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Category Archives: Prose Poems

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms is a free flowing pamphlet-length prose poem, a sinuous sweep through the first quarter of the 21st century as it lurches into and out of lockdown. I’m reminded of Carl Jung’s essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses in which he refers to the work as a cosmic tapeworm. Jung initially wants us to see this as an insult, characterising writing he saw produced as much by an autonomic nervous system as by an aesthetic intelligence. But something in Jung’s writing feels conflicted. It’s as if he almost admires Ulysses for its parasitic processing power. And as it turns out, he does. He says of the book:

     There is life in it, and life in never exclusively evil and destructive…it wants to be an 

     eye of the moon, a consciousness detached from the object, in thrall neither to the 

     gods, nor to sensuality, and bound neither by love nor hate, neither by conviction nor 

     by prejudice ‘Ulysses’ does not preach this but practices it—detachment of 

     consciousness is the goal the through the fog of this book

Atoms is a tape worm. It is the 21st century eating itself. It has an internal logic this way, it has aesthetics this way, and in this way it is alive. You don’t feel the sense of the poet behind the poem, generating the old A level questions, what is Gresswell thinking? what does he mean? The writing can do that for itself, thank you. It’s a clever worm, a socialist worm, a worm that frankly has to stomach a lot when it comes to eating history. Deep down it’s probably quite glad to be a worm, that it doesn’t have to retch, or stop to demonstrate its outrage. It can leave that to the reader, maybe even its author, but it won’t care about that. The best writing has long since ceased to care for its author:

     Some of the atomic figures were fictitious. The prime minister instilled a sense of

     calm into the proceedings. More zygotes wrapped themselves around the institutions. 

     They bled racism into the walls of their buildings. Hurrah for common sense and the  jaws of death.  (p.6)

Try and figure out the series of ironies here, finishing with that ‘hurrah’. That last sentence is like the ghost in the machine—who says this? The are aspects to the writing that look programmatic, or like a form of cut-up or fold-in, splicing different words and phrases against each other. Here you can imagine the ‘atomic figures’ and ‘zygotes’ could just be dropped in from the discourse suggested by the title of the poem, but in another way they just feel literal, like the sentence between them (except, of course, when has our prime minister done this, really?). And that’s it.   

The language of atoms and zygotes keeps breaking the surface, as if a submerged and subversive force, pre-sentient, questioning us as to who is in charge. The political, the social, undermined by the real drivers, particles, cells, chaos theory: 

     No more night flying caffeine cells to dispute wages dismantled by atomic discipline and wiring.  (p.11)

     Foot-first though the frostbit forest. Matriculation in the atomic sequence. No one 

     here to captivate an audience.  (p.16)

     Still pumping hard a faithful heart draws blood rushing crucifixion to the art of 

     capital atoms. Capital letters adorning wisps of lager clouds.  (pp.27-28)

The connection between the senses of ‘capital’ here isn’t metaphoric, it’s literal. Something in Atoms wants to tell us that nothing is metaphor, everything is contiguous, metonymy. 

Atoms is angry. Who is it angry with? Trump, Johnson and Starmer are named targets, but across the whole piece it seems plain that Atoms is angry with an ideology, a neo-liberal ideology underpinned by the return of humanism. It is angry to know that beneath everything, humanism is not humane. You can see the influence of Sean Bonney in this poem, but with one major difference. Bonney’s work takes things personally, and there is a subject position to suffer it all for us. Here Gresswell’s text presents no subject: if you feel the abjection consequent to its violence, there is no proxy. You take it. You have to live here:

     Recalled and on pianos in destitution unfurled by Universal Credit music. Fashions  come and go in times of rigor mortise. (p.35)

Keith Jebb 12th March 2022

Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, translations, fiction, flash fiction and creative nonfiction by Mandy Pannett, Greg Bright, Penny Hope, David Sahner, Stephen Paul Wren, Alexandra Fössinger, Mark Russell, Maurice Scully, Gavin Selerie, Mandy Haggith, Lynne Cameron, Sarah Watkinson, Jeremy Hilton, Gerald Killingworth, Lesley Burt, Nic Stringer, Sam Wilson-Fletcher, Lilian Pizzichini, Paul Kareem Tayyar, Beth Davyson, Rethabile Masilo, Tracy Turley, Olivia Tuck, Elisabeth Bletsoe & Chris Torrance’s Thirteen Moon Renga, Wei Congyi Translated by Kevin Nolan, Basil King, Robert Sheppard, Lucy Ingrams, John Freeman, Mélisande Fitzsimons, Deborah Harvey, David Harmer, David Ball, Rupert M. Loydell, Jeremy Reed, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Sian Thomas, Chaucer Cameron, Huw Gwynn-Jones and Simon Collings.

