Scotland

The Madness of Merlin

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Those whom the gods destroy, they first make mad
Euripides


In recent years, in other places, I have demonstrated that King Arthur really did once exist, when from the obscure seed that was his life sprung up the legion of legends that constitute the Arthurian myth. If our great king existed, then, is it not also possible that the other members of his pantheon are also real? This leads us to Merlin, the spell-singing court sorcerer of Camelot, whose vitality supported by a wide array of sources. The Welsh chronicle known as the Annales Cambraie tells us.

573 AD: The battle of Arfderydd between the sons of Eliffert and Gwenddolau son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin went mad.

A medieval Welsh triad sums up the battle perfectly;

The three frivolous causes of battle in the Isle of Britain.
…The second was the action of Arderydd, caused by a bird’s nest, in which 80,000 Cambrians were slain…

The battle of Arfderydd & Merlin are tied together in a number of old Welsh poems. They tell the story of a great civil war among the native Britons,  climaxing at the battle of Arferydd. After the battle Merlin lost his mind then ran off to be a hermit in the Caledonian Wood. A sterling effort in finding the battle site was made by the great nineteenth century Scottish antiquarian, William Forbes Skene. His ‘Notice of the site of the Battle of Ardderyd or Arderyth‘ in the PSAS of 1864-65 shows this often brilliant scholar at his very best.

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Where, then, was this battle fought? We ought, in the first place, to look for it in one of the great passes into the country; & a curious passage in Fordun gave me a clue to the probable situation. In his notice of Saint Kentigern, he describes, evidently from some older authority, his meeting in the desert a wild man, who informs him that his name was Merlin, & that he had lost his reason, & roamed in these solitudes because he had been the cause of the slaughter of so many men : ‘qui interfecti sunt in bello, cunctis in hac patria constitutis satis moto, quod erat in campo inter Lidel et Carwanalow situato.  The last part of the Latin means, ‘fought on the plain between Liddel and Carwannok.’ Liddel, as is well known, is the name of the river which flows westward through Liddesdale, & joins the Esk about nine miles north of Carlisle. Near the junction is the border between England & Scotland, & from thence the flat & mossy district, called the Debateable Lands, bounded on the east by the Esk, extends to the Solway Firth

This nugget of information was the catalyst for Skene, who now begins to hone in on the battlefield, near Longtown in Cumbria, where a small settlement called Athuret immediately raised his heckles. Taking the train down from Edinburgh, Skene found a place to stay in Longtown, whose landlady was quite shocked to see anybody staying in the area at all. Skene continued;

About half a mile from Longtown is the church & rectory of Arthuret, situated on a raised platform on the west side of the River Esk, which flows past them on a lower level; & south of the church & parsonage there rise from this platform two small hills covered with woods, called the Arthuret Knowes. The top of the highest, which overhangs the river, is fortified by a small earthen rampart, enclosing a space nearly square, & measuring about 16 yards square. On returning to Longtown, I asked the old guard whether he knew of any place called Carwandlow. He said that Carwinelaw was the name of a stream which flowed into the Esk from the west about three miles north of Longtown, & also of a mill situated on it, & that beyond it was a place called the Roman Camp.

At this point Skene visited the ‘camp,’ which is today known as the Moat of Liddle. He thought it a magnificent native strength, & was taken aback by its splendid views, including the knowes at Athuret in the distance. He went on;

Between the fort & Carwhinelaw is a field extending to the ridge along Carwhinelaw, which is about half a mile off… The old farmer of the Upper Moat, who accompanied us, informed me that the tradition of the country was that a great battle was fought here between the Romans; & the Picts held the camp, in which the Romans were victorious; that the camp was defended by 300 men, who surrendered it, & were all put to the sword & buried in the orchard of the Upper Moat, at a place he showed me. This part of the tradition is curious, as the Triads mention the Gosgord of Drywon-ap-Nudd at Arderyth which consisted of 300 men.

The name of Erydon, which Merlin attaches to it as a name for the battle, probably remains in Ridding at the foot of the fort, & I have no doubt at all that the name Carwhinelaw is a corruption of Caerwenddolowe, the caer or city of Gwenddolowe, & thus the topography supports the tradition.

