Thursday, December 30, 2021

The joy of small things / From Keats to Merseybeat / A retreat into my favourite verse is a soul saver

Philip Larkin with wicker rabbit ‘Veronica’; ‘I will always lose myself in Larkin.’ 


From Keats to Merseybeat: a retreat into my favourite verse is a soul saver

Poems are Swiss army knives of words – they have multiple uses

Hannah Jane Parkinson
Fri 6 Dec 2019 07.00 GMT

Ican’t remember when I fell in love with poetry, though I remember the teachers who encouraged it. I remember bringing in a lever-arch file of my own “efforts”, aged 14, mostly aping Wilfred Owen – a war poet who had the distinct advantage of having served in a war, which I had not. I had been kettled while on an Iraq protest, though, which I maintain counts for something.

Living in Oxford in my late teens and early 20s, I became involved in the performance poetry scene, supporting the likes of Patience Agbabi and Lemn Sissay, and winning awards at a university I did not attend. Poetry is supposed to be read aloud, and yet I enjoy it most on the page. That way you can take it anywhere, along with your heart and your brain. In this world of cacophonous news, long reads on populism, and explainers on influencers (who I still don’t really understand or care about), a retreat into my favourite verse is a soul saver.

At one time, briefly living on the top floor of student halls and slowly unravelling (a literal mad woman in the attic), I had poetry scrawled on the walls. Of course I did. Possibly the most obnoxious example was Keats: “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain”. I really identified with Keats; it’s wild, now, to think that my confidence was at rock bottom, and yet I somehow still wept for a world that might not get to devour one of my opinion pieces on, say, emojis.

The other poem scrawled in marker was Brian Patten’s And Nothing Is Ever As Perfect As You Want It To Be. Patten is mostly known for his association with the Merseybeat scene, and his love poems are sublime (“You tried not to hurt and yet / Everything you touched became a wound”). I always much preferred Patten to Roger McGough, though there is no doubt that the latter’s lines “For centuries the bullet remained quietly confident / that the gun would be invented” go off with a bang.

The thing about poems is that they are Swiss army knives of words; they have multiple uses. They make one feel, but also understand. They inspire and upset, they provoke and reflect. If you treat them right, and nurse the relationship, watering them every now and then with your attention, they will never let you down. I will always lose myself in Larkin; be overwhelmed by O’Hara; and agitate for Akhmatova. Life is richer for it.


Tuesday, December 28, 2021

A matter of lives by Tony Birch

A matter of lives

murder reduced
to counting bodies
naming names
dates and days
processioning through
plagued streets

grief – a spectacle
feeding news

your life – no life – what
life – which and whose fucking life matters?

blank headlines
do not shed tears
or hear the death
of a living heart

a black woman asleep on a train
is no news is good news
until the day arrives
and she becomes
a fact of death


Monday, December 27, 2021

John Cooper Clarke / The Bard of Salford


John Cooper Clarke




Saturday 2 November 2013

Tour manager Johnny Green introduces us, and ‘The Bard Of Salford’ offers a wiry handshake and warm grin from behind his trademark shades and Rolling Stones haircut. “Alright, kid?” he asks. “Do you want a G ‘n’ T?”… And so it begins.

A female fan leans in through the open window and shouts “Hey John… I was getting married next week – but I don’t think I’m gonna bother now,” referring to the mid-gig monologue on matrimony. He’d warned the crowd to be careful when entering new romances or if considering getting spliced, calling up a relationship which ended with him trying to explain to the other party why they were incompatible as a couple, in the end resorting to: “I’m an Aquarius, and you’re an arsehole”…

A blind fan is brought in to say hello: “What’s yer name, kid?” Clarke asks. The fan, Colin, produces a red marker pen out of a flimsy carrier bag, for his collection of CDs to be signed. The poet has already got through half of them with a biro. He takes the offering anyway, and is about to autograph the dark cover of SNAP, CRACKLE & BOP with it, but arches an eyebrow. “Hang on, here, Colin. Let’s think about this – this one’s already been signed. Are you absolutely sure you want me to sign it again?”… Colin answers “Yes, please… The other signature’s not visible enough,” and Clarke shoots me a quizzical – though not mocking – open-mouthed look over the top of his shades. He signs the CD again, this time as Doctor John Cooper Clarke, proud of his recent honorary degree from the University Of Salford. “There you go, Colin. Now signed by a Doctor – and you can’t get no better than that”.

