Saturday, January 31, 2009

I love this quote

... from an article on self-publishing in the New York Times (by Motoko Rich, published online 27 Jan 2009):

Indeed, said Robert Young, chief executive of Lulu Enterprises, based in Raleigh, N.C., a majority of the company's titles are of little interest to anybody other than the authors and their families. "We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind," Mr. Young said.

You can buy my poetry collection, published via the good offices of, from the Rikweb Bookshop. Please note that the author cannot guarantee the badness of the work, and will not offer any refund should the poems fail to trigger your book-hits-wall reflex.

Hat tip: Ron S.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Mapping the SoQ (and beyond)

So Ron Silliman's been stirring the pot on the question of 'what is the School of Quietude' (again), aided and abbetted by Seth Abramsom (who, on the issue of not linking my blog to his extensive bloglist, is an A******, but on many other matters is most definitely not) who is in search of a better taxonomy.

In other matters, I've just started an Open University course which aims to look at Systems (T214 in case people are interested), which includes having to read the set textbook Linked: how everything is connected to everything else and what it means for business, science and everyday life by Albert-László Barabási (ISBN 0-452-28439-2) - which is turning out to be a pretty good read.

Anyways. Mad ideas have started bubbling in my head. Rather than run with them this time round, I've decided to blog about them in the hope that exposing them to both of my readers will lead to ridicule and stop me wasting huge volumes of my personal resources.

Rik's latest mad idea (open to ridicule)

There can be little doubt that the world of poets (working primarily in the English Language, though with some of the more adventurous ones I have my doubts) is best viewed as a directional network with a scale-free topology. In other words if poets are nodes with connections between them then a few poets have a lot more connections than most of the rest of us. There's a variety of things we could use as connections: the poets that a poet cites as an influence in their writing; the venues where a poet has their poems published; the social groups that a poet attends.

Whatever we use as the poetic connection, though, when we play the Kevin Bacon six degrees of separation game we can be reasonably confident that the connection between any two randomly selected poets will pass through one (or more) of those poets who have many more connections than the rest of us - the poet hubs, if you like.

However, I can't prove any of the above because I lack a data set of poet nodes and their links. I can guess at who the poet hubs are (Ron's a poet hub, not only because of his blogging activities but also because he's met, even collaborated with, a lot of the key players in his part of the poetry world) but I can't begin to describe the sort of influence they have in our little ghetto of polite society.

The truth is, if these SoQ arguments are to move beyond the name-calling stage into more productive territory, then we need some evidence. We need a data set.

We need a database driven website.

This is my mad idea.

Build a database, using a website to collect the information. Like a sort of time-unlimited questionnaire or interview where poets can pop along and list their data - such as who were their early influences, their later influences; where they learned their poetry craft; who publishes their chapbooks and books. That sort of stuff.

Make the database available to anyone who wants to download it and examine the data - scientific types, cultural types - for free. Perhaps under a GPL licence, or even just plain old public domain.

Settle down and have a damned good argument about the results and (hopefully) come up with a map of the World of English language poetry sometime before they serve the cocktails.

Simple, yes?

Of course not!

Now I don't think the database would be much trouble to set up. You would need tables for Poets, places of learning, places of publishing. The website would be a little more complex as we'd have to make sure we were asking the right questions to get the most appropriate responses (ie well formed with little scope for input or parsing errors), but I don't for a moment think it's not do-able.

(There would be a lot of initial work, too, in populating the database with skeleton information: names of publishers; details of dead poets; that sort of thing. It would have to include some way of ripping publicly available information from existing websites)

No, the problem would be to get enough bloody poets to fill out the questionnaire. And in particular getting the hub poets interested so they could let everybody else know that the questionnaire existed.

To make the website successful (as in getting more than half a dozen poets to complete the questionnaire) I'd need an incentive.

Perhaps every poet could have their own profile page, with links to their latest publications, blogs, home pages, etc?

How about giving them a facility to anonymously assess other poets - for instance by adding tags to describe their work?

