Friday, May 31, 2013

Bad Boys

The news today is that the Rolling Stones are being difficult with the BBC about how much of their performance at Glastonbury this year can be shown on tv. The Stones media machine says they are “out of their comfort zone” at the festival; their reluctance to commit to extensive tv coverage is supposed to be connected to this – to their uncertainty about whether they will or won’t be a hit with the Glastonbury crowd.

But we all know that’s not true. I love the Stones – well, I love who they were, and who Keith and Ronnie are, at least as public figures – but for as long as I can remember, they have controlled and made large amounts of money out of every aspect of the band’s music, merchandise, live shows and related product. When I saw them in Glasgow in 2007 we weren’t even allowed to take photographs because they’d hired somebody to do that for us, and sell them to us afterwards if we had any money left over from the one hundred pound ticket.

Like some bands, a lot of hip hop artists and several actors who come to mind, the Stones trade on the traces of a rebellious image (though what they’re rebelling against no one can actually remember), while being remarkably good corporate capitalists. They just go to work in football stadiums instead of offices, wearing tight pants and skull rings instead of dull suits and short waxy hair.

Jim Morrison, who didn’t get the chance to grow old (unless he really is living in Africa drinking hot dust afternoons away with the shade of Arthur Rimbaud), had more insight into the essential falsehood of the media-made bad boy than anybody. That was why he pretended to show his cock in Miami and told his startled audience, “You’re all a bunch of fucking slaves.” He knew that they had come for sex, not freedom; if they wanted freedom, they would not have made a performer a hairy substitute for all the leaders that they had already – as Joan Baez said (roughly), “Mommy and Daddy and school teacher and priest and president.”

Morrison seemed to want to force a riot to make the crowd confront their own self-deception. Or reject him. Before he caught the plane for Paris, he’d grown tired of his false position as the leader of a phoney revolution. Just like Dylan did when he quit protest music, put on sharp suits and started writing his wild amphetamine poetry.

Do the Stones today know there is no revolution? They’re a movie of rebellion for those who want to dream; smart, and usually moneyed, people who wouldn’t want to change, but like totems of change that they can toy with sometimes when they’re feeling stressed. It gets their heads out of the gym or office, liberates a manager after several meetings, playing “Jumping Jack Flash” on her ipod, loud. And there’s nothing wrong with that, not if it’s honest fiction. But every now and then I find I long for more. 

Bard's Zen Poetry Lesson

Q. How do I become a poet?

A. Write poetry.

Q. How do I become a good poet?

A. Write good poetry.

Hope that was helpful.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


In the supermarket I found myself in the queue behind a guy in a suit. He was young, maybe thirty, short black hair, smelled of something expensive. I don’t know what he’d come in for, but all he was going out with was a bottle of Diet Coke.

He was talking to a woman, a little older than him, in one of those sensible, conservative work dresses. She had a lot of folders and papers with her. She clutched them to her chest and moved her weight around on one heel. Signs of preoccupation. She asked him how his work was going.

One question was all it took.The young guy had just got a promotion. He was managing something now. I couldn’t catch what because at that moment some kid nervously asked me to move so he could take a tower of baskets from underneath the checkout.

When I refocused, the guy in the suit was still talking. New responsibilities. Departmental problems. People he was dealing with who weren’t pulling for the company. His face glowed as he relayed all this like a dad telling someone about the trophy his daughter won at sports day. Except he was the dad and the daughter.

Paying for the Diet Coke with a twenty pound note, he asked the shy, rheumy-eyed woman at the till to give him his change in specific denominations and certain quantities of different coins. “I’m not being very helpful am I?” he asked, stylishly, half-winking at his companion.

It was my turn at the checkout next. I was buying breakfast cereal, some chewy bars and a new journal. The cost of this princely haul £4.99. I gave her a fiver and thought about asking her to give me my change in one penny coins. But she looked too hassled to appreciate my satire.

On the way out of the supermarket I saw the man and the woman again. She was waiting for him as he argued with his mobile phone. He paced up and down, palming a cigarette, meeting his own floating clouds of cologne every time he retraced his irritable steps.

I had to pass close to them because they were so near the doors. She looked like she thought he was a total arsehole.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Because I Cannot Stop for Death (Right Now)

The first car that had to stop for me at the traffic lights on Barrack Road today was a hearse with a coffin in it. Is that what Emily Dickinson meant when she said, "Death kindly stopped for me"?

