His Master’s Voice

IMG_20181206_182518727I’m sorry, a small post today, which should in fact have been put up on Sunday. Anyway, as regular readers of this blog will recall (ah, one of those posts that speaks to the three pornography robots who are the only people to comment on this site):

I gave a reading in Paris last December. I only found out recently that the podcast of the reading is available here: I’m not very keen on my voice, but it’s listenable for those who want to listen.

I think that I talk slowly, because my wife says that I do and my father definitely does talk slowly, but I hadn’t realised that I talked so hesitantly. I am Um-Mensch, Er-Mensch. I try to finesse it away by thinking that all I’m doing is looking for the right words, but I need to get the gap between my brain and my tongue a little shorter. The sliding scale that Nabokov suggests (‘I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child’) is applicable in my case, although obviously I start my descent from far lower down the scale.


The Senior Parlour

I was lucky enough to participate in a poetry reading last Saturday, in Caius College, Cambridge. It was packed, and quite warm (the rain that has been muggily threatening over the last few days is about to arrive; the whole audience was lathed in a companionable sweat). This season of the year, hot rooms start to smell of asparagus piss. The readers were Charles Boyle, Sasha Dugdale and Dan O’Brien, with me serving as wind-down, or chill-out, or anticlimax. It was, kindly and broadly, one of the best readings of this kind I think I’ve ever been to: here’s a photo of me looking stout, and hoping that the audience doesn’t realise I’m a fraud.   D7ec83JW0AAlDhI
(As I type this the rain has just hit. I need to put a bucket under the hole in my office roof.)

Spacing. Ghosts. Ghosts. Ghosts.

I am currently translating (for publication in autumn by Calque Press, which is a publishing house that my wife and I are setting up in the UK; more details here) Sonia Bueno’s amazing poetry collection Aral, which is set in large and in part around the dying Aral Sea, the Sea of Islands, a lake whose waters were in the twentieth century diverted and misspent in a Soviet attempt to irrigate the desert and boost Uzbek cotton production. It’s a moving, oblique set of poems, in which the inner desert mirrors the outer one: a book you have to read ‘closing your eyes, so the dust doesn’t get in them‘. It is also, clearly, very difficult to translate. Here’s the last poem in the collection.

BuenoThis is a relatively simple one, as these things go. It’s not one of the poems that makes extensive use of puns, for which many thanks: I’ve been going over the first phrase of the first poem in the book, luz arada, or ‘ploughed light’, for a while now, trying to get the half-play on ‘Aral’ contained in arada across into English; at the moment ‘harrowed light’ is my preferred option, but that might change.

The words aren’t really the complicated part of this poem: literally, the translation runs ‘ghosts. | sailors | of cotton. | ghosts.’ Nothing to frighten the horses.

But beyond that, the question even of something so apparently simple as layout is vexing me. Sonia Bueno (ah, she’s a friend, let’s just call her Sonia) uses the space on the page in a complex and sophisticated fashion, isolating words and turning the poems into something that might be seen as (not to be too wanky) sculptural. Here, for instance, the grammar of the middle sentence of the poem is brought into question by the fact that the sailors are set further to the right than the adjective describing them.

I don’t like the word ‘of’ in poems all that much, and ‘cotton sailors’ sounds much more effective to me than ‘sailors of cotton’, but I want if possible to keep the sailors on the right. So what do I do? The options I’m playing with are, schematically, the following; all of them seem to have some degree of legitimacy to them. Ah well, it’s better than working. This may be the first book that I translate directly into the layout. 

Screen Shot 2019-05-27 at 13.30.22

Les Murray

les-murrayI’m sad that Les Murray has died. I like his poetry a great deal, and he’s one of those poets who always comes across (in interviews as well as in his poems), as someone with a huge degree of natural sympathy. I would have liked to have met him. I never did, but my younger brother Ben, when he was fifteen, went to a reading he gave in the late nineties, and afterwards queued to buy his Collected Poems. Handing the book over to be signed, the following exchange took place (as reported to me by Ben), which also inspires me with very deep affection for the pair of them:

LES MURRAY: Thanks for buying the book, mate. Who shall I sign it to?
BEN WOMACK: Erm, Ben Womack?
LM: And what about your girlfriend?
BW: Huh?
LM: Come on, fine upright lad like yourself, you must have a girlfriend.
BW [he does not have a girlfriend]: Erm, yes, yes I do.
LM: Well, what’s her name, then?
BW [panicky, trying to think of a name, any name]: Erm … erm … Er … Norfolk?
LM: Norfolk? You sure?
BW [can’t back out now]: Yes, that’s right. Norfolk. That’s her name.
LM: Alright. Here you go. Good on you.

The proof, sweetly, is below.

Murray (1) copy

The Competition

Apologies for absence is normally read as absence of apologies. Sorry I haven’t been around, if anyone cared. Not ‘as if anyone cared’.

I was away in Scotland, at a writing retreat. I mortgaged two weeks of holiday and two weeks of unpaid leave to do that, so I hope the results will turn out to have been worthwhile. I wrote a lot, at least.

While I was away, it was announced that I am shortlisted for the Ledbury Forte Poetry Prize for Second Collections, winner to be announced at the Ledbury Poetry Festival in July. This was obviously gratifying.

Then I read / reread the other five books shortlisted for the prize. My initial thought was: I’m fucked. Elaborated thoughts: it’s nice to be on a list, even if just to make up the numbers, with such good poets. In alphabetical order, the books on the shortlist are:

1. A.K. Blakemore, Fondue (Offord Road Books).
Line I liked the most: ‘so touched always by misunderstood human gestures.’
Line I liked the least: ‘they’re winking in the diphtheric sun’

2. Adam O’Riordan, A Herring Famine (Chatto)
Herring Famine
Line I liked the most: ‘I called her by another’s name, we fought,’
Line I liked the least: ‘alone with the prayers and sandwich pastes of her aged aunt;’

3. Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead (Chatto)
Don't Dead
Line I liked the most: ‘men leave me be, i dance with the ghost i came here with’
Line I liked the least: ‘with permission. sometime between here’

4. David Tait, The AQI (smith|doorstop)
Line I liked the most: ‘My mother fed her sharks our heirlooms by hand.’
Line I liked the least: ‘Teachers meeting: we brainstorm ideas’

5. Rory Waterman, Sarajevo Roses (Carcanet)
Line I liked the most: ‘a slow pink swipe across a pad of black,’
Line I liked the least: ‘in the Eden Project Visitor Centre Café.’

6. James Womack, On Trust: A Book of Lies (Carcanet)
Line I liked the most: ‘I nicknamed you Gift Horse, because you let me come in your mouth.’
Line I liked the least: ‘Then I saw the sign hung across the road,’

There will be a reading on Friday 5 July, the opening day of the Ledbury Poetry Festival, at which the winner will be announced. But, you know, we’re all winners already.

¡Ay, Pedrito!

Citas Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto
For various reasons, I’ve had to watch a lot of Almodóvar movies recently, particularly the early, