Poetry Archive

Peripatetic poet

If it had been published earlier, I’d have included The Promised Land (Penguin), the debut poetry collection of André Naffis-Sahely, in my roundup of recommended reading for this summer. Out this week, it’s a slim volume that’s portable and transporting at the same time.

East Anglia on my mind

I’ve got East Anglia rather than Carolina on my mind. In the past week, I’ve watched Richard Alwyn’s quirky BBC4 film Into the Wind, in which he follows Tim Dee’s attempts to capture “the song of the earth” on The Wash (right); finished reading Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure (which I should have read a long time ago); and dipped into a recent (2015) anthology, Est, from the independent publisher Dunlin Press (one of whose founders, Martin Bewick, has, I see, just brought out a volume of his own poetry, Scarecrow).

Dee has spent much of his life recording people (often poets) in and out of doors for radio. He says that as he has grown older he has become “more and more keen on listening to the sound of the world after we’ve all shut up.” That’s what he sets out to do around the Wash, with Alwyn following his efforts.

It is, essentially, a film of a bloke wandering around, talking about the weather and trying to record pure wind. There’s not much to see beyond long flats and big skies, not a lot happens, and the viewer is denied close-ups of the birds Dee watches from time to time through his binoculars. It shouldn’t work as a piece of TV, and yet it does. If you missed it last week, it’s still available (for another few weeks) on the BBC iPlayer.

Richard Mabey is another man with a keen ear for wild sounds. Until February, when I picked up Nature Cure while browsing in a bookshop, I’d been familiar with his reputation, but not with his writing. The author of some 30 books, including the bestselling Flora Britannica and a prize-winning biography of Gilbert White, he has long been regarded as one of Britain’s finest writers on the natural world. Nature Cure makes a pretty good introduction to the man and his work. It’s about the depression that overcame him when he had finished writing Flora Britannica, his forced removal from a house in the Chiltern Hills where he had lived for half a century and his relocation to an entirely different landscape, in Norfolk. Arriving there, in a mood as long and low as the fens, he came to feel, over the space of a year, the “healing currents of the outdoors.”

Those currents are in evidence, too, in Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, edited by MW — Martin — Bewick and Ella Johnston (co-founder of Dunlin Press). It’s a collection of prose and  poetry by people with an interest in East Anglia — a landscape that, in the view of the novelist and film-maker Chris Petit, who has written a foreword, is “the most cinematic… that we have.”

Contributors include Rosie Sandler, who lives near Maldon, in Essex, but was born in the North, where she “learned a hundred words for rain, spooned from my grandmother’s lips”. For her, East Anglia is a place

where there’s no need
for rain
because it’s everywhere:

this estuary
gaping its teeth
to the sky,
spitting out herons
and egrets,
gargling swans like gutturals.

Win all six books from the 2016 RSL Ondaatje Prize short list

“The news is the incense by which we bless Putin’s actions”: that was a remark Peter Pomerantsev heard time and again from producers while he was making reality-TV shows in Moscow. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible (Faber and Faber), his electrifying portrait of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, won him the £10,000 RSL Ondaatje Prize last year, for “a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place”.

It’s a book that seems, if anything, more timely than it did on publication, given how many world leaders are demanding benediction from the media.

The judges for this year’s prize — Alexandra Harris (short-listed last year for Weatherland), Henry Hitchings and Mimi Khalvati — are due to reveal their short list of six books on April 26; the winner will be announced at a dinner at the Travellers Club in London on May 8. Meanwhile, courtesy of the Royal Society of Literature, I have a prize of my own to offer: all six of the books that were short-listed last year.

The five others were:
The River by Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books), a debut poetry collection rooted in family life and on the farm where Clarke grew up in the west of Ireland.
The Great Explosion by Brian Dillon (Penguin), an exploration of the marshlands of north Kent and their military-industrial past;
Weatherland by Alexandra Harris (Thames & Hudson), an account of how weather has been written and painted in England through the centuries;
The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks (Allen Lane), a bestselling account of Lake District farming that began as a Twitter feed; and
This Divided Island (Atlantic Books) by Samanth Subramanian, in which the Indian Tamil writer examines the scars left on Sri Lanka by its 26-year civil war.

To be in with a chance of winning the six books, just retweet my tweet about the prize on Twitter from both @deskboundtravel and  @kerraway.

Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet the mention of the RSL prize on Twitter from both @deskboundtravel and @kerraway by midnight on Wednesday, April 18. Only one copy of each of the six short-listed titles is available to the winner, who must be resident in the United Kingdom. The winner will be selected at random and notified by Monday, April 24. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more information about the Ondaatje Prize, please see the Royal Society of Literature’s website.

Poetry: ‘A lotta hard-workin’ people tryin’ to make an honest dime’

What is Poetry? “It’s just a lotta hard-workin’ people tryin’ to make an honest dime.” So I discovered yesterday, when I searched for “poetry” and “journeys” on the Soundcloud site.

Having enjoyed the latest edition of Poetry Please on Radio 4, on the theme of “Dusk ’til Dawn” (perfect listening for a post-run bath), I searched for “Poetry Please journeys”, and discovered that Roger McGough did hit the road, in March 2015, in the company of Tennyson, Arnold and Cavafy, among others. Unfortunately, that episode is not available on the BBC iPlayer. (Note to BBC: please add it asap.)

