Thursday, December 8, 2011

Must Do, Will Do

I’m judging the O’ Donoghue Poetry Competition at the moment. I’m charged with choosing 13 prizewinning poems from between one and two thousand poems entered. I’ve read about 500 poems now and already I’ve found at least a dozen great poems. What’s disconcerting is that there will possibly be over a thousand more entries to read, at least another couple of dozen great poems will emerge from that pile. I will be left with 30-40 great poems and can choose only one first prize winner and twelve other prizewinners.

Aside from these great poems I expect there will be at least one or two hundred others deserving of periodical publication - even if they’re not quite capable of impressing me more than the first 30-40. No poetry competition lists a couple of hundred honourable mentions. It’s disconcerting to know in advance that the authors of many fine and accomplished poems will not get to know I liked their work. But that’s the nature of the game. I’ve been runner-up a couple of times for poetry book and manuscript competitions but I’ve never come anywhere in a single poem competition. As I do the necessary cull of the poems not getting into the final 13 I think to myself “So this is what has happened to every poem I’ve ever entered in a competition”. One side of me is ruthless in its decision-making, the other side is filled with empathy.

At least people can rest assured that unlike the situation with many other competitions all the profits raised by entry fees in the O’Donoghue award will go in payments to writers, writers who win prizes in the competition, writers who will be published in Southword and some writers invited to the Cork Spring Poetry Festival. The only other expenses are the money we spend on advertising the competition.

All of us at the Munster Literature Centre are so grateful to the entrants for parting with their money for the benefit of our registered charity.

Normally there is a fee for the judge of the competition, but one of the reasons I’m judging it this year is because the Munster Literature Centre needs to divert the usual judge’s fee to the budget for the Cork Spring Poetry Festival. I’m determined that the judge should change each year. Last year’s judge Leanne O’Sullivan is in the middle of editing the poetry section for four full issues of Southword and won’t be replaced as editor until after next Summer. The next paid judge of the competition will be the poet who succeeds Leanne as Southword’s poetry editor.

In the meantime I’m maintaining my patience until the last entry is in before checking out the authorship of the great poems which have reached me minus their author’s names. As the expression goes “I can’t wait to find out who they are”, but actually, I must do and will do.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Poetry & Elitism

If the way to poetry is blocked to you by an elite that elite and you are one and the same.

What is poetry? To a seasoned reader of contemporary poetry it’s very much a case of “I know it when I see it” which is a very unsatisfactory answer to a non-seasoned poetry reader. A seasoned poetry reader is to me someone who reads poetry every day. If their means of making a living allows, a seasoned poetry reader reads poems several times a day every day in the same way that someone who dedicates himself to God prays several times a day. This also corresponds to the pattern of activity of a seasoned television watcher, a seasoned web consumer, a seasoned gourmand.

If a definition of poetry could be summed up in a pat formula, anybody, anywhere, anytime could write poetry. But anybody can’t do this. In fact nobody can do it anytime anywhere all the time. Of course it is also absurd to suggest poetry must be written all the time just for seasoned poetry readers – and it isn’t. But neither can a poem be written with integrity specifically to please a reader who does not generally read poetry. Such people regularly assert that poetry is elitist¸ by which they mean that it is closed off to most people at the power or behest of an elect few.

Yet poetry is accessible everywhere, it can be bought for a few cents at second-hand book stores, found in decent quantities in every public library and now proliferates in its good and bad manifestations on the internet. But of course when people say poetry is closed off and not accessible they don’t mean that one’s way is blocked to it by physical or financial obstacles, they mean that it’s meaning or the means by which its emotional and intellectual content can be digested is blocked. “Blocked by what?” one might ask. Blocked by convention is the simple and honest answer. Poetry is a living, evolving art form, much like television drama.

The conventions of narrative story-telling on television, the rules by which a television drama may be ordered, by which I mean – how the drama is constructed scene by scene, the techniques by which character may be developed and presented etc., are evolving all the time. Take an episode of a contemporary American Cop show and compare it with an episode of Ironside from the 60s or Hawaii Five O from the 70s and you will see that you have a very different kind of beast from the earlier shows. In the contemporary show there is much quicker transitioning between scenes – quicker-editing – an influence of music videos; greater use of flashback, more allusions to popular culture and much more which makes it different from the earlier shows. Television audiences are not disturbed by this because they have grown daily with the gradual evolution and changing of conventions of television drama over the years. But, if you timewarped a 1960s tv audience to the present and sat them down in front of a contemporary TV drama they would find it difficult to understand, even enjoy because the conventions of storytelling would be so much changed to them.