He leans out of the window and lights a cigarette – Chesterfields, I think – and offers me one. “I’ve given up,” I say, “I’m on this” and hold up the e-cigarette I have in my hand. “Fuckin’ ‘ell, kid… No way, no way. Not for me…” he says. “Not to be detrimental to you, but giving up shows absolutely no commitment whatsoever” and bursts out laughing, smoke firing in all directions through his gold teeth. Pointing to a cellophane-wrapped plate he says “Hey, do you want a sandwich instead?”

A photographer calls him out to have his portrait taken for an ongoing exhibition of famous Manchester faces: “I’d better suck me fuckin’ cheeks in”. Spindly Clarke sits on the backstage steps which lead up to the wings, ordering the snapper to “make me look thin” and then recites a couple of lines from his poem GET BACK ON DRUGS, YOU FAT FUCK. He offers Victoria Beckham pursed lips and struggles vainly not to crease when support poets Mike Garry and Luke Wright start hurling the good-natured banter his way. “Listen,” says Johnny Green quietly, as we stand watching the photoshoot, “John’s just said he’s up for a proper chat with you – so come back to the hotel for a drink. It’ll be a lot better than 20 minutes in here”.

A few minutes later and we’re in a fairly luxurious hire car with Clarke sliding an Elvis CD into the player: “The BBC’ve asked me to go on the celebrity version of MASTERMIND. I’m filming it a week on Tuesday. So this is cramming. I’m cramming”. Presley’s beautiful voice reaches into Clarke, into all of us, as we drive through the dark. The poet sings along – as if unaware of anything else around him – then breaks off to explain: “They asked me what I wanted for my specialist chosen subject so I said films made between 1930 and 1970. Too broad. I kept narrowing it down. 1950 and 1970? Too broad. American films? Too broad. Westerns? Too broad. Alright then, British films? Too broad… For fuck’s sake, alright then… The films of Elvis Presley? And they’ve agreed on that”. He sniffs. “I’ve been watching two a day”.

Green says “The thing about John is, he’s got this amazing brain. The information he can retain is just… incredible” – and, indeed, later when we part I’m staggered as he offers up information about me that was mentioned only in passing in the first few minutes of our time together in the busy dressing room, and not again since. “Have you watched IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR yet, John?” I ask; “I love that song POCKETFUL OF RAINBOWS”. Immediately Clarke sings “I… don’t worry… whenever skies above are… Yeah, that is a fuckin’ great song. Great song… Elvis! Presley!” and the streetlamps rhinestone off his sunglasses.

Minutes later we’re sitting in the corner of the edge-of-town hotel’s empty bar, and the evening begins to expand further than anyone had anticipated. Tea-drinker Green eventually retires for the night – “to take off my boots, ‘cos it’s a long drive tomorrow” – but insists on another round of Laphroaig and Guinness for John and I, first.

Cooper Clarke clinks the ice-cubes around his glass and discusses everything from liberalism, the regulation of the UK press, the Milly Dowler case and the internet, to The Sopranos and The Simpsons, The Smiths and the late great Lou Reed, to heroin and Jack Daniels. We disagree on a couple of issues and, voices raised, end up rowing for a late-night half-hour about something which we agree will remain ‘off the record’ for this edition of The Mouthcast. I discover that interviewing John Cooper Clarke can be both intense and playful. It’s also not necessarily always a participatory experience. Sometimes it requires little more than a word tossed in, a quick question, a statement or a nod to help guide the torrential flow-and-purge of his truly extraordinary brain.

Three hours later he orders me a taxi and waits with me in the hotel’s reception area until it appears. When it does he gives me the warmest hug: “… been a fuckin’ pleasure to meet you, kid” – and, as his cuban heels click on the tiles, I watch (Doctor) John Cooper Clarke totter off towards the lift. Aquarius, not arsehole.


Saturday, December 25, 2021

Interview John Cooper Clarke / ‘Only eat at the table. And don't watch TV while eating’


John Cooper Clarke



John Cooper Clarke: ‘Only eat at the table. And don't watch TV while eating’

The poet and performer on his dad’s sandwiches, the iniquity of snacking and disappointing Dutch food

John Hind

Sat 16 Mar 2019 18.00 GMT

When I was a kid, for a while my mother worked afternoons at the high-class confectioners round the corner. It was also a tobacco shop. The two went hand in glove. Quality candies, ice-creams, walking canes and baccy products. Mum would bring home lots of sweets which had been on sale too long but were still perfectly OK, and she’d say, “Take your pick.” That was a bit of a perk.

