Ekphrastic – Agglomerations by Chun Kwang Young

images-1When the madness of the Edinburgh Fringe gets too much for me each August, I pop into art galleries to rest my brain from words. I especially like Dovecot Studios on Infirmary Street, which this year was hosting an exhibition of incredible mixed-media constructions by Korean artist Chun Kwang Young. Here’s a sort of prose-poem response to the exhibition – because you can run from words, but you can’t hide…

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The master works on a cosmic scale. For brushstrokes read boxes, that are not boxes, but triangles of polystyrene clothed in paper. Mulberry fibre, mulberry twine, twisted by assistants, legions wrapping landfill in nostalgia. Medicine packages, tincture of indigo, tinted taupe, dappled with the boxy characters of Korea, swaddled by the acolytes. He chooses the ones whose half-moon nail-beds please him, clean and cool-fingered even in August, blotchlessly cornerfolding crisp, crisp yet downy, the myriad boxes crawl, large and small and smaller, stutter over canvases, mothsoft rubbleheaps, rust-bled stains on the pre-silk, charred impact craters in among the chorus of paper-bandaged apices. In the master’s mind, immense moons of ice revolve in the open space of international galleries. What does it matter, the boys bickering girlsoft at the trestles, but the amiable static of the atelier? Their fingers are white moths, opening and closing. They all eat kimchi with their plain white rice. Their beauty depends on such interlaced tensions.

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Read widely, read deeply

SunderlandHere’s a few thoughts for National Poetry Day…

In his pamphlet-essay, ’13 Ways Of Making Poetry A Spiritual Practise’, award-winning Buddhist poet Maitreyabandhu advises reading widely, from the classics to contemporary to work in translation; and also reading deeply, because “if reading is to give us genuine pleasure and fulfilment it needs to be a kind of meditation”.

Which is why I’ve been trying out three ways of deep reading lately.

Firstly, I’ve been reading Derek Walcott’s 1992 Nobel Lit Prize-winning collection, The Bounty, which starts with his return to the Caribbean for his mother’s funeral and then expands like a storm front to encompass all of European culture and his relationship to it. So much bounty – that of God, in whom his mother took refuge. The bounty of nature, the endless moods of the sea and sky and vegetation which underpin every memory of his boyhood and every turn of his grief. The bounty of his homeland, which of course was plundered. The bounty of European civilisation and literature, which he has made his own but with which he sits in a sometimes uneasy relationship, a self-aware black intellectual in a white tradition. The poems are dense, their thought processes profound, their sentences compound and folded clause over clause into oblong packages that sit on the pages like blocks. In fact, they remind me of wood-printer’s blocks, as if they were artefacts produced by Albrecht Durer, each word a clean, sharp, chisel mark, a simple enough  vocabulary creating through the intensity of focus and repetition a series of perfect complexities.

In order to read this amazing collection, I have had to read a maximum of three cantos a day, out loud, after meditation. It’s taken me over two months, allowing for gap days and repetitions. It has been utterly marvellous, and every other poem seems a bit flimsy in comparison, but I’m starting the process now with Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘I Speak For The Devil’.

Secondly, I gladly accepted an invitation to join a little, informal book group with the purpose of discussing Claudia Rankine’s collection ‘Citizen : An American Lyric’, which has just won the Forward Prize. A dazzlingly contemporary, genre-busting piece of work, it is a forthright exploration of everyday racism in America, told via a collage of prose poems, essays, free verse and photo-art. Some pieces are presented as companion texts to videos, though we weren’t sure whether those video pieces were imagined or if they exist. The visual art is taken from a number of other artists. The prose poems are incredibly similar to Facebook status updates of people I know who record daily incidents of their experiences with prejudice, while the free verse is darker, more a case of fluidity, interiority and sub-bass emotional synapses connecting across white page space.

It was great to discuss ‘Citizen’ with a group of writers, both British and American, although it was different from the kind of close textual response I was expecting. We spoke less about form than about the issues raised and our own experiences of prejudice, which was equally enjoyable but perhaps a little surprising given how formally iconoclastic the book is.

