Continuing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…
Monday 20th April, 1998
Woke up with the sun streaming into my face! Put on a clean t-shirt given to me yesterday, turn’d up the collars like a genuine romantic poet, got 2000 lira off Kaptiano, then went off for a cappucino. En route I saw Ariel the sax-player – who was having a sneaky wash at a street fountain – & captured another stanza as I strode. The pace of the poem is quite slow, actually, with me having to squeeze in moments of inspirations between floods of madness.
After lunch the day took off. I borrow’d Megadeth’s bycycle, bagg’d some food, a bottle of water, my blanket curtain & a couple of books (my Shelley & my notebook), slipp’d on my shades & shorts, left my bags with Kapitano, & set off on my bike ride. My spirit soar’d as I broke free of the mad Pisan hustle-bustle streets, & took to the open roads. My destination was somewhere in the mountains that loom’d over Pisa, & I literally headed for the hills. As I rode along the right side of the road (wrong to me), the countryside was rather flat. I noticed pretty flocks of wild flowers by the sides oft he road as I pass’d through idyllic villages. At the start of the mountains a tower topp’d a huge cliff – but it was a little off-track & I made a mental note to visit at some later date.
The road started to climb into a sort of loop of mountains, with houses stretching up the sides, & lots of olive groves on level platforms, like steps. I stopp’d for water in a peaceful cemetary. Each grave was well-tended & blooming with flowers, like a garden of graves. I’m sure this image will infiltrate my poem at a later date.
Back in the saddle, the road wound thro’ the loveliest houses, always uphill & very sleepy. The people hardly notic’d me pass them. I eventually could ride no further, & chain’d the bike to a bridge over a gurgling river, from which point I started an ascent of a peak. The sun was blaring down (about time too), so I took my shirt off & bask’d in the Italian sun. I first came across an old barn, then pick’d my way up thro’ a piny forest. It was quite weird, really – all the trees seems burnt, cover’d in black charcoal.
After a while, I climb’d some rocks & got my first serious view. It ran all the way down to the valley. It was great, but I knew there was more to come. I pick’d up quite a firm a stick & made my arduous way to the first ‘peak,’ where to my delight the the mountain sloped onwards to its proper summit. So I carried on, & the view kept getting better. I only had a pair of pumps on, tho’, but apart from standing on a couple of snapp’d off trees, a thistly brush & one rocky bump, I made it thro’ the day quite well.
Not long after I climb’d up the hardest part of my ascent (scampering up a rocky formation) I was greeted with my prize – the most amazing view I’ve ever seen. I made my camp at the peak & buzz’d off the panorama which stretch’d from Livorno to Le Spezia – my poem’s entire stomping ground. As snakes & lizards, insects & wild flowers all did their thing, to the ringings of church bells echoing thr’o the valley, I fully embraced the view. I could see Pisa & its tower embedded in a completely flat plain, thro’ which the river Arno wound a meandering course lazily to the sea.
Across the valley the mountains were amazing, & I was almost as high as the clouds, which stretched all fluffy & puffified. I bellow’d a great ‘hellloooooo’ to a hang-glider rising on the mountain air currents, then spread out my blanket & tuck’d into my food stash. This consisted of a sandwich, cake, 2 oranges & an apple, curtesy of the nuns. I also worked on a little poetry, but could only manage one stanza; I couldn’t really settle with the place being so cool.
After a while it was time to descend, this time by a different route, following a road that wound through an (unburnt) pine forest. I pass’d by the most picturesque houses, all surrounded by olive groves, & thoroughly enjoying – so it seem’d being sited in the bosom of the mountains. An idela retreat from the follies of mankind.
As I zoom’d downhill I whistl’d Honky-Tonk Woman by the Rolling Stones. I also had a better look at the tower I’d seen earlier. On closer inspection the cliffs were actually quarried slopes, & the tower was full of grafitti. The alternate view of the plain it commanded, however, was extremely relishable.