The critical section consists of editorial, essays, articles and critical reviews by David Caddy, Elisabeth Bletsoe Remembering Chris Torrance, Jeremy Reed on The Letters of Thom Gunn, Simon Collings’ ecocritical perspective of Rae Armantrout, Isobel Armstrong on Peter Larkin, Barbara Bridger on Barbara Guest, Andrew Duncan on Elisabeth Bletsoe & Portland Tryptich, Frances Presley on Harriet Tarlo,  Simon Jenner on Geoffrey Hill, Steve Spence on Sarah Crewe, Mandy Pannett on Charles Wilkinson, Clark Allison on Ken Edwards, Guy Russell on Paul Vangelisti, Norman Jope on Ariana Reines, Lyndon Davies on Elena Rivera and Scott Thurston, Harriet Tarlo on Carol Watts, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 10 and Notes On Contributors.

A Democracy of Poisons by Tim Allen (Shearsman Books)

A Democracy of Poisons by Tim Allen (Shearsman Books)

This is a very rich collection of challenging, finely written prose poems, with numerous surreal touches, fairly unreservedly among the best I’ve seen. There is though something of a self effacing or deprecatory tone, as the unappealing title would suggest, which can make the writing dense and either understated or uncertain of what it’s accomplishing.

There is actually something telling or impressionable on just about every page. The narrative is discontinuous, but threads run through it. It might be a fault or limitation of the book that a sense of narrative progression is mostly lacking. Indeed, each of the 100 prose poems is pretty much self sufficient. There are no claims to continuity as we might find in fiction. 

That said the book is great to dip into, each poem consists of four stanzas or paragraphs about 7 lines long, and the title markers, all of just one word that appears in the text are there for orientation. Some key or highlighted phrases are also italicised. The first titles open out with ‘Walk’, into a forest, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Growing’, but perhaps a fairly indicative one might be ‘Cynic’ (no.34), surely indicative of present philosophic inclinations.

It’s a rich heady brew. One might say though that it somewhat lacks an upbeat quality, it is kind of deflating, or challenging as to how we deal with that cynicism or feeling low. So that would appear to be a deflating lack, indeed the last poem is called ‘Desert’.

It is useful I think to indicate where that acidic title gains mention which is most closely matched in poem 17, ‘Flock’. Part of the relevant passage is:

‘Don’t dismay, a simple book read by nobody special gallups uphill as fast as it descends the hill of be careful what you wish for but how to be careful when the world is a democracy of poisons’. (p23)

stated quite dystopically. Plainly Tim Allen feels this is apposite, right, in what some might take to be resentment; but he doesn’t dwell on it or offer a longer exposition. This might even be consistent with an amount of cynicism. Elsewhere in no.67 we find:

‘In the outside world the books earned differing amounts but here in the library of democratic poisons having no time for books gave them all equal space on the shelves.’ (p73)

There might be something of a thesis here, perhaps of the one size fits all, lowest common denominator, greatest happiness number that the book sits ill with. Elsewhere Allen says ‘I work underground too writing subversive literature only blind moles read’ (p29).

Andrew Duncan’s commentary in his back cover blurb might also be worth citing:

‘As the prose units of democracy of poisons develop, their polished and surreal surface becomes more and more convincing. The title presumably refers to a 24-hour media slew in which toxic ideas try to win popularity contests. There is a camaraderie of bad ideas.’

which I find pertinent and useful and indeed promisingly speculative. There surely is an unqualified seeking after of popular kudos, more likes on Twitter, more hits on YouTube and so on. Does anybody question the quality of those moments or instances that are getting the most hits, some of which are into the millions?

It is no doubt worth mentioning that Allen was associated with the very interesting and well wrought Terrible Work website, now defunct. This is his third Shearsman book following The Voice Thrower (2012) and Settings (2008).

What I might surmise is that the book kind of insists on a stubborn title, but that this belies a rather complex but fairly accessible design given that each poem is subdivided into four accessible chunks. Many of these poems I suspect will hold up well to rereading.

