Thursday, August 23, 2007

Edinburgh on Saturday night is like a gothic fairytale city, with glimmering silver lights in the trees, turrets & spires all shrouded in mist. Actually everything above umbrella-height is shrouded in mist, the deluge is biblical, quaint cobbled streets are grimy rivers, and it’s seriously cold. I’m staying with my friend S in her lush flat in easy walking distance of all the venues, so no excuse to gripe, even though the weather is frankly cataclysmic.
First event on my Spoken Word wish-list is PoeJazzi at Sweet Grassmarket, a medley of performance poetry featuring a different line-up every night, which I guess has pros and cons. I especially like Joshua Idehen’s strong words and surprising personas - “My name is Cupid and I am an alcoholic” - PoetiCat’s sad sensuousness and scarlet wellies, and the guy who sang about a shark with a peanut allergy. Cold weather affects people different ways; for me, its humour I crave. And soup.

Sunday morning. The rain’s abated and the streets have a damply festive air – or would have if it weren’t for these grey clouds pressing like an obese stomach against the skyline of the city. The Promoters Breakfast is like a sweat-lodge but with fistfuls of flyers flapping in your face. There’s no coffee left so I make for the calm of the Andy Warhol exhibition and push silver pillows gently around for a while. Very therapeutic. I had a Warhol’s Marilyn teeshirt back in the 70s but never realised the artist’s emotional range. His friend Henry Geldzahler apparently encouraged him away from soup cans by saying “That’s enough affirmation of life. It’s time for some death.” I loved the early drawings, like visual e e cummings, and after a while began to see those hallmark repetitions as moments removed from linear time and abstracted into pure reality. Or maybe I just need coffee.
Off to find a cafĂ© with mellow music & Sunday papers, then check out the festivality in High Street. It’s a bit like Las Ramblas and Glastonbury crossed: silver statues, strummers, buskers, beggars, bagpipes, and all the jingle-jangle juggling street theatre scene – including poet Kat Francois on a podium, giving a sample of her show. “I’ve exposed myself to strangers, I’ve shown my humanity” she says.
Personal exposure is an ongoing theme. Luke Wright tells what it’s like to be a ‘Poet and Man’ in 8 chapters, each featuring apt quotations (Simone de Beauvoir, Freud, Avril Lavigne…) witty anecdotes and bloody brilliant poems. My friend S, unfamiliar with the genre, is now a convert to performance poetry. No wonder Luke’s had awesome reviews, using words like "genius", “blinding talent”, “born performer" and “spearhead of the poetry revival." We rush back her flat to watch BB On The Couch, sipping Sancerre, until it’s time to go back to the Pleasance for Nina Conti, a ventriloquist apparently transfixed by the anal aspects of hand puppetry - vulgar but funny; less successful when she puts on a flat cap to be her grandfather. Home for pumpkin soup.

Monday already. S and I have breakfast at Valvona & Crolla, a posh Italian deli, and then on to the Gallery of Modern Art to see Richard Long, whose markings of ephemeral moments impressed me 30 years ago but seem disappointing and unradical now. It’s the permanent collection I most enjoy – especially the picture of “Two peasants resting” painted in 1922 by war artist Albin Lienz, which has a Don McCullin-esqe sombreness. My friend S points out that BB’s Liam takes a similar posture, proving that in a society deprived of war, conflict over a piece of toast can produce the same physical posture of resolute dejection.
Today the sun is actually visible, so I walk back through the Botanical Gardens to Pleasance for Jude Simpson’s Growing Up Games: another brilliant hour of bouncy poesy and personal exposĂ©, with some audience interaction and a few non sequitors like 'Anyone else ever ring the Insurance Helpline just to say the word “premium"?' I love her Spinsta Rap (‘I gotta crochet hook, I’m not afraid to use it’) and her conclusion: 'Grown-up-ness really means the ongoing journey of discovering more about ourselves and our relationships.'

