Monday, June 27, 2016

Guardian Poem of the Week Forum

Response to a Nessa O'Mahony Facebook update on Carol Rumens' latest Seren Books poetry collection, Animal People.

I don't think Carol bothers much with Facebook. At least that is the impression I get from what she says at her forum for global poetry lovers, Poem of the Week; where I have been lucky enough to learn a lot from this legendary figure in British poetry.

I was there the very first week she started, at the beginning of October 2007, six years into my writing journey, with a poem in translation, Far Rockaway, by the Welsh-language poet Iwan Llwyd, translated by Robert Minhinnick.

I was in the thick of my write-thru phase, where you take one text, and re-configure the words into another. And when you get the hang of it, split the words themselves into their constituent letters and re-configure them into different words. It was my contemporary equivalent of Ogham exercises, as I had in my mind the idea that what I was doing was pretty much similar as a practical and intellectual exercise, to how the old bards would've been introduced to and worked with the concepts behind Ogham.

The Guardian Books Blog had not long started then, and I was on my second or third username there, HumanLove, after my combative chip on the shoulder speculative discourse had got me banned from every online poetry forum I'd joined. I was still learning, half way through my own equivalent of the twelve year Fili curriculum of yore; facing into the second half of it.

At that point I was a typical working-class gobshite, very much viewing any Published poet as a know-nothing fraud and my own unpublished rants the voice of the common people.

Over the next six years there I went thru literally hundreds of usernames, seeing myself in the phantasmagorical swirl of my own imagination as some hard done to victim of a conspiracy by the intimidatingly titled Community Moderators to silence and stop me from writing. There'd be long stretches when I'd be left alone, and then, sometimes justified, at other times out of the blue, the username I was posting under would have its 'posting privileges' removed and the merry-go-round would start up all over again.

Some names would last a couple of months, some a week or two, and others not even a day. Some days I'd get through multiple usernames, and by the end had refined the sign-up process down to several minutes. Setting up as a result hundreds of email accounts to facilitate myself getting back in and writing there again.

Around 2012/13, after years of gradually being wore down, I finally conceded defeat once they really clamped down on me and anything I posted was being removed within minutes of its appearance. I spent a year away and when I returned (as gwionb) was left completely alone. Clearly because without me influencing things and trying to be the centre of attention all the time, the poster politics moved on. And so a year of silence and the other voices had filled the void and replaced me as the primary troublemaker. And it had become obvious once I first fell silent there, that in the grand scheme of human doings, what I had been getting up to on the Books Blog was utterly harmless. And also, as nobody else had been doing it, not entirely without merit.

It was a unique way to learn, to spam at length and get out what I had been reading. All the translations of the old bardic texts. And writing there teaches the newb how to focus on a poem at hand and not get sidetracked into talking of extraneous things.

You knew you had written something well when you posted it and the place fell silent and it got left up. The very best was when they left the writing up but removed the posting privileges of the account that contributed it. You learnt from experiencing it, how crafty the publishing game is. How the exclusions are done silently, and to the naive unknowing Reader it appearing as if you'd just stopped writing and gone away of your own accord, rather than some very clever anonymous people trying to impose their view of what publishing and poetry is.

Very much a cat and mouse game, with the goal being to write a comment so well that if they removed it they just looked foolish in the eyes of any objective Reader. And having your identity banned with such regularity, taught you how to be spontaneous, keep on the move, and showed you exactly where we all stand in the scheme of reality and publishing. As some there, the long timers who have never broke the rules, they would be gutted to get banned.

Week in and out writing in response to the poem Carol chooses, was a perfect way of gaining critical skills, because after a while you gain lots of experience and learn how to handle yourself among others.

Most there are anonymous, and there's a healthy mix of folk from all over the English speaking world. From general Readers who just love poetry and talking about it, to professional writers who are clearly very eloquent and knowledgeable academics and published poets, who, I am guessing, love practicing anonymously there because they are free of any concerns published writers have about how they will be perceived and received should they start speaking in a voice they wouldn't feel comfortable with under their real identities.