This then, one might say, is classic prose poetry, albeit with an amount of difficulty attached;- the title poses a barrier as much as an invite. It is, certainly, not aspiring to be a thing of beauty, but of perhaps acerbic plain, surreally inflected speech that would rather be true or authentic. This book is Allen’s first from Lancashire having moved on from Plymouth. The book is dedicated to his associates back there, the ‘Truth Brothers’. Allen also mentions that the recommendation of the title came from Joanna Ashcroft after a reading. (p108)

Allen’s poems seem to convey that they are driven in part by a wilful perseverance but also an amount of anger, which might seem inevitable, if one puts craft before popularity. I suspect it’s a little compromising and down to find a conclusion at no.100 ‘Desert’, but then this may simply be telling it like it is. There is in a sense too perhaps a defensive formalist sticking to, in the sense that the formal design fully encompasses the entire book. But it is full of great insights and often inspired phrasings and sits very well with the most striking examples I’ve seen of contemporary prose poetry.

Clark Allison 3rd January 2022

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The ‘small square of blocks of prose presented as poetry’, as Ian Seed once defined prose poems, is deftly crafted in this collection, which is the final volume of a quartet, following New York HotelIdentity Papers and Makers of Empty Dreams. The stories, or, more accurately, fragments of stories, are tight, sharp and fascinating in their essentiality, revealing a surreal perspective that exists at the verge of absurdity, an upside-down world that is real and unreal at the same time. As in surrealist thought, so-called tangible reality is considered artificial, and, in opposition to that, the world of dreams, or nightmares, becomes the ‘real’ world. It is a subversive perspective that challenges and questions not only our certainties but also our perceptions. The detailed descriptions present in Seed’s prose poems set his pieces in a credible environment that is nevertheless reverted and subverted in each prose poem. It is a play of mirrors where characters and images are always shifting and suggest different meanings or no meaning at all. This conveys a sense of deep uncertainty but also great freedom of thought and movement. Repetitive patterns give consistency to this collection in a relentless exploration of themes such as loneliness, isolation, loss of identity, absence of passion and alienation; they emerge from everyday life and obsess the protagonist.

We found what looked like a piece of light, unmoving, frozen in the shape of a human being. We were afraid to touch it – it looked cold enough to burn us. What would happen if we could unfreeze it? Would it melt and vanish, or would it keep its shape and come alive? Could we take it away with us? Would it make any difference to how we lived, or loved, one way or another? (‘In the Empty House’)

     Some settings recur, such as second-hand bookshops, tunnels, corridors, beds, cafés and different cities located in Italy, France and England where Seed has travelled and lived. They are claustrophobic environments where the protagonist feels lost, haunted by his visions, and diminished and ignored by his friends and family. People who are commonly considered vulnerable, such as elderly people, migrants, homeless people and orphans, are sometimes depicted, with deliberate irony, as threatening; they invade his space and he flees from them. The poet’s inner self observes this comedy of life of sorts and is detached and estranged; he strays from the main focus of his stories and is eventually distracted by marginal details that derange the apparent logic of the discourse. Thus, the stories are unresolved and each ending often contradicts the beginning in an exploration that seems to be triggered by pure curiosity for its own sake. As Baudelaire claims in the introduction of Paris Spleen, prose poems have ‘neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, it is all alternately and reciprocally head and tail’. He adds that prose poems communicate a reverie in a ‘poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul’. Seed also refers to the prose poems of Kenneth Patchen (Love and War Poems, published in 1968) he read in his youth as well as to William Blake, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy and Jeremy Over. In his essay ‘Discovery and Rediscovery (published in Fortnightly Review on 19 October 2018), Seed remarks how much he admires the lyricism of the language of the prose poem that contrasts with the objectivity of the description. According to him, this greatly enforces the message and highlights a subversive side out of academic and commercial worlds. This strategy attracted his imagination to the point of inspiring him to write in new ways after two decades of silence and to publish his work eventually. Seed’s work is not only in line with the tradition of the prose poems of Baudelaire and those written by recent authors but he also incorporates unusual elements, uncanny views that involve the protagonist. He withdraws when life attempts to grip him, when nothing makes a difference and mud and gold might be interchangeable. Therefore, the inadequacy of the protagonist, who often slips and falls when he is near the goal, seems quite intentional, a way of ‘making fun of the authorities’ and so avoiding being involved in what is considered a meaningless game. This opens up the poems to different views and boundless freedom that are always in dialogue with who we imagine we are and who we would like to be.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 21st July 2021

Obit by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

Obit by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

Victoria Chang’s collection of mostly prose poetry, Obit, published by Copper Canyon Press, calls on a literary tradition of loss that builds from the poets whom Chang references such as Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, and I would say more modern poets like Sharon Olds and even Ted Kooser in his discussion of the loss of his father. Chang is a Los Angeles-based poet who has reached that time in her life when she must deal with the death of the previous generation, and Obit is simultaneously about that loss and the strange position those who mourn are put into.

