For more from Grant Snider, go to Incidental Comics
Birmingham’s what I think with.
It’s not made for that job
but it’s what they gave me.
As a way of thinking, it’s a Brummagem
screwdriver. What that is
is a medium-weight claw hammer
or something of the sort, employed
to drive a tapered woodscrew home
as if it were a nail.
for lack of a nail, a screwdriver, a drill,
a bradawl, or the will to go looking.
This blog takes its name from the lines above, from ‘Talking to Cameras’ by Roy Fisher, who sadly died, after a long illness, earlier this year.
Fisher was more than just a Birmingham poet. He was one of the greatest poets of his generation, developing, through modernism and jazz, a poetic language of modern life. Though this transcended his home town, his subtle understanding of the local character was a continuing joy to Brummies like me. My tenuous but precious connection to him is that he went to school with my father, though I’m not sure either of them knew it. I worked out, from their ages, that my dad would have been in the year above him at Handsworth Grammar School. When Jonathan Davidson mentioned that to Roy, ill as he was by then, he emailed me to ask what my father’s name was, and also mentioned that he might have considered submitting to Flarestack Poets had he been in better health.
In October 2016, at Birmingham Literature Festival, I was honoured to take part in a celebration of Roy and his work in Birmingham Cathedral, in the company of Ian McMillan, Luke Kennard and Peter Robinson. What would turn out to be Roy’s last book, Slakki had just come out, but we also read a selection of his work. I chose the Brummagen Screwdriver passage, of course, an extract from ‘Paraphrases’ in which Roy satarises the sort of correspondence that arises from the minor fame of being a poet, and two short, lyrical poems about Birmingham from City, as pertinent now as when they were written over fifty years ago. We all joined in ‘On the Neglect of Figure Composition’ which makes fun of factions in modern art and poetry – the audience, on arrival, had been asked to declare their allegiance for one of the two ‘schools’ invented for the poem, Zoggist or Ianist. It was a joyous evening and very funny. Roy’s health stopped him from being there but i hope he heard hope much we all enjoyed his work and shared our love for him. We did hear his voice, reading the iconic ‘Birmingham River’ which you can listen to on The Poetry Archive
I was asked four questions and here are my answers:
1. WHAT AM I WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I’m researching the Sculpture Trail on Birminghan University campus. I’ll be doing a workshop about it in June http://barber.org.uk and I’ve become interested in writing about it myself so I’m looking at archive material in the university’s Collections department. My idea is to write a double sequence, one of poems about the specific sculptures and the other about me walking around the campus. The poems about the works will be more formal, probably with each having a specific constraint, because the works are constructed, while the personal ones will be less structured. I’ve just reviewed TalkingVrouzby the French poet Valerie Rouzeau and I’m quite taken by what she does with sonnets, which is pushing me in the direction of writing it, loosely, in sonnets. I like writing sequences, partly because publishing pamphlets makes me regard them as a significant and rewarding form for poets to engage with, partly because a lot of my poems are short, and they benefit from the cumulative effect of a sequence, and partly because I like the opportunity to write about a topic from many angles.
2 HOW DOES MY WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS OF ITS GENRE?
I can’t say that my work does differ except in the sense that everyone’s is unique. What characterises my poetry is that I like to write in response to stimuli that are external to myself and over time, taking advantage of opportunities that have arisen, that has led me to specialise in writing about art and heritage; I think the term ‘documentary lyricism’, which I’ve seen applied to some other poets’ work, describes quite well what I do. I’m keen on putting poetry into public art and on display through poetry trails and the like because I want it to reach a wider audience than regular poetry readers – one of my proudest moments was when Laura Yates, then Co-ordinator of Northfield Arts Forum, got poems from a trail I’d curated on display in Argos. Being Writer in Residence at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts has been brilliant for me in that it has offered so much to write about. Because so much of the poetry I write is ekphrastic, I’m interested in the challenge of writing about art. Ekphrastic poems shouldn’t just describe the artworks because it’s easy enough nowadays to find out what just about any piece looks like from the internet; they should aim to offer another dimension to the artworks and make a connection with even readers who haven’t seen them. For me, the highest ideal of ekphrasis is to make poems that stand as works of art in themselves, which is what I’m always striving for.