See, this is where my brilliant-yet-mad idea falls down. I don't think poets would bother filling out the questionnaire, because I don't really believe they're interested in getting an answer to the SoQ issue, or even a map of today's poetry world.

Because they're poets, see!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Redraft: Lych Woman

Lych Woman

They hoist old grandad Clegg
across the stiles and down
the track feet first, their arms
a sheen of moonlight joined
around his final box.

Eyes closed, she sees parades
not yet come along the road,
each witnessing a source
of strength. The bench beneath
the churchyard gate is damp
against her legs, now numb
from sitting still as a ghost.

Old Clegg was good for the gossip
shared over steepened tea -
she'll miss his smutty wisdom
when he pops his clogs, she thinks.

There's more to view: A coffin
tops the hill, so small
a man can lug it alone.
Her John was four when Jesus
called him back home one day,
an autumn drowning. Thumbs
of fog massage her shoulders,
ease her sticking joints.

The last to pass is fuzzy -
just a shape of muddy light
above the path. A voice
long buried hints in her ear:
'... a crate for her who waits.'

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Sad news

News has reached the Ears of Rik that the inestimable Dennis Hammes, Stalwart of Usenet Poetry, and a great slayer of muse-trolls and other usenet infections, has hung up his sword for the last time.

I for one shall miss him.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Draft short: "As the gloaming reached her street"

"What did you catch?"

"Oh, Just a bird." He smiled at her gently, letting his cheeks lift to ridge beneath his eyes. "Do you want to see?"

"No," she said. "I was hoping you could take me shopping - there's plenty of the bulky stuff we need but I can't face public transport, not at this time of the day."

He reached out his hand up towards her face, almost to take her chin in his palm. Now she smiled, though the movement of muscles was not enough to dislodge the pain in her eyes.

"You're still not well. Give me a list and I'll drive over there later."

"You're a good friend, John. Are you sure you don't mind?"

"Of course not." He kept his eyes steady on his neighbour's face, refusing to acknowledge his ears' demands to locate the starlings, their chirrups announcing their arrival in the front garden.

"You do too much for me."


She broke the gaze, looked up to the sky. "I can't believe it's getting dark already. It's going to be a hard winter."

"Maybe," he agreed. "I'll have to make some fat-balls soon." Seeing her eyebrow raise, he added: "for the birds. I mix lard with seeds and put the balls in little net bags to hang from the trees. I do it every year."

"Oh, I know what you mean. I've seen them in the pound shops. You make your own?"

"It's something to do," he said. "It kills an afternoon."

She looked up then, looked over his head to the trees beyond.

"Maybe I can pursuade Clive to pop over and trim your lawn, clear the leaves or something."

"Oh, don't worry the lad with work," he said. "The garden is fine as it is - I like it a little wild and unkempt at this time of year."

"Well, it's the least he can do ..."

"He's not my servant, Marcie ..."

"Of course not - I know that! I was just offering ..."

"The garden will keep fine. And thank you for the offer - I do appreciate it." He saw her shiver then; again he smiled. "It is getting chilly, mind. I'm going to have to go in, get some hot tea in me."

"Okay, John," she said. "I shouldn't have kept you talking."

"Don't worry, Marcie! It's always good to keep up with the news. I'll drive over to the supermarkets around seven, yes? They should have quietened down by then ..."

"What was the bird?" She asked the question suddenly, as if unwilling to let him go.

"The bird?"

"The one you caught."

"Oh, that - it was a robin. They're a lot easier to spot once the leaves come off the trees. I managed to snap a wonderful close up of him."

"Will you be posting it to the web?"

"Yes," he agreed, his smile much broader now. "I'll see if I can do that between the cup of tea and the drive to the shops."

"I'll look out for it there, then," she said. "And thanks for going to the shops for me - shall I tell Clive to go with you ..."

He reached out from his wheelchair to grab her hand across the low fence. "I'll be fine, Marcie. Honestly. And you don't need to keep suggesting the boy helps me. It was an accident: he has nothing to atone for!"

