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.

 

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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.

***
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.

Readings and reviews

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Just a quick bit of self-publicity this week. First, news of a couple of readings I’m doing:

Tuesday 27th June, Penistone launch of Out of the Weather at Café Crème, High Street, Penistone. 6.00pm for a 6.30 start.
Tuesday 4th July, Sheffield launch at The Fat Cat, Alma Street, Sheffield (upstairs room) 7.30pm.
Both events are free and everyone is welcome to attend.

Secondly, I received a very generous review of the new pamphlet from John Irving Clarke of Currock Press. The review appears both on John’s blog on the Currock Press website and on the Write Out Loud Write Out Loud website in case you want to check it out, but in the meantime here’s a taster:
‘I read this collection in one sitting, although there were plenty of pauses to let images and significances register. Then I read it again, acknowledging Robert Frost’s definition of poetry which “begins in delight and ends in wisdom”. Julie Mellor’s poems are delightful, they are imbued with wisdom and they are certainly thought-provoking. This is a collection I will continue to read and re-read.‘ John Irving Clarke.

It was lovely to receive this but I won’t let myself get too carried away. I always feel as though it’s what I’m writing at the moment that counts, rather than what’s already out there. In an effort to keep the momentum going, I went to Suzannah  Evan’s workshop at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield on Saturday. Suzie always provides some interesting and stimulating exercises and I came away with plenty of notes that might become poems if I’m lucky. I seem to be writing a lot about the mother/daughter relationship at the moment, which isn’t exactly ground breaking, so I’m hesitant to share any of that work yet. I’ve workshopped one or two, but I’m still feeling my way with them. Also, common sense tells me to sit on them for a while; I need that bit of distance before I can look at them with any sort of detachment!
I’m off to the Ted Hughes Festival next week. There are still tickets left I believe, so if you want an excellent programme of events (and excellent value too) have a look at the Ted Hughes Project website and treat yourself to some poetry in Mexborough.

Denaby Ings to Sprotbrough with Helen Mort for the Ted Hughes Project

 

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Helen Mort

It’s been a busy and varied poetry weekend. I went to hear two very innovative poets, Karen Mac Cormack and Steve Mccaffery, read at the Independent Book Fair at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield last night. It’s good to hear that sort of poetry – not narrative driven, sort of ‘outside the box’, at least in comparison to the work I normally encounter. Then today it was the poetry walk from Denaby Ings Nature Reserve, lead by Helen Mort. Helen gave some fine readings along the way and there was a lovely sense of friendship and community spirit which has become a trademark of the Ted Hughes Project. Hats off to them for keeping everything cheap and accessible. The main events are still to come, so check out their website for details.
Of course, although there was lots of natural beauty on the reserve (bee orchids, agrimony, a whole bank of hemlock) what took my eye was this old tree root behind a wire fence near the site of the former pit at Cadeby. There was a stock of new mattresses in the yard, wrapped in polythene but surely not immune to the weather, and in the top corner, a pile of old discarded ones. I don’t know if there’s a poem in that, but I think curiosity, the desire to look beyond the fence, is part of what drives us to create. Having said that, I’ll own up to having written very little this week, so I’ll leave you with the image of the tree root and try to get one with some writing.

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