Thursday, September 27, 2012
The Beverley Nambozo Poetry Foundation is compiling poems from poets of East Africa for an anthology which will come out in 2013. This has been possible with the generous contribution of Prince Claus Fund. We kindly request you to send up to a maximum of three original poems in English or in a local language with the English translation, from which one or two will be selected. The winners of the BN Poetry Award from 2009 to 2012, will have their winning poems published and they may submit another for consideration if they so please.
Monday, September 24, 2012
You, who deserted Tyne for Thames, became
Dissenter from dissenters on choosing
Physic rather than faith and saw Reason
Enough to ally with Pope against Church
In all tendentious denominations.
Time now to kindle interest in your verse,
Those pleasures of the imagination
You measured in lines precise as scalpel
Incisions, going to such lengths to cure
Souls and instruct those willing to become
Students of wisdom’s anatomy. For
Enlightenment driving away shadows
From darkened minds revealed revelation
As inferior to experience.
Nature is the sacred text the poet
Reads and draws out the lessons modern eyes
Can clearly see for themselves, however
Difficult appears the poem at first.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Mark Akenside, poet and fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, was born at
The Akensides were dissenters, his Presbyterian father a butcher. As a result of an accident with a meat cleaver Mark was left slightly lame. He attended the Royal Free Grammar School of Newcastle and a private dissenting academy.
Aged 18, he was dispatched to Edinburgh to study theology with the intention of becoming a Presbyterian minister. His studies were financed through a fund established by the Tyneside dissenting community.
However, Mark was a dissenter in a rather broader meaning of the word and he quickly abandoned theology for the more worldly study of medicine. He did, though, repay his grant.
Before going to Edinburgh he had already developed a talent for poetry. During a visit to Morpeth in 1738, he began working on “The Pleasures of the Imagination” which was to become an extensive didactic poem.
His dissenting background emerged in other ways: as a political, if somewhat unfocused radical, Dr. Johnson commented that Mark had an, “…eagerness to subvert and confound…” but without necessarily with any particular objective in mind.
He also dissented from the dissenting denominations by becoming a deist. Deism emerged during the eighteenth century enlightenment as a response to traditional Christianity.
Deists base their belief in God on reason and experience, not revelation and scripture. They claim Nature as their bible; that it operates according to laws as discovered by science it is reasonable to postulate the existence of the lawmaker.
The radical Thomas Paine, was a leading exponent of Deism which was also the religion of the USA’s founding fathers such as Jefferson and Adams. It was natural for a freethinking young poet to gravitate in such a direction.
In 1740, Mark Akenside moved back to Newcastle, but although he described himself as a surgeon it seems he didn’t actually practice. He did continue to pursue his poetic ambitions.
By 1743 he’d established a growing literary reputation and he moved to London. There he came to the favourable notice of Alexander Pope, a fellow poet and deist.
Subsequently, after gaining a medical degree at Leiden in 1744, he went on to become a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and, eventually, principal physician at Christ’s Hospital.
Akenside became embroiled in disputes characteristic of the literary milieu of eighteenth century London. He published poems of a satirical nature and a slim volume entitled, “Odes on Several Subjects”. His 1746 “Hymn to the Naiads” was well received.
With advancing years and a burgeoning medical career Mark began to develop a more conservative outlook. By the time George lll came to the throne, he had became a Tory. This led to his appointment as the queen’s physician. He died on the 23rd June, 1770.
As a poet, he gained a good reputation that has, over the intervening years waned somewhat. However, his command of blank verse is beyond question and is a good representative of didactic poetry, a form no longer much favoured.
Nonetheless, Mark Akenside deserves to be recognised as a considerable figure in Tyneside’s literary heritage. Although he may have ended his life a Tory he had a radical strain within him. Perhaps his natural radicalism can be illustrated by the following poem.
For a Column at Runnymede
Thou, who the verdant plain dost traverse here
While Thames among his willows from thy view
Retires; O stranger, stay thee, and the scene
Around contemplate well. This is the place
Where England's ancient barons, clad in arms
And stern with conquest, from their tyrant king
(Then rendered tame) did challenge and secure
The charter of thy freedom. Pass not on
Till thou hast blest their memory, and paid
Those thanks which God appointed the reward
Of public virtue. And if chance thy home
Salute thee with a father's honour'd name,
Go, call thy sons: instruct them what a debt
They owe their ancestors; and make them swear
To pay it, by transmitting down entire
Those sacred rights to which themselves were born.