Though I hope all my poetry is authentic to me, I don’t think it has a distinctive voice, because I’m open to writing in whatever style or form suits the subject from traditional fixed forms to modernist and experimental.
3. WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?
I’m on the run from the ‘I’. When I have difficulty writing poetry it’s often because I’m reluctant to use the first person singular, except in a character voice, and ultimately find it hard to believe that anything I write about myself is likely to be interesting to readers, though this is odd because I don’t find good, personal poetry by other poets uninteresting to me as a reader. As I write this, I’m beginning to think that maybe my sequence about walking on the campus should address my relationship with ‘I’. That’s why I like to write in response to things external to me, though of course there’s always an element of the personal in any poetry, even if it’s not overt, based on the choices you make.
When I first wanted to write, which is as long ago as I can remember, I didn’t see myself necessarily focusing on poetry, but it has come to be at the heart of what I do. I like the linguistic challenge of writing poetry as well as the emotional distillation. Poetry is my work; I consider teaching, mentoring, publishing,putting on events and helping people with dementia to have a voice all to be part of my artistic practice and I don’t feel I would be able to do them successfully if I weren’t in practice as a poet myself. I have written other things though – for example I’ve had short fiction published and written an unproduced screenplay – and I am currently quite keen to work in other genres, in particular radio drama, creative non-fiction and writing about writing poetry, so I’m pleased to have a place on this year’s Room 204 writer development programme with Writing West Midlands http://www.writingwestmidlands.org
4. HOW DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS WORK?
The best writing for me is required writing, as commissions or part of a project or something I’ve set myself to do, because it’s usually clear to me what I have to do and when I have to do it by, without too much dithering about what I’m going to write about. I have techniques for getting myself started which arise out of my conviction that constraint stimulates creativity, so I’ll often start by writing my notes in a short syllabic form (I also think that if you’re writing poetry you should start by writing poetry; beginning in prose adds a layer of work). Or I’ll use a process from Oulipo, such as a lipogram. I love Oulipo, but more for generating text that I can develop than as an end in itself, though some of my finished poems have hidden constraints. I never depend on inspiration just coming, though it’s wonderful when that happens, and I don’t spend too much time thinking before I write. In all genres, I find that ideas come in the writing; I’m a kinaesthetic thinker and learner so the physical act of writing is important to me. I mostly write either on my iPad or my phone now. I have problems with writing by hand because my handwriting is awful, though not wilfully so. All my life, at school and at work, people have criticised my handwriting as if it was a choice and I could write well if I wanted to when they have no idea the anguish it causes me. It’s often even physically uncomfortable to write by hand but still I sometimes prefer to do it that way. Like most writers I know, I love stationery and I want to write with lovely new pens in beautiful notebooks, even if it’s a struggle to read it afterwards (though that can lead to happy accidents when misreading leads to a better word). I prefer to write poetry in short bursts than long stretches, which is good because though I do a lot of writing, the creative part still doesn’t get as much time as I’d like.
I’m now passing the baton on to Julie Maclean, and Heide Goody and Iain Grant. Julie is a poet who was shortlisted for the Crashaw Prize. Her debut collection When I Saw Jimi was published in 2013 and an e-chapbook You Love to Leave in 2014. She blogs on http://www.juliemacleanwriter.com. Heide and Iain write humorous novels together. They are currently writing novels three and four in a comedy fantasy series. They are both members of Birmingham Writers Group and they are both married but not to each other. Their blog is http://mrclovenhoof.blogspot.co.uk/
One of my first tasks when I was appointed Writer in Residence at the Barber Institute was to choose a painting as the subject for a gallery talk in November. If I’d been choosing now I would probably have gone for something different because I’ve made more emotional connections with other works, but this, ‘An Allegorical Tomb of the First Duke of Devonshire’ has always intrigued me. Painted in the early eighteenth century by Venetian artists Sebastiano Ricci and his nephew Marco, it was part of a commission through which a bankrupt Irish impresario called Owen McSwinney strangely hoped to make some money by selling paintings commemorating notable Whigs – supporters of William and Mary. He employed many painters for this, including Canaletto. The Ricci had lived in England and worked with McSwinney, notably on painting scenery. They also seem to have been larger than life characters, with less than reputable pasts. Sebastiano, having got a girl pregnant, tried to poison her and was sent to prison. On his release he eventually married her, only to abandon her and run away with another woman. Marco had to flee Venice after murdering a gondolier.