Much the same is going on in poetry. Because most poetry from bygone ages is closer to the form of popular song than most contemporary poetry, most people find it more ‘accessible’ and less ‘elitist’ than contemporary poetry. Most people have studied song-like poetry in school and are well-schooled in its conventions. But because they haven’t followed the evolution of poetry over the past few decades (or even century), because they are not regular readers of poetry the conventions are a mystery to them. It is not an elite which blocks the way to poetry, it is the preferred way of spending their time for the masses. Anybody can appreciate a fine contemporary poem if they cared to take the time to read poetry regularly and familiarise themselves with its conventions like they have done with television drama (and reading a poem takes a lot less time than a 40 minute tv episode). If the television drama analogy does not work for you there are plenty others such as sport. Who can properly enjoy the games of Cricket or Baseball without knowing what their rules and conventions are?

Nobody is blocking your way to discovering what those rules and conventions are except yourself.

If the way to poetry is blocked to you by an elite that elite and you are one and the same.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Kevin Kiely, Literary Assassin

Reviewing and being reviewed sometimes gets hilarious for the third-hand bystander; not is it always so amusing for those in the thick of it. A reviewer can’t like every book presented to them and often needs to let it be known. Dennis O’Driscoll, poet, critic and frequent book reviewer stopped reviewing Irish poetry books decades ago after one of the nation’s senior poets took him aside on a social occasion and queried: “What did I ever do to you?” O’Driscoll mused “It never occurred to him that I simply didn’t like his book.”

Two great literary spats are raging this week. Eileen Battersby’s Irish Times review of Dermot Healy’s latest novel has drawn fire from novelist Eugene McCabe in a letter to the editor which in turn has attracted the censure of another letter by John Banville. On the web a self-published English woman has amused the world through what is being described as a “meltdown” in reaction to a review she received online. David Barnett touches on them both in his Guardian blog here

Therefore, in the week that’s in it, I think it is time for Book Ireland’s occasional poetry reviewer, Kevin Kiely to receive some of the fame and attention he clearly deserves. One doesn’t need to visit Kevin Kiely’s website to learn he has never been published by either Bloodaxe or the Gallery Press, his gratuitous sideswipe at those presses’ commissioning editors/poets in his latest Books Ireland article is evidence enough for that.

In discussing the Salmon anthology Dogs Singing he writes: “Every poet here is brought to their knees hugging their doggies in a verse anthology as infectious as your dog(s). Despite weak efforts from Neil Astley and Peter Fallon you get a kennel full.” I’ll pass quietly over the crimes against grammar here. Doubtless Mr. Kiely discovered other efforts he deemed weak in this 300 page tome, but his singling out Mr. Astley and Mr. Fallon like this succinctly bewrays Mr. Kiely’s usual blatant motivation for writing a book review: sticking the knife in.

His reviews are so infamously negative and gratuitously abusive that they really deserve to be better known. Mr Kiely’s reviews of poetry books are to reviewing what William McMonagal’s dirges on the Tay Bridge are to epic poetry.

In reviewing Tom Matthews’, witty, amusing collection The Owl and the Pussycat Kiely says: “However, these collected beer-mat jottings are ideal reading in the pub but perhaps should end up on the floor with the night’s sweepings?” (Is there another person alive with four university degrees associated with the English language capable of writing such a travesty of a sentence?)

Kiely not only doesn’t know the difference between good poetry and bad, he doesn’t know the difference between a literary critic and a hack reviewer. He describes himself as a poet, novelist, playwright and literary critic on his website, yet there is no evidence whatsoever to back up his claim to be a literary critic. Certainly the kind of blather he writes would never grace the pages of the LRB or the TLS. Can you imagine Anne Carson or even Charles Simic lowering themselves to this level of schoolboy diatribe?

In his round-up of poetry collections in the current Books Ireland debutants Paul Jeffcut and Orfhlaith Foyle get savaged along with Irish luminaries such as Rita Ann Higgins and Kerry Hardie. In the interest of disclosure I should say that Kiely was unimpressed with my last book Making Music in what was the first review in his current Books Ireland stint. Initially upset, by the time I had read the put-downs he had prepared for the other books in the same article, including one by a heroine of mine, Paula Meehan, I was breaking my sides laughing. Any excerpts I could quote here simply could not do Kiely justice; his diatribes need to be read whole to appreciate their full, egregious badness.