This is all breathless work, & leaves us moderns with a few scanty crumbs to discover. The only object of interest I could scrape up myself concerned another fortification, a mile or so to the North of the Moat of Liddel, where; ‘there is a slight eminence called Battle Knowe by Prioryhill farm near Canonbie. It feels like a burial mound & tradition says that a battle was fought here & human bones have frequently been dug up but no authentic information can be obtained to confirm the supposition. (Ordnance Survey Name Book 1858)

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Having discovered battlefield where Merlin went mad, let us now practice the very modern art of Psychoanalysis on his mind. By studying the old poems & stories surrounding Merlin, it is clear he had paranoid schizophrenia, the modern terminology of a condition as old as humanity itself. Joan of Arc heard voices & in the first Book of Samuel, Saul shows all the classic symptoms of a lunatic. The following are extracts from a report by the World Health Organisation in 1992.

Paranoid schizophrenia is the most common type of schizophrenia in most parts of the world. The clinical picture is dominated by relatively stable, often paranoid, delusions, usually accompanied by hallucinations, particularly of the auditory variety, and perceptual disturbances. Examples of the most common paranoid symptoms are:
Delusions of persecution, reference, exalted birth, special mission, bodily change, or jealousy; Hallucinatory voices that threaten the patient or give commands, or auditory hallucinations without verbal form, such as whistling, humming, or laughing;
Hallucinations of smell or taste, or of sexual or other bodily sensations; visual hallucinations may occur but are rarely predominant. Thought disorder may be obvious in acute states, but if so it does not prevent the typical delusions or hallucinations from being described clearly. Affect is usually less blunted than in other varieties of schizophrenia, but a minor degree of incongruity is common, as are mood disturbances such as irritability, sudden anger, fearfulness, and suspicion.

Merlin appears the medieval tale Lailoken and Kentigern, which states: “…some say {Lailoken} was called Merlynum.” This name change leads us to the 9th Century Historia Brittonum of Nennius, which states that in the late 6th century, ‘Talhaiarn Tataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.’ Nobody has ever established the further identity of Bluchbard, but the ‘Luch’ embedded in the name links it to the ‘Lok’ within Lailoken. Thus Lailoken the Bard easily becomes Luch the Bard, then Bluchbard. Perhaps, perhaps not, but there’s enough in there to believe it so.

Moving on from digressive conjecture, in the tale of Lailoken & Kentigern, Merlin is depicted as seeing visions & hearing voices, the classic symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. On one occasion a voice from heaven says; ‘because you alone are responsible for the blood of all these dead men, you alone will bear the punishment for the misdeeds of all. For you will be given over to the angels of Satan & you will have communion with the creatures of the wood.‘ We probably all have experienced a moment in public when a person of obvious insanity wanders around screaming wildly & talking to themselves. Lailoken and Kentigern reports the same thing of Merlin, who used to interrupt the services of his clergy by shouting out prophecies. It also has Merlin seeing bright visions of ‘martial battalions’ lighting up the sky shaking their lances ‘most fiercely’ at him, & then dragged off into the woods by an evil spirit. In another text, the Itinerarium Kambriae of Giraldus Cambrensis, he is said to have lost his mind just before the battle of Arferydd when he saw a monster in the sky.

On Thursday 11th September 2008 The Independent ran a fascinating story about the son of Patrick Cockburn, a foreign correspondent. His name was Henry, who told the paper; ‘do I have schizophrenia? My mother and father and the dreaded psychiatrist definitely believe I am schizophrenic. They have grounds for their belief, such as my being found naked and talking to trees in woods. Yet I think I just see the world differently from other people.’ Patrick added, ‘Jan and I soon became familiar with the distorted landscape of the strange world in which Henry was now living. The visions and voices, though the most dramatic part, were infrequent. He spoke vaguely of religious and mystical forces and was extremely ascetic, adopting a vegan diet and not wearing shoes or underpants.’

Henry certainly sounds like a modern day Merlin. When the mind is being bombarded by extra-sensory stimuli, there is only one true way to ‘let of the steam,’ & that was summed up nicely by Henry;  ‘my main strength was art, and it was through art that I understood my world.‘ Among the all the arts poetry is perhaps the oldest, yet its beauty is that anyone can write a poem. The writing of them is seen by modern psychology as a therapeutic tool to aid schizophrenia. In the  Journal of Poetry Therapy (June 2010), Noel Shafi writes; ‘a patient exhibited negative symptoms including social withdrawal. Under clinical observation she successfully wrote renkus describing her everyday life & seasonal feelings. After 13 months of renku therapy the therapist observed improved social functioning &decreased negative symptoms in the patient.’