John Cooper Clarke

The first time I saw a green pepper, it was outrageous. There were quite lot of Jewish people in Salford and some were Sephardi and they ate Greco-Middle-Eastern food. I remember my mum saying, “Ohh, you can’t eat green and red peppers – they’ll blow the top of your head off.” So for a long time I thought they were chillies the size of fists. 

Mum was a great cook, smashing. She did well with most things, with the possible exception of tripe and onions. I’ve never really got into tripe. But one trusted one’s parents not to poison you in those days; you didn’t ask questions. If it was put in front of you, you ate it. An innate trust, quite touching really. And I didn’t know what tripe was. We lived opposite Frank Wong’s Chinese and next to him was UCP – United Cattle Products, known colloquially as the Tripe Shop – and in the window were all kinds of animals you wouldn’t dream of eating, including big sheets of tripe looking like bed linen. Dad preferred his honeycombed, cut with onions and carrots. But it was a while before I said: “Leave me out of the tripe.”

Dad once made a fantastic sandwich out of what he called mock crab - something he picked up in the second world war. At the shop Foreshaw’s there was cheddar cheese, called cooking cheese, and cheshire, for sandwiches and special occasions. Dad grated up cheshire, added mustard, salt, white pepper and loads of Worcestershire sauce and mashed it all up – so it had a dressed crab appearance – and slapped it on a slice of Mother’s Pride. I’d never seen him produce anything edible before then. I’m getting peckish just describing the ingredients.

I never went abroad when I was a kid. The first time I went was with my first wife, to Holland when I was about 22. Dutch food is terrible, I think. What sort of person starts the day with egg and cheese? I’d thought everybody in Europe ate better than us and I was quite disappointed.

I don’t walk around the streets eating. There’s something well over the top about the amount of snacking that goes on nowadays. When I sit down to eat, the greatest spice of all is hunger. I don’t understand nibbles – going to someone’s house for a meal and they say, “It’s going to be 20 minutes late, so here’s a bag of Doritos.” No thank you, I can wait.

Me and my wife have a rule about only eating at the table. We’ve let that slide a bit, because I’m writing my memoirs on the dining room table, but we know this is an unusual, temporary situation that’s made us slovenly and lax. You shouldn’t be watching television while you eat either – everybody should be eating and shovelling together at a table. That’s what I grew up with. There was no “Don’t speak with your mouth full.” I can’t stand people who remain silent at table.

I grew up living in badly converted apartments with inadequate kitchens. “Kitchen” was a place where Mother stood, with a sink and a stove. Anyone else was in her way. But I never had the yearning for a dream kitchen. I quite like cooking, but not to the extent that I look on a kitchen as a domain.

I hardly saw anyone on the punk scene eat anything apart from the odd bag of crisps. Except for Steve Jones [the Sex Pistols guitarist], who could show you all the best pie and mash shops in London.

I hate chickpeas. I like hummus but I ate that before I realised it was made out of chickpeas.

I developed early, travelling the country, my modus operandi of asking at the hotel desk, “Suppose it’s your wedding anniversary, where would you take the wife tonight?” so I’ve been able to build up a mental map of restaurants veering from “five star” to “avoid like the plague”. I’m a fussy eater. I like my fish and chips or fry-ups, all the standard riffs, but I want to know they’re the best in town. For instance, I once spent five days in Great Yarmouth – it’s a long story – and there was a mile of places serving Sunday dinners and I needed to know the best. I’m a bit of a perfectionist like that. “I only have five days here; give me the lowdown, give me the place.”

The most I’ve ever earned was from three Sugar Puffs commercials, playing the sidekick to the Honey Monster. It was amazing.

Ketchup to the table. A screw-top white. It’s never, ever wrong.

I have an arrangement with [restaurateur] Mark Hix where I do an impromptu reading at the Hix Bar in Soho about every few years and for that he feeds me and mine for nothing. He’s a lovely man and getting the short end of the deal.

My Favourite Things

I love French food. I’ve come to the conclusion that if a French person can’t make something delicious, no one can.

