Intimate Understanding

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Review of Out of the Weather by Angelina D’Roza (Orbis, Summer 2017).

I was thrilled to read Angelina D’Roza’s review of my pamphlet, Out of the Weather, in this summer’s issue of Orbis (extract below). I’ve been trying to get some new poems together to send out to various poetry magazine’s recently. It’s an odd feeling, one I never fully understand, how no matter what experience I’ve gathered along the way, it always feels like I’m starting from the beginning. Maybe I’m being a bit hard on myself, which is why it’s such a good feeling when someone notices your work and likes it, and understands what you’re trying to do. So, thank you Angelina for your intimate understanding of my work.

“… for all its wealth of subject, it is the heart which is this pamphlet’s theme, leading us into the most intimate spaces.
The key to the emotional core may come via record-breaking sky-dives (‘Aftermath’): ‘like that man testing the limit of the human body’, hoping ‘he would simply feel the air ripple // {…} not start / to break up, lose consciousness, / not feel anymore.’ Or in ‘Propolis’, where ‘the stuff of bee spit and wax, a sealant turning soft in the sun, is not propolis, but putty around old windows; the way it hardens, leaves space so that the glass ‘rattles loose in the frame’. Or not glass and putty, ‘but those unwanted spaces’, between two people, perhaps, ‘where words land and rest’. To find that one thing is like another isn’t surprising, but the craft of it, the way the lines hold the surface and weight of the writing in tension, is surprising and often lovely.”   (Orbis, Summer 2017)

By the way, I can thoroughly recommend D’Roza’s Envies the Birds (Longbarrow Press, 2016). It’s a beautifully produced and highly accomplished first collection, packed with poignant and insightful poems, often challenging what can be done with form and subject matter. I know John Foggin has been concerning himself with hospital poems on his blog recently. D’Roza is one of the best contemporary exponents of the hospital poem. Here’s an extract from her poem, ‘Clockwork’:

We stare through ribs and pneumonia,   untitled
x-rays held to the partial eclipse,
and let the morning’s long words drift
like paper boats, the Latin for bones
and breath.

Or from the poem, ‘Days’ which is playfully reworked a number of times throughout the collection:

It always comes down to this one early,
one patient and his Polish, his dementia,
the way his emaciating body flounders
in the mattress pooling with faecal fluid

spilling from his stomach,

Anyway, buy her book and you’ll see how good her work is!

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Human Landscapes

 

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Szapocznikow in her Paris studio, with Les Gants Roses (The Pink Gloves) (1971), asbestos, polyester, breast cast, gauze, rubber gloves. Photograph by Jacques Verroust.

Alina Szapocznikow: Human Landscapes, The Hepworth

In George Lois’ book, Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!) he advocates going to museums on a Sunday, rather than church. ‘I contend that the DNA of talent is stored within the great museums of the world. Museums are custodians of epiphanies and these epiphanies enter the central nervous system and the deep recesses of the mind.’ (Lois, 2014).
I’m lucky enough to live close to both the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and The Hepworth. Yesterday I visited the Alina Szapocznikow exhibition at The Hepworth. I loved the work, which was surreal, raw and thought-provoking. This quote, from a letter written by Szapocznikow in 1972, really hit home: ‘I produce awkward objects … Often everything is all mixed up, the situation is ambiguous, and sensory limits are erased’. It struck a chord with me because of the way I’ve been trying to disrupt the texts I’ve been producing lately. Reading at the Samuel Worth chapel in Sheffield on Saturday, I slipped in one of these disrupted (and maybe disruptive) texts, more as a way of testing myself than testing the poem. I got away with it and it was a good feeling. For the last few months, I haven’t had what I’d term a sense of direction, so much as a sense that I need to change direction. Lois is right. Museums and galleries are custodians of epiphanies. Seeing Szapocznikow’s work was inspirational. There’s no way of knowing whether it will impact on my work, but what’s important is the sense of exploration it engenders, that feeling of curiosity that keeps me interested in what I’m doing.

Lois, G., Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!), Phaidon, 2014, f.pub. 2012.

 

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Alina Szapocznikow, Cendrier de Célibataire I [The Bachelor’s Ashtray I], 1972. Coloured polyester resin and cigarette butts. Private collection. © ADAGP, Paris 2017. Courtesy The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris. Photo Fabrice Gousset.

 

Best words in the best order?

 

When I was teaching, I’d often trot out Coleridge’s phrase: ‘Poetry is the best words in the best order,’ without ever questioning what it actually meant. Yet I realise that I’ve stuck to it in my writing for some years, often feeling that I was falling short of finding the best words, or putting them in the best order. Lately, I’ve been more inclined to disrupt my texts (I hesitate to say poems) as a way of exploring new meanings. I’m less concerned with the best order and, as a result, I’m finding that I’m able to concentrate more on the possible new order(s) that a piece might contain. I like the Oulipo school of thought, where the potential of literature is central. What is the potential of a word? What potential can be unlocked by changing words, or word order? I’ll hold my hands up and say this has often meant I’ve written gibberish, but at the same time, new and surprizing meanings have surfaced. I’ve only just started to share some of this work in the workshops I attend and I don’t feel ready to post any of these pieces yet, but the process is interesting. It’s like the photographs I’ve posted above (taken in Prague last year). You can stand and watch the statue revolve slowly. There’s a head: sometimes it’s disintegrating; sometimes it’s whole. It never locks into place. It just keeps turning, breaking up, remaking itself. The process is important. The meanings are multiple. I like this.