This brings us neatly to the ‘therapeutic’ poetry of Merlin himself. While he was in the woods, fuelled by the typical poetic salve that is insanity, Merlin composed a number beautiful poems, of which 6 still survive. In them solid traces of schizophrenia can be found. They also show the skill of an accomplished bard, the first step on the ladder to becoming a Druid. Inbetween is the Ovates, the title given to a bard after twelve years of intense poetic training. On attaining this second rank, the bard will develop visionary powers, being able to see into the future & commune with long dead ancestors. It must have been a total nightmare experience for Merlin once he lost control of his visionary mind. He was not the bearded wise-man of Arthurian mythology, but a man in need of series help.

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Throughout his poetry we can detect the possible reason behind Merlin’s madness, the catalyst that sent him over the edge. It begins with the tradition of Gwendydd being his twin sister, which is given in the aptly titled, ‘The Dialogue Between Myrddin and His Sister Gwenddydd’ from the Red Book of Hergest.

Myrddin
Since the action at Arderydd and Erydon
Gwendydd, and all that happened to me,
Dull of understanding I am–
Where shall I go for delight?

Gwenddydd 
I will speak to my twin brother Myrddin, 
wiseman and diviner, 
Since he is used to making disclosures 
When a girl goes to him.

The tone of the first stanza is sullen & reflective. We can work out why from the following stanza from the Black Book of Carmarthen;

Sweet appletree that grows in the glade!
Their vehemence will conceal it from the lords of Rydderch,
Trodden it is around its base, and men are about it.
Terrible to them were heroic forms.
Gwendydd loves me not, greets me not;
I am hated by the firmest minister of Rydderch;
I have ruined his son and his daughter.
Death takes all away, why does he not visit me?
For after Gwenddoleu no princes honour me;
I am not soothed with diversion, I am not visited by the fair;
Yet in the battle of Ardderyd golden was my torques,
Though I am now despised by her who is of the colour of swans.

So here we have Merlin talking to the trees. It also introduces Rydderch Hael into the story, the King of Strathclyde who had married Merlin’s sister. With the line, ‘I have ruined his son and his daughter,’ we have a clue as to why Merlin went mad. If Rydderch is his brother-in-law, then the children in question were his nephew & niece. In the next line he says that ‘death takes all away,’ which hints that it was Merlin himself who killed them. No wonder his sister ‘loves him not!’ The emptiness of the last few lines portray his soul in dejected reclusion. His lord Gwenddoleu is dead & his mind is full memories of when he was wearing the ‘golden torques.’  The pathos of the piece gives us an excellent insight into Merlin’s mind at the time of his madness. He is obviously suicidal, a thread which the Dialogue poem expands on;

Myrddin
Great affliction has fallen upon me,
And I am sick of life–

I feel heavy affliction.
Dead is Morgenau, dead is Mordav,
Dead is Moryen, I wish to die!

Could Merlin, by surrounding himself with nature & solitude, be seeking reaffirmation with a forgiving god in the woods. Not wanting to disturb him too much, I think we should leave Merlin in the soft, safe confines of his Caledonian Woods. We find him talking to a little piglet & bidding him hide from the ‘dogs of Rhydderch,’– who were out to get them both – that classic delusion persecution, where conspiracies are found at every turn.

Listen, O little pig! happy little pig,
Do not go rooting on top of the mountain.
But stay here, secluded in the wood.
Hidden from the dogs of Rhydderch the Faithful.
I will prophecy–it will be truth!

There has always been a certain sense of the insane about the poet. John Clare spent years in an asylum churning out new cantos of Don Juan. TS Elliot composed his seminal Wasteland while undergoing psychological treatment at a clinic in Switzerland, while William Blake was blatantly as mad as a hatter. Of Baudelair, Jeremy Reed, in his Madness- the Price of Poetry (1989) wrote; ‘Baudelair was a prey to neurosis, his life is the record of an individual seeking to interpret incipient madness through the refinement of an aesthetic sensibility.’ So I guess Merlin & his madness are in pretty esteemed company, & I suppose you do have to be a bit mad to be a poet in the first place!


POEMS BY MERLIN 

(& links)

The first three are found in the thirteenth-century Black Book of Carmarthen, with the others appearing in manuscripts from later centuries.

