Sunday, January 31, 2010

Poetry Live for Haiti

Twenty poets were already gathered onstage at Westminster Hall, when the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy entered, along with Sarah Brown and Gordon Brown. It was a great stroke of theatre, the unannounced presence and support of the Prime Minister at a Poetry Live fundraiser for Haiti. I was struck by the wave of warmth I felt toward him - a sense seemingly shared by much of the large audience.
He spoke of the need to support Haiti ... and the practical step Britain has just made of buying up the nation's supplies of corrugated iron to ship to the island, so shelters can be built before the oncoming hurricane season. He also spoke most eloquently about the role of poetry - I'm pleased to have a prime minister who can state 'the mark of the true poet is the extraordinary extent of your empathy.'
In my new role at the Larkin Centre I keep prodding the notion of poetry addressing a social agenda. It's surprisingly contentious as poets fight for the write of the lyric poet to look inward if she / he wants to. So it was fine to see so many of our illustrious ones take to the stage - Gordon Brown handing over to Dannie Abse first of all.
They did their bit - and at other Live Aid events, of course, musicians strut their stuff without writing new songs. I must say I had hoped that poets might have forged some poetry as the expression of their reaction to the crisis. This wasn't the mode taken - Andrew Motion, for example, read about denting the lid of an Aga by sitting on it as a child while his mother ground best steak into mince (one of the more curious choices perhaps). But money was raised, people rallied. And if it took the prime minister to come up with the finest piece of writing specific to the occasion. so be it.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dr Benjamin Zephaniah

I tracked Benjamin Zephaniah down to the robing room. We were all getting dolled out in our full academic regalia of gowns and caps. Finer still was Benjamin's brown full-length coat, trim-fitting falling to a few inches above his ankles. One clear way of keeping yourself a poetry superstar is maintaining the look. The coat was made toward his own description by LUKE, a designer friend in London who also kits our Frank Bruno.
Benjamin was with us at Hull Unversity to receive an honorary doctorate - I was the presenting officer, writing and delivering the citation. Benjamin develops a natural warmth with an audience. His closing speech was perfectly pitched, and apparently impromptu.
He doesn't like working from text, but feels no nerves at all on standing in front of an audience. The 'impromptu' speech fits in with a steady year-long, global flow of such events. This honorary degree was his fifteenth. I'm interested to know what the world record is, whether he's pushing it at all. He's not really chasing the title, since he's turned down four offers - those he felt were simply 'hey it's cool to give it to a black man' promptings. As a kid, dyslexic, leavng school at 13 unable to read and write, he had ganged up with others to attack Grammar School kids offended by their level of education. Now his firm mission is to promote education, especially among the poor and black. Going to university can appear to be selling out. By accepting degrees, he's setting the other model.
Stacking up the honorary titles is surely fun too. He told me he was speaking to Nelson Mandela by phone the other day, Mandela's voice now slowing and more crackly with age. 'I've received eight honorary docotrates around the world, you know,' Mandela told him. Benjamin was able to laugh. 'Me, I'm about to get my fifteenth,' he answered.
Progress across the campus was slow, halting for photos (I'm picking up tricks: 'it's a day in the life of a supermodel' is one mode of his quips) and signing autographs ('Benjamin loves Pat' - 'Stay True!' the type of added comment, words instead of smiley faces).
He found time for a session with our MA Creative Writing students, as perhaps one of the easiest men in the world to interview. Answers flow. A remarkable aspect of his poetic voice is the way he can naturally shift a conversation into performance of a remembered poem. Performance is his natural mode, whether in a hall filled with thousands, a small group like our own, or even his smallest ever audience, a bus driver from Luton in full uniform who paid a five pence admission and sat, an audience of one, for the full Zephaniah experience at the top of a tower in Canary Wharf. (It was a newspaper's 'the person I'd most like to meet' competition; the ticket price was Benjamin's choice, making it the world's smallest audience in the world's highest place - so he does chase records, but they need to be quality ones.) My favourite anecdote regarding audiences was his tale of being left on a dusty street in the middle of a village in Zimbabwe. With no heralding, no-one set to expect him, he was left to start his performance, as lonesome as a busker. Within two lines of poetry an audience had started to gather, and soon a crowd. At the end of the first poem folk said, 'that's great. Here's one of my own.' The performance became interactive, a sharing.
Benjamin has homes in village Lincolnshire and in Beijing, but gets little time in either. He was driving off after lunch for Heathrow, not to fly anywhere but to have meetings in a hotel with people who were flying in to see him. His regret is that the celebrity roadstyle leaves him little time to write. His novels he can write in snatches, given a few hours, but poetry he finds needs more space, more surrounding vacancy. He's collapsed a couple of times on stage - in the 46 performances in 40 days type of schedule - exhaustion not something he recognized till it hit him. But then he has poems that don't work on the page. He writes for his voice but for his body and face too - poems that don't work without that physical backup. Performance gives its own creative buzz.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pen and ink scribing - and Francis King