She had no more words. Watching her neighbour manouver his wheelchair away from the fence and towards the new slope to his door, she could feel the sad, self-blaming arguments welling from the depths of her throat, urging her mouth to free them.

She refused them. Refused for a while to turn back into her own house, back to the petty realities of her life. Above her, clouds greyed with rain, sent a few drops downwards to test the route. Two starlings landed in her driveway, where once she had parked her car. Where they saw space to stretch wings and bicker, she saw an accusation.

She would have to move, she resolved to herself once again. Her neighbour's forgiveness was killing her.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Should a poet write poems for an audience?

The first audience you should write for is yourself. If you wrote stuff 2 or 3 years ago which leaves you shrugging your shoulders when you read it again now, well there's a valuable lesson in itself when you set out to write a new poem today.

The second audience you should write for is your internal critics - the ones that you've met in workshops and stuff in the past (only the ones who gave you good advice, mind, not the ones who were out to destroy you and your pet muse) and, somehow, whenever you sit down to revise something it's their voices you can hear in your skull, muttering and jeering at your thoughtless mistakes and asbo-worthy word choices. If you can write something that shuts them up then you know you're onto a good thing.

The third audience you should write for - and only do this once the other two have been properly fed and watered - is the audience of folks you're keen to impress. This is the one that varies widely depending on your needs and circumstances. They might be a group of garrulous editors; they might be a gang of fawning friends; they might even be a huddle of one who(m) you're very keen to get to know a lot better! Whatever. Meeting this audience's needs will sooth the ego and give you time for some preening and posing.

The last audience you should write for is the unborn and/or already-dead audience. They only live in your dreams, but if you write primarily in the belief that conversations with Keats really matter, or that sending a message to future generations is the best thing you can do for the nation and the planet, then you're stuffing hay in the wrong end of the carthorse - if you ask me, of course.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Revision: Workout

I honestly don't know where I'm going with this one - the previous version was an attempt to compare the tyrrany of the gym to the freedom of a solo jog, but it's not what I want from this poem. This version is more different than better, but still doesn't quite hit the sweet spot for me. Whatever.

Health - an exercise
in barrenness; a factory,
a fair of pain hid beneath
Victoria's ice-sweat streets.
We stretch and lift
in rows, video-plugged.
Music, heartbeats -
count the numbers, chart
some lines; programmes pre-set,
static conveyers to fitness.
Compete! A second less,
a kilo more, beat them!
Bulbs searchlight the park,
their beams stretch limbs - alien,
tangled branches, paths. I gasp,
hard breaths; heels lift and reach.
This is our game: to chase,
to lap; to catch fat geese.
I am a new merchant.
I trade endorphins, blood
to brain, an addict; a lover:
glory comes to those who strive!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Revision: Joke News

And one more for tonight ...

Joke News

"Did you read the news?
If they bid for it
the stadium goes here!"

We look around us, laugh.
Beneath the Eastway's Aegyptian spans
two stranded carpet sellers, smokes
to mouths, their knockdown woven scrolls
leaned along a length of white van.

"Why would the world
want to come to Hackney -
we're shut already!"

The dog track's gone, the Sunday market
with it, its grits no more a base
for rings of stalls and shouts
and lines of dresses, shirts and jeans -
designer labels sewn in for extra.
No kids pile through the crowds
to crash the trestles, knock change
from pockets, hands, quick to grab
the blag, play tag to caravans parked
beyond the gates. Burgers in buns dressed
in greased onions, watered ketchup -
the salmanella gamble - all cleansed away.

"It won't happen," I say.
"It's no place for tourists
or even normal people."

We walk on home. A litterbin melts
as it burns - a belching flame
for Hackney's nascent pride.

Redraft: Flame

Continuing my astounding progress with the editing thing ...


Such a brief story
from your parabolic birth
to your smoky death.

No desert or sea
can barricade your passage:
you travel as light.

People fight to take
you in their hands, hold you high -
flickering applause.

Once militants sought
to reinvent history:
a strong, fiery tale.