Kiely does not savage everyone; last year, in a particular round-up, his juvenile embitterment was put on hold when reviewing Gerald Dawe (instrumental in Kiely receiving one or more of his many writing degrees), Eilean Ní Chuilleanáin (whom Kiely quotes saying something favourable about his own poetry on his own website) and Chris Agee (who is the influential editor of Irish Pages and the new Salt Irish poetry list).

The locution glass houses comes to mind when reading the sample of verse Kiely puts up on his web to represent himself: (scroll to end of page, as you scroll take note of the book title Plainchant for a Sundering – good enough for a Tony Hancock sketch)

Kiely seems so determined here to avoid what he sees as the verbal excesses of others that his own language is totally devoid of colour and if his articles are juvenile, this poem’s thought process displays his jejune cast of mind.

Every now and again an outstanding reviewer deserves to have his reviews reviewed, especially when they’re outstandingly bad. I’m only surprised that in this instance I appear to be the first to treat Kevin Kiely.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I'm giving up irony for Lent

The Frustrations of Minor Capitalists No. 3 She sported tattoos of Christ’s wounds. On the beach while she sunbathed strangers would stick their fingers in her side. Others, tears rolling would break down in prayer. When buying cigarettes from corner stores, shop girls, mouths open, would place her change in a considerate circle around the ersatz stigmata of her palms. Shamans called on her to join them in leading seminars, community leaders asked her to speak to dissolute youth, television producers invited her onto afternoon chat shows but she refused them all with a smirk... much to the chagrin of Prince’s Street Skin Decor Ltd. who really, really badly needed the artistic credit and the free marketing.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Comforting Pleasures of Sadness

'The Comforting Pleasures of Sadness' has been an unlucky poem. It was to be the title poem to a full-length collection which Salmon accepted in 1990 but never came out. It was also a key part of a selection of poems of mine which RTE accepted to broadcast on their Thought for the Day radio slot which then went out just before the 8am news, when the whole country was tuned in. But between the poems being accepted and recorded for broadcast Brian Linehan Sr., Fianna Fail candidate for President, was exposed as a liar and RTE dropped the whole project like the proverbial hot potato. The poem in its use of metaphor to make political comment was heavily influenced by the mythologising work of Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub and Marin Sorescu. When almost twenty years later and my first full-length collection finally came out (I had a book from Raven in 1990 - a long narrative poem, which I don't count as my first proper book) the issues dealt with in 'The Comforting Pleasures of Sadness' seemed so distant from the realities of the Celtic Tiger period that even if they had been dealt with in a straight realist fashion they would still have seemed surreal and out of touch.
Sad to say our reality is becoming like this again:


The Minister lived like a perverse King Midas:
Everything he touched turned to lies:
"Policemen wave wands not truncheons.
They are fairygodparents to the unemployed.
In place of cars we give them melons.
In place of steeds we give them vermin.
The unemployed, like children, are our treasured possessions.
Their innocence in the face of adversity,
Their meekness before hardship instills
The More Fortunate with paternallike pleasures.
The jobless, like children, are our much beloved.
They bejewel us with simple pride in our situation.
They bestow on us granaries of gratitude,
Dowries of deliverance, vaults of vicissimutunk,"

The Minister's dark limousine was disguised
As a crystal carriage before the eyes of the people;
His axeswing was a smooth caress.
His drownings were presented as baptisms.
And so the lies were spun like a noose.

"Sadnesses do not exist and where they do
They are pleasurable, as pleasurable as
Darkness and loneliness, silence and bleeding."

On the health of the nation he intoned:
"Measles is administered to preserve traditional childhood.
Cancer is dispensed to the people to make their every day more valued."

His darkest abode was made to seem
White as wedding cake. His richest suit:
A holyman's vestments. His minions told the people:
"The Minister is so close to God
That in his house he has clouds
Instead of carpets."

"And we have seen him make
Cake out of words.In his eyes
He absorbs the sadnesses of the world.
Through his heart is pumped
Everyone's love of the earth."

Thus did The Comforting Pleasures Of Sadness
Come to be spun like a noose,
Unravelled like a wound.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

S/Found Poem

S/Found Poem

The healthy don’t know what they’re missing.
It seems like someone
is cracking a whip
inside my ears
each time I move my eyes
swiftly from side to side.
Tinnitus sways to some strange drums.
Not everyone gets to experience
this inervating oddity.
And, Richard Burton once
almost lost an eye
in a knifefight;
it hung by a thread.
You know, he said,
you can see
the most extraordinary
things with your eye
hanging half-way
down your face.

Photo by Symphen