Fine wine. I love a restaurant where some sommelier has obviously gone door to door in Tuscany.

Locanda Locatelli near Marble Arch. It’s not cheap but it’s marvellous. I once ate there twice in one day. They’re lovely family people and they’re not overstretched.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Patrice de La Tour du Pin / Psalm 4


Psalm 4

by Patrice de La Tour du Pin

Translated from the French by Jennifer Grotz

Because I sing sometimes of angels,
some believe I aspire to their purity.

They make me laugh, my critics,
those who think I’m ashamed of my flesh!

Yet must I sleep alone for the rest of my life,
remain all alone in this life?

Desire rises up to my teeth.
I’m overtaken by wild beasts

that turn against me and attack with fangs,
that in an instant populate the desert of my soul.

I never knew they could be roused
by the need of my own flesh.

I have barely explored my solitudes,
I believe the beasts are only calling out to you,

to you and your creations, perhaps,
to your angels who are always passing through.

They are only asking for tenderness,
the freshness of a woman’s smile.

No, it’s not my flesh I question
but not having enough love to give.

PATRICE DE LA TOUR DU PIN (1911–75) was best known in France for the three-volume multi-genre work entitled Une Somme de poésie and several shorter books of poetry, including Psaumes de tous mes temps, which brings together the psalms he wrote and revised throughout his life.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

‘A poem is a powerful tool’ / Somali women raise their voices in the nation of poets

Zahra Abdihagi, poet and director of Somali Storytellers. 
Photograph: Said Fadhaye

‘A poem is a powerful tool’: Somali women raise their voices in the nation of poets

A childhood encounter with a hyena inspired Hawa Jama Abdi’s first verse. Now she is part of an arts project designed to encourage women storytellers - and unite all Somalis

Friday 24 September 2021

When Hawa Jama Abdi was eight years old, she got lost in a forest and found herself in the path of a hyena. In her place, many would have run, some would have frozen – but Jama Abdi, the blind daughter of Somali pastoralists, kept her cool, and composed her first poem. The verse ran:

I lived in fear of you, day and night
It is a miracle world if I am standing in front of you, tonight
Since I am blind and cannot see anything
Come to my rescue and let your voice be my company

To this day, Jama Abdi does not know if the animal was deterred by the power of poetry, or perhaps a slightly less mystical force, but she emerged unscathed by the encounter. “After a while of walking with the hyena, I heard the voice of goats, far in the distance. I realised they were our goats, and I found my brother,” she says. “When I realised that [I was safe] I fell on the ground.”

Poet Hawa Jama Abdi is a judge for the Somali poetry awards.
Poet Hawa Jama Abdi is a judge in the Somali poetry awards. Photograph: Said Fadhaye/UNDP

Eighteen years later, Jama Abdi has moved from the remote part of Somalia in which she grew up to Mogadishu, and has not had any more brushes with hyenas. But she is still writing poetry and is one of the judges in a new competition billed as the “Oscars” of Somali poetry.

The contest, which includes a category for woman poet of the year, is an attempt to showcase the vibrant tradition of Somali verse and find new voices to join venerated storytellers of previous generations. The winners will be announced at an award ceremony in Mogadishu on 21 November.

“The poem … can be used for many purposes,” says Jama Abdi. “If women use poems for awareness it can correct all the problems. So in my view, I think it’s worth investing in. I believe it’s one of the best things that can be done.”

Once called the “nation of poets”, Somalia has a rich oral storytelling history that stretches back centuries, which has often been inextricably linked with the politics of the day.

The country’s most famous living poet, Maxamed Ibraahim Warsame, known simply as Hadraawi, went to prison for five years in the 1970s after composing works critical of the then military government. In the 1980s, the late poet Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac, or “Gaarriye” fled the country after the then president Siad Barre threatened him – and anyone caught selling a particular poem of his on cassette tape – with death.

As Jawa Abdi says: “In Somalia, the poem is a powerful tool which you can use to defend yourself or use as a weapon for the enemy.” 

Such are the political passions tied up in this that the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which is funding the poetry awards and the body behind them, the Home of Somali Poetry, has faced questions about its involvement.

But Jocelyn Mason, the UNDP Somalia resident representative, argues that art in general, rather than a divisive force, can be “a way of bringing people together”.