With the gravity of loss, any other concern seems trivial and moving on with one’s life seems wrong. She discusses that emotion most directly in “The Doctors” where she writes, “To yearn for someone’s quick death seems wrong. To go to the hospital cafeteria and hunch over a table of toasts, pots of jam, butter glistening seems wrong. To want to extend someone’s life who is suffering seems wrong” (68). Anyone who has witnessed the process of the death and dying knows what she is capturing so well here. Even acknowledging that one feels awkward seems wrong because that emotion cannot compare to death, so we, like her, are left not knowing how to deal with death because we have no training for it.

Obit also clearly shows us how long the process of dying can be; the narrator’s father suffers from dementia and her mother from pulmonary fibrosis. She has to watch as her mother loses oxygen over months and years. The knowledge of the coming death is overwhelming, and her father’s dementia after a stroke turns a once intelligent mind foggy. In “Language,” she writes, “Letters used to skim my father’s brain before they let go. Now his words are blind. Are pleated” (10). It is a slow burning pain developed throughout the collection, and her poems like the reality of this condition are complex and subtle.

This was a painful book for me to read, but also a necessary one. I read it slowly having to deal with the pain that is in my life as well, but that is not to say I didn’t welcome the process. This is a healing book. Part of the problem with dealing with death is that we do not have a good vocabulary for it, and we feel that there are so many aspects that should not be discussed as though our emotions surrounding death cheapen it. That fact makes the process so much more difficult, but here, Chang is speaking about it out loud. By doing so, she is giving us a vocabulary for mourning.

John Brantingham 3rd February 2021

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, multilingual poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, fiction and translations from Mandy Haggith, Andrew Duncan, Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese, Charlotte Baldwin, Jeremy Reed, Lynne Wycherley, Joanna Nissel, Mandy Pannett, Sam Wood, Genevieve Carver, Sarah Acton, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Mike Duggan, Daragh Breen, Tracey Turley, Karen Downs-Burton, Barbara Ivusic, John Freeman, John Millbank, Olivia Tuck, Rowan Lyster, Sarah Watkinson, Greg Bright, Robert Vas Dias, Lucy Sheerman, Andrew Darlington, David Punter, Beth Davyson, Michael Henry, Judith Willson, John Gilmore, M.Vasalis translated by Arno Bohlmeijer, Paul Rossiter, Charles Wilkinson, Rupert M. Loydell, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Peter Hughes, Zoe Karathanasi, Lucy Hamilton, Lydia Harris, Lucy Ingrams, Mark Goodwin, Simon Collings, Aidan Semmens, Vasiliki Albedo and Ian Seed.

The critical section consists of David Caddy’s Editorial, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIV, Andrew Duncan Apocalypse: An Anthology edited by James Keery, Lily-Robert-Foley on Jennifer K. Dick’s Lilith, Clark Allison on Geoffrey Hill, Alice Entwhistle on Frances Presley, Belinda Cooke on Peter Robinson, Nadira Clare Wallace on Ella Frears, Ian Brinton on Ray Crump, Norman Jope on Menno Wigman, Oliver Sedano-Jones on Anthony Anaxagorou, Steve Spence on Gavin Selerie, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 7 and Notes on Contributors.

Tears in the Fence 68 is out!

Tears in the Fence 68 is out!

Tears in the Fence 68 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose, creative non-fiction and prose poetry from Ian Seed, Simon Collings, Melisande Fitzsimons, Anna Backman Rogers, Beth Davyson, Robert Sheppard, David Miller, Peter Hughes, Tracey Iceton, Jill Eulalie Dawson, Kate Noakes, Taró Naka Trans. Andrew Houwen & Chikako Nihei, Aidan Semmens, Mark Goodwin, Barbara Bridger, Alexandra Strnad, Daragh Breen, Andrew Darlington, Caroline Heaton, Peter J. King, Amelia Forman, Clive Gresswell, Steve Spence, Rebecca Oet, Sue Burge, Chloe Marie, Lucy Sheerman, Peter Robinson, Michael Henry, Wendy Brandmark, Abeer Ameer, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Sarah Cave, Angela Howarth, Norman Jope, John Freeman, Eoghan Walls, Jennie Byrne, Marcel Labine Trans. John Gilmore and Peter Larkin.