Who stole you first, torch?
The athletes? The worthy great?

You live to perform:
you pyre the air for peace, hope
and competition.

I smell a false plan,
branded flare, logoed lantern.
Blaze free from that chain!

Sear the sky, the skin
of politicians; blister
the palms that cup you -

captive! Coruscate!
Reach up your tongues to the Sun
... unreachable home.

Reaction poems

I make no claim that the poems below are better than similar poems written by other people reacting to events reported through the media. All they represent is my reaction to those events. Others can judge their worth; all that is important is that they worked for me at the time, and continue to work for me now.

This poem, last revised in October 1991, was in fact my reaction to the war in Iraq. But I couldn't comprehend that war - I couldn't find words or images that worked for me on the page. So instead I wrote about my second-hand memories of an earlier conflict - the war in Lebanon which was coming to a close at that time.

The Levants

Sayeed is the checkpoint leader:
he stands proudly before his rubbled halt.
Comrades in turn approach his barricade
so he can bar their path with his metal crutch.
Sweet wrappers and leaflets serve for passes -
each is produced with the correct degree of fear.

Abdullah appears too confident:
he is an American and cannot be stopped.
Sayeed is unimpressed. Americans are devils.
Abdullah is denounced - infidel.
And then shot. Bang!

Abdullah's brother argues for a kidnap:
tie Abdullah hand to hand
and guard him within a cellar
- Abdullah is not loved by his brother.

Noor is a nurse again:
with her doll to help, she patches Abdullah's wounds.
She uses leaflets as pads and strings as bandages
and folded magazines to make the splint
- tricks learnt when the torpedoed flats
were felled one morning, and Sayeed lost his foot.

Coup! No warning.
Abdullah's brother wants to be leader.
When he doesn't fall upon Abdullah's shot,
Sayeed's crutch cracks to the brother's head.
The brother retreats, tearful,
trailed by Noor - bandage to hand.
Then Sayeed and Abdullah grin to each other,
kinsmen in arms once more,
and return to the game.

Everyone wrote a 9/11 poem. My 9/11 poem was written some three weeks after the event, while I was on holiday (how false is that?) in Chania, Crete - which happens to be next door to Souda Bay: maybe the sight and sound of low-flying fighter jets on patrol helped me find a way to write the poem.

Manhattan Flower

My tall dahlia. Scythed
by the wings of dragons,
white flies on the blue sky.

Litter caught in the storm.
My fiery bright dahlia,
it blooms: it blooms.

Switch off my cold eye. Frost
blackens its lace-vein leaves,
my dragon-axed dahlia.

My Boxing Day Tsunami poem was written about a fortnight after the disaster, mainly because someone on a poetry board had written a very poor tsunami poem - which I critiqued. One of the moderators (stupidly) challenged me to come up with something better. So I did. Nobody chose to comment on the poem when I posted it, so maybe it's just me that thinks this is a good poem. Whatever ...

The Charity Collector

She stands in the wind with a tin in her mittens
and calls for donations - some coppers will do.
Shy shoppers are caught with their purses mid-pocket:
they clatter their change in the pot and move on.
Though eyes will exchange a brief lock of compassion,
the gale is too chill to allow a quick word
and somehow the act doesn't mend the impressions
that photos of children in rows in a pit
have lodged in our heads. But still that tin rattles,
now loud as I put my bare hand on loose change
and add to her pile. Her smile is infectious:
a spread of the lips to reveal crooked teeth
that tell me that though we can't stop the tsunamis
we still change the world with a copper or two.

How do you write about the war?

Well, I have to wholeheartedly agree with Ms Baroque that Sean O'Brien's effort in yesterday's Guardian is most certainly not the way to write a poem about the current conflict in Gaza/Israel. My honest opinion is that the poem is trite; maybe in a few days, or months, the Guardian editors will cringe as much as I did when they read it again.

And yet ... and yet ...