On my return to Pisa I got a bit lost, via a mad 15th century viaduct, but I eventually managed to give Megadeth his bike back & rejoin the gang. I bought a new string for 3500 lira, leaving me 50,000 lira & £10 sterling left. Ate ravenously at the stazione, then busk’d for an hour before I collaps’d unconscious over my guitar – drunk, ston’d & exhausted.
Kapitano is talking about fruit-picking & drug-selling in the summer; I shan’t be with him, but its interesting to see how he survives. It appears we move to Livorno tomorrow, which is good timing for my poem. Today’s ride really help’d stir things up in my mentalities – the Muse is coming calling – its a wondrous thing!
Tuesday 21st April, 1998
Usual routine in the morning, but woke a little earlier & managed a couple of stanzas. I’m really getting into the swing of things now. It turn’d out that we would be leaving for Livorno in the evening, after stazione pasta, so we spent the day basking in the sun, & for the first time didn’t drink wine! I felt satisfied just to be kicking back tanning my skin into an improved, blackhead-free complexion, while at home everyone’s a bit chilly, like!
The day pass’d quite dreamlike – I got a couple more stanzas & even managed to sketch the leaning tower of Pisa! Art is always a hit or miss affair with me – mainly a miss – but it turne’d out quite good, I think. Even Kapitano was impress’d.
At about 7 we got the evening’s wine in (4 litres) & watched the sun go down by the Arno. It was very pleasant, my last sunrise in Pisa, the houses silhouetting against a vibrant, violet sky. I even penned an ode, I’d never done one before, but was very pleased with it;
“You are always writing – writing, writing, writing,” noticed Kapitano every day.
“I am a poet,” I would reply before buring my head once more in my notebook.
Once the sun had set we busk’d up a little cash, then had our food at the stazione, with me stocking up on loads of goodies just in case. It was time for the train to Livorno, a journey that would only take 20 minutes. Kapitano was a natural train jumper (of course) & we had arrived for free. I rang up Ruth, a bit too drunk, & have vowed not to do it again. Plus I can;t afford it, I broke into my 50,000 lira note to do so, & I’m also vowing now not to spend any more non-essential, non-survival money.
Soon I am back in bohemian swing
Musin away, one long mellow daydream.
By the side of the Arno sometime sing
Or bathe in the sun embracin ice-cream
Or busk to the world as a poet-king
Or party hard with Kapitano’s team.
How life is forever tender to me
Now I’ve tasted the breath of Italy.
We trudged thro’ the port city of Livorno, which was a pain as I was weigh’d down by ALL my stuff. Its a lot different to Pisa – wide streets & a heavy atmosphere. Ah well, at least I made it here & I’m up to the right place in my poem to be writing about Livorno, so maybe its just fate!
We found a church to sleep next to, with Kapitano putting out his hat for money in the morning, & I settl’d into sleep in my different, stone-matress’d bed.
Wednesday 22nd April, 1998
Woke early in Livorno, about 08.30, so went for a little stroll to the docks. It was mostly uninteresting, not as pleasanat a vibe as Portsmouth, but I did get a rather fine stanza, & being on the spot really help’d the flow.
When the others awoke, we went to a church, where after registering I got a shower (aaaaahhhh!) & some new clothes (double aaaahhhh!) & a meal ticket for 3 days! Free food, stuff & sunshine – Italy is wicked! We then went to a launderette for an hour to watch some Italian music channel – quite a silly thing to do, but I did manage another stanza.
Next was a park for a chillout by a church, where Kapitano did his normal ritual of pouring out a bit of wine on first opening, for his dead alcoholic pals back home. It was now 6PM, when we trudged back to the first church & got a magnificent meal – sausages, bread, beans, biscuits, coffee, etc! We ate it in a room full of Italian drop-outs – Down & Out in Livorno & Pisa!
Feeling quite bloated, we went into Livorno’s shopping area to busk (Jesse had wandered off somewhere else), but had little luck. Unlike Pisa, where everyone is chanell’d down one street, Livorno is much larger & more spread out! We did make enough for some more wine, however, which me & Kapitano drank in a friendly little bar while watching the Italy v Paraguay game. Next up was the Cosby show dubb’d in Italian, yet still, if not even more so, funny!