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Keith Armstrong of ‘Northern Voices Community Projects’ looks at twinning exchanges and recounts a few stories along the way
‘Ein bier bitter – und ein Martini for the wife’ demanded ‘the lad’ from Peterlee Cricket Club of the German barman in the twin-town of Nordenham. Spotting ‘the lad’ was of English extraction, the barman, in near impeccable style, politely enquired ‘Sweet or Dry, Sir?’ ‘Just the one!’, our ‘twinning boy’ snapped back, sensing a German plot, returning triumphantly to his stool in the town’s ‘Beer Akademie’, thinking how well he’d handled a potentially tricky diplomatic situation.
As Peterlee’s Community Arts Worker, having eavesdropped this touching exchange, I thought to myself ‘So that’s what twinning is all about!’ As one of the co-ordinators of the initiative, I felt I was entitled to wonder just how the twinning link had transpired and was it worth all the effort. This was back in 1980-6 and times were hard in the mining communities around Peterlee. People’s minds were concentrated on survival; ‘twinning’ could hardly be considered paramount. But it played a small part in expanding horizons. By 1986, I’d made 8 visits to Nordenham with different groups and individuals, including the Youth Drama Workshop, the East Durham Writers’ Workshop, and the local band ‘the Montgolfier Brothers’ (ex-‘DTs’, ex-‘Sick Note’, ex-‘Death By Trombone’!) for many, this was their first excursion to foreign shores, and it changed them, they occasionally fell in love, and cried when they had to leave Germany. Who would have thought?
Naturally, there was method in the developmental madness. It was meant to change attitudes, get the ball off the Durham island, develop links, forge exchanges, and generally broaden political and cultural understanding. Not that it was plain-sailing, of course. I well remember a night out with ‘the Montgolfier Brothers’ around several local bars, ending with an extended toasting session with a man with a monocle and a scar down his cheek who we promptly christened ‘Uncle Herman’. Uncle Herman declared a passion for British Scientists and offered Schnapps all round for every such scientists we could name. I think a general state of collapse was declared after the toast of ‘Michael Faraday!’ and Kenny, the bass guitarist, was, as legend has it, woken early the next morning in a local shop door-way by the drip-drip of a window cleaner’s wash-leather! Yet the band bounced back and gave several outstanding performances in the town’s schools and in the community centre. Their single at the time ‘Things That Go Bump In The Night’ quickly became a cult hit in Nordenham.
And the there was the coach-tour round the town with Frau Ehleman of the Rathaus (Town Hall) as our guide, a very enthusiastic and kindly lady with an unfortunate way of constantly popping a microphone! Not only was this, however, her phrase-book unique. As the coach rolled away from the Rathaus, we were pleased to have pointed out for us, in rapid succession, ‘the field of the dead cows’ and ‘the house where you can buy the women’. By way of explanation, it transpired that there was pollution in the soil, from a local factory, and, further down the road, was situated the local brothel. And we’ll never forget the unique invite to go ‘mud-walking’ the next morning!
So we weren’t short of the odd moments of humour, though, in fact, we did get through a lot of hard work, with the Writers’ Workshop performing, with translation, their poems and songs in the town’s schools and at an Anti-Nuclear rally. General political and cultural discussion was always encouraged and usually ensued. During the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, the twin-town of Nordenham sent parcels of food and toys to the striking miners and their families and made financial contributions to the ‘Save Easington Area Mines Campaign’. And we vividly remember heading the Nordenham May Day procession and visiting local factories there. Our delegation generally stayed in twin-town homes, a gesture which was usually reciprocated when our friends from Nordenham trade unions and peace group visited us in Peterlee.
Many of the twinning links in North East England are with Germany and French towns and our positive experience of Nordenham has led myself and others connected with ‘ Northern Voices’ to seek to develop further links, building on this success to overcome the negative feelings local people often have of such connection, viewing them as council ‘junkets’ and the like. Whilst this ‘junketing’ does still go on, there is scope for getting involved in promoting more constructive political and cultural dialogue with our twinning partners, especially more significant in the changing European landscape. Indeed, in recent years, through the good offices of Durham’s Euro M.P. Stephen Hughes, poets and musician from ‘Northern Voices’ performed at the European Parliament in Strasbourgh!
The town of Tübingen in Southern Germany has been described as ‘a town on a campus’, given that out of a total population of 77,000, 25,000 are students and 8,000 employees of the University. So that the nature of its twinning with County Durham is distinctly academic compared to the more industrial nature of both Nordenham and Peterlee. It has also a somewhat richer history in a number of ways – Hegel studied there, the eccentric poet Friedrich Holderlin lived there in his Tower for 30 years and expired there, and Hermann Hesse, the writer, worked in a bookshop there in his formative youth. To this extent, the town’s Cultural Office was interested in a literary link and ‘Northern Voices’ was, therefore, invited, and funded, by Durham County Council’s International Exchange Officer to pioneer a literary connection in 1987. since when, 11 successful visits have been made, featuring poets, and musicians in the folk and jazz idioms. Readings have been staged in schools, pubs, and at the University, and reciprocal visits to Durham by Tübingen poets ant the University ’s Anglo-Irish Theatre Group arranged. We have also participated in discussions on regional culture in the new Europe. In both the twinning examples highlighted above, the links forged have led to anthologies being published. To accompany a visit by East Durham Writers’ Workshop to Nordenham in 1986, a bi-lingual pamphlet, ‘North Sea Poems’, was produced and, in the cases of Tübingen, a joint bi-lingual anthology ‘Poets Voices’, featuring poets from both Durham and Tübingen, was launched in the Holderlin Tower in June 1991.
Other interesting twinning links which ‘Northern Voices’ has pioneered in the cultural field are those between Newcastle upon Tyne and its Dutch Counterpart, Groningen, and between Wear Valley and Ivry-sur-Seine (just outside Paris). And ‘Northern Voices’ remains committed to this area of cultural work now and in the future. This might have a lot to do with our being based on the North Sea Coast. Certainly, in my own case, not only did my father graft in the shipyards for forty years or so, and his father before him, but his tales of his Merchant Navy days and of travels to Rio, Cape Town, Lisbon and so on truly inspired me as an impressionable youth and this excitement in travelling has carried over into my cultural activities. As a founding member of ‘the Tyneside Poets’ group back in the 1970s, I vividly recall the links we developed with our Icelandic counterparts, and, in particular, our visit to Reykjavik during the Cod War of 1976 when I performed my epic poem ‘Cod Save The Queen’ (!) to an audience of over 200 excited Icelanders. This was followed by a visit in 1980 to Georgia in the then Soviet Union. After one late night session with a worker-writers’ group in the steel-works town of Rustavi, I coined the following short poem:
(TO A FELLOW WRITER IN RUSTAVI0
Last night we swapped our shirts
They didn’t fit our bodies too well
But they fitted our mood
Such memories stay with you for the rest of your life. They change you. And whilst I’ve dwelt exclusively on international links, I recall with fondness the twinning of Greenwich and Easington Councils during the ’84 Strike and the links we developed then. So it can happen within our little island too. And it’s fun. That, after all, is what twinning’s all about! Try it.
It was an unrealistically beautiful experience. A packed programme with so many fantastic options from Lemn Sissay the larger than life performance poet, Dinaw Mengestu, winner of 2007 Guardian first book award for his novel,Children of the Revolution to Sitawa Namwilie,author of Cut off my Tongue. The 13th to 17th September 2012 will hardly be forgotten.
Sunday, September 16, 2012
KEITH ARMSTRONG COCKS A SNOOK AT POETRY READINGS
Not long ago, I was on a flight to Stuttgart on my way to give a poetry reading in Tuebingen, Durham’s twin-town. Normally, I’m not given to chatting to strangers on aeroplanes, it’s calculated to be strained and, above all, boring. This time was an exception – I got talking to a pig farmer.
Helmut Bugl was his name and he was on his way home from a ‘swine-seminar’ in Montreal. Over a glass of wine or two, he asked me my role in life. Being in the mood, I responded ‘Poet’. And it turned out that he lived just up the road from one of the English lecturers I knew at Tuebingen University.
Helmut invited me for an ‘English’ breakfast so it was the least I could do to autograph one of my poetry book (‘Dreaming North’) for him, hovering in mid-air as we were. Feeling the need to reciprocate, brother Bugl reached into a pocket and drew out a photo of six of his litter, which he promptly signed on the reverse. I still treasure it.
The plane duly landed and we waved goodbye as a pretty lady friend drove me off to pretty Tuebingen.
Naturally, I got a poem out of all this. The title (you’ve guessed it!): ‘Pigs Might Fly’. I hadn’t the time to take up Helmut’s offer of breakfast as it turned out but, once home, I popped a copy of the poem in the post to him. I never heard back from him.