Hearing about this my poet friend Bryn Fortey said, "It's when they stop and offer you a ride..." Indeed it is. And I've seen too many people go with them for my liking in the last couple of years, not that any of them had much choice.

But as I told Bryn, they offered me a ride in the hearse last year when pneumonia laid me down and my lung collapsed. I was lucky, though. At that moment Michelle came along. She gave me a lift in her beat old yellow Fiat, and took me to the hospital instead of the grave.

I'm not ready to go anywhere with those grim-faced black-wearing behatted avatars of the void just yet. I've still got one great poem to write (and since I'll probably never do that, I can't ever die).

Monday, May 27, 2013

Satori on the Racecourse: An Encounter with Islam

I went out to the Racecourse just after dawn this morning for my usual fat-burn walk and communion with the spirits of the hanged and the butchered. They used to hang highwaymen here in the 1800s. Coming out and watching someone get hurled into the void at the end of a thick rope was the weekend equivalent of going to the football or staying home for the soaps. They had several thousand soldiers bivouacked on the same stretch of land in 1914, camping with their horses waiting for the call to go to France and get slaughtered in the trenches of World War I.

Sometimes when I’m in the park and the atmosphere is right, or my mind is right, I can see and hear it all. It’s as if psychic imprints of the soon-to-be-dead outlaws and the scared-shitless soldiers have been left on the trees and in the mud. Like yesterday: walking along the footpath near the kids' play area, I had such a spooky feeling of death, imminent death, I thought I was about to fall down and breathe my last looking up through the tree canopy at perfect blue sky. I’d only got a third of the way around the park but I immediately turned tail and went home.

Today was different. I was out at six (okay that’s not just after dawn, it’s about an hour after dawn) and I’d doped myself up on paracetamol to deal with an earlier headache; I have the constitution of a mouse, so two mild sedatives is enough to put me in a partial coma. No spirit-visions then. Just sudden paranoia. I thought, with a jolt, “Hang on, what the hell am I doing on the Rapecourse at six o’clock in the morning with no one to witness me being attacked by some knife-wielding lunatic looking for drug money?” (I knew they wouldn’t want my phone, but they might be interested in my wallet.)

I decided my fear was stupid. There was nobody about anyway. Then, with a frisson of something slightly worse than fear, I saw someone coming along the path. I drew a wide circle around him, not relaxing until I saw he was twenty or thirty yards behind me. And carrying a flask. Unfortunately, as I was approaching the basketball courts, I saw someone else; and he was behaving oddly. This guy, a brown-skinned fellow, was walking very very slowly along the court perimeter with his head bowed; he appeared to be talking to himself. And when he came to the corner of the court, he turned and walked back again. He looked stoned.

“Great,” I thought. “There’s no way I can avoid passing him now. What if he comes at me all crazy? Do I run? Fight?” I settled on fighting. I’m not a fighter; in fact, I’m a total coward – but I fight better than I run. I didn’t have to do either though. What I thought was happening (or would happen) was so far away from the truth I felt immediately stupid. At the other end of the court I saw another guy, brown-skinned like the potential mugger of my imagination. He had his hands clasped, his head raised up to the blue sky and he was reciting a prayer in some language I didn’t recognize.

I didn’t need to know what he was saying. The sight of this guy out in something close to nature worshipping his god was so beautiful in this capitalist machine nightmare we’ve made for ourselves I nearly stayed to watch him. I could almost feel something else revealing itself, something more than the everyday mundane material reality, because of the rhythms of his prayer and the fact of his reciting it here. But not undead soldiers or the hovering souls of hanged outlaws. Life! Eternal, boundless life beyond this decaying impermanent human form.Treating him like a sideshow, however, would probably have created some paranoia on his part or his mate’s – who it seemed, after all, was just waiting for him – and there’s enough paranoia going around in the country to keep everybody busy.

So instead of bothering either man, I put my head down and carried on walking. But I felt better for what I’d seen and I still do, a couple of hours after the event. Especially because it showed me that I had nothing to fear, that what I saw as a potential threat to my safety was a projection of my own anxiety based on what I thought I knew about the place I was walking through. The guy I expected to kill me was just killing time while his mate had a private moment with the divine; he was unaware even of my existence, although a fat, white blob might have briefly passed across the periphery of his vision. I'm not, in other words, that important, and what a terrific, funny lesson that is.

