Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I have a hardback copy of Commandments on the table by my bed. It was at the post office, waiting for me when I arrived home from the Tribe of Doris, my annual outing to the Blackdown Hills with the kids. It's also a chance to meet Pete, Alison, Isla, Iwan, Graham, Ursula and Dan. How comforting those names are, back in Brighton, without woodsmoke under the full moon and tin mugs of red wine.

At Doris I danced and promised myself salsa lessons in winter, if only to try and become more familiar with my left and right, improve my co-ordination and shake my bum more often. I had a taster of Maghrebi dance, new to me and very sensual. It's associated with rai music and is subtler than bellydancing. My teacher, Amel, is a Sufi, so she also showed us how to spin, promising a point when you feel at one with the universe. I didn't get there, quite, but I could see how you might. At one point everything sparkled but the music stopped and the thread was broken.

Amel's classes were the most stimulating of the week for me. It's dance for the older woman - liberating, unselfconscious, witty, wise. I dabbled in one session of Brazilian percussion and got to grips with south African gumboot dance, too. It was a week when words were set aside, as sometimes they need to be, in favour of the body's other languages.

Also waiting for us were Jane and Erdem, Aysha, Dide and Kaya, good friends who are now in Ludlow after several years in Turkey. They were looking after the house, catching up with mates in Brighton and stayed on so we could grab time together before term starts again and we all become trapped in routine. Jane is one of my oldest and dearest friends, so it was wonderful she was here to toast the first copy of Commandments with a cup of tea in the back garden. She's seen quite a few of the poems in the book in their early stages and was an enthusiastic nightclub companion when I first moved to Brighton and neither of us had children.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Exclusion by your peers never stops hurting.

Last night at supper, a friend of my daughter was explaining how she was excluded by a group of friends. She's now trying to persuade her mum to let her change school.

The girls came across this group yesterday in town. My daughter had never met them before but they shouted at her, mocked her, insulted her, because she was associated with the girl they'd decided to exclude.

Most of us have some experience of this. I still remember the name of the girl who attempted to exclude me from a group I went from primary to secondary school with. I have no idea why she did it; probably for the sheer exercise of power. As a result my friendships became wide and non-exclusive. I hopped between groups and was happy to have allegiances with many.

I've retained this need for variety and loathing for exclusivity. It has informed my working life, my social life and my reading - particularly my reading. In fact I remember my English teacher's surprise I was reading Geoffrey Hill at the same time as the Liverpool poets.

Naively, I believe that by rooting around in the unknown, by being curious, by talking to people I don't know or haven't seen for a while, by challenging the received view, the orthodox, the conventional, I might learn something, I might be entertained, I might feel uplifted.

Which is why, ironically, on the same evening I received an email from a friend about the Poetry Book Society's decision not to give her book a recommendation. The PBS wields phenomenal power in the shark infested poetry world. How does it wield this power? Well, it's a case study in self-perpetuation. A couple of poets decide on a handful of books to recommend each quarter. One book is a choice and is sent to all members, a massive boost for that title. Selectors are in post for a substantial period and are instrumental in deciding who takes over from them.

The PBS dominates the TS Eliot prize, poetry's biggest publicity machine, and the repercussions of these quarterly choices and recommendations extend far - into decisions made by bookshops about which poets to stock, bookings of poets for festivals, invitations to submit learned articles or work to poetry magazines, other competition shortlists like the Whitbread and Forward, and newspaper coverage.

Sadly, the PBS and its decisions, has become a byword for quality throughout the world of poetry. A royal stamp of approval.
Those of us who are dismissed are expected to remain quiet in our provincial home and doff our caps to the aristocrats who've fought off all opposition to their right to shape the map of contemporary British poetry.

Some of these so-called opinion formers go for the jugular to keep poetry "pure", arguing there's too much being published, that formalism is the way forward and so on. These are the dirty fighters. Their tactics are akin to those of political spin doctors, public relations consultants. Their aim is to keep their brand names on the shelves and others off.

Other opinion formers cuddle up in the halls of academe, the Royal Literary Fund and book launches, hoping no-one will break ranks and let in the unknown, untried or rebellious. These are the camp followers, joiners of private members clubs. They support the dirty fighters by weight of numbers and keeping up appearances. They keep the bench warm. They are rewarded with editorships, fellowships and shortlisting.

But I remember the school bully. The impact she had was brought home to me at the kitchen table last night chatting to two 12 year old girls.

The PBS and its associated influence does the same. There is a cabal of names in contemporary poetry that should know better than to mistake personal opinion, an emotional judgement, for value judgement. It is time to challenge them.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Bowl of rice

Here is a bowl of rice -
for this your mother summons clouds
and disperses them.

She diverts rivers into each day of your life.
Birds sing for her in waterfields
drawing grain from stalk and leaves.
Mountains lend her echoes,
the snow from their peaks.

Her spoon serves a blessing of turmeric
to every lover you’ll know.
With it come bellows, a clink of charcoal,
fingers spread like rakes
through midnight’s shared groan.

Here is a bowl of rice -
for this your mother summons clouds
and disperses them.

There's a model of Brighton Pavilion in the Jubilee library at the moment, built by the Edible Construction Company, a group of artists that includes a woman I met years ago at Fabrica gallery, Emilia Telese. When my kids were young they used to think Emilia was a film star because she wears incredible clothes. She looked like a film star at the opening of the Rice Pavilion too.