 

Off The Shelf

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Just a quick post to publicise a reading I’m doing with Matt Black at the Samuel Worth Chapel, Sheffield General Cemetery, on Sat 21st October, 1-2.00pm. It’s part of Sheffield’s Off the Shelf literary festival.
I’m really excited to be reading with Matt as he took me under his wing when I did some freelance work as a project co-ordinator for Barnsley MBC some years ago, so I’m very much in his debt. He’s a phenomenal reader: wise, witty, pertinent. The reading is part of a full day of events in the chapel, and the cemetery itself is a very atmospheric place so I’m looking forward to seeing how it impacts on the words.  Hope some of you can make it.

Prior to Meaning

 

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Yellow Penguins (Prague)

Prior to meaning is the title of a poem by Steve McCaffery. I bought his selected Verse and Worse earlier this year after seeing him read in Sheffield (he lives and teaches in Canada but was born in Sheffield). His poetry is experimental and challenging. I can’t claim to ‘understand’ it, just as I don’t quite understand the yellow penguins I photographed in Prague last year. However, like the penguins (they’re lit up at night by the way) McCaffery’s writing really does make you think. It’s an odd feeling, encountering his poems, a sort of knowing and not knowing at the same time.  The brain makes links, carries its various readings from word to word, phrase to phrase. You feel something is hinted at, start to congratulate yourself because you’ve got it, but before you are allowed to understand too much, or have your hunch confirmed, the work moves elsewhere and you have to start making other, new connections.

“I recall puzzling one member in an audience at a reading I did several years ago in London … with the phrase “disambiguated geese”. To his question “What does it mean?” I answered, “It doesn’t mean anything, but it allows you to think and in doing so you experience a fresh, perhaps novel juxtaposition of two common words.”  (McCafferey, 2010).

That phrase, ‘it allows you to think’ really interests me at the moment. I’ve always liked to know where I am with a poem (whether reading or writing one) but since I finished my last pamphlet Out of the Weather, I’ve had this nagging sense that my work’s too safe. There are two poems in the pamphlet that are more experimental than I usually write, but the rest are firmly lyrical. I haven’t really written over the summer, as is often the case with me. Now the nights are drawing in, poetry beckons. So, I’ve made a pact with myself to be a bit braver and not get too bound up in certainties (what the poem’s about, what it’s really about etc). Of course, I’m still at the ideas stage, and poetry, ultimately, isn’t about thinking but doing. However, it will be interesting to see where this experiment leads.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this extract from McCaffery’s Prior to Meaning.

 

(Lost listening to paint)

(a whiter Odalisque inside
encounter’s notation)

(the specific instances of angels or tugboats
in a struggle

so absent over surface is

the stream that’s there)

There. I told you it would make you think!

McCaffery, S., Verse and Worse. Selected and New Poems of Steve McCaffery 1989 – 2009 (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010)

Poems that slip and slide around meaning

 

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Sculptures by David Cerny, Prague, photographed by J. Mellor

I recently had the good fortune to receive a favourable review in The Manchester Review, which said: ‘what Mellor actually seems to be doing is playing poetry at its own game, using the ability of the poem to slip and slide around meaning, seemingly under the writer’s control, but not’ (Ian Pople). It was interesting that Pople picked up on this, because it’s a direction I want to follow. However, there’s always a fear that in playing with the meaning and trying, for want of a better expression, to disrupt it, the poems will amount to nothing more than games with words. I’ve just started reading Steve McCaffery, after seeing him read at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield a couple of months ago. He’s a poet who consciously moves away from what we might call the expected meaning, to confront and confound the reader. It’s experimental literature, but for all the difficulties it presents, what I love about it is the risks it takes. Like the Babies sculptures by David Cerny above, you have to think a bit before you can even decide how to read them, but they’re so open to possibility. I’m off to the Poetry Business Writing Day tomorrow. I don’t expect to write anything experimental because it’s not that sort of workshop, but I’m taking a new poem to share in the afternoon which tries to ‘slip and slide’ around meaning a little. It will be interesting to hear what the other writer’s make of it!

 

 

Like a man who wishes to be buried with his horse

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Horse statue by David Cerny, Prague. Photograph by J. Mellor.

 

The Honey Baron

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The Honey Baron carries a jar of light in his pocket. He says, Look at this and tell me you don’t understand. He offers it as a cure for hay fever and says it was used to heal wounds on the battlefield at the time of the Iceni. The Honey Baron is a man who knows his history. He boasts, This jar bears my name and the substance it holds can withstand time. Open it 100 years from now and it will have lost none of its potency. He pronounces potency in a very solemn voice, like a man who wishes to be buried with his horse.

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I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to share this photograph, which I took in Prague last Easter. Now the pamphlet is out, I’ve posted an extract from my poem The Honey Baron, to go with it. Of course, you have to buy the pamphlet to read the whole poem, although it first appeared in The Interpreter’s House earlier this year. The phrase, ‘a jar of light’ comes from reading Jacob Polley’s poem, A Jar of Honey, one of my favourite short poems.

Last night was the local launch of my pamphlet, Out of the Weather, and it was good to share the reading with so many local poets. Next week is the official launch, Tuesday 4th July at The Fat Cat in Alma Street, Sheffield. I’m reading with Suzannah Evans, starting at 7.30pm in the upstairs room. Free entry. All welcome. Hope to see some of you there.