Margaret Atwood and Wallace Stevens

Tuesday 17 March 2015

I broke my own routine this week. Generally I alternate work by men and women but this week I wanted to keep to a birds theme to tie in with the forthcoming installation at Fabrica by Marcus Coates, dawn-chorus.

So we started with an essay that Margaret Atwood wrote for The Guardian about how birds are disappearing at unprecedented rates. Jane Fordham and I had been talking about why there are birds on everything and have been for a few years – birds on bags, fabric, wallpaper, mugs, plates…..and yet they are dying or being killed. The skies are emptying. Atwood is a fiction writer who has made dystopias her own. During the discussion of her essay we wondered if Atwood would write the story in which birds have totally disappeared from the world. The group enjoyed the way Atwood wrote this essay using the techniques of fiction. It is as gripping and shocking as any of her stories.

Her website details her own green policy and links to bird protection organisations: margaretatwood and she has a reading list covering all aspects of the environment on a separate website: yearoftheflood

It was perhaps cheeky, but I paired with Atwood’s thought provoking essay, Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’.

Stevens died the year I was born, whereas I see Atwood more or less as a contemporary. Stevens worked for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut, most of his life and briefly supported the Italian fascist Mussolini. There is a biography here: poetry foundation So he and Atwood are far apart, politically. But although much of his poetry is obscure and difficult – he was a modernist writer, born in 1879 – this poem has endured as a favourite of many poets I know. The group enjoyed its starkness and simplicity and Gus Watcham suggested it read like a blackbird’s song.

There are more links for Atwood and Stevens on the Texts page.

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Jackie Kay and Mimi Khalvati

10 March 2015

Jackie Kay born 1961 is an MBE, a poet, short story writer and novelist. She achieved her first major success with the poetry collection, The Adoption Papers (Bloodaxe) which won several prizes. She returned to the subject of adoption in her prose memoir, Red Dust Road (2010).

Kay is professor of creative writing at the University of Newcastle. She has always been politically active and a supporter. Brought up in Glasgow by white parents, her birth parents were Scottish and Nigerian. Kay is one of the most versatile contemporary writers, a superb performer of her work and continues to support a wide range of political causes.

We read a story published in a Scottish magazine, What Ever, which I chose for its use of birds as symbols of a woman’s different stages of life. The bird theme ties into Fabrica’s next installation: Dawn Chorus by Marcus Coates, which opens on 2 April.

Our poet this week was Mimi Khalvati, born in Teheran in 1944. She grew up on the Isle of Wight and is now based in London. Her first book, White Ink, was published when she was 47. Like several outstanding UK poets, Mimi Khalvati was first published by Smith Doorstop, a Sheffield based publisher. She has since published eight collections with Carcanet Press.

In 2007, The Meanest Flower  was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, a Financial Times Book of the Year and shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Her collection, Child: New and Selected Poems 1991-2011 was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation and recently,The Weather Wheel (2014), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and a Book of the Year in The Independent.

We read two poems by Mimi: Ghazal To Hold Me and Migration. Mimi is one of the most expert contemporary exponents of the ghazal and there are links on the Texts page to an explanation of this form.

Geoffrey Dutton and Robert Lowell

Geoffrey Dutton published 11 collections of poetry in Australia, a significant amount of non-fiction, children’s stories and novels, as well as a collection of short stories. This week we looked at one of those stories, ‘The Wedge-Tailed Eagle’, which I’d discovered in an old anthology, Modern Short Stories. It was first published in The Reporter in 1968.

I knew nothing about Dutton, although an obituary in the Independent newspaper writes: “He was a formidable force as a literary catalyst, founding some of his country’s best-known literary journals, as an editor for Penguin Australia and later co-founder of the publisher, Sun Books.” obituary-geoffrey-dutton-1200357.html

Dutton’s story lodged itself in my mind, partly because of its intense descriptions of flying and at one point Dutton echoes a saying that was on our mantelpiece at home when I was a child – the air is unforgiving of mistakes. (My father was an aircraft engineer). It polarised discussion, which was interesting. Dutton had been a flying instructor in the RAAF.

Dutton, born in 1922 (died 1998), was a friend of Laurie Lee, Patrick White and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Russian poet. He established the Adelaide Festival of the Arts and among the journals he set up was The Angry Penguins modern-austn-poetry which published Dylan Thomas, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and James Dickey, among others. He published Peter Carey’s first short story in another journal, Australian Letters. Dutton’s collection of poems, Antipodes in Shoes, won the Grace Leven Prize. australia-s-avant-garde-angry-penguins-from-art-to-literature/.

I was first introduced to Robert Lowell’s poem ‘Skunk Hour’ but the poet Matthew Sweeney during the 1980s when I was working as a journalist. Sweeney encouraged me and other would-be writers to read the American poets he loved. The poem made an impression and it is one of those iconic texts many have heard of, even if they’ve never read it!

‘Skunk Hour’ was first published in Lowell’s 1959 collection, Life Studies, which has been listed as one of the most groundbreaking books of the 20th century because of its confessional quality, ushering in a new era in poetry. Lowell, born 1917 (died 1977), twice won the Pullitzer Prize and many other awards, including the National Book Award for that collection.

He is one of the most critically important American poets, a great friend of Elizabeth Bishop, the-armadillo-and-the-skunk, of Randall Jarrell and William Carlos Williams. He suffered mental illness throughout his life and spent periods of time in hospital. Lowell also wrote for the theatre.

He was a conscientious objector during WW2 and one of his most famous poems, alongside ‘Skunk Hour’, is ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’, an elegy to a cousin who was killed during that war poem/178941.

He taught at the universities of Essex and Kent and was visiting fellow at Oxford University in the 1970s.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Julia Copus

24 February 2015

We read ‘A Private Experience’ this week, a short story I first read in The Guardian, which sets two women together during a riot in a market in Nigeria. Adichie is a prize-winning writer, best known for her novels Half of a Yellow Sun (Fourth Estate) and Purple Hibiscus (Alonquin). She has more recently released Americanah (Fourth Estate), a novel about race and identity.

Her work is translated worldwide. She was born in 1977 in Nigeria and now lives between Nigeria and the USA. She won the Orange prize for Half of a Yellow Sun and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2007. Clothes were an subconscious link between this story and the poem we read by Julia Copus.

Kim’s Clothes is taken from Copus’ collection, In Defence of Adultery (Bloodaxe). She is also an award winning writer – her first collection The Shuttered Eye (Bloodaxe) appeared in 1995 and her most recent is The World’s Two Smallest Humans (Faber), shortlisted for the Costa Prize and TS Eliot prize in 2012. She has been a first prize winner in the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize.

Copus writes radio plays, for children and on writing. She is working on a biography of the poet Charlotte Mew.