I can understand Mr O'Brien's motivations for writing the piece. When something staggeringly, horrifically awe-full appears on our TV screens and in our newspapers headlines we want to react to it, we want to comment on it, condemn it, sympathise with those directly affected by it - we are all non-rational and essentially empathic creatures, after all; for those of us on the right side of the broadcast cameras (out of harm's way) the only way we can cope with such unbelievable news is to somehow take action to internalise it, make it real for us.

Maybe Mr O'Brien managed that for himself with his poem, but his decision to get it published in the Guardian placed an additional burden on the poem itself - it now has to work in the same way for other people, help readers in their journey to comprehend and internalise the bloody stupidity raining down on both sides of that concrete border. And there the poem fails, because it is too trite to tackle the necessary work demanded of it.

Which is a pity.

I too get the urge to respond in verse to disasters I can only witness at second, or third, sight. I wrote a 9/11 poem; I wrote a poem about Sarajevo; I've put pen-to-paper after the tsunami. And yes, I have written a poem about the Arab/Israeli conflict. I cannot judge their wider worth as poems, except to say that they worked for me, helped me make a little sense out of chaotic stupidity.

Where my efforts differ from Mr O'Brien's current commentary is that I choose to display my poems in little places, in places where people are likely to have a prior knowledge of me and my poetry. But publishing a poem in the Guardian is a much vaster statement, it is a grand assertion - it is a bookmark for posterity (for what that is worth). It requires a much finer poetry than I'm prepared to attempt. And, almost always, such poetry fails.

I'll post my Levant poem in a minute. It was inspired by a different war in a different place, but maybe it will help a few, very few people imagine the current conflict in terms that go beyond the headlines and the five-second broadcast images - which is all I wanted it to do for me when I wrote it.

The poem is a lie, of course - I have never witnessed conflict beyond the occasional pub brawl. All poems are lies. Sometimes I wish people would remember that fact more often ...

Friday, January 02, 2009

Revised: Waiting for a Train at Stratford Station

What's this, Rik? A third revised poem? All in one evening?

'Ah', I see you both nodding. 'But is it any good?'

Who can tell. What I do know is that this version is a whole wagonload of betterment than the pile of stinking wordslush from which it emerged. And that (for now) is good enough for me!

Here 'tis:

Waiting for a Train at Stratford Station

Beyond the station fence, a field
in plough, farrow, till - ready for seeds.

Great moles have burrowed beneath,
their spoils steep mountains: brown; bare.

Spring shall come, and a vision
can bloom: cantilever petals, translucence.

Sit. Imagine the complex language -
fibonacci spirals, sunburst rain on blade.

My clanky snake is late: I catch
snow on a tongue; watch transient hills frost.

Redraft: To the Victors, the Spoils

This one used to be called "Facelifting", and was a bit of a dog's dinner (if you ask me). The new version is much better - and a possible contender for the epithet 'good' ...

To the Victors, the Spoils

Sprinting to work, late like the binmen, I spill
crusts and rinds into a bucket on my doorstep.
A fume of fungus spores lifts from the wastes
and ribbons me - golden strands to stain my neck.

As I wait for a bus in Mare Street I spot
a glass hearse hauled by plumed horses. Silver
handles deck the white, bouquet-topped coffin
stranded in the smog of rush-hour exhausts.

The bronze from my pocket will gift Hackney
Town Hall some fresh adornments: we only have
seven years to spruce our beloved corpse
before the world arrives for the viewing.

(do you notice a theme developing here?)

Revised: Demolish Dig Design

What better way to start the new year than with a revision?

Demolish Dig Design
(following the discovery of iron age remains at the site of the 2012 Olympic Park, Stratford)

Each day a fresh terrain: dirt-yellow ants
bite through soils, their tracked mandibles
levelling hills, shaping plains to make
a new thing - a venue; a stage; a belief.

One lifts a sod, lets sunshine pitch
through a skull's orbit - the world
had spun our star three thousand times
since this bone's last East End breath.

Mighty legends shall erupt from the land,
the hoardings say, once waste is cleared -
derelicts razed, bricks recycled, hopes renewed.
Great dreams must lance from fresh skulls.