I wonder how much crap could be avoided in the world if we learned to tell the difference, all the time, between what’s real and what we’re making up, essentially to protect ourselves from an unreal threat?  

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Notebook Scribbles In A Summer Churchyard While Locked Out Of The Bard Gaff

You can never tell what's going to happen, brothers & sisters. What did happen is that on my second trip to the park I left the Bard Gaff w/out my keys. Now I'm sitting in the churchyard in the middle of town wondering if Michelle will see the text I sent her so I can take the short hike down the road to her job, pick up her keys & let myself in. I cd. be hanging around for hours! At least it's 17 degrees today. (Actually if I don't hear from her I'll just go to a pub. It wd. be qt. a nice way to spend my afternoon.)

The churchyard looks really beat right now. The grass hasn't been cut for a long time & the dandelions are standing tall & many in it. There are bits of deadfall under trees too - stuff broken off in the heavy winds we had a few nights ago. They never maintain this one too enthusiastically, but if they kept it like this it wd. be wonderful. W/ the venerable age of the graves, the few graves, spread out randomly  in the four great triangles of grass crossed by a cracked, blistered concrete footpath, the place looks like it was abandoned 50 years ago. & what treasures abandoned places hold.

A crow flying overhead w/ an almost lazy downward sweep of its wings.

The continual chirping & chirring of summer birds.

White butterflies floating over graves.

A cloud of midges blown across the tall heads of the overgrown grass.

Kids w/ short hair, polo shirts, unzipped hoodies & trackie bottoms, exchanging fags beside a bench in the furtive shadow of the church.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Lowdown

The morning mail brought with it news of a literary project by Robert M. Zoschke, an old writing pal. Called "The Lowdown", it describes itself as a "literary arts annual", and collects 42 writers and artists including such luminaries as Sharon Auberle, Lyn Lifshin, t. kilgore splake, Gerald Nicosia, A.D. Winans, Ralph Murre and Zoschke himself. There is also cover artwork by none other than Lawrence Ferlinghetti (and if you don't call that a coup you're pretty hard to please).

Following the sad passing of Norbert Blei this inaugural edition of "The Lowdown" will feature tributes to the much-missed Norb and a selection of his own writing. If you haven't read him yet, you should try. He really had an exceptional gift with the word.

Something I think he would have liked immensely is that proceeds from the annual will provide a student scholarship through the Karen Teskie Memorial Scholarship Fund at the Peninsula School of Art in Door County, Wisconsin. Norb was all about helping other artists express themselves and get their work out to the world.

You can buy "The Lowdown" for $23 including shipping inside the US. I don't know what Rob would need from you in Europe or elsewhere. Send cheques or money orders to Robert M. Zoschke, P.O. Box 38, Ellison Bay, WI 54210.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Piece on Ray Manzarek at Empty Mirror

It usually irritates me when writers and poets promote their own work as if there could be no more inspiring thing for a person to do than read them. But I relax my prejudice towards self-promotion when I'm the writer. I never claimed I was intellectually consistent. 

Right now I have a piece on Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek at the fabulous Empty Mirror. I think it's rather good too, though I say so myself. Enrich your day by going over there for a look, and then, if you have time, explore the site. It's full of great arts-related/ Beat-inflected/ alternative-underground treasures.  

Sunday, May 19, 2013

New poem: Dawn Taxi


At dawn, back in the red dress
which she’d bought at lunchtime yesterday
with a slight frisson of danger,
she felt just like the roses
that were dying on her steps at home.
Her head lolled in the dark rear
of the taxi that had picked her up
from the phone box near the school.
She straightened, took out her mirror,
and seeing what she expected,
she closed the mirror with a sigh.
The driver watched her furtively.
He wondered why she had no shoes

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Old Way

I found The John Lennon Letters (2012) in a charity shop the other day. Edited by Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, it’s a collection of letters (no surprise there perhaps), postcards, fan surveys filled in by Lennon, and even shopping lists retrieved from bins. Fascinating, if you like Lennon as I do, and soul-curdlingly tedious, I would imagine, if you don’t.