The critical section features Ian Brinton’s editorial, Andrew Duncan on Sean Bonney, Mark Byers on Jasper Bernes and Sean Bonney, Nancy Gaffield on Zoë Skoulding, Frances Spurrier – Poetry, resilience and the power of hope, Simon Collings on Ian Seed, Peter Larkin, Clark Allison on John Hall, Astra Papachristodoulou on Nic Stringer, Greg Bright – What Is Poetry?, Mandy Pannett on Seán Street, David Pollard on Norman Jope, Louise Buchler on New Voices in South African Poetry, Anthony Mellors on Gavin Selerie, Linda Black on Anna Reckin, Jonathan Catherall on Nicki Heinen, Richard Foreman on M. John Harrison, Morag Kiziewicz’s column Electric Blue 4, Notes on Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword.

The No Breath by John Goodby, Distances by Ian Seed (The Red Ceilings Press)

The No Breath by John Goodby, Distances by Ian Seed (The Red Ceilings Press)

On the back cover of John Goodby’s little volume of poems Lyndon Davies tells us why these little poems are favourites of his:

“It’s like being in a calm dark room with little slots and windowlets opening just briefly onto brilliantly lit spaces out there and all over and then closing again before you can get a really good look.”

There is of course something of Alice’s glimpses of the garden through the little door at the bottom of the rabbit-hole in this analogy but it also reminds me of the wonderful 1970 prose book by Philippe Jaccottet, Paysages avec figures absentes. Early in that short book the poet of Grignan refers to “ouvertures”, openings, like rents in the world through which one can gaze for a moment:

“And so, without desiring or seeking it, what I discovered at times was a homeland, and perhaps the most rightful one: a place which opened up to me the magical depths of Time.”

In his own words, “ces ouvertures proposées au regard intérieur apparaissaient ainsi convergentes, tels les rayons d’une sphère; ells désignaient par intermittences, mais avec obstination, un noyau comme immobile.” That glimpse of a still centre, the far perceived from the near, can be felt in Goodby’s ‘Teller’:

“Plump fingers on the keys, clumsy prey,
From all corners of the house
Opened to hear better
The same dress, with blue roses.

Just a few could have been stairwells,
Thinking of himself as he was
Matted with night and the casement,
The pointed roofs, the largeness of snow.

What opens with a title suggestive of either counting money or votes moves, with the opening words of “plump fingers” on keys, to hint at the telling of beads as well as the playing of a piano: that patient counting of meditation complements the focus upon musical notes to suggest a concentration upon the moment. The third line announces an opening which allows the pianist’s playing to be heard more widely and a touch of vision, a dress with blue roses (Hardy’s “air-blue gown?”), appears before the eye’s glimpse. The moving radii of Jaccottet’s thought lead to possible stairwells, awareness of what lies beneath the surface, and the poet rests for a moment “Matted with night”. What lies woven beneath one’s feet finds its counterpart in “pointed roofs” and an endless whiteness. It is a moment caught! A slot, a windowlet, a suggestive sense of something lying beyond the immediate.

Ian Seed’s prose vignettes reflect upon the individual in relation to others: twenty-nine little prose poems introduce us to a world of Europe and a world of domestic reminiscence. The intensity of the moment is caught rather like the way the writer finds himself standing in front of a huge bookshop that he had never seen before. As he says “The city looked different this morning”.

“The streets and squares were bathed in a beautiful, yet somehow ominous golden glow, which had so distracted me that I was now lost.”

The pressures of time mount as he realises that not only is he going to be late at the school in Turin “where I taught English as a foreign language” but that as the shop’s door is being opened by a “hunched old man with rimless spectacles” he should already, as a teacher, “been with my pupils”. The shopkeeper seems to offer an invitation to the teacher to enter this new world where books in different languages “lay on shelves that seemed to stretch into the distance”. Caught within the dreamlike moment, a world which seems to diminish the mundanity of what lies outside the shop, the writer discovers a book titled The Unseen Everyday and is compelled to recognise that here is a text “which would finally illuminate my understanding of the life beyond life”. The general vagueness of such a thought is then immediately qualified by the realisation that such an illumination belongs “within the life itself that I led, although it would never enable me to find my way around the city arrive on time.