We eventually went back to our original starting point to got some sleep. Kapitano says we go back to Pisa tomorrow & I’m very glad about it. Livorno’s a bit, well, dull!
Thursday 23rd April, 1998
I woke up & found Jesse had rejoined us, sporting his own guitar. Kapitano said, ‘lets go,’ almost straight away, & like a sheep I follow’d, hiding in the train toilets. It felt a little weird coming back to the same stomping grund, a bit poetically restrictive perhaps, but I don’t spend any money in Pisa so I shouldn’t complain.
We spent the day outside a different church, & slowly but surely I got piss’d & began to busk. The best time was after 6PM, when the locals had finish’d their prayers, with Jesse waiting outside the doors while I sang Oasis – what a team!
After all the religiosa had left, I turn’d the notch up via some supervino energy, Jesse jamming eccentrically on lead guitar, Maximillion (i.e. Megadeth) on oooos & aahhs, with Kapitano also getting into the performance stride like a shaman, we turn’d the streets into a massive party! The boys were back in town & it must have looked really wild to the passers-by, especially this middle-aged American couple who pass’d us at our wailing banshee peak.
While the woman whose shop was right next to the door looked on in disbelief, the money began to pour in. Then it was time for food at the stazione, more wine, & even a new pair of shoes from the nuns, before we trundl’d back into town for one last bit of busking. On the way to the centre I met an interesting American girl from Brooklyn who play’d guitar & sang quite well. I also enjoyed speaking English for once – its healthy for the soul.
We busk’d for a while, until about 2AM, when we decided to go to the macanera. As we trudg’d there we bump’d into Megadeth, but the place was unfortunately shut. So Kapitano dissapears into some bushes & starts snaoring almost at once – so me & Jesses found teh same place from last week where we slept, & collapsed into a drunken dream.
StAnza International Poetry Festival
The Undercroft, St John’s House, St Andrews
9th March 2019
The Undercroft is an intimate, arched, windowed cellar room belonging to the School of History at the University of St Andrews. It is almost too intimate for a mic’dpresentation, but being long and narrow it is not intimate enough to do without. Thereon hangs a problem: microphone technique is not something that everyone has, and a simple operational slip can cause something unwanted to obtrude.
So I’m sorry to start on a negative note – please bear with me. As Laura Accerboni recited her work purely in Italian, she was partnered by a man who alternated with translations into English of each poem. He sat while she recited, and vice versa; the lack of space meant that they had to shuffle round each other to get to the lectern, and whilst Laura recited from memory, her English reader referred to a script, spoke with his head down, approached the microphone too closely, and treated us to a series of plosive, overdriven consonants. Added to that, his script was organised in such a way that on several occasions he had to turn over his corner-stapled A4 sheets in the middle of a poem. Interruption of speech. Rustle, rustle. All this could have been avoided with a tiny bit more planning. He and Laura could have both stood, either side of the lectern, approaching and retreating as necessary; he could have had a better-organised, less unwieldy script. That would have added the little bit of polish that had worn off Laura’s half of the event.
Did it matter much? Well, to be honest, not when one considers the poetry. Laura’s wont is to stand immobile, arms by her side, and almost declaim her work, the listener, to whom it is xenoglossy, being made aware of the aural qualities of the Italian language. Each line of poetry seemed to take a single breath, and there was a rise-and-fall there, regardless of enjambment. As I listened, I recalled how Swiss French has this kind of rise-and-fall, and wondered if what I heard was some characteristic of the spoken Italian in the same country. As my own knowledge of Italian is very sketchy, I found myself listening as though to Baroque music – Scarlatti or Pergolesi – and reflecting how much Basil Bunting would have approved of that! The lack of movement of limb or feature in Laura’s presentation meant that every syllable was crystalline, and that aspect of her half of the event was utterly captivating.
One thing the English translations certainly did do was reveal the sometimes startling imagery behind the musicality. Otherwise who would have guessed, for instance, that “Yesterday all the tallest boys / made their enemies starve / and quickly gathered up their toys. / They showed their mothers / the order / and discipline of the dead.”