Lastly, I have signed up for an online course with The Poetry School all about close reading the work of Alice Oswald. Every week we can download a PDF of selected works, accompanied by reading notes, questions and creative prompts. So far we have looked as her sonnets, the long poem ‘Dunt’, and some works from her collection ‘The Thing In The Gap-Stone Stile’. I chose this course because I LOVE Alice Oswald, but I’ve only read the book-length poem ‘Dart’ and her collection ‘Woods, Etc’, so I wanted to expand my knowledge. She’s some kind of pantheistic dowsing-rod of a poet, channelling the music of nature and all that is immanent into poems so uniquely crafted they are like fantastical hand-blown glass bottles filled with liquid godhead.

The poems selected and the prompts to thought are good, but I feel like I haven’t yet got to grips with the idea of conversing via a chat-room. Although there are no ‘real-time’ chats, people are encouraged to post up thoughts and responses, and add comments to other people’s posts. I find I am continually behind with the work of this course, never finding the time to write my responses. Maybe this is because I am an extrovert, so I prefer to think with my mouth, and often don’t know what I think about something until I talk it through – face to face works far better for me.

So there you go. Hope this is interesting to anyone wondering how they can start thinking about the poetry they read, hope this encourages you to read some of the poets mentioned if you haven’t heard of them before.

 

Behind the scenes at a workshop

IMG_0148Last Wednesday I gave a workshop to the writers’ group at Hartlepool Library, as part of my role as poet-in-residence at the Heroism & Heartbreak WW1 project, (latest poem now available here) which was a lot of fun to plan and research. So I thought I’d tell you what I did, in case it’s useful for anyone.

I knew that the group were split between poetry and prose writers, with some of the prosers habitually reluctant to try verse (which can seem daunting even to those of us who are poets by temperament). So I thought I’d trick them all by doing a session on prose poetry!!! Mwahahaha!!! This entailed me researching what the hell prose poetry is, which I did by reading stuff online and an anthology about The Great American Prose Poem (thank you Degna Stone for the loan). About four hours of this, on and off, on trains, et cetera, and I had selected four prose poems that I thought were accessible, memorable, full of interesting formal devices, and related to themes of war. The poems I chose were The 12 O’Clock News by Elizabeth Bishop, Monument by Mary Ruefle, No Sorry by Catherine Bowman and The Most Beautiful Word by Linh Dinh.

The workshop featured an intro to prose poetry, where I went off on a bit of a passionate rant about how they are fired by a similar impulse towards documenting the subjective experience of modernity as also powers many early twentieth-century visual movements like Dada, Cubism, Vorticism, and how the fragmentation and re-configuration of form, and therefore meaning, is common to all of them, and I may have totally made all that up…

Then we played a game I made up called ‘The Prose-Poetry Venn Test’, where I had made a load of cards saying things like ‘humour’, ‘formal rhyme structures’, and ‘true stories’ and everyone had to decide if they were features exclusive to prose, to poetry OR…..wait for it….could be used by both! In this way we laid the foundations for a world where poetry and prose were almost entirely overlapped.

After that, we read the four poems out loud and discussed them, which was GREAT, love a bit of controversy! At this point I was massively over-running my lesson plan, and everyone’s brains were dribbling out of their ears, so we had some tea and came back for two short free-writing exercises. In the first one, I read out Carl Sandburg’s WW1 poem ‘Iron‘, but line by line, with each line acting as a prompt for 45 seconds of free-write, which rolled on line by line to a full time of about 10 minutes. Then we immediately did 5 minutes free write in response to a variety of prompt questions inspired by my looking through the online archive. Then we had another 8 minutes to edit one or both of our source writes into a prose poem, which I assigned the arbitrary ‘rule’ of a 100-word limit.

I pushed them hard, really hard, but the final pieces when we shared back were uniformly excellent. As usual, I just have to remember that what I tend to plan for a 2-hour session is invariably 3 hours-worth of activity….