“The conflicts within Somalia are … caused by a range of different things. But the one thing Somalis all agree on is that poetry speaks to all of them, that Somali poetry is extremely profound and important,” he told the BBC.

Through its website, launched in August, the Home of Somali Poetry hopes to be able to offer an unprecedented archive, preserving the classics and showcasing new work from the next generation.

Another of the awards’ judges is Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, better known as Asha Lul, who left Somalia with her family at the start of the civil war in the early 90s and has since been living in the UK. Her collection The Sea-Migrations: Tahriib was critically acclaimed, and named poetry book of the year in 2017 by the Sunday Times.

Mohamud Yusuf is excited about the awards encouraging more female poets. “It’s good to show the talents of Somali women to their communities. Normally they don’t show them … but this project will help them to bring their talents out,” she says.One woman who is already using poetry to great effect in her community is the activist Sadia Hussein, who lives in a Somali-speaking community across the border in Kenya and uses no-holds-barred verses to campaign against female genital mutilation. One poem written in Somali reads:

Before sunrise, the women dragged me to the bush like a wild animal
 one showed mercy, I burst into tears.
I bled severely.
The ground looked like a camel had been slaughtered

Zahra Abdihagi, poet and executive director of Somali Storytellers, a community organisation, says at the moment younger poets often go unacknowledged. She hopes this project will bring more diversity, in terms of age and gender.

“Whenever I hear the old voices, it’s always men; I don’t see women represented in [Somali] history or poetry,” she says. “I do believe there were female poets, but nobody ever really acknowledged them. So now I’m hoping that maybe, since we’re already making history, that women can also be part of that history as well.”


Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Louise Glück / Colm Tóibín on a brave and truthful Nobel winner

Louise Glück

Louise Glück: Colm Tóibín on a brave and truthful Nobel winner

Her brilliantly controlled poems offer a picture of the world as a struggle between ordeal and wonder

Colm Tóibín
Fri 9 Oct 2020 06.00 BST


n Stanford in 2008, the Irish poet Eavan Boland told me how much she admired the work of Louise Glück. She took down some volumes of her poetry from the shelf in her office and gave them to me.

That night I read the opening lines of a poem:

I sleep so you will be alive,
it is that simple.
The dreams themselves are nothing.
They are the sickness you control,
nothing more.

It was called A Dream of Mourning. I was amazed by its chiselled, hurt tone, the mixture of what was deeply private and oddly heightened and mythical.

In an essay about Emily Dickinson, Glück wrote: “It is hard to think of a body of work that so manages, without renouncing personal authority, to so invest in the single reader.” Of TS Eliot’s poetry, Glück has observed: “And I suppose that, among sensitive readers, there must be many who do not share my taste for outcry.” And writing about the poet George Oppen, Glück called him “a master of white space; of restraint, juxtaposition, nuance”.

All of which could be said about her own work. Her poems are controlled and highly charged, restrained but also exposed, unafraid of and perhaps also terrified by outcry. Glück has described “harnessing the power of the unfinished”, to create a whole that does not lose the dynamic presence of what remains incomplete: “I dislike poems that feel too complete, the seal too tight; I dislike being herded into certainty.”

They open up a stark space. The sounds in her poems emerge tentatively and then bravely, and sometimes fiercely, from within their rhythms. Glück knows what a tone needs when it seeks to be truthful. She has a knowledge, both baleful and enabling, of how little can be said that is true, and how much dark energy that is then released in the effort to speak. In her poems, tone itself is both held in and released. Her work is filled with voice, often hushed and whispering, as though she is exploring a difficult aftermath or the shape of the soul.

If there is one poem by her that gives us a sense of her great talent and the bravery of her voice, it is the opening poem in her collection The Wild Iris, which begins:

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

I have heard her say that this image was with her for years before she found a place for it. In the sequence of poems in the book, Glück follows nature with a distilled diction, the tone filled with pity and wonder, but also a sense of effort and striving. In all her poetry, we get a picture of the world as a struggle between ordeal and wonder. There is always a sense that the poems themselves are the result, too, of a struggle within Glück’s own imagination for words that are precise but also suggestive, for phrases that are sonorous but hard-edged, too.

It is difficult to think of another living poet whose voice contains so much electrifying undercurrent, whose rhythms are under such control, but whose work is also so exposed and urgent.