Saturday, October 16

A Pain in the Head & Other Things

Recently I wrote a review of Michael Laskey’s new book for Staple magazine. It’s a strongly critical review, I have to admit, but their reviews editor, Clive Allen, was happy enough. But late last week he e-mailed me to say that the Staple editors had decided not to publish it because, to their mind, it was too critical. Not positive. Not affirming enough. He admitted a difficulty in finding the right words for a decision he obviously felt less than comfortable with. So I e-mailed Ann Atkinson, one of the editors, and asked her to tell me in her own words why the review was kicked out. She said their reviews policy included that a review “focus on the work rather than an overt display of the reviewer's erudition and opinion” and that they looked for reviews “which are generally positive, though absolutely not anodyne and ultimately which engage the reader enough to interest them in reading the whole book.” She then went on to say that “the overriding tone of the review was pointedly critical on a very personal level. Ultimately you had nothing positive to say about Michael Laskey's new collection; better to say nothing.” Now, since by “personal” she can’t have meant that I attacked Michael Laskey personally – which I would never do – I have to assume that she means I brought my personal opinions to the piece. My response to that, and to her, was what else was I supposed to bring? Someone else’s? She even suggested that “we would be very interested to read the article you could write which takes on some of the issues you raise in the review. The article is the place for your personal views, your exposure of the banality of the well-behaved poem…..” So, a review is no place for personal views. If anyone can explain this to me, please do. Ann Atkinson hasn’t.

On a different subject, but one also close to my heart, I have to mention my toothache. (Poetry and toothache: is there a connection to be made?) I lost a filling a week or so ago, but there was no discomfort even though it felt like I had a hole in my tooth the size of, um – (what’s a very big hole? A poetry magazine?) Anyway, I called the dentist up and made an appointment, which was for next week. But earlier this week a tooth on the opposite side of my mouth started hurting, and by Thursday morning I officially had “a very bad toothache”. I called the dentist up for an emergency appointment Thursday morning. It was his day off. Dentists should not have days off. So, I had to go Friday morning – yesterday. I had one big filling put in, and one bad tooth taken out. Both sides of my face were numb for a couple of hours, and when the numbness wore off the pain kicked in. And no matter which way you approach it, having a tooth out is horrible. The sound it makes in your head as the guy cracks it up and yanks it out…..

so, I had toothache when I went to two poetry gigs this week. (There is always a connection to be made.) Tuesday was Open Mic night at The Maze. Because it’s the “Poetry in the City” Festival this was the "Living Poets Magazine Annual Performance Poetry Competition”, which is a very long title. It was quite a long night, too. Actually, that’s not fair, although the last time I went to one of these things at The Maze was truly one of the longest nights of my life, it was so bad. And I’ve said most of what I want to say about open mic poetry before, in various places, but Tuesday night was okay, to be honest. The poetry was pretty uninteresting, by and large, but the beer there is good. One of my pals, Ian Collinson, is more or less the bloke who runs things, and I’m pleased for his sake that lots of people turned up and had a good time. At the end of the evening I found myself involved in a somewhat too serious discussion about the merits or otherwise of some of the poetry we’d heard. The guy I was talking with was one of the performers, and I’m afraid that when he said he didn’t actually read much poetry himself my heart sank quite a lot. My general point was that I tend to prefer poems that tell me something I don’t know, and which don’t always even know themselves what they’re telling me. Even a seriously heartfelt poem about first-hand experience of child abuse didn’t do anything a magazine article or a television programme might have done, or had done in the past. One of the reasons I don’t go to many open mic things is because of a certain predictability in what’s it’s going to be like. I felt myself stood there on Tuesday, listening, and under my breath asking the poets to Come on, surprise me, but they didn’t.

Mind you, that’s also one of the reasons I don’t go to many poetry readings. There are other reasons, of course. But I went to the Angel Row Library on Wednesday for the Leafe Press reading. There should be a link to the Leafe Press website here, but since there isn’t a Leafe Press website there’s no link. Alan Baker, who runs the press (and who should get a website) and two of the readers, Clive Allen (yes, the same one who is the reviews editor for that magazine I no longer mention) and Adrian Buckner, are friends of mine, but I’d not heard Adrian read before. And the reading? It was okay, and very different from The Maze the night before, not surprisingly. The poets and the poems were fine, but that café room somewhere at the top of the library building is a little impersonal and dull, and none of the poets were able to instil much life into the proceedings, although both Clive and Adrian are very good at humorous chit-chat between poems. Everyone was much livelier in the pub afterwards. Belinda mentioned to Adrian that he had a habit of trailing off quietly when he reached the last lines of his poems, and she had missed “the punch-lines” (her words) because of that. I think my suggestion that in future he read the last lines first has some mileage in it. I may try it myself.

There are other things on next week I should maybe go to, but I probably won’t. Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley-Williams are at Waterstone’s on Tuesday. Apparently they have written a book called “Writing Poetry”, which is “a popular manual for practising poets”. Is it?

Anyway, thank you for asking: I no longer have toothache, but my head does rather feel as if someone might have kicked it yesterday. In fact, it feels like I have toothache. But since there’s no tooth there, it must have another name.

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