Yr afallennau – The Apple Trees
Yr Oianau – The Greetings
Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin – The Dialogue between Merlin & Taleisin
 Cyfoesi myrddin a gwenddydd ei chwaer – The Dialogue between Merlin & his Sister
 Gwasgargerdd fyrddin yn y bedd – The diffused song of Myrddin in his grave
 Peirian Faban – Commanding Youth

Divine Poetry

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Edinburgh-based Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert possesses one of the most unique & lucid poetical voices in modern Britain. Here follows his self-penned monograph upon the art & his own place in the firmament


The teachers at school always said to my parents, ‘he could do it if he wanted to,’ but no-one ever asked me, what it was that I wanted to do or indeed why my thirst for academia was so absent. Or indeed why it was that I was so seldom there. I got moved up a group when I was in the first year at upper school. There was never a lesson ever that enthralled me enough to want to be there. Going to school was an abject lesson in confronting fear on a daily basis. I had a learning disability that I was too scared to discuss. Naturally, my inner world reflected my outer world. I was a slight kid and fighting was something I just didnae do. I was soft as fuck. However, it wasnae the threat of physical violence that scared me, it was the constant insinuation of Calvert ya puff, ya queer, ya Quentin. I once sat down and tried to explain it to my Dad just, how much it was getting to me. He didnae know what to do or what to say. So I never talked about it again.


PROPHECY
(1997)

I searched The Boundaries Of Life’s Curses.
The Misfortunes That Fell Around Me.
Relentless Forces Of Change.
That Grappled Me To The Ground.
Each Time I Hit The Ground
A New Gift Approached.

Reaching Out With My Heart To
To Heal The Conditioned Insanity
Knowing That Change
Would Release The Chains
Of Enforced Working Class Spiritual Poverty.
Through The Choice Of Reinvention.
I Welcomed My New Incarnation
Of Clairvoyant And Healing Medium.
The Light Began To Grow.

Understanding The Magician.
Welcoming Enchantments.
Guiding Angels
And Crystal Family.
Healing Springs.
Healing Forces.
Healing Courses.
Healing Sources.
Healing Touch.

One By One She Unfolded.
Petals Of Expansion
Of Kindness.
Of Warmth
Of Heart.
❤

Prepared By The Battle
With The Force Of Darkness.
I Came Out The Wounded Healer.
Forgiving The Good Witch.
Then Questing The Grail.
Opened The Channel
That allowed.
Guru’s
Shiva.
Past Masters.
Channelled To The Increasingly Conscious Soul.

Choosing To Throw Away Armour
Choosing To Let Love Grow.
Greeting The Banshees.
That Would Exorcise
The Burdon Of My Tortured Soul.

Letting My Pain Go ❤.
Opening My Eyes To See Sweet Angels Grow.
Becoming The Empress
That I would Always Know
In Lives.
Past.
Present
And The Ones That Are Still To come.
We Would Always Meet.
And Become Together.


I realised at 13. Whats the fucking point. I knew then that I had a tough time with spelling, and the constant visions of people being tortured and mutilated didnae help matters. I know now, that the vision thing was a direct result of a brain injury and a near death experience from being knocked over by a car on the way to school when I was 11. School never did me any favours, looking back its not hard to understand why I resented it so much. This is why I left School with poor grades. I was soft as fuck, thick and probably damaged beyond repair in world where repair seemed impossible. So like everything else, It was a case of carrying on regardless. I left School with GCSE Grade 4. I went back to night school when I was 18 to do O level English, and passed with a Grade 3. That was the last time I attempted an exam, and yes the teachers that told my parents that “he could do it if he wanted to” were right. I just had a few pressing issues that needed to be understood and worked out first. If Dance had have been on the curriculum, I would have been hooked. If consciousness and the basic understanding of self-healing had been an option I would have got an A grade. Because that is what I was needing.

The first time I ever spoke to anyone about the mental disability that I had been dealing with since adolescence, was when I had settled in Edinburgh. It was all Spiritually guided and its synchronicity most definitely was a Godsend. Before that time my only outlet I had was through poetry. I began writing my experience in 1992 after having my first Angel Visitation. The Angel told me to write and in doing so, I would find a release that was safer and more effective than cutting myself, using hard drugs or throwing the towel in completely. The Angelic instruction to start writing was the beginning of the path that would Heal me. So inspiring “ From Pain To Peace. The Poetic Journey Of A Working Class Shaman.”

The reason I resigned from a cushty 9-to-5 was to pursue a calling. that came through a Kundalini awakening in 1994. I heard the Earth scream. “Help Me!

“How?” I Replied.
And then…
it happened.

The reality of conscious healing frequency and the truth of coexisting dimensions. the many lifetimes I had lived and the reality of Clairvoyance. Whoooosh. The challenge had been set, to prove that this stuff was real and to answer the distress call from Mother Earth.