These two little books from The Red Ceilings Press are published in limited editions of 60 and 70 copies and I suggest that you get hold of them fast before the window shuts and that glimpse of a tantalising and refreshing world disappears.

Ian Brinton, 17th June 2018

http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk

New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

New York Hotel by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

Some difficulties with visual particularism haunt the phantasmagoric world of Lewis Carroll and a moment from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There anticipates the nightmare world of Kafka whilst also casting a glance back over the shoulder at the world of Todgers’s Guest House in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit:

“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold. “Things flow about so here!” she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a work-box, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.” [1872, Chap. V]

“You couldn’t walk about in Todgers’s neighbourhood, as you could in any other neighbourhood. You groped your way for an hour through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards and passages; and never once emerged upon anything that might be reasonably called a street. A kind of resigned distraction came over the stranger as he trod those devious mazes, and, giving himself up for lost, went in and out and round about, and quietly turned back again when he came to a dead wall…” [1844, Chap. IX]

It was in a comment on the back cover of Ian Seed’s 2011 collection Shifting Registers (Shearsman Books) that we are referred to the fragmented yet rich lyricism of the writing which “crosses borders between lost and rediscovered identity”: the poet’s “navigation of different realities” is expressed through his willingness to contemplate “new spaces through language.” This powerful focus upon shifting realities keeps the reader’s eye firmly on the pages of New York Hotel as we are confronted with what “felt familiar and yet like another world” (‘Baptism’). These short prose poems are haunting; they are compelling to read and John Ashbery’s comment upon Seed’s work is absolutely on the nail:

“The mystery and sadness of empty rooms, chance encounters in the street, trains travelling through a landscape of snow become magical in Ian Seed’s poems.”

I reviewed Ian Seed’s translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan (The Thief of Talant) about one year ago and was struck then by the ability of both poets to render Orphic vision palpable. Both poets are struck by the sense that as they turn their heads to stare at the past “something flees much faster than us.” In that world of shifting realities (“Things flow about so here”) Reverdy sees how “Further off a forest merged with the city” and it was Philippe Jaccottet who recognised how Reverdy’s words focus upon “la fuite nes nuées, les lueurs des vitres” (the evaporation of dark clouds, glimmers of light through the shutters). Jaccottet’s words are absolutely right also for Ian Seed’s powerful understanding of how we live isolated lives haunted by the flickering images of a past that informs a present.
Perhaps it is because I spent so many years school-teaching that when I read something that holds my attention as firmly as does New York Hotel I am aware of looking around for what I want to read next, return to, advise my pupils to look at. One of the voices that came to mind as I read ‘Orphanage’ was that of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy:

“It was my responsibility to accompany the boy in a taxi to an orphanage on the other side of the city. When we arrived, I was surprised to see what a rundown area it was in. I wondered if we had come to the right place. Although I was worried about the expense, I told the driver to wait while I took the boy and went to find out.”

As readers we are held immediately by that opening word “responsibility” and its association with what we need to take charge of in relation to vulnerability. Rather like the Ancient Mariner Ian Seed has caught us with his version of “There was a ship…” and we cannot choose but hear what happens next. A rundown area, doubts about it being the correct destination, anxiety over cost, reliance upon the escape route. I shan’t tell you any more! Buy a copy of New York Hotel and read it for yourselves. In Auster’s City of Glass the shifting figure of Stillman, a man who imprisoned his son in an apartment with covered up windows for nine years, traces out the letters of TOWER OF BABEL on the “labyrinth of endless steps” that constitute New York watched by a private detective called Paul Auster who also uses the name of Quinn. In Ian Seed’s world of the phantasmagoric we are presented with a ‘Generation Gap’:

“My maternal grandfather turned up at my council flat with his father, who was a tiny bearded man in an ancient wheelchair. I hadn’t seen them for a long time. without saying hello, my great grandfather raised a fist in the air and began to berate me for being nearly sixty and still without a proper home or job. Even when my grandfather lifted him out of the chair, carried him to the toilet and put him down on the seat, he continued to scold me. The whole flat soon started to stink, but I said nothing through fear of offending them.”

When I return to the classroom for a term in September this year I shall present some of these wonderful fictions to my Year 10. After all it is now some fifty-five years since I first came to recognise the palpability of loss: before that there was the magic of the now.

Ian Brinton February 5th 2018.

