Saturday, December 27, 2008

Millions Poet

It sounds like a legpull, devised by a young Trinity bard disgusted by the vulgarity of life as epitomised by Louis Walsh, Simon Whatisname etc but it is as real as a TV talent show can be: “Millions Poet” is a TV show sponsored by the Culture Ministry of the United Arab Emirates and broadcast live throughout the Arab speaking world on television every Thursday night. There is a panel of five judges drawn from the world of academe and poetry publishing. Winners are chosen by SMS. The prize is not only the glory of the title but a cash prize of 5 million Dirhams (about 950,000 euro or two thirds of a Nobel prize). The competition has been going for some years now and it looks like we’ll never get to read the winners in English translation or see Millions Poet being won by any of the brilliant Arabic poets who sometimes get published in English. The poets are restricted to writing Nabati poetry – a traditional Bedouin form. (“Nabati poetry, in contrast to Classical Arabic poetry, is written in the everyday dialect of the Peninsula and reflects daily life of everyday people. It has a simple, direct and spontaneous style.”) Arabic Slam in other words.

In the latest episode “The only Libyan participating in the competition, Almabrook Othman Abu Derheyba, received high praises from the judges for his beautiful and soulful verses praising women and their place in society as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters.” It’s a pity they don’t have Carol Ann Duffy or Sarah Maguire as one of the judges. It’s a pity we don’t have our own “Poet Idol”. Any ideas on the perfect four member jury?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Poetry Brothel

I'm conflicted over the Poetry Brothel. Here is their MySpace “about me” spiel:

"The Poetry Brothel is the first event of its kind to seduce New York City. A new and dreamlike twist on a poetry reading, The Poetry Brothel is foremost interested in the presentation of excellent, original literature. However, it is also an interactive performance art event based on the concept of a brothel. The "Madame" presents a rotating cast of this city's finest poets (both men and women) engaged in a night of literary debauchery and private poetry readings. Here's how it works: The poets play "whores," visitors play "johns" (and are also encouraged to attend incognito!) but instead of physical intimacy, the poets offer the intimacy of their poetry by giving private, one-on-one readings in curtained-off areas. For a small fee, all of the resident "whores" are available for private readings at any time during the event. Of course, every good brothel needs a furtive "front" or cover business; ours is part saloon and part salon, offering a full bar, blackjack table (played for prizes), tarot card readings, live painting, and live music, with newly integrated performances and installations from our poets, performers, and artists each month. Each night "The Madame" will also introduce "the new girl," a surprise featured reader who will punctuate the evening with a few special public performances. "
"The Poetry Brothel, organized and hosted by The Madame and Tennessee Pink, is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. It is funded in part by Poets & Writers, Inc. with public funds from The New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency."


1) The remnant of fun-loving adolescent in me thinks: What Fun! All that make-believe, safe, ersatz naughtiness where poetry is centre stage. Sexiness and poetry what more could you want?

2) The literary event programmer in me thinks: what a clever way of getting money out of funders who really hate poetry; especially general arts festival programmers who feel obliged to cater for poetry somehow but hate the fact that the average poetry reading appears to them undynamic. They would rather invest the poet’s reading fee into something spectacular like a naked man, chest smeared in pig’s blood, sticking thumb-tacks through his eyelids in the name of performance art.

3) The Feminist in me thinks any suggestion that there is no harm in women being portrayed as “available” for the Yankee dollar is at base evil and ultimately likely to lead onto the patronising of the genuine sex industry where all women are exploited victims, will lead to an increase in incidence of casual rape and an increase in human trafficking.

4) The poetry curmudgeon in me thinks that anything used to dress up a poetry reading whether live music, various sound effects, slide shows, dramatic lighting, free wine or Moulin –Rouge attired motts is an appeal to bastards who at base don’t like poetry anyway, proves the organiser has no confidence in the power of poetry alone and once again wastes money which could be spent directly on poets and poetry.

5) After all these thoughts I think how the idea of my daughter or sister (if I had one) working in a lap dancing establishment (or titty bar as an American writer of my acquaintance succinctly refers to them) is a definite No! No! but I might not be upset at the idea of my daughter (when she reaches 18) (or myself after losing 20 pounds) acting in a “poetry brothel”. Does this gut feeling mean that my Feminist response is too tight-assed or that my inner adolescent has managed to conveniently justify himself?

Answers not on a postcard please.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Destroy Philip Levine's Blue Collar Halo

Recently, in Paris, in one of the apparently not-talking-to-each-other Bay-area-related second-hand English-language bookshops I found myself perusing a well-stocked poetry section with few books or poets not already on my shelves at home. I had a manic compulsion to depart the shop with a new acquisition come high or low Seine and eventually satisfied my compulsive bibliomania by purchasing an old Philip Levine New and Selected (1991). Levine was one of those prominent American poets who had slipped through my net which had already caught contemporaries such as Ashbury, Gunn, Hecht, Collins, Simic, Orr, Lux, Olds, Kleinzahler and Seidel among others. The reek from Levine was never quite right but not in a spotted, red mushroom – stay-the-hell-away-from-me way like Mary Oliver.

The reek from Levine centres around the question, are competent working class poets in America so rare that so much has to be repeatedly made of Philip Levine’s blue collar credentials? Especially considering he had the luck to become a member of a privileged middle class academic elite while still in the first half of his life. The taint of middle-class-sanctioned worthiness permeating from his reputation put me off reading him for years and indeed many of the poems written about his less well-off days, from the perspective of his secure maturity, do reek of a certain politically correct worthiness; lacking the fire and danger such material might have had had it been written by someone especially gifted and still poor. Perhaps the distance of the subject matter is something many middle class Americans find exotic in the same way the exoticism of the Orient fascinated Westerners before they discovered an Oriental was a carpet, not a person. (politically correct - moi?)

Poets of working-class extraction are not so exotic in Europe and elsewhere, where Social Democratic states have evolved to the stage where access to university education is more equable than it is in the land of Chicago School Economics and where poets with factory-working Dads have been coming off the conveyer belt since the mid-Seventies.

Levine is a brilliant poet, but his brilliance has nothing to do with being everybody’s favourite white trash. His best poems have nothing to do with having had to endure “a succession of stupid jobs” or about anything else really. Levine’s genius resides not in his subject matter (although often compelling) but in his own personal, consistent, unique idiom – an idiom distinguished by Levine’s tendency to read the world through metaphor as distinct from the many poets who try to devise metaphors after their reading of the world. The other thing that distinguishes Levine’s work is the way his language chimes without regular metre and rhyme. In his lines individual words slot sonicly together, harmonising in a subtle, seamless fashion - in the same way they do in the language of Derek Mahon; only apparently less showily because of Levine’s eschewing the scaffolding of rhyme which Mahon has convinced himself he needs. Thomas McCarthy also has this gift. Very few contemporary American poets can do this. The likes of Collins, Simic, Orr, Lux, Olds can’t do it. Kleinzahler has the sonic slotting thing happening but in an (not altogether displeasuring) ostentatious, fireworks way as in ‘Green Sees Things in Waves’ and anything taken from The Strange Hours Travellers Keep.
So I guess the point of this rant is to say: American poetry journalists please stop praising Philip Levine for all the wrong patronising reasons, making him out to be some sort of boring transatlantic Social Realist and putting off Europeans for whom working-class culture is not exotic and a Liberal is someone who sits on the right-hand side of the parliamentary chamber.