This is where my inner reality reflected Mother Earths reality. As much as the calling was to save the Planet That We Live On. It was also a calling for me to understand and Heal my unspoken trauma and the debilitating effects that I had been dealing with silently. This is when I coined the term, “Healing The World is easier than healing our selves” Instinctively I knew that the answer was to Heal oneself and quite naturally, the Earths Healing would happen as a result. Together We Could Heal The World. But it has to start with healing oneself. In doing so, The Earth Mother heals as a result.

I mean. What greater incentive could there be?
The Power Of The Pen.
Is Mightier Than That Of A Sword.

Facebook and Grammarly have been key in building confidence. Indeed it was through my documentation of festivals that I got invited to review for The Mumble, back in 2014. My first Fringe as a reviewer. Thrust in at the deep end and succeeding beyond my wildest expectation. I overcame my fear of not being able to spell. The Mumble has been one of the best teachers I have ever had and having an Editor certainly instilled confidence. Having really clever girlfriends has been important too, but then that’s another story.

Indeed it is the reason that I am a Spiritual Healer and teacher of Rei Ki now. Once the devastating effects of the brain injury had healed, which I achieved at 36, I could finally actually convey what it was that was stopping me from having the confidence to write anything other than poetry. I guess like everything else grammar, punctuation and spelling didn’t matter when writing a poem. Once I had healed my past and the effect it was having on me, I could heal my intellect. This is when the writer formed. I had a story to tell, because I had found the solution. to the learning disability, I had when I was kid. I just needed to find the vocabulary.


david-bowie-9222045-1-402.jpgBOWIE
2008

My First Memory Of David.
When Ahmed Voragee Bought Boys Keep Swinging.
We were about twelve years of age at the time.
He lived across the back Gunnel
Of the Yorkshire bricked Terrace House
That I was brought up in
We bonded over a love of Gary Numan.

Ahmed did a brilliant impersonation of Elvis Costello
Circa Olivers Army.
There was a soft porn midden down the back
That we visited after tea.
To read stories from ancient copies of Razzel and Parade.
Get Hard and not know what to do with it.

That all changed when Kathryn Worsley
Showed me what to do with it.
When listening to Changes Two by Bowie
On the prized record player I bought From Andrew
My Big Sisters Fella.

Adam Ant And Two Tone Ska
Had a part to play.
I was a confused kid with Two Tone Tonic Trousers.
An Harrington Jacket
With Adam And The Ants chalked on the back.
And my Dad not letting me go to Princeville Working Mens Club
With a red lipsticked stripe across my face.
Well if Adam Ant could do it.
Well, Why couldn’t I.
Only his was white.

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Then Ashes To Ashes had me hooked.
And Ziggy Stardust saw everything.
He was looking from a poster on my wall
With Boy George and The Human league
Offering to support boys that looked great in make up.
And Marc Almond made it cool to be a puff
In Bradford.

Celebrity was never far away
Although I was never Gay.
Everyone I went to school with
Told me I must be.
Apart from the girls who wanted to shag me.

Because I could Dance and shoplift my music
I had a currency without money
Untill I got rumbled and taken to court
that was the end of my criminal years
The ones that I had to abort.

But by that time I had the lot!!!!

Home taping on Jengas Mums Hifi
Bought the tickets for
Duran Duran
Spandau Ballet
and Culture Club.
The New Romantics They Had me hooked.
Toyah, Japan, Landscape, Hazel O Conner
And Gary Numan
Tick and Tock and Shock.
And then robotics became my game.
As David Bowie sang about Fame.
And Love became the drug
And Music my sanctuary.

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7” !0” 12”
Picture Disc
The smell of virgin fruity Vinyl
A bygone age
But David Bowie still remains vital.
And the make up I began wearing at 14.
I still adorn at 48

No longer new.
But still a Romantic.
And the music that informed me.
That style and substance
Got me through the working class Struggle
David Bowie Kept it real

And then music became free
At The Click of a Button
Now That was a Moonage Daydream
Because If at 14 I had it.
Shoplifting wouldnae have been an option.
I could have done it on line.
Without a Fine.

Border Crossings: Laura Accerboni & Kathrine Sowerby

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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.”

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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.

Paul Thompson

Border Crossings: Nadine Aisha Jassat and Mary Jean Chan.

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StAnza International Poetry Festival
The Supper Room, The Town Hall, St Andrews
8thMarch 2019


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.

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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.

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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.

Paul Thompson

An Interview with Ben Norris

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A rising star in the world of words, 2019 sees Ben Norris make his debut appearance at StAnza Poetry Festival…


Hello Ben, so where are you from & where are you at at, geographically speaking?
I’m from Nottingham. I currently live in London but I’m back in Notts more and more these days, as I’ve just started working more closely with the Playhouse there, and with Nottinghamshire Libraries as their poet-in-residence, which is lovely.