An Interview with Lucy Hamilton on Stalker by Ian Seed

An Interview with Lucy Hamilton on Stalker by Ian Seed

These questions come from a seminar with my creative writing students at the University of Chester. Stalker is a set text on third year course Life Writing that I teach there. Ian Seed

1.Why did you choose the form of the prose poem to write Stalker ? Why not longer prose or lineated poetry?

This is a question I often address when I give readings. Stalker didn’t begin as a collection of prose poems. It was twenty years before I could write about the events referred to in the title sequence. I wrote a short story called ‘Stalker’, which was published in a small magazine that also included my article on John Steinbeck. This was my first published work. Some years later I took the manucript of a novel to an Arvon fiction course. It was based on my two years living in Paris as a teenager. One of the tutors asked if I wrote poetry and a year later I signed up with Mimi Khalvati at the Poetry School in London. I was writing long rhymed poems about Vincent Van Gogh. Then one day, out of the blue, I wrote a long poem in unrhymed quatrains and took it along. It was about an experience in the States and unlike anything I’d written previously. I received positive feedback, no-one suggested revisions. Yet for some reason the poem didn’t feel right to me and I didn’t send it anywhere. Three years later I got it up on my screen and started playing with it. I did away with the first four quatrains and put them into a paragraph. Suddenly it felt right! The sensation was almost physical: as if I’d altered a sweater and now it fitted and felt comfortable. I changed the remaining quatrains and worked on it and gradually the pieces became ‘Algae Beds, Wyoming’. This form acted as a catalyst: all at once I was writing prose poems set in my teens and twenties, including my two years in Paris, which are referred to in Section 2: Storms & Stations. The prose poem offers enormous scope: it doesn’t have to be linear narrative, you can jump around, twist and turn, play, begin after the beginning and end before the end.

2.Did the ideas behind he book dictate the form of the prose poem, or did you decide on the form first?

I have no doubt that the poem ‘Algae Beds, Wyoming’ chose its form and that this form released all the other poems belonging to that period, which eventually became Stalker.

3.Who are your influences?

The most important writers for me are those concerned with the psychological and spiritual predicaments of men, women and children grappling with the everyday exigencies of their lives from the perspecitve of their own times and cultural backgrounds. Writers who may have influenced my own writing will invariably reveal a poetic sensibility in their work, irrespective of genre. Also those who use historical and mythical epics as a vehicle to portray aspects of the modern world. Aside from writers mentioned in Stalker, others who made a great impression on me include the Irish dramatist Seán O’Casey, Carson McCullers, Hermann Hesse, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Nawal El Saadawi, Michael Ondaatje, James Baldwin, Edmund White. Also Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. South American writers with their magic realism entranced me. Also classical French writers such as Jean Giono and short story writers such Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant, whom I loved for their use of French dialect as well as their portrayal of working and peasant life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Short story writers such as Catherine Mansfield, E. Annie Proulx, and contemporary writers such as Lydia Davis, Lyn Hejinian, Anne Carson who blur bounderies between poetry and prose. The poetries of Derek Walcott, Yehuda Amichai, Rumi … too many to mention them all. But I should mention a critic who had an enormous influence on my perception of writing and on my sense of affirmation: the French Algerian writer, playright, poet, philosopher and literary critic, Hélène Cixous. I read her while I was still attempting fiction and can’t over-emphasise the excitement and encouragement I felt when reading her books for the first time, particularly: Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Coming to Writing and Other Essays, and Rootprints. Cixous is a feminist writer but she is not sexist in my view.
Reading and translating ancient and traditional texts from the French, which are themselves translations from the original Arabic, has influenced aspects of my new book. This second collection of prose poems attempts a greater textual layering than Stalker : a desire to reference history within the present. I have also been greatly influenced by visual art, as is apparent from the obsession with Vincent Van Gogh. I have a strong visual memory and my current work-in-progress (for three years) begins with my making a visual photomontage, which can take weeks or months. This visual work then acts as a stimulus for the poem that follows. The poems are all in unpunctuated couplets, so it’s a departure from prose poetry. Again, I believe the poems found their own form.

4.What for you, the author, are the most important themes of Stalker?