The model's built from vacuum packs of risotto rice that are being donated to a food charity when the installation comes down. It fits perfectly into the massive glass frontage of the library. One of the issues it's trying to raise is food waste. Emilia asked me to write a poem (Bowl of rice) to go in a postcard pack produced for the installation. Rick Stein also donated a receipe for wild mushroom risotto. But looking through the pack, one card stands out. It's a single line: 40% of food produced in the UK is thrown away every year.

So many strands of thought are contained in that line, aren't they? A society gone wrong. Today I was sitting on a bench in Rottingdean, chatting with my mum about housing, property speculation, the impossibility of ordinary people being able to buy a home. She's a great advocate of world government and thinks it's the only way to redress the gross imbalances in place now. It seems impossible to imagine, though, when in this country now the phrase buy to let has been replaced by buy to leave empty.....people stacking up property, keeping it empty just to watch it rise in value so they have a risk free profit from it. How could a society that tolerates this kind of thinking make the leap to world government?

So we went on to talking about how some people seem to have more money than sense and got onto pet pampering. How just is it that there are hairdressers for dogs, shops selling beds, blankets, diamante collars and god knows what else for dogs, cats and probably guinea pigs? So there we are, on this bench in Rottingdean, setting the world to rights when a woman passes by with a very well groomed terrier. Well, I assume it's a terrier, I don't really know, but it has long hair and a few warts. Its owner tells us the dog is blind and going deaf, but she takes it to the vet every fortnight for a check up and has its coat cut every six weeks. The dog's had the same hairdresser for 16 years and its harness came from Harrods.

Later, when we'd had our cake and take away coffee on the beach and come back home via the allotment, laden with blackberries, more raspberries, plums and rhubarb (thank god there's some fruit at least), Mum admitted she didn't even dare look at me when Harrods was mentioned.

There was no food wasted at our table anyway. Mum brought supper and it was as if I hadn't fed anyone for weeks. Meat!!! Cake!!! Thank god she did. The house has been a youth hostel for the last couple of days. There was a crust of sliced white bread left and peanut butter. I did go down to the co-op yesterday but it was for bags of sugar to make jam. There'll be no shortage of that this year and I'm determined that even if my fingers are stained blue for days, I'll be stripping those brambles of fruit because every time I eat a ripe blackberry I have this strange double memory - one grafted onto the other - a flock of goats in a valley in Ardeche with a storm coming and a cafe in Paris drinking red wine with creme de mures.

About the only thing I've written recently, apart from bits of the story I'm nervous of calling a novel, is some notes for a series of poems on different fruits: raspberry, blackberry, elderberry are there on the frontline...I did one years ago called Graveyard jam, but I'm going to put the names of the dead on the jars the next time I go picking in the cemetary. It seems fair.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A clifftop field with views of north Cornwall's treacherous coastline....it was worth the drive and even a couple of nights of torrential rain when despair seeped into the tent and I wished for enough money to buy myself and the four kids a flight anywhere, regardless of carbon footprint.

But the Eden Project - our wet day outing that turned out fine - cured me of such spoilt brat thoughts. It is a fantastic reminder of how we could be living within our own little patch and beyond.

In fact, the rain affected us badly on one day only, when we were forced to take refuge in a pub and exploited as only tourists can be when the rain's like stairrods and there's no chance of lighting the camping gas for a meal. I could rant for ever about greed, opportunism and absence of morality in certain parts of this country and sectors of the population. There were times in Cornwall when I wondered how much money was clogging up single track lanes in four wheel drives, why suddenly no-one can go in the water without a designer wetsuit on or a surf board under their arm, just how much is reasonable to charge for a portion of chips even if they are fried in Padstow.

But these furious thoughts couldn't stand up to an enormous, clear night sky, moments when when the sea from the coast path shone so bright it was solid silver, when the sea around the rocks was turquoise, when the surf was so exhilarating that being knocked flat by it was as good as a massage. It reminded me why I love these wild places and gave the kids other places to go back to, I hope, one day.

I woke up yesterday, our last morning, realising I hadn't read a thing, even the Neruda I'd packed.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

If I can get four kids out of the house and in the car for a five and a half hour journey to Cornwall in forty minutes, I'll be very, very lucky. But that's my goal this morning, waking up teenagers and herding them into the overpacked and ancient Mondeo for camping near some of Cornwall's highest cliffs.

When I get back, I'll be able to focus on work, but I need some wild, windy coastline, which is so much more bearable when it's sunny. I've been promising to show the kids the coast I went to with my parents as a child and this is the time to do it, now the sun's out at last. But it will be changed, I'm sure. Padstow is now linked with Rick Stein rather than gritty sandwiches. Never mind, the Cornish names will still work their magic and we'll be a short cliff walk away from Tintagel.

And when I get back I want, also, to see if I can summon up some good feminist support for a protest. There are three lap dancing clubs due to open in Brighton, one's the Spearmint Rhino that will admit men and women, the other two are men only. Thoughts in my mind so far are for women to reclaim Spearmint Rhino from the dirty macs with reading group outings, knitting circles and loud discussion groups. For the men only clubs, I think women should dress up as men and take over the place. I wonder, too, if we could enlist support from gay male friends to make our protests.

Alternatively, and this would be radical and probably cause quite a bit of fuss, I think it would be very interesting to have a mass naked protest by women outside all these places and see what happens.