When did you realise you were a poet?
I started to dabble in sixth form (in secret of course – the shame!), but it was when I got to university that I really knew I had the bug. I went to university in Birmingham, which has an incredibly vital poetry and spoken-word scene both on campus and in the city as a whole, so it was really fecund ground to develop as a writer and performer. It’s impossible to overstate what an impact that place, and those people, had on me.

You’ve won the national poetry slam TWICE. How did you pull that off & did you have to write a whole new set for the second event?
Poetry slams in this country are a bit like boxing titles, in that there can be several champions at once, because there are quite a few different events! My two national titles came from two different slams (the UK All-Stars in 2013 and the BBC Slam in 2017), and because they were 4 years apart, thankfully I had written some new poems in that time, yes!


NIGHTSWIMMING
after R.E.M.

I ran to the bay
hard and long-spined
like someone was watching
a keen blade
through the beetroot streets
of a new place
hit the rails at the end of the fishing pier
did my best Titanic
eyes shut arms wide the figurehead
at the prow of the city

remembered my granddad
the non-swimmer
his sleepwalk down
to the sea one night
in Morecambe/Swansea/
somewhere

How he loosened a boat from the bayside
eased like the too-tight knot of a tie
from its moorings
rowed out into
a patient dawn his craft a finger
lightly pressed on the creaseless shirt
of the water

I imagined him coming to oddly calm
his hydrophobia a distant second to his reason
smiling the smile my mum sometimes says I have
noticing his raincoat buttoned perfectly
over his long johns and night vest
realising how little choice he had
to resurface there

I sucked back the Severn salt
drug for an inland man
tipped a wide-brimmed windswept smile downstream
gazed out towards Weston-super-Mare
ten miles to the south east
Latin America just a little beyond it
if I’d my father’s wrist for skimming stones
if I’d my mother’s hope
I thought and felt
my anchor fall


What does Ben Norris like to do when he’s not being, well, poetic? 
I was a very keen long-distance runner when I was in my teens, and over the last year or so I’ve found myself getting back into that, which has been great. It’s not just a fitness thing for me, but a mindfulness practice too. So an ideal Sunday would probably involve at least 14 miles of gallivanting through some muddy fields!

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Can you tell us about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family?
It was my debut show, a one-man performance about me and my dad. I hitchhiked to everywhere he ever lived when he was growing up (he was born in Brixton and every time he moved house he moved north, and roughly in line with the M1, so that provided a convenient geographical structure!). I started in Nottingham and hitchhiked south, going backwards through his life. I wanted to learn more about his past in the hope I would get to know him better in the present. I hoped to discover some cataclysmic event that explained away our differences (me the millennial who, I thought, was good at opening up, and he the typically taciturn male baby-boomer), but I quickly realised the irony of my going on this hugely convoluted journey rather than just ringing him up and asking him about his childhood(!), so the show became a lot more about me and my own reservations, and masculinity in general, and all the hang-ups that remain. It went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 where it won the IdeasTap Underbelly Award before touring the UK and then Australia.

How did you find yourself a part of the international institution that is The Archers, & how is it all going?
I was invited to audition, I believe, on the recommendation of my radio teacher at my old drama school, and was lucky enough to be offered the job. Relatively normal process really! It’s going well; everyone there is so lovely, they’ve made me feel very welcome, and it’s a real honour to be part of such an institution.

As a writer yourself, do you get to tweak the script?
Not really, and I wouldn’t really want to either, because I know how annoying it is when other people mess with your work! Occasionally if we need to lose a bit of time on an episode we might suggest small cuts but the director leads on that. Those who know their characters better than me might feel a bit more qualified to tweak things (if they’ve been playing them for several decades!) but I’m still getting to know Ben Archer…

Which poets inspired you, both old skool & of today?
There are so many, far too numerous to list. But these people have all been hugely influential to me, some of whom are friends, some of whom are long dead. Some aren’t even really ‘poets’ by popular consensus, but I think their writing could easily be classified as such.
Bohdan Piasecki, Liz Berry, Caroline Bird, Claudia Rankine,
Richard Scott, Sean Colletti, Sharon Olds, Andrew McMillan,
Dizraeli, Loyle Carner, Joni Mitchell, Anthony Anaxagorou,
Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Jo Bell, Helen Mort, Maria Ferguson,
Geoff Hattersley, Sylvia Plath … I mean, I could go on, but I shouldn’t…

When do you know you have just composed a decent poem?
When you finish it and feel a sense of relief, having purged something, or captured something that you feared might elude you. If you’ve done justice to the idea that inspired you to start writing. Even if it’s shifted as you wrote it. The hypothetical poem in your head will always be better before it exists than once it’s written, but a good poem is one that is closest to the hypothetical ‘perfect’ poem that inspired the actual poem into life. If you finish it and still feel an itch that hasn’t been scratched, or if you immediately want to start hacking it up, then it probably isn’t great.