I wrote three poems about the painting. What intrigues me most about it, though it was painted for a commission, is how the Ricci have played with the form and made it anything but orthodox, almost surreal, 200 years before that term was invented. The statues on the tomb seem to be coming to life, while the human mourners, rigidly posed, seem to be turning into statues. One of the stone figures is an angel which made me think of the Weeping Angels in ‘Doctor Who’, turned to stone when anyone looks at them, so the first poem is also a celebration of ‘Doctor Who’ for its fiftieth anniversary this week.
look don’t look look
look don’t look
look don’t stop don’t gaze
don’t close your eyes
don’t turn your glance from the glass
don’t primp your anguished hair
don’t stop to reflect
that your name and your time aren’t there
in the vacant cartouche
head first down that hole the worms
have gnawed avoid in the void
like snakes in the grass
unclasp the box make soup from stone
stir pigment into flesh
be prey to claws of angels sobbing
turn grizzled grisaille grey
stay don’t stay
toggle quick to extinct and flick it back
blink don’t think
think don’t blink
The second poem reflects on the artificiality of the scene, with various figures representing ideas, like art, music and history, seen from the point of view of a figure in the left foreground, who is supposed to be a painter.
Though I am not the painter
I believe I have deposited a palette in the shade
laid down pencils and a mahlstick, all
the better to enact this pose, opposing fingers,
pointing where I do not look, precisely sloped
away from the window towards the empty corner
it illuminates. There will be perhaps a folly,
a capriccio, a grotto or a tomb. The lutanist
will turn up later, sit on a tub, finger strings,
which is not his skill, but his legs
are pertinent. The climbing man is limbering up,
the general straddles a sack of straw. We all
are on the tariff: size, dress, complication. Later
barefoot, I will will wring my hands for nobody
I know, who has not died, will straighten up
and indicate again, my angle parallel,
the current void. I will be lower than
the firmament. I do not do gods. I serve
as I am and here am I on the surface,
on the edge, trying to grasp the frame,
as I wade in the darkness of something
he still has to conceive.
The first Duke of Devonshire was a notable politician given the rank of Duke because of his support of William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution. Perhaps ironically the Dukes of Devonshire, members of the Cavendish family, are not buried in grandiose tombs but in the churchyard at Edensor near Chatsworth. The Duke of Richmond bought the paintings for his dining room. The third poem is probably unkind to both dukes but I’m imagining that Richmond was far more concerned with what the painting says about him than any praise it offers Devonshire. This also gave me the opportunity finally to write a parody of what I think is one of the greatest poems ever written, so this comes with apologies to Robert Browning.
That’s William Cavendish hanging on the wall,
though not alive. Odd’s blood if I don’t call
that daub a marvel, hefty though the price
McSwinney charged. The truth is I’d pay twice
as much for such a work. The pretty leg
on that stone wench, the stag behind. I beg
to differ if I ever hear you say
that better painters play their trade today
or in the past. What, Lely? Or Van Dyck?
Both fair at faces but for spectacle I like
what these Venetians conjure up, so bold,
devoid of Art. Did I revere the old
Duke very much, you ask? No, I did not.
A blessed, jumped up earl. He never sought
our love or praise. Why then show off his tomb?
Oh sir, admit it looks well in thus room.
I feel incredibly honoured and delighted to have been appointed Writer in Residence at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham. The Barber has been described as one of the finest small galleries in Europe and, living in south Birmingham, I’m particularly fortunate to know it well. It houses works of a quality to match those in the National Gallery (where there is currently an exhibition of works acquired by the Barber in its early years) but on a scale which is much more human than in larger galleries. You can go close enough to examine the brush strokes and look portraits in the eye.
At the moment, the Barber is exhibiting, interspersed with its own paintings, portraits by, amongst others, Rembrandt and Goya, lent by the National Gallery. I think the intimacy of the Barber is absolutely the best mood in which to view these. I’ve never really got Rembrandt before, but the experience of looking into his mistress Hendrickje’s eyes is pure emotion; at first sight the portrait became one of my favourite paintings ever.
