was part of the point of the piece – the alienation that is felt my so many in society, especially those marginalised, whether through sexual orientation, mental health, or immigration (all three of which were picked up seperately as recurrent themes of this production by different audience members).

Poetry itself pretty much always exists outside the mainstream, and many poets, myself included, often write about marginalised aspects of society. This production was very thought provoking. More information, including details of future events, can be found at the following link;

I first came into contact with Maria when I was putting together my film project on poets of exile for the BBC Big Screens, and have heard her read at various events organised by Tongues and Grooves (one of which I hosted). She is an excellent poet, and I highly recommend her collections. Incidentally she also has a blog which is worth following, here:

As for Tongues and Grooves, I’ll write a separate post later, but you can find additional information, including one of my poems at; https://tonguesandgrooves.com/