For me the most important themes are those that compelled me to write it. I think they can all be viewed as a form of stalking. Dreams, for example, have always been part of my life and, especially when I was young, could haunt and stay with me for weeks. Dreams are a rich resource for writing, but it was years before I could make use of them. Living alone is another theme. I had never ‘dealt’ with my experiences of living alone as a young woman, trying to make sense of the world, trying to find a meaningful way to live that was true to her own nature. How to be true to your conscience. How to love. Being a twin is another important theme for me. As one poem says, my first memory was of two. We are not identical, in fact we are very different in temperament and interests, but the the depth of intimacy between twins is unique and can certainly be felt as haunting, a form of stalking. Language itself, the origin of words, my mother’s native tongue are all food for creative writing. In her review of Stalker Sandeep Parmar says: ‘Words are stalked through the ages by their roots and, by using them, we are also dogged by what they signify… Ultimately these types of ‘stalking’ are what gives life its viscosity…’ (Sandeep Parmar, PN Review).

5.Why do you make use of so many literary references?

Reading is an important theme for me. These references are to books I was reading at the time I was actually living the events portayed in Stalker. To have omitted reference to what I was reading during those periods in my life would have been unthinkable: a denial of my inner life. Books helped me make sense of what I was living. Not by giving me a replica, but by showing me the inner lives of women and men during different periods in history and in other countries and cultures. Great literature gave me paradigms against which I could test out and measure my own beliefs and position. It inspired and encouraged me by showing me essential truths about human nature and behaviour.
The poem ‘Nigg Bay, Aberdeen’ relates directly to Tolstoy’s Resurrection, which was like a revelation to me when I read it while living in Aberdeen aged 18 and very unhappy. Tolstoy’s book helped me so much because it showed another human being grappling with his own conscience and remorse, as well as loneliness. The fact that his hero was a privileged prince living in the 19th century didn’t matter to me because Tolstoy revealed Nekhlúdov’s innermost feelings as a man, a human being. Nekhlúdov had betrayed a woman he had loved and she was now in prison. I was working in a Care home for young boys, some of whose fathers were in prison. The theme of conscience is also in the poem ‘What Men Did Not Read in Their Hearts’, which quotes the Catholic Catechism I had to learn as a young child, and again at the Catholic secondary school I was sent to. I didn’t like the Catholic belief in absolution, which seemed to suggest we aren’t accountable for our own actions.
Steinbeck was very important to me as a writer for similar reasons. I read him at a time I was grappling with love, life and work while living alone in Gravesend, Kent. Gravesend was an edgy place to live in the late 70s, when many rented bedsits didn’t even have a payphone in the building. The title sequence ‘Stalker’ refers to this time. A time when it was unusual for a woman to go to a café on her own, and virtually taboo to go alone to a pub, since that’s what prostitutes did. This didn’t stop me as I needed to be independent, but it was hard in a town without a student culture to make pubs and cafés feel women-friendly. I loved Steinbeck’s portrayal of misfits and people living on the edge. I was blown away by his Journal of a Novel. This is the diary he wrote every morning to warm up before continuing his day’s work on East of Eden. We see the famous author struggling with his own demons, women, drink, two broken marriages, children he loved.

6.There is a feeling of depersonalisation throughout the book. Is this one of the effects you wished to convey? If so, why?

No, I didn’t choose convey an effect of depersonalisation, though I know it is there. That is to say, it wasn’t an ‘intellectual’ decision. I think it springs from an involuntary and organic need to be objective in order to write about these experiences.

7.Your main character remains something of a mystery, which some readers will find frustrating. Why doesn’t she have a stronger presence?

Yes, I understand this reaction. Again it wasn’t a conscious decision to create a mysterious character. I think it relates to question 6 and is to do with an instinctive need to keep a distance from painful experiences in order to write about them at all. No doubt a better writer would have been able to overcome this. For me, even from this distance, I often found it extremely painful to relive the experiences as I wrote about them.
The issue of character presence also relates back to question 1. Stalker is prose poetry, not fiction. There is usually an element of mystery in poetry, of ‘showing it slant’. The novel I took along to that Arvon fiction course dealt with the two years I lived in Paris as a teenager. It is written in the 3rd person and I think the narrator has a fairly strong presence throughout. But I wrote it without any group support or feedback and it was unwieldy and poorly structured. Years later, I took it along to a small fiction workshop and was encouraged, but life intervened and finally I had to choose, and chose poetry. But I love the blurring of boundaries and cross-overs in different art forms. There are really exciting things happening including innovation and experimentation. I think it’s important to explore and keep open to possibilities, and then be true to what feels right for yourself.

Lucy Hamilton’s Stalker is published by Shearsman (2012) and was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her new collection is Of Heads & Hearts. For more information, go to http://www.shearsman.com/browse-poetry-books-by-author-Lucy-Hamilton

Ian Seed 2nd February 2018

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