Until, that is, a trip to Tuebingen one July. I was performing with the North East folk-singer Jez Lowe at the University’s English Club, a gig arranged by the English lecturer referred to above. Whilst I was nervously getting my act together in the seminar room, a character bounded towards me in a suit, firm hand extended in greeting. After an awkward pause, the pfennig dropped. Yes, it was Helmut Bugl, pig farmer, come to hear me read.
Naturally, I delivered ‘Pigs Might Fly’ to our special ‘guest of honour’.
It had all come nicely full circle!
I’ve recounted this little anecdote in some detail because it raises some interesting points about ‘poetry’ in this country and attitudes towards it. A Guardian reviewer once said that ‘Poetry is in a frightful fix these days. No one reads it. No one knows how to read it.’ Figures show that out of 80% of the British population that attend cultural events only 2% go to poetry readings. This might be because, as poet Adrian Mitchell put it, ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’ ‘Only connect,’ you might say. So it pleased me, indeed inspired me, to make contact with Helmut Bugl. After all, you don’t get many pig farmers at Newcastle’s Morden Tower these days! And, so far as I know, the Arts Council isn’t issuing bacon and egg breakfasts to deserving writers! Perhaps because they’re mostly vegetarians, I don’t know.
For the truth is most poetry is most boring to most people. It doesn’t very often strike a chord with their lives. And a poetry reading isn’t their idea of a night out. I’ve got the horrible feeling that any so-called ‘poetry resurgence’ is a fantasy in the ever-inventive imaginations of poets themselves and the arts administrators some of them brown their noses with.
I have fond memories of being physically ejected from a ‘New Generation’ reading at Newcastle’s Bridge Hotel by a smooth-talking steward from Bloodaxe for muttering dark thoughts at the bar during a mumbled reading by a ‘New Generation Poet’. Maybe this happening livened up the show. It certainly needed a kick from somewhere. In fact, I once heard from a reliable source within the sanctum of the Arts Council that such incidents have become known on ‘the scene’ as ‘that Keith Armstrong moment’!
The idea that ordinary/real people are going to sit on their butts for up to two hours to hear an indistinct reader render incomprehensible verse from inside a book is scarcely credible. Especially when ‘SILENCE’ is the order of the day, when there is no space for dispute or
discussion and, above all, no music and very little booze. One must, apparently, revere the mumbling poet and the imprecise wisdoms and insights they are supposedly imparting. Strictly no heckling and certainly no instinctive behaviour!
Of course, it’s not always like this. I remember, for example, helping to organise a reading by the Russian poet Yevtushenko at a packed Mining Institute in Newcastle during the seventies. His passionate rendition was memorable. I’ve also heard the reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, Scots writers Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan and, of course, the great Adrian Mitchell, put it across with real verve. And I’ve enjoyed the humour of our own shipyard poet ‘Ripyard Cuddling’ and Wallsend’s ‘Herbert Mangle’. I’ve even seen an Edinburgh poet read whilst standing on his head! Yes, poetry readings can be memorable. But, these days, in the North East at least, such occasions are few and far between.
I recall being in Iceland with fellow poet Peter Mortimer during the Cod War and hitting the headlines there with my treasonous poem ‘Cod Save The Queen’! I love poetry when it connects with everyday life, when it is song-like and echoes the lyricism you sometimes hear in pub conversations. Gone, I hope, are the days of the egg-head poet reading only to fellow poets. Let’s celebrate the music of words, the flow of wine and good conversation.
Let our poetry dance!
Back to the seventies. I’m with the Tyneside Poets in Elsinor, Denmark. The poetry evening’s wearing on as only poetry evenings can. ‘Cullercoats’ Mike Wilkin is on stage. The organiser’s worried that we’ll miss the last ferry back to Sweden. ‘Please finish now!’ he shouts to Mike. ‘Poets do not have watches,’ comes the response. ‘But if you don’t finish now we’ll miss the last ferry home.’ ‘In that case, I’ll finish,’ says ‘the poet’, sobering up somewhat! Yes, even poetry has its limits!
Once in Georgia at the ‘Palace of Culture’ in a provincial steel town, after much wine, I swapped shirts with a well-built worker-writer. His shirt was like a tent on me, and he couldn’t fasten the buttons on mine. But what a great night out it was! :
‘Last night we swapped our shirts.
They didn’t fit our bodies too well,
But they fitted our mood exactly.’
