Saki and Frank O’Hara

Tuesday 26 May 2015

It wasn’t planned, but somehow both these pieces related to the theme of children’s relationships with adults. We’re at the end of the Marcus Coates exhibition, Dawn Chorus, and for me it’s been one of the most relevant and well thought through installations at Fabrica in Brighton. Probably every visitor has been waking up in the morning to the sound of the real dawn chorus this month – I have.

So to even temporarily imagine becoming a bird, surrounded by the screens and the singers – surely most of us wanted to when we were children? – was to be immersed in spring and new life. Saki’s story, ‘The Lumber Room’, makes connections like that between childhood, imagination and vitality. Yes, it has darker undertones, too, because satire is never entirely innocent. But the way Saki describes a boy’s immersion in his own imagination made links for me with the immersion that Marcus Coates enables in his installation.

Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916) used the pen name Saki. He was brought up by strict aunts and grandmother because his mother was killed when he was young. He was gay but never came out – it was illegal. His life was cut short at 46 in WW1. The story we read is one of several involving tyrannical aunts. One biography suggests,”his stories reveal a vein of cruelty in their author and a self-identification with the infant terrible”.

Frank O’Hara’s poem, ‘Ave Maria’, is blatant in its call for total immersion in the world of the imagination. In fact, the poem sees immersion as a prerequisite for the soul, for development, for happiness and for relationships between adults and children. A manifesto, a satirical reflection of those moral panics that litter every era, particularly the 1960s, the poem warns of the consequences of stifling imagination and freedom – hatred.

O’Hara (1926 – 1966) died at 40, a similar age to Saki. He became one of the best known poets in the New York school, worked with painters such as Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns. Even during the McCarthyite era in the US, O’Hara was openly gay, publishing the poem ‘Homosexuality‘ in 1954.

His work has had a profound influence on contemporary writing, for its dedication to the moment and celebrating being alive. Read John McCullough’s tribute to O’Hara on the Texts page of this blog. Marvel at the coincidence of how much birdsong there is in the poem.


Martina Evans

19 May 2015

Martina Evans is a novelist and poet who’ll be visiting the group on 9 June to talk about her work, so in anticipation of this visit, we looked at an essay she wrote and two of her poems.

Evans has published nine books of prose and poetry. Her most recent poetry collection is Burnfort Las Vegas (2014), shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award this year. And that shortlisting was the focus of the prose piece of Martina’s we read in the group, alongside two of her poems – The Mystery of Shoes and Low Key, both from Burnfort Las Vegas.

Martina runs her own reading round group, she has been an RLF Fellow, and teaches creative writing at Birkbeck University and City Lit in London. She grew up in County Cork but now lives in London.

Ali Smith wrote about Martina’s first novel Midnight Feast that her prose “shimmers somewhere strange and changeable” and her most recent novella in verse, Petrol, was described in Poetry Review as a “marvellous poem of youth, evoking a vanished Ireland”.

Martina’s a great reader of her work. Do not be deceived by how effortless it seems. Her poems are generous, life-affirming and often funny, but not always. She can weave a difficult subject into a deceptively innocent story. Her language is simple, she lays the language of speech on the page, but she also manages to mimic the complexity of thought and story telling as well as the way a street, town, village or family operates – and always fluidly.

Tania Hershman and Marilyn Hacker

Tuesday May 12

Tania Hershman’s story ‘The Special Advisor’, published in Five Dials Magazine, is modern and unsettling. We read this because she’s been commissioned to write a piece specifically for the first Royal Literary Fund reading groups conference in June. Hershman’s a poet as well as a fiction writer and is drawn to flash fiction, where perhaps the boundaries are blurred between the two.

But she’s also interested in science, having been a science journalist for many years, and this does provide some interesting background to the story we read. She has published two collections of short stories and her poetry is regularly published in magazines. There’s more about her varied and busy life on her own website:

Marilyn Hacker’s one of the pillars of contemporary poetry. We looked at her poem, ‘Essay on Departure’, a poem that examines what the present and past actually mean, through images of teenagers chatting, shutters, blue walls. An American living in Paris, she  is a friend of the poet Mimi Khalvati, who’s also been commissioned for the conference. We’ve read one of Mimi’s poems so I decided to look at one of the poets Mimi herself cites as important to her. She has been winning prizes since 1974, is known for her expertise in a number of forms, is a feminist and political activist.

She has published 14 collections of poetry and her most recent in the UK is Essays on Departure, New and Selected Poems (Carcanet 2006). She is a highly respected translator, literary critic and essayist. She has won a number of awards and fellowships. Read more about her at the website:  marilyn-hacker

Donald Barthelme, John Ashbery and John Clare

5 May 2015

I was alerted to the stories of Donald Barthelme (1931 – 1989) by the poet and fiction writer Martina Evans and what a find! Barthelme’s story, ‘The School’, was one of the most successful we’ve read as a group, I think, for its playfulness, ideas, its wonderfully simple and vivid exploration of innocence, death, language and life. A former reporter (and it shows in his writing), he was also director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Many of his stories are very short and would now be dubbed ‘flash fiction’. Much of his work was first published in the New Yorker.

Barthelme was also a creative writing teacher and his reading list includes the poet John Ashbery (b 1927), whose poem ‘For John Clare’ we looked at alongside John Clare’s (1793-1864) own poem, ‘House or Window Flies’. So Barthelme mentions Ashbery and Ashbery acknowledges Clare. Ashbery’s not the easiest poet to read and the poet, novelist and publisher John Harvey (Slowdancer Press) makes the connection between him and Barthelme in a blog post in which he says that the ‘fragmentary surrealism’ in one of Barthelme’s stories reminds him of Ashbery’s poetry.

There is an enormous amount of interest in John Clare, partly because of the 150th anniversary of his death last year, but his reputation has grown only after his death. He spent years in an asylum, having witnessed the countryside and its way of life destroyed during the Agricultural Revolution.

Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson and Alison Brackenbury

21 April 2015

‘Living with a Peacock’ is an essay that Flannery O’Connor wrote about her lifelong interest in birds, but particularly peacocks. It’s entertaining, informative and humane. It tells us about her life and about obsession, all through detailed descriptions of the habits of this royal bird, the bird of Hera.

O’Connor (1925-1964) was a southern American writer, who lived on a farm in Georgia, wrote regularly to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (two other writers we’ve read), published two novels and many short stories. Her most well known collection of short stories is ‘A good man is hard to find’ but her complete stories were published in 1971. She was a devout Catholic and often wrote about race. She is regarded as one of America’s leading short story writers. The essay we read was first published in Holiday magazine in the US in 1961.

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) is another giant of literature who wrote more than 1,000 poems and was largely unpublished until after her death, yet her influence is enormous. She lived in Amherst, in the United States and wrote intensively for just under 10 years, making her own books by hand. Her poems are compressed lyrics, often characterised by difficult syntax, but her work’s been so extensively studied that there are many guides, interpretations and analyses. We read the poem ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’.

Alison Brackenbury is the only contemporary writer we looked at and I included her poem ‘Lapwings’ in our session precisely because of that and to fit into the birds theme set by the Fabrica installation. Brackenbury is published by Carcanet press, was born in 1953 and her first collection appeared in 1981. Her Selected Poems came out in 1991 and she has a new collection in the pipeline, due for release in 2016. She’s won awards for her work, is a broadcaster, critic and keen blogger. ‘Lapwings’ was also published on the Friends of the Earth website.