This year you have a pamphlet of poems forthcoming from Verve Poetry Press, can we see a couple?
Yes.


It’s difficult for children to pinpoint the exact moment they realise that
nothing lasts forever, but rather it slides into view, like the silver wink
of the sea as the family Astra rounds the bend of a Lincolnshire hill

Of course I wasn’t to know
as Jason Leathen and I
pretended at playing snooker
on a full size table
as dad shuffled Clare and me
round the go-kart track
if only to get our money’s worth
as grey day turned to grey night
and the adults all drank
and nobody thought to lament
the fact that the mums and dads
of Netherfield Colts FC (under 15s)
couldn’t afford to go abroad
as our static caravan
terrestrial tele
chicken nugget weekend
trundled on like
a 70s fairground ride
that no one found exciting even then
as Butlins spluttered into Monday

of course I wasn’t to know
that you were setting yourself on fire
letting yourself love him
for the first time

You probably had brunch
probably held hands
linked kissed
with February lips
like a torn calendar

I wasn’t to know
that one day this would find itself
in a happy poem


 

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BenNorris-393-Edit.jpgWhat is it about performing your poetry you love the most?
The relationship with the audience. The fact you’re all in a room together, you’ve all agreed that that’s a nice way to spend your time. The mutual vulnerability and investment involved is genuinely beautiful. As much as I love performing on radio or to camera, nothing compares to the experience of live performance.

You are about to perform at this year’s StAnza. What are your former experiences of the Festival?
It’s my first time there!

What have you got in store for us?
Because I have a pamphlet coming out, and I had a pretty seismic 2018 personally speaking, there are a lot of new poems I’m looking to give a first read to at StAnza.

What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
Writing more, both poetry and theatre. I’m looking to further develop a new show about long-distance running, inspired by my teenage obsession with it. I’d also like to go on holiday. Maybe. Probably not.


STANZA

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Breakfast at the Poetry Café: Off the Page / Sat 9th March
Start your weekend with poetry and pastries!
The Byre Theatre, Abbey Street, Studio Theatre

Poetry Café: Ben Norris / Sat 9th March
Enjoy an entertaining lunch with a BBC slam champion
The Byre Theatre, Abbey Street, Studio Theatre

The StAnza Slam / Sat 9th March
With MC Ben Norris
The Byre Theatre, Abbey Street, Auditorium

www.bennorris.net

Murder Ballads

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Woodland Creatures
Leith Walk, Edinburgh
30/10/18


Not only does Max Scratchmann possess the most deliciously suave of names, but he also loves to present the poetry-lovers of Edinburgh something different, something theatrical, something cool. His Halloween special, therefore, drew in poets from across Scotland to interject & connect with the continuous tartan thread that is Jennifer Ewan & her band.

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The prominent theme, of course, was the frighteners, but I found the evening less fearing & more full of fun, for the performers were all of the highest level. So, half of the time we were being regaled by the band – alongside Jennifer on guitar & vocals were Kim Tebble on accordion & Simon Fildes on bass; all were clad in black & their music swarmed into the ears of the healthy & ever-appreciative, sometimes-even-dancing audience, like bison reaching a prairie water-hole. We were given a steady stream of well-chosen numbers; of Jennifer’s own creations & also covers, when numbers such as Bessie Smith’s ‘Take me to the Electric Chair‘ sounded amazing with a Scottish burr.

As for the poets, there were five of them, who did cheeky wee floor spots in between the ballads on both sides of the interval. Our host Max’s first poem defined Edinburgh as a ‘city of murder ballads‘ & we were off.  A lot of the material was freshly written for the night – Molly McLachlan admitted to composing hers in Leith Weatherspoons earlier that day; not that you could tell – it flowed with elegant mastery. She, & the other poets – the shamanic Stella Birrell, the regal & dramatic Nicoletta Wylde, our beloved Max of course, & the rapid-tongued Scott TheRedman Redmond – presented some of the highest standard & absolute quintessence of performance poetry a la 2018 – when the post-modern polemical story-chaunt is all.