In the Lady Barber Gallery is an exhibition, called Defining Faces, of 20th century portrait drawings from the Barber and the National Portrait Gallery. I went to Undefined Faces, an event to celebrate this exhibition at which Roz Goddard read her wonderful poem inspired by Wyndham Lewis’s drawing of his wife Froanna, and Tom Jones drew elegant and accurate sketches of the audience. Tom’s drawing of me will become my image of myself for the residency.
I was fascinated by the huge variety of lines in the drawings and I tried to find words to describe them, which led to the poem below.
HER LINE HIS LINE
Doused in water, tentative, fretted, spreading from point to shadow, mechanical, dynamic, meshed, blue, stubby as a thumb, segmented, terracotta, fly by night, a boundary, unmodulated, line, industrial, approximate, sanguine, chalky, laid on thick, preliminary, exact, exaggerated, tight, humble, phantom, sartorial, furtive, flourishing
(Defining Faces 13/06/13)
I was asked by talented amateur photographer Danny Taylor to write this poem to accompany a selection of his still photographs of the No 11 bus route in Birmingham, which he was compiling into a short film. I travelled all the way round on the 11, anticlockwise, and the poem was inspired by that experience and Danny’s excellent images.
On the Eleven
describing a circle
like a burst balloon.
On a journey
going nowhere in three hours.
Like magic, Acocks Green
away down lanes, past leafy avenues
round roundabouts, along the roads
the solstice, the still point
where drivers, woolly hatted,
hi-vis jacketed, interchange,
on the A4040
they never left
caps and plastic bags.
An ad for surplus clothes
– turn rags to wealth. Bells ring.
For oh, outside are all those
city villages called green,
grassy wastes where no one plays,
no one strays, no one stays.
Inside bells ring.
“I’ll get off at the shops”
someone rises, props herself
in wheelchair space to wait
where mothers slide
and dovetail buggies.
For oh, outside they look for healing,
careless of what they throw away.
Past displays of grief and flowers
angels guard deserted graves.
Inside, bells ring, doors grind.
“Ta-ra” “Thank you driver” “Cheers”
they say as they alight.
Long waits at stops
for nowhere, nobody,
for nothing, for nought,
except to throw
some time away.
“It was busy years ago,”
they say inside.
For oh outside
forgotten pasts still
dwell in houses
derelict, pristine, careful gardens
painted railings. Space for hire
History for sale.
Inside bells ring
and something smells warm,
salty, like bacon sandwiches, greasy,
spicy, cabbage, deep-fried veg.
For oh outside the distant glamour,
exotic hints of other worlds,
places unseen clamour on posters –
Be star in Perry Barr.
Jesus cares about Rotten Park.
Inside Polish, Urdu, patois.
“Where you getting off?”
“You getting off here”
“Why not here?”
Why not now?
On the eleven,
crossing its timeline
ringfencing the city
the centre always just out of reach,
from Acocks Green
on the A4040
past alleyways and boulevards,
under bridges, over water,
down roads and streets
all the way to
against the clock.
Merveilles de la Guerre
how lovely they are
peaks of coryphées eyes arms hearts
your smile your breathing
daily apotheosis of your comet hair
gilt on these gilt dancers whose belonging
is to bear young with their moments to die
how lovely these rockets
life entire and relative
departing I see them offer conceal selves
moving fingers over fire juggling
festival earth hungry opens long
pale mouth how aroma of toasted
skin becomes not disagreeable
if sky ate with land there
it would only in not nourishing
but I have run with sweetness
how this war all guts’ length
from me has flames crying
that I am here
have ploughed the beds I pour myself in
thousand little rivers at prow of trench
I am still on all sides
I am one beginning this thing for
epochs longer than flight of Icarus
I bequeath this story of Guillaume Apollinaire
who handled war and knew himself
everywhere contented in towns
behind in all remains of universes
in one barbed and trampled
in women cannon horse
top to bottom at all four points
unmistakeable heat of wake
certain it was lovelier
if I could have supposed all things
I am part of might
occupy me but
nothing can in
sense I am
over all only
am in me
Jacqui Rowe Apollinaire (Perdika, London: 2009)
[This is a version of Guillaume Apollinaire’s original poem, ‘Merveilles de la Guerre’’ you can read the original here (in French): http://www.toutelapoesie.com/poemes/apollinaire/merveille_de_la_guerre.htm%5D