Chatting with Francis King at the Turkish restaurant Tas after the 'in conversation' event with him on Thursday, I mentioned that I was writing my new novel by hand, in old-fashioned pen and ink.
'But why?' he asked, quite astonished. At 86 he stays utterly nimble to the moment. I would expect so venerable a writer to be shy of computers, and am enjoying a pen and ink correspondence with Edna O'Brien, a relative chicken at 79.
'I'm weary of computers,' I explained. 'I needed a break. And all that time a novel needs, when you're not writing but just staring into space, I now stare out of the window rather than into a screen.'
Francis writes entirely on the computer, and was bereft the other day when glitsches saw him off email for two days. He gave the audience at the London Review Bookshop (a great venue for talks, this one a sell-out of its 110 seats, all with a fair view) one secret for how he stays so up-to-the-minute in terms of dialogue, the voices of the street, and 21st century social concerns. He takes his bus pass, climbs onto any bus that seems interesting, lets it take him somewhere new, continues the journey with another bus, and overhears conversations all the way. He has a remarkable aural memory.
I got home towards midnight and went straight to bed. Francis was still up, on his computer, writing me a thankyou email for the evening. He sleeps from 12.30 to 7.30 and then is up again, ready to write some more.
My own novel is set in 1994 ... and then back in 1938 / 39. It has meant a huge amount of research. Francis's Cold Snap is set in 1947 ... the year AFTER he published his first novel. Historical writing for him is from lived experience.
The evening's conversation clearly did me good. I came home, sat down with my paper and pen, and finished the first draft of that new novel, Play Bach. I'm remarkably light-headed today, no longer carrying inside me a story that first lodged itself in my head fourteen years ago. Of course I do now have to type it up. That's where the pen and ink mode no longer seems so canny.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hans Werner Henze

When a youngster and prone to specious arguments, I battled my mother on whether R.F.Delderfield (her favourite writer) or D.H.Lawrence offered the best model of a writer's life. I believed, I think erroneously (he died of cancer aged 60), that Delderfield had retired gently to the Devon coast. Lawrence raged into his early death from TB (surely, my distorted romantic self knew, to be my own cause of death. If it took Lawrence and Keats, why should I be spared?). The raging toward death, the 'not going gently' displayed by Lawrence, was for me a mark of the true artist.
I had to work hard to shed  the D.H.Lawrence model from my life and writing. I still hold on to that sense of that artistic flame burning ever more brightly though (unlike Kazuo Ishiguro who seems convinced of the waning powers age brings to writers).
Last night saw a concert given over to the music of Hans Werner Henze at London's Barbican. I first came to know Henze's work in 1975, when I had left home to work in West Berlin. Henze was the buzz name on the contemporary music scene. I'm still awaiting the moment when Henze's music truly opens to me. Its lyricism is praised byt I find something too compacted about the work, the moments that are designed as musical epiphanies have something of an angry, declarative shout to them - perhaps a shout of someone still there, existing and triumphing against the odds.
Henze sat nearby last night, a frail and dapper figure, neat bowtie and such elegant black shoes. It was very moving to see him at last. When he was nearing 80 nd in very poor health, it was his partner of almost fifty years, Fausto Moronu, who died. Instead of wilting, Henze's response was Elogium musicum, a four movement piece for vast chorus and orchestra. It's a blazing response of a frail octogenarian to being ripped apart from the man he loved.
The auditorium rose to give the man a standing ovation. It was moving to stand there too, look direct into this dark and steady eyes for some moments, and appreciate the bravery and magnificence of such creative resistance to the horrors of the world.
So I can work harder too, work my way into those moments of last night's programme that did rouse and astonish me, unpeel his work to find what it reveals. Henze became a revolutionary socialist, abandoned by most of his friends as a result in the kate 1960s. Political principle has been one clear strand in his life, but so, clearly, has love, and honouring the breadth of the creative force which drives him. He's in a frail body now, but was a luminous presence, and a fine model for a life still blazing towards its end.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Puerto de la Cruz

Tucked off the top of a steep staircase in Puerto de la Cruz is the Orchid Garden. It's a relic of early British yearning for footholds in the sun. They set up the first hotel in this northern Tenerife town in the 19th century. The explorer Richard Burton came this way, and Agatha Christie with her daughter in 1923 (hence the kitsch photo, the garden the setting for her tale 'The Mysterious Mr Quin'). The British are now in  a minority, Germans and Finns bulking up the winter tourist numbers.
The Orchid Garden is in truth past its prime. The botanical gardens are splendid though, stemming form the 18th century when plants were brought from the Americas and Asia to acclimatize here before being moved to Spain.
We were acclimatizing too - writing under a blue sky on the roof of the hotel, watching clouds swirl around the summit of Mount Teide, as snowstorms battered Britain. Walks were along the Playa del Jardin, to a wondrously good restaurant at the far end (Tambo).

Friday we meandered through the town of La Laguna (the model, so they say, for all the Spanish-style cities of the USA) and were walking the laurel forest, apparently pretty much as it has been for twenty million years. And today I've been treading down the centres of London's smaller roads, where traffic has melted the snow a little. I've begun the task of typing up the handwritten pages of my novel from my last computer-averse weeks, much expanding and improving the work as I go.
I finished Andrei Kurkov's The President's Last Love as the plane touched down at Gatwick, a heartwarming satirical ride through some winters in Kiev. Now I'm settling in to Cold Snap, Francis King's new novel set in wintry 1940s Oxford. It seems the Canarian sunshine has warmed me enough not to need escape reading.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year

I've been collecting these blogs in my head recently ... time passes, the idea fades, new blogs start writing themselves.
In truth, I've been computer-averse. Taking the chance of a break from university teaching, I've been pushing my new novel forward. It had been developing fine on my computer, but I've reverted to a fountain pen, black ink and an A4 notebook. When it comes to staring, I do so through a window and not at a screen. It's all quite calming.
Tomorrow we're off on holiday for a week, when my restcure from computers should complete itself.
In the meantime, Happy New Year to You. May your 2010 unfold in a most pleasant way.