Now that’s the spirit! As an ‘Old Generation’ poet, I remember launching a booklet called ‘Giving Blood’, with blood dripping from my upper lip, having been attacked by another poet before my reading!
Those were the days! Poets for the Revolution! Maybe they’ll come back? Yes – and ‘Pigs Might Fly’!
Sunday, September 9, 2012
Dobson and Grainger
were Giants of Men.
Men of Mark,
with huge hands,
they tore this town
Walkers on Tyne.
So we gather in the tales
of our Great Historians.
But what of the true grafters,
the blistered and
What of the People
beneath the library shelves?
What of the quiet men and women
who really built this town?
Friday, September 7, 2012
Yes, we slept in the garden, all that bread
And wine we’d shared. So softly blew the breeze
Like a love-struck virgin’s sigh through the trees:
How could we know he’d be so soon dead.
It was a strangely dreamless sleep, as though
A pause had been called. He begged us to rouse
And we did, but quickly fell back to drowse
Even as he wept. Just how could we know
The imminence of events? All he’d taught,
That we should look to creation and see,
Come to trust the truth of what we thought,
Was the way through which we could all be free
From taking the word of others. We ought
To have awakened, but we dozed, but not he.
Eve pressed the crook of her elbow across
Her eyes, resting her narrow naked back
Against the tree, surely leaving a track
Of rough bark on her skin. Being at a loss
Over quite what he should do next, Adam
Wondered: he could go down to the fountain
And wash the juice from his fingers. There again,
The stickiness felt like blood of a lamb,
But how did he know this? She wasn’t weeping,
Just closing out the garden, hoping blindness
Might be a comfort. Or, pretend sleeping
And he might let her alone. Better dress
Quickly and hurry away, no creeping
Though, to imply she’d something to confess.
The roots go down to the very centre,
Drawing goodness up from the endless dead,
While the topmost branches reach out and spread
Towards fathomless space they can’t enter.
At his own instigation there’s a god
Hanging there, or so his followers claim,
Though why a deity should choose to maim
Himself is unresolved. There comes the odd
Crow or two, ready to peck out his eyes,
But some say they are really bringing him
Advice on the world of truth, world of lies.
Overhead the clouds gather, light grows dim:
Perhaps beneath a million distant skies
Disbelief’s suspended on such a whim.
As he had done, she wept. With the grotto
Being empty, folly though it was, all hope
Seemed vanquished. Keeping faith might be a trope
And little more, but still she had to know
What had happened to him. He had promised
To meet her there, though no one else believed
He’d show. Had she really just been deceived?
She’d not doubted for a moment when they’d kissed.
Then, there’s someone in the garden, she’s sure.
Hope, like glistering spring sun, intercedes
And she goes up to him calmly, with pure
Intent. He’s kneeling, occupied with weeds
“Who are you?” she asks. His eyes are azure:
“I’m the gardener who simply sows the seeds.”
There, just there, is precisely where it stood.
Kids were warned, of course, “Do not eat the fruit!”
But, well-meant prohibition does not suit,
Especially when it’s for their own good.
Damn the precocious young! So, no choice then,
Axe sharpened and set to the trunk. Who knows
How long it took, or the number of blows?
Then, finally, “Timber!” Government men
They were who came, offered a decent sum
As it had, for them, plenty enough length
To spare to cut and fashion a crossbeam.
Certainly sturdy, it would take the strength
Of two to shift it. Made into a frame,
It was used once to crush a Hyacinth.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Mixed Fruit Magazine is pleased to announce the Carson Prize in Poetry or Prose, a writing contest that will present one winning writer with a $100 award and publication in our first print issue, to be published in early 2013.
Labels: writing competitions
Tuesday, September 4, 2012
The Mayor is bothered
about the litter in my brain;
the dross of poems
spilled out onto bar floors
and the fishy streets of Groningen.
He prowls the gutters
of my verse,
seeking to tidy up
and times I slopped
between the lines
of council meetings.
from lost poetry readings
in windy corners
on this market day,
into sodden memories,
dark with crumbling print.
This city’s flags
to flap proud,
in the rampant northern breeze,
fingers of lost empires
at laughing girls
and daring boys
over stinking bones.
You will not make me clean,
I am a dirty poet
whose head aches
with dark subversive thoughts.
I am not tidy,
my very speech
as a mad professor in the Huis de Beurs.
I will mess up your streets
with a dynamic anarchy
until a true democracy
makes a clean breast of things
and the road-sweepers
of the Vismarkt
share a green and wondrous world.