The sun has brought out yet more crowd-pleasers and teasers: coffins, invisible men, brass bands, bagpipes, unicyclists, fire jugglers.. and did I mention the bagpipes? Even the binmen, wheeling their trophies through the crowds, look like street theatre. I check out the Book Festival over in Charlotte Square, then go back across the city to Zoo for ‘My Filthy Hunt’, because it got a 5-star review in The Scotsman. How the m******f**k**g f***k? did that happen? as any one of the cast might say. A sad foulmouthed weep-fest, on a par in terms of credible emotion with Dawn French’s “Titanic” spoof. The cast of four strip promptly then prowl around glaring at the audience, talking of sex, violence, violent sex, and The Meaning of Life. At this nadir moment I recalled Luke Wright saying when he was 15 he used to write about the meaning of life but now prefers to focus on significant details, like Central Trains.
I stop at Charlie’s wine bar on the walk back, where a woman on a mobile is telling someone “…the whole audience smelt like wet dog. I’ve seen some lovely stuff and I’ve seen some shit, I can tell you.”
As it’s my last night, I’ve opted for trad stand-up at Underbelly: Rob Deering, a very funny comic who plays a mean guitar – mean in the sense of wickedly satiric. Leonard Skynard will never sound quite the same again.

Tuesday morning, drizzling again. Time for one last event: Ravenhill for Breakfast, half an hour of drama at the Traverse Theatre, different every day. Today’s is Armageddon, a powerful piece about two lonely people absorbed in their own isolation, recalling once again that recurring question: what does it really mean to be grown-up?
Lots to think about on the long journey south. Like the lady said ‘I’ve seen some lovely stuff and some shit’ and now I’m glad to be stepping out of Bath station to soft butterscotch-icecream tones of the buildings after the endless grim tombstone grey of Edinburgh, and seeing our comely rounded hills on the skyline instead of gaunt rocks. Peter texts me: cool pinot grigiot is waiting. And it is…

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What-i-did-on-holiday part 2: foraging for edible wild plants in a field in North Devon. A greenhorn in plantains & pink purslane, not knowing my sorrel from my dock (much bigger - you stuff them like vine leaves) this crash course in Chagford opened my eyes and now I can rustle up a salad of mixed wild leaves as fast as you can say 'Er, no thank you.'
I wasn't so keen on the pan-fried dandelion roots, I have to admit, but gathering everything in the sunshine was terrific fun.

Peter's now back from frolicking at Arvon, if tutors are allowed to frolic, and we had a great weekend staying with poet & publisher Nick Johnson. Nick was performing at The Great Create and left us to enjoy ourselves in his amazing ex-Post-Office bohemian pad (yes, some places are still pads) so we did. According to Steve Spence "Nick Johnson is a one-off, ploughing his own lonely furrow through the thickets of the postmodern pastoral lyric... the poetry world would be less rich without him." North Devon would, too.

Quirky corner: some of my favourite blogs, for candour as well as creativity, are by poets, like Rosemary Dun and Luke Wright, & while browsing Luke's I found Rob's challenge to any poetry lover: what makes a lyrical hook? I took his 2-line test, and started thinking about openers I've found irresistible. In my emo-teens it was Keats:
NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
wolf's bane tight-rooted for its poisonous wine
and I'm a sucker for Brian Patten's melancholy musings, like:
And in numerous city gardens
long legged girls left alone bow low among the trees

A random picture I took between thundery showers at Heaven's Gate above Longleat today. Can't think of a link for it.

quick ps: my friend writer Alison Clink has just discovered a couple of her recently published stories approvingly reviewed in an anonymous blog by womagwriter. Mm.. mysterious. Looks a useful site for anyone submitting to womags though.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Miracle Theatre Company brought the Taming of the Shrew to the Ecos amphi-theatre this week on a blessedly balmy night, allowing the audience to picnic among the stones before settling down to laugh their socks off at this wonderful contemporary staging of Shakespeare's first drama. It's considered one of the 'problem plays', relying as it does on psychological cruelty to bully an incipient feminist into near-bovine submission, but with these 5 actors there's never a queasy moment, though many delightful cheesy ones. It was easy to believe this bored Kevin-the-teenager-Kate could be entranced by the New-Agey anarchism of Paddy/Petruchio as he dragged her away from bourgeois academe and cuddled her on hilltop in the rain - helpfully provided by a relay of watering cans. 'Pick up the grass' he instructs his bride as she gathers the camping equipment at the end of their scene, and Kate obediently carries the set offstage too. Five stars, def.