It was when I finally gave up there for the year that I was forced onto Facebook. Very much viewing the platform as a last resort, and far less appealing than Carol's gaffe, because, on the whole, with a few odd exceptions and oases of tolerance, you don't get the same mix of amateur and pro all in the one place writing for the sheer love of poetry. It is far more strategic on the Facebook platform with the pros, as most are either selling something or networking with one liners written to suck up and fawn. The Little Facebooker environment is ubiquitous, with people being able to just screen out any voice that doesn't agree with our own. So the norm is to have hermetically sealed bubbles of total agreement that do not reflect in any way the real world with all its differences of opinion and disagreement. 

I gave Carol a lot of unwarranted stick over the early years, for which, once I recognised what a troll I had been, winced and apologised many times for my outrageous behaviour. But I think now, after nearly ten years, Carol has forgiven me; as everyone there recognises we are part of something unique in the English language poetry world. That is all down to her, Ms Rumens, as we old timers fondly refer to Carol.

Although to the outsider and newcomer it can appear very cliquey and incestuous, with the same voices - no longer my own - dominating the chat with off topic poster politics and theatrical personal blather; it is a truly democratic and great place for beginners to learn how to write criticism. At first Carol was slightly stand-offish but now goes out of her way to welcome and encourage new voices there.

After running for four hundred and whatever consecutive weeks, I am drawn to participate there now only once every few weeks, and post far less than I used to during the first six years when I was there every day gushing like a river. When I knew I was doing something that seemed weird in the eyes of most, but I trusted my instinct that the process would resolve itself. Which it did, around about last year, after fourteen years of being, in my own mind, a student and wannabe bardic bore.

The other part of the fun there is pondering on the identities of the other regulars who are obviously professional writers. There is one called Pinkroom who has been very careful never to reveal their gender or anything else, but is clearly someone at the heart of British poetry, knowing every single poet's work. And someone who I have thought at various points over the last decade, has been everyone in British poetry. The only thing they have given away about themself is that they support Newcastle FC.

The finest mind and most eloquent critic there, in my own opinion at least, is an anonymous poster, gardinergreen, who is also very careful not to reveal anything about where or what gender they are, who rarely strays off topic, and who I have thought is so good they must be either David Wheatley doing commando criticism, or some Yale poet enjoying themselves incognito.

Slainte to Carol, and long may she reign. What her forum taught me is how to view a poem through any lens, come at it from every angle, adopt any position, and write from every critical perspective. It smoothed the chips off my shoulder, as when I began, using the pronoun 'one' felt very false, until learning through the act and experience of writing, that the English language has no restrictions, and it is only our own mind's paranoia that self-excludes us from it. Her unfailing patience and coruscating wit, over the years, through all our ups and downs, led me to to understand what is important to succeed in this game of finding oneself through language. Perseverance, loyalty, and, most importantly of all, Love.

What Heaney, in his essay, Poetry and Professing, labels 'professional love'. 

Or as the Mossbawn mage eloquently informs us:

'To put it simply, I believes that the life of society is better served by a quotation- bore who quotes out of a professional love than by an “unmasking”-bore who subverts out of theory.'

And, as I have said to several times at her gaffe, though it may not be worth much, is wholly sincere, I will defend Carol and her work to the end.

She is a star, and I am one of her biggest supporters, of her the person.

Grá agus síocháin.

Write-Thru of the first week's poem.


Follow me down to a rock far away, far
rock away, golden bard singing

in strings loaded with karma, naming
the street an ocean of lovers,

and night choir whispering a turnpike
turning black coffee to fine gasoline

rain. Clothing two moon-watchers
touching the road-finger, counting

the roadkill, uncertainly tipped
to follow us down to a rock far away;

who star in the air above a changing
bay, in acid filled lullabies painting

a rainbow on every guitar
in the neighbourhood's brownstone.

Fair is the saturnalian rock far away,
turning each hand to write our graffiti

like secret bar-stool rats,
understanding our home place is under

the subway track, where we walk
with each other carrying vowels

following you down to Sidhe streets
far away from the consecrated rock.

Gun city waiting for a train of love
songs and good will mixing,

vote what is left of the the dew,
seek to kiss it today, in Far Rockaway,

Far Rockaway. 

Kevin Desmond

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