So I tried the same search on Soundcloud, couldn’t find the journeys episode, but did turn up Poetry, Texas, in which a Danish poet, Pejk Malinovski, went all the way to the Lone Star State because he’d seen a picture online; a picture of a water tower with the word “Poetry” on it: Poetry, Texas. His programme is gently revealing of rural life, and the voices are wonderful. It was made by the innovative team at Falling Tree Productions and went out on Radio 4 in May 2013 —  but again isn’t available on iPlayer. I’ve put the Soundcloud link in below.

The poem and the journey

The winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award will be announced at a dinner in London on Thursday. Geoff Dyer, who has been shortlisted for White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, was musing in the review section of The Guardian at the weekend on what constitutes travel writing. The poet Billy Collins, he says, “considers himself a travel writer even though the experience of foreign travel plays no part in his work”. I can’t link from here to Dyer’s piece because, for some reason, it hasn’t gone online, but I did come across a revealing interview with Billy Collins on the WorldHum site.

Poetry, says Collins, is “travel writing of the highest order because it provides not only a change of scenery, but a change of consciousness. The poem’s music and its rhythms combine to form the soundtrack to these mental excursions, which carry us in two directions at once: out into the world and back into ourselves, for we read poetry not so much to discover who the poet is as to discover who we are.”

Gone for a Burton

There’s long been a kinship between poets and pints, says Jean Sprackland. It’s particularly strong in her case: she grew up in Burton-on-Trent, a town synonymous with brewing, and had a summer job in the maltings. In Gone for a Burton, on Radio 4 earlier this week, she led a lyrical tour of the trade and the town. In the process, she learnt a new explanation of the phrase she’s borrowed for her programme’s title…

On Heaney’s home ground

The Seamus Heaney HomePlace, a new centre in Bellaghy, County Derry, that will celebrate the life and work of the poet, is due to open at the end of this month. Helen Mark went to the village for Radio 4’s Open Country programme to hear how plans are proceeding. The priest, Father Dolan, says that Heaney has made the local landscape “sacred and immortal”; the teacher who first took Heaney’s work into the classroom says the poet has helped children value what they took for granted. Even those with little interest in poetry know that the legacy of “Famous Seamus” could be good for business.

Not too good, I hope. I’m reminded of a fine piece Fionnuala McHugh wrote a couple of years ago for Telegraph Travel, in which she observed: “Heaney tours are currently at that happy stage where people are still tickled by visitors. May that never change.”

Poetry and shepherding on the RSL Ondaatje Prize short list

The short list for the Royal Society of Literature’s prize this year includes James Rebanks’ bestseller The Shepherd’s Life and a debut poetry collection rooted in rural Ireland. See my story for Telegraph Books.

A wintry look at Edinburgh

Making reference to “a city of contrasts” isn’t the freshest way to introduce a piece of scene-setting, but the poet Stewart Conn recovers swiftly in Edinburgh at the Year’s Midnight: A Winter Journey in Poetry through Scotland’s Capital City, which was aired yesterday on Radio 4 and is due to be repeated at 11.30pm next Saturday. He reads alongside the actors Siobhan Redmond and Gordon Kennedy, with music arranged and played by Aly Macrae, all under the direction of Marilyn Imrie.

I particularly enjoyed Conn’s poem giving voice to the Camera Obscura in the Outlook Tower, one of the city’s earliest tourist attractions, which moans that even in winter there’s “no let-up in the tourist season, a hullabaloo all year round, the sticky-fingered hordes lapping up every minute, even those with iPhones or entwined in one another’s arms… How I pray for a blanket of snow capable of blotting out everything!”

Bombay, by a resident poet

“You’ve been to Mumbai a couple of times,” a colleague said to me a while ago; “what should I read to get a flavour of the place?”

Off the top of my head I recommended Maximum City, Suketu Mehta’s plump and populous non-fiction account, and Rohinton Mistry’s novel of endurance, A Fine Balance, and his short stories about life in an apartment building, Tales from Firozsha Baag. If I were asked again, I would have a few more suggestions, among them the poems of Arundhathi Subramaniam.

Subramaniam lives in Mumbai (Bombay), where she works as a writer, editor and curator. She was short-listed for this year’s TS Eliot Prize for her collection When God Is a Traveller (Bloodaxe Books), and I heard her read from it at the Royal Festival Hall in London last month. Ian McMillan, MC for the evening, noted that her words and stagecraft won her “the first whoop of the night” (actually, it was the only whoop of the night). There were giggles, too, during several of her poems, including one about a garrulous fellow-passenger on a train, “Or Take Mrs Salim Shaikh”.  Among the many snippets of autobiography that Mrs Salim Shaikh dispensed were the lines ‘My heart is pure.’/’I practise no religion,/only homoeopathy.’, which, four days after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, was funny and poignant at the same time.

“I  have mixed feelings about Bombay,” Subramaniam said that evening, “but its trains have often offered me fodder for poems.” Those feelings are forcefully expressed in “The City and I”, which she wrote after the terrorist attacks there in November 2008, and which I’m now featuring on Deskbound Traveller. You can hear her discuss her work in an interview for the BBC World Service programme “The Forum”, recorded when she was in London for the TS Eliot Prize readings. On the video below, she reads more of her poems.

Arundhathi Subramaniam from Neil Astley on Vimeo.