The book, though, as well as my thoughts about the recent passing of Norbert Blei and other poets (see previous post), has had me reflecting for a couple of days about how much I prefer communication done in what Gary Snyder calls "the old way".Face to face is best, of course, but if you can’t manage that, it’s much better to have a physical object like a letter or a card from someone than an email or a message on Facebook. E-communication has its uses, but it’s not warm; it doesn’t feel like you’re interacting with anything other than the device that the message is coming through.

Yesterday I opened a book and found a card from my mother. She left her body seventeen years ago, but here was a thing she’d gone out to buy, rested on her lap or on a table one quiet afternoon, written a message in and handed to me on the morning of my birthday. “Still my baby boy,” the message said, in the large block-lettering I knew so well. It made me cry, naturally, but it also reminded me how much I was loved once, by her, and how lucky I was to know such a beautiful, open-hearted woman.It gave a piece of our time together back to me. I don’t think a rediscovered note in my Facebook inbox would have had quite the same impact.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Norb Blei

Today I heard the sad news that Norbert Blei, a quiet hero of the American literary world, has died. He passed away on April 23rd in his beloved Wisconsin, leaving behind an immense body of work and the gratitude of thousands of authors and poets around the world whose writing he selflessly promoted. I was one of them.

I don’t remember how I got to know him. It must have been when I acquired a home computer for the first time, around 2003 or ‘4. But whether I submitted work to him or we just started corresponding and publication developed from that, I don’t know. It seems like there was a lot of literary activity back then. Letters and emails were passing back and forth between Hodder’s home at the Lookout and locations all over the world.

Norb was someone I even thought of as a friend, a long-distance friend. I have photocopies of lots of long emails he sent to me, which I will cherish now and keep safe in my archive in anticipation of the wider recognition of Norb’s work that must come, whether he would have wanted it or not. Yes, he was a friend. But then, around 2007, something happened. I stopped being able to write good poetry consistently. Work I’d sent to magazines and websites kept coming back. My confidence in my art shattered into a million tiny pieces.

It was breaking up with my girlfriend that did it. And loneliness. And burn-out at my care work job. (I was physically and mentally fried.) It was, ridiculously, my discovery of Facebook and all the time and energy I wasted on there. And it was my epilepsy diagnosis. It was everything. Most of all it was my insatiable need to have my ego massaged. If you don’t tell me I’m the greatest I become convinced I’m the worst. It’s childish, but a deeply buried reflex.

I was certainly too proud to tell Norb I was struggling. So I didn’t write at all. What the hell, I told myself. Norb doesn’t want to hear from an insecure care worker with literary pretensions he can’t live up to. But the one email I got from him in the long silence that followed suggested that he had wanted to hear. I’m sure I wasn’t the first thing he thought about when he woke up in the morning (it’s coffee or toilet for me), but when I did cross his mind, I think he felt I’d turned my back on him. Well, he wouldn’t be the first or the last to think that.

A year or two ago I started missing Norb and thought it was time to rekindle our friendship. I sent a series of haiku to his supreme internet page Basho’s Road; but they were probably shit, and he ignored me anyway. Maybe he just didn’t want to reject an old mate. He’d undoubtedly heard about my Facebook clash with a guy who we both knew. This guy told me I should write less politics and more poetry. I blew up at him because his tone was so patronising, and because he’d stuck a thumb in a really raw wound. The next time I looked I was no longer his friend.

It doesn’t do, as a poet, to offend publishers and editors. But when you start playing that game, they might as well “float you down the river with the turds,” as Bukowski so eloquently put it.

I’m saddened, now, to think of all those wasted days when my friendship with Norb could have flowered; when I could have been learning from one of America’s great writers about how to do this and how to say that. Other Voices, the book on my shelf that he edited, and which I have several poems in, is as much of a monument to the stupidity of my ego as it is to the relationship that culminated in its publication in 2007. But we had that relationship for a while, and whatever happened afterwards I feel that was a privilege.

I came along at a really magical time. Consequently I have known some of the greats, and too many of them these days are making their exit. Dave Church, Joe Speer, Todd Moore … they’re all gone. But somehow Norb Blei was supposed to be around forever, bearing everyone on his considerable shoulders like a Mount Rushmore of poets. Alas, he was flesh, bone and heart like the rest of us.

People wishing to mark Norb's passing can make a donation to the Norb Blei Memorial Literary Fund at The Clearing, PO Box 65, Ellison Bay, WI 54210 USA.