And now I'm planning my long weekend at Edinburgh Festival - short but hopefully spicy. I want to catch Luke Wright's show and as many other Spoken Word events as I can cram in.

I always have a pile of by-my-bed books on the go - currently Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything, Small Island still unfinished, The Blood of Strangers by surgeon-poet Frank Huyler, and Esme Ellis's extraordinary biography Pathway to Sunrise - and since my birthday another three: Ian Sinclair's 'Edge of the Orison' tracking John Clare's long walk in 1841 when he fled the asylum; 'Unaccompanied Women' by Jane Juska (the American sexagenarian who advertised for lust partners in the New York Review and had enough adventures to fill a best-selling book - a theme to interest any writer attempting to reclaim the notion of 'elderly' as more than a roadsign warning of dodderer hazard), and Moon Palace by Paul Auster. The prose style this last one seemed initially unencouragingly stolid yet strangely compelling, and now I'm finding moments of iridescence. Look at this, glimmering suddenly in a rather maudlin backstory: "Like all the Foggs, he had a penchant for aimlessness and reverie, for sudden bolts and lengthy torpors." I paused to muse on my personal penchants.
"..for restlessness and obsessive notetaking, for addiction to heart-beat rhythm music and laughter, and a perverse persistent sense of being an outsider in her own life"... Well, it was 3 a.m.
Looking at these diverse titles I realise they're all about journeys in the Rilke sense that "the only journey is the one within." And maybe in the Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sense too: "We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey." I'm currently editing an anthology on the theme of 'transit' for the very talented Santiago Writers, so it's a notion much on my mind.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

August now, barley moon waxing. I'm not going to moan about the sodden summer here in Frome, out of respect for everyone elsewhere who sat on their rooftops watching their lives swirl around them in muddy floodwaters. I'll just say it's been magical to have a few sunny days - like my birthday, when Peter & I cycled to Bradford on Avon for a picnic by the river.
Then family-stylee supper, then the party at Annie Lionnet's, lioning it up with also-Leo-birthday-girls Annie and Niamh. Annabelle had put music to the poem at the end of my new anthology - a strange and very privileged feeling. More celebrations on Saturday night at my neice's 18th birthday in Salisbury, and a chance to spend time with my friend Grace Gould who runs the poetry cafe there.

And on Sunday, the UK nuptual party of Mo & Anja who wed in California and picked the best day of the summer for their open-air musical hoolie. A great get-together, remeeting friends from our college days in Ireland, 40 years ago now. Yes, 40. Hard to get my head around. Ask not if youth is wasted on the young, ask only how not to waste age.

So it's been a time for celebrations with family & friends, and writerly matters have slid backstage - apart from a blissful day with Annabelle when we walked to Mells through Vallis woods, talking and writing all the way:

The river doesn't reach the lowest marker, and after all that rain.
Sounds of water harsher here, fractal bubbles hurtle
Hearts tongue fern pokes through nettles
snail clinging, glowing pink as pearl nail varnish
dense veridians, the mud path ridged with bike and boot prints
I want more colour, but here is only green
and the dark brown of mud, the brittle brown of bark.
Oh, here's a pair of chubby lords-&-ladies, vulgar red.
Look at those hands on the dead branches, witchy twig-fingers
where moss clings thick as treacle. Litter of sycamore leaves,
Pattern of sunspots shifts like a glitter ball on my shady page.
Vortex of noisy water beyond.

And I enjoyed a working lunch with my friend Diana Cambridge, editor of Greece magazine, who has just brought out a book of savvy advice on: how to write travel articles in one weekend. Diana is Writing Magazine's Agony Aunt, and endlessly supportive to all writers, but realistic too: "A writer has to be able to smear their personality onto the page so that it's indelible.. you've got to inject emotion and honesty into your piece, even for travel. Descriptions of beautiful mountains don't do it any more."