I’m not dying I’m transcending… & if I transcend you’ll transcend with me
Nicoletta Wylde

With half of the audience & all the performers making an effort aesthetically, & webbing & branches hanging off the walls of the venue, a genuine Tam O Shanter like vibe was  gothically invoked. Thus setting & content were perfectly matched, upon which occasions good times are guaranteed, a tradition which Murder Ballads perpetuated with ease. A fluid, fascinating, & above all entertaining night’s entertainment.

Damo

EIBF: Carol Ann Duffy with Keith Hutson & Mark Pajak

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
14thAugust


Carol Ann Duffy doesn’t smile much, one never knows how to take her. So when it was announced at the beginning of the event that there would be no question-and-answer session at the end, and that the poets who were taking to the stage had asked us not to tweet during the performance, there was that kind of hush you get when everyone wonders whether this was going to be a po-faced afternoon. As it turned out, there was no need to worry at all, because it was a sheer delight from beginning to end, so much so that the hour went by in what seemed to be the proverbial twinkling of an eye.

Carol Ann has an ongoing policy of seeking out relatively unknown, emerging poets and championing them. The presentation today included two of her latest protégés, Mark Pajak and Keith Hutson. Neither of them had ever appeared in a Book Festival event before – Mark said he had been here as a punter – and when I asked them afterwards how it felt now it was all over, they both testified to the adrenalin still working. You wouldn’t have known that they were anything other than totally relaxed from how they came across in front of the audience; this isn’t really all that surprising, as they had both given readings before, that much is obvious.

Mark Pajak is a Liverpudlian. He has a careful, lilting delivery which – he won’t thank me for this – reminds me a lot of Roger McGough. I know, such comparisons are inevitable whenever a poet from Liverpool appears. In Mark’s case there is something about the timbre of his voice and in the questioning inflection at the end of lines that evokes this. It is a style of delivery that captures and holds the attention, however, and it makes an audience hang on his every word. There is a lot of humour in his work, and a lot of tenderness. His account, a love poem if you will, of a stupid prank that he and the best friend of his childhood and youth carried out, and how it led on to the rest of their lives was… all right, I’ll say it… one of the most wonderful expressions of friendship since Edward Elgar wrote ‘Nimrod’. Over the top – moi? I’m being honest here, it was a Scouse David-and-Jonathan thing.

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Keith Hutson was either born in Lancashire and lives in Yorkshire, or vice-versa. Anyhow, the Roses cricket matches must be hell for him! In contrast to Mark, Keith delivers his poetry and the intervening patter with a broad if imperfect grin. One tooth is missing. “You should see the other poet. All I said was don’t give up the day job!” His speciality is the celebration of bygone stars and meteors of the music hall and variety. His subjects ranged from an impresario who, after a walk-out by his whole cast, performed solo on stage every character in the story of Dick Turpin, to bandleader Ivy Benson and the resentment directed her as an outstanding female in a male world, to railway-obsessed, RADA-trained (hah!) Reginald Gardiner. I think Keith was tickled when, afterwards, I said “Reginald Gardiner – that’s the ‘biddly-dee, biddly-dah’ man, right?” Readers, that’ll only mean something to my generation, people who remember ‘Uncle Mac’ on the radio on Saturday mornings!

Carol Ann bracketed the event. She flagged up the humour of the event by opening with her short poem about encountering a gorilla at Berlin Zoo; they stare each other out, the gorilla’s gaze barely concealing rage – “with a day’s more evolution, it could even be President.” Okay, well-judged there, she took a chance that a certain politician currently prominent on the world stage is not popular in his ancestral country and it paid off. Her finishing poem was a sestina. Carol Ann can do this, she can bend old poetic forms to her will. This sestina depended on the repetition of six words (of course): arseholes, gatekeepers, chancers, tossers, bullshitters, and patriots. In passing, I wonder if, when she first wrote that poem, she speculated beforehand which of those six words spellcheck was going to reject, and whether she experimented just to see whether her computer would accept the American spelling of ‘arsehole’. Anyway, that’s hardly relevant, because her sestina wove those words and several homophones round themselves like the patterning on a Fair Isle jumper. I confess that I have never been her greatest fan, but reviewing a reading by her and, as is necessary in a good review, leaving my prejudices outside, I can say that I now see precisely why she was awarded the Laureate. Applause.

Overall, this was a splendid event to start of my personal tour of duty at Charlotte Square – thank you, Book Festival – but as always it felt much too short. I know, that can’t be helped.

Paul Thompson