Monday, May 06, 2013

The Filth and the Fury: The Times Ain't Now but What They Used to Be

Last night ended with a gaiety it will be hard to match today. We sat down with our crack pipes and watched The Filth and the Fury, Julien Temple’s documentary about a beat group from the long-ago days called The Sex Pistols. And my head is still reeling with the marvellousness of what unfolded on the old elephantine tv in the corner of the living room at the Bard Gaff.

The Sex Pistols were, and are on the record they left behind, a great fucking band. In 1977, when they released ‘God Save The Queen’, I was just leaving primary school and starting secondary school. I didn’t know anything about them until I arrived at Westfield in Wellingborough, and when I saw pictures and heard their records I was terrified. They looked like the people who were picking on me in the corridors and the playground every day. That, of course, is because those nasty little maladjusted bastards thought that making someone’s life a misery was being very punk.

But rewind a moment. In The Filth and the Fury you see footage of people at those Silver Jubilee celebrations, street parties and union jack bunting everywhere. I was one of those people, improbably. In the summer between primary and secondary school they set out trestle tables on the lane between the church and my school in Little Harrowden and gave us fruit juice, cake and jelly. No doubt lots of flags were waved and some fool played the original version of ‘God Save the Queen’; I don’t remember. But talk about indoctrination. If you saw stuff like that happening in North Korea you’d be calling for air strikes against the revolting Commie dictator.

Now wind forward to 2012. People are at it again, gathering wherever they can to wave a flag whose very design is an emblem of the brutal suppression of once-sovereign countries; they’re weeping big sentimental tears about the monarch, who’s still here even though the Pistols are gone and Sid went to the worm farm so long ago no one even remembers his name. They’re so proud. They love their country. And the best answer anyone can come up with to that is an attempt, not supported by John Lydon, to get God Save The Queen by the Pistols into the download chart. (He didn’t want a great song to be used as a tokenistic act of dissent by people too dumb to speak for themselves.)

Jesus, though, how depressing. What happened between 1977 and 2012 to castrate artists so thoroughly they needed a 35 year old song to tell their story?

Rebellion became systematised. (Were the Pistols a rebellion? or a reaction?) It became a thing you do, a pose you strike, a way of packaging your butter. The last act I heard with talent and access to the airwaves who had something genuinely challenging to say were Public Enemy twenty years ago. Listening to their albums was exhausting, almost masochistic, because they were so intense; and Chuck D., like Lydon, had a fiercely independent, original mind that smashed through political, social and showbiz bullshit like a cannonball going through a wall.

There is the problem of mainstream access of course. The bigger media outlets hadn’t quite found a way of shutting down everything worth listening to in the Nineties, although they were half way there. Digital radio and the internet increase the diversity of what’s available to people, but trying to find a new Pistols or a new Public Enemy in the digital and cyber worlds is like looking for a penny in a million miles of grass. They may be out there; my generation was no more special than my mum’s, or her mum’s. But where are they? And what’s the chance of more than five people ever hearing about them, if that’s the goal?

Maybe it isn’t the goal. We saw in the Eighties what the commercialisation of pop music led to. Fucking Queen being elevated to the status of rock gods by Tory tv presenters and people who love “Emmerdale”.

When I listened to Lydon talking on The Filth and the Fury – I say listened because he’s photographed, appropriately, in shadow (it was never about celebrity) – I realized how much I am the product of a certain strand of thought that came along at a certain time in history. (Unless it’s just a similarity of temperament.) I was too young to know what the fuck was going on in ’77, but I felt exactly his exasperation about the Silver Jubilee during the Diamond Jubilee; and the Olympics drove me up the bloody pole. What is it about people that they want to indulge in public displays of subservience and bad taste with millions of others who look and dress exactly like they do?

My attitude was dismissed as grumpy, as an indicator of the rigidity of middle age, by people reading my writing here and on Facebook. I’m some sort of old crank party pooper, according to people who would rather live their lives on one knee hoping for a crust from the lord of the manor. But that’s not it at all. I always knew that the things I say are true, or at least, I did when I was old enough to start thinking for myself. I just didn’t always have the words or the self-confidence to express my opinion.

I've got bucket loads of words and confidence now. Which is probably why my readership has fallen off a cliff.