The matter of translation is something both poets at this event shared. Katherine Sowerby – we learned from the chairman’s introduction – had recently taken part in poetry translation projects in Pakistan and Latvia. Katherine, right at the beginning of her half, signaled her intention to read twelve poems. It was that structured. There was to be no looking across at the chairman to check how long there was to go, no fitting in a couple of short ones at the end. Twelve were scheduled and twelve is what we got. The result was that this session of ‘Border Crossings’ had a ‘short-and-sharp’ feel to it, the whole event lasting little more than half an hour. Although her delivery was not as straight-ahead as Laura Accerboni’s, although there was animation in her face and voice, there was a non-nonsense feel to the presentation. Title, poem. Title, poem. Title, poem…
House However, her most recent collection, from which she selected part of her presentation, consists of sixty-two prose poems. If, as another contemporary Scottish poet said, poetry is whatever prose wouldn’t dare say, where does that leave ‘prose poetry’? in Katherine’s case it leaves it in a place where (yes!) short-and-sharp images can be strung together, teasing us with their apparent lack of relevance to each other but, true to the concept of gestalt, making up a whole that is other than the sum of their parts. Sometimes, despite this, there is deliberate repetition (“You want to reach us. You want to reach us. You want to reach us. You want us. You want us. You want.”), often there isn’t (“The creak of a chair. Our lit-up faces,” or “Mountains cut in half. I wear a shirt from that day. You told me the cost. You asked me questions about my microwave.”). The answer is, therefore, is that prose poetry can indeed fulfill the same function as any other kind of poetry, move us out of our comfort zone in which we expect step and step, cause and effect, day and night.
All of which leaves me wanting to read Katherine’s three-novellas-in-one-cover, The Spit, the Sound and the Nest, to find out what in her poetics feeds into her fiction. Poets can make the most startling storytellers, and a story would add yet another dimension to what I was able to experience today.
Megha Sood’s talent began blossoming in the Himalayan foothills, these days it is flourishing in the streets of New Jersey…
Hello Megha, so where are you from & where are you at at, geographically speaking?
I was born in a quaint little hilly city called Nangal, Himachal Pradesh, India. I have spent most of life in India and traveled a lot around the Northern states as my father was transferred often. After getting married in 2008 I shifted my base from India to the east coast of the United States. Now I live in Jersey City, New Jersey. My home is next to the beautiful Hudson River.
When did you realise you were a poet?
Writing poems has always given me that cathartic feeling and to pen down your deep thoughts have always given me solace. Writing in any form lets you connect to your deeper self. This change in perspective made me realize that I have a grown appreciation of these moments around me.That slowly seeping feeling was the affirmation of me being a poet and along with a growling list of publications.
Which poets inspired you, both old skool & of today?
I have been influenced by modern poets, such as Kaveh Akbar, Peycho Kanev, Rupi Kaur, Nikita Gill, Shel Silverstein, Lang Leav, Ocean Vuong, Tiana Clark, Danez Smith, Elizabeth Horan, Courtney Poppell, to name a few. Classic poets have also inspired me. I love to read the amazing and soul-stirring poetry of Maya Angelou, Ruskin Bond, the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath, the dark and surreal poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, and the mesmerizing sonnets of Rumi. Also, being a member of literary collectives, I’m extremely blessed to work with and read the amazing writings of the talented poets of the WordPress, such as Christine Ray, Kindra Austin, Georgia Parks, Kristiana Reed, Devika Mathur, Aakriti Kuntal, Nicholas Gagnier, and Stephen Fuller.
What does Megha Sood like to do when she’s not being, well, poetic?
I’m the mother of a smart and energetic 8-year-old boy. When I’m not writing I’m taking care of his activities along with the regular chores.I have also worked in the IT field for almost 12 years as a Project Manager in Business Intelligence and Data Mining. In the last one year, there has been a boost in my writing process and I’ve been blessed to be part of six literary collectives.I’m a collaborative member and associate editor in many of them. So in addition to writing and submitting for my dream publication(s), I also get the chance to review the submission for these Literary collectives and prepare for the next Issue.Being a contributing author on many of these requires me to submit poems occasionally. I also moderate regular features such as ” Pay it Forward Thursdays” on GoDogGO cafe. Also, I volunteer as class president in my son’s school along with a few neighborhood activities.
You have your fingers in quite a number of poetical pies, such as GoDogGO Cafe & Whisper and the Roar – can you tell us about this?
GoDogGO Cafe is a virtual Cafe on WordPress which serve as a place where all writers are welcome, collaboration is encouraged. It was founded by a fellow poet Stephen Fuller and now have raised to the string collective of 16 members. They are brimming with daily features( Writing prompts, Pay it forward, Promote yourself etc) and are inclusive of the writers of the WordPress community. To me, it is a warm and cozy virtual cafe where all writers are invited. It was one of the first few literary collectives which not only published my first poem but also invited me to join their amazing team of writers. Whisper and the Roar is a feminist literary collective founded initially by Georgia Parks and now a strong team of 15 collective members. All the members are well-established authors and seasoned writers with a long list of books and publications under their belt. In addition to the above, I’m also a collaborative member for the Poet’s Corner ( UK Based Poetry website), Candles Online ( India based writing portal) and recently have joined the Ariel Chart ( a signatory of pw.org) as an associate editor.
How on earth do you keep have the time or energy to do anything else?
I was always decent with time management and I guess that skill of mine has helped in juggling all these tasks effectively. There are days where I’m drowned with writing deadlines and there are days where I can simply read, create and revel in the writing of my favorite writers.
When do you know you have just composed a decent poem, & how does it make you feel?
They say if a poem doesn’t stir your soul, it has lost its purpose. As I always say, the writing has been a cathartic experience to me and and I feel if a poem moves me from inside or fills me with the joy of accomplishing something, I know I have written something significant.
You recently won the 1st prize in NAMI NJ Dara Axelrod Mental Health Poetry contest, can we see the poem?
Yes, my poem bagged the 1st place. The prompt was “What’s your song?”
My Victory Song
My heart parts its lips
pure and divine
like the moon in its reverie
you ask “What’s my song”
I laugh and smile
with beauty imbued with
the fluttering of the
My heart though brimming
with pain and anxiety
but ready for its encore every time.
My love is boundless
like a star-spangled sky
covering every iota of my soul;
gives me the sustenance
clears out the wool and webbing
from my disordered thinking
and makes me feel alive
I adorn the scars
as victory marks and
leaves the bloody trails
as maps, who follow;
Pushed and shoved aside
for reasons unknown
I thrash like a juggernaut
crashing and crumbling
the voices which pull me down
I simply ignore.
Waving my victory flag
and singing my song
under my bated breath;
Here I come to
uncharted waters of
with a roar.
Where can we find your published work?
Last Year I was accepted in the Poets and Writers( pw.org) Directory of Poets and Writers. Founded in 1970, Poets & Writers is the nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers. Their mission is to foster the professional development of poets and writers, to promote communication throughout the literary community, and to help create an environment in which literature can be appreciated by the widest possible public. The following link gives a comprehensive view of few of the places where my writing has been published. My 290+ poems have been published in the almost 70 literary collectives around the world. To know more about my published works you can visit here. In addition to this my works have been published or upcoming in the following anthology by US, UK , Canada, Australia, Philippines,based publishing presses.
Anthology ( Past and upcoming)
“We will not be silenced”, Indie Blu(e) Publishing, Fall 2018, USA
“All the lonely people”, Blank Paper Press, Feb 2019, Canada
“Voices Carry”, Sudden Denouement Publishing, Feb 2019, USA
Madness Muse Press, Fall 2019, USA
The Stray Branch, Fall 2019, USA
Poetica Vol 2, By Me Poetry Press, Australia, 2019
RECLAIM Anthology, Philippines, 2019
Flight Magazine, Nightingale and Sparrow, March 2019, USA
HAIKU Journal, Prolific Press, Feb 2019, USA
Poetry Quarterly Winter Issue, Prolific Press, March 2019
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
After getting published online and in a various print publication I am gearing myself to work for on my full poetry collection.In addition to that, I am planning to attend the poetry-related events in and around Jersey City and Manhattan.
StAnza International Poetry Festival
The Supper Room, The Town Hall, St Andrews
I am ashamed to say that it totally passed me by that Friday was International Women’s Day until I was on the train home. There, I’ve got that confession out of the way, so there is no danger of my falling for the temptation of claiming I came to see these two poets as some kind of celebration or act of solidarity. Nope, I just had poetry on my mind. I had just come from a free lunch at the ‘Poetry Café’, and hearing Nadine Aisha Jassat start off by remarking that she had her “Fisher and Donaldson stash” offstage right made me hope that this wasn’t going to be the “pudding session” of the day. Don’t worry – it wasn’t.
However, wherever I go at StAnza synchronicity seems to keep step with me, and today was no exception. Nadine’s first poem was about her grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, and whom she refers to as a “time traveller” because of the shifts in time and place that seem to go on in her mind, according to the narrative of her one-sided conversation. Of course I too am a time traveller as I write this review, having just written a review of an event from Saturday the 9th, in which the topic of dementia also came to the fore. Review-writing can be approached phenomenologically, let me tell you… oh… Let Me Tell Youis the title of Nadine’s debut collection, damn this synchronicity thing! As for her grandmother, Nadine says that her time travelling is by turns moving and hilarious, because you can never be quite sure what you are going to get.
I can see the “moving” part of it without any problem; to watch an elder’s memory loosen like a piece of fine, paterned cloth having threads tugged from it must be especially poignant for someone with as many threads to her heritage as Nadine has. Her voice is Yorkshire, her family story is full of other people’s journeys to where she is. Her own journey includes, expressed in a poem – “Hopscotch” – all the words that men have said to her on the street. There is only one up-side of the latter circumstance, and that is the poem itself, its anger presented so gently in a simple reading, used as a reason to create. If you want to hear it in full menace mode, then I suggest the following short film by Roxana Vilk, which is based on the poem.
Mary Jean Chan is a poet and an academic living in London, though originally from Hong Kong. I love the way she delivers her poetry, which is with composure and utter clarity. It’s not surprising to note that when she was a young adult she was a fencer, nor is it surprising to find out, in the context of border crossings, that her discipline was European – she handled an épée – rather than Chinese. Given the subtlety and directness of her poetry, the simplicity of the choice between a straight and pistol grip seems entirely in keeping…
Here I stop and stand apart for a moment. There is a challenge to ‘Border Crossings’, and it is this: how much attention do we give to the ethnicity, or the actual mix of heritages, that the poets bring with them? There are those of us, I suppose, who try to keep this uppermost in their minds, and others whose priority is to try to let the words, the actual poetry, take them. What, on that sliding scale, is appropriate? Each poet – every poet fulfilling a ‘Border Crossing’ role at StAnza – has crossed, or even ‘transgressed’, some of the fault lines that we, humanity, have opened up for ourselves. They have made a conscious journey, taken a step across a metaphorical meridian, made a choice to say this-and-that in such-and-such a way not necessarily their own, or perhaps have brought something very much their own and set it down in the context of a Scottish poetry festival. Take Mary Jean Chan, for example, whose latest collection is called ‘Flèche’. She has already crossed from Cantonese to English; now that French word, a homophone for ‘flesh’, crosses yet another border, punning as it goes. The blurb for her book puts it like this: “This cross-linguistic pun presents the queer, non-white body as both vulnerable and weaponised, and evokes the difficulties of reconciling one’s need for safety alongside the desire to shed one’s protective armour in order to fully embrace the world.” In French, ‘flèche’ means ‘arrow’, and it is also a method of attack in the discipline of épée.
Over her vulnerable flesh, “my skin is yellow,” she says in one poem, and in doing so she takes on directly one of our fault lines – the biological fiction of race and skin colour, of which we have made so big a deal, so great a burden for ourselves. And then in the next she cites fencing: “As a teenager […] the closest thing I knew to desire.” It is a sudden and surprising launch of an image, direct, as I said before, to find a fighting sport, a combat between two people, made cognate with sex and with sexuality, the homosociality of the young women’s group suddenly given a tension that wasn’t there before as they change between one uniform and another.
This is brilliant stuff, and no mistake. At the end I wanted to shake both poets’ hands, I wanted to cross that border between listener and… something else. In the end I only managed a brief passing comment about Yorkshire to Nadine, but I did shake Mary Jean’s. I took hold of a hand that had both held an épée and penned poetry, and I left the Town Hall buzzing, and ready for a cup of normal tea… that sounds like normality… and which, in my case, means Earl Grey.
StAnza International Poetry Festival
‘Poetry Café’, featuring Harry Baker (8th March)
‘Poetry Café’, featuring Ben Norris (9th March)
Studio Theatre, The Byre Theatre, St Andrews
I’ve decided to roll two reviews into one, because in many ways the ‘Poetry Café’ experience at StAnza is of-a-piece. For example, your ticket entitles you to a drink, and a pie by Stuarts of Buckhaven – you get a choice between macaroni, scotch, steak-and-ale, and chicken curry, and believe me, they deliver more pie for your peso! The chicken curry pies are insanely delicious and, without fail, I’m in danger of regarding the poetry as an afterthought. You get a comfy armchair too.
However, the good folk at Stanza have a knack of picking poets for the Café that they know will deliver on a par with the pies. On the two occasions I was there this year, for example, they put up two Slam Champions for us. First up, on the Friday was Harry Baker, at one time the youngest ever World Poetry Slam Champion. The other amazing fact about him is that he is a mathematician, though really I don’t know why that should be amazing – the juxtaposition of poet and mathematician – because a love of numbers and patterns can manifest itself in both disciplines. In Harry’s case, it can result in poems that are actually about prime numbers. Equally it can result in alliterative displays about proper pop-up purple paper people.
Harry Baker delivers, somehow, with the air of a boy in Year 10, but a very clever boy. If he were wearing a blazer you would want to hate him, but you wouldn’t be able to, because not only would he be too clever he would also be too damn funny. You would let him hang out with you and the rest of the kids who think that school in uncool, he would take a sip of Relentless and say “Bloody hell, that’s strong,” and proceed to tell you the percentages of the ingredients, and then multiply the calories by the number of minutes in a week. He, and only he, could compose a poem about the number of birthdays there are every day, or how many hours he has been alive, or could say that ten thousand days equals 27.39726 years, unless you’re talking binary, and then it’s sixteen.
A panel of five random French people crowned him champion, true, but there is one thing that worries me rather than delights me in his delivery. He has a tendency to let his voice die away at the end of lines or phrases, to the extent that sometimes, regardless of the mic, one can lose an important word and thus fail to succumb to the force of the slam. High point, though, was the poem in which he taught us a brand new word in German: Falafellöffel. As I said to him afterwards, “Das war ausgezeichnet!”
Two slammers means more of the same, right? Wrong. For a start, have you ever had this nagging feeling that you recognise someone’s voice? That’s how it was with Ben Norris. “Who the heck is this bloke?” I kept asking myself. It turns out he plays Ben Archer in BBC Radio4’s The Archers. StAnza sure know how to pick someone for a middle-class, middle-aged audience!
Ben Norris is not as outright funny as Harry Baker, but then he doesn’t need to be and doesn’t try to be. Twenty minutes of his performance was dedicated not to a poem, but to a short story written from the point of view of a young man visiting his gran, who is hospitalised and in the grip of senile dementia. It is written in a style, and was delivered in a style, that demanded and held attention. For most of it the story had a solidity and a flow; towards the end it became more fragmented, but for the listener that was the part which reminded us that Ben is a poet, its fragments signaled ideas, breaths, images.
A Poetry Café performance, you see, does not need to be funny. As Ben launched into a series of poems about the time when his parents split up, and he learned that his mother had been having an affair that lasted six years, he told us there was no need to applaud. And indeed, they were moving, intense, and personal, so we didn’t. Not that they were full of angst or resentment – though he did refer to them as the poems he wouldn’t recite to his family – indeed the poem dedicated to his father’s subsequent partner, Sue, was a work of dedication and appreciation. Strangely enough, this was probably the point in the performance where the majority of the laughs came, if only because Ben forgot the opening words of the poem – ‘The Only Ethnic Minority Dentist in Boston, Lincs’ – and decided to do the millennial thing of reading it all off his phone. And why not. Hand-held devices are now part of the performance poet’s natural toolkit.
It’s marginal which of these two poetry lunches I liked best. I liked them both, I loved the poetry, I warmed to the poets. Ben, by a whisker, though. People slightly ahead of numbers. But do appreciate these two guys, and if either comes to your town, give him a look-see and a listen-hear.
The poetry of Jericho Brown is like a magnet. It always pulls you in. His third collection is firmly upholding the tradition.
I love Copper Canyon’s books; soft & gentle pages carress’d by a lip-gloss cover lending a certain bubble-bath quality to the reading of one of their poets. But ultimately it is what is on the page that counts. First things first, Jericho Brown is a poet, a real, poet, he has the elixir in his veins. He also possesses a curious voice, like a multi-sharded cylinder standing steadfast in a storm. That storm is America, its culture & its questionable past.
His first two volumes were received with high praise & deep respect across the English-speaking world, the second of which, New Testament (2014) won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. The Tradition is eagerly awaited, then, & does not disappoint. In places it even exceeds expectations; the lyrical jaundice of Flower, the killer jibes of truth within Bullet Points & numerous moments of the highest pathos & beauty, as in the closing couplet of The Microscopes;
A region I imagine you imagine when you see
A white women walking with a speck like me
The chief pillars of Jericho’s creative temple are his colour, his family & his sexuality. His mother, grandmother, brother & kids all have cameos & something important to contribute to both the poet’s life & our understanding of the world. These very personal takes are full of raw remembrance temper’d by a supreme sense of post-Millennium reality.
Me of black people who see the movie
About slaves and exit saying how they would
Have fought to whip Legree with his own whip
And walked away from the plantation,
Their eyes raised to the sun, without going blind.
On a number of occasions I was very much reminded of a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, Negro Hero; the pitch & balance of the wordplay are almost identical – is he her spiritual inheritor, perhaps? Jericho’s art presents the Apollonian & the Dionysical extremes of poetic composition; from technical stanza formation full of controll’d & order’d musings, to solid blocks of Wolfean streams of consciousness. The latter sort are often triggered by the smallest things, such as the two copulating rabbits on his lawn, providing the catalyst for an introspective journey into the failings of his own love life. Then, with his title poem, Jericho proves he can turn not just a good sonnet, but an absolutely bangin’ one.
Also a sonnet of sorts are his five Duplex poems, seven couplets where the second line is the same as the first line in the following couplet. From innovation comes mastery, and Jericho is growing into his role as both a teacher in his tactile environment, & a clear-cadenced, beautiful poet-teacher for the planet. Indeed, his academic background – studying at Harvard, teaching at Emery – seems to be a fertile field for inspiring such embedded nuances as his use of Homeric simile in the opening to As a Human Being;
There is the happiness you have
And the happiness you deserve.
They sit apart from each other
The way you and your mother
Sat on opposite ends of the sofa
After an ambulance came to take
Your father away.
Jericho Brown is a philosopher-poet, stood on a crag overlooking the humanity of America, striking the rocks, drawing lightning into his penstaff & tossing electrical ejecta onto his page. The Tradition delights on first reading & invites further study. Each poem contains a different beam of inspiration wassailing from Jericho’s kaleidoscopic soul, altho’ the colors aren’t garish, its too moody a piece for that. This is an extremely intelligent collection, filled with both unpretentious flair & flashes of Faustian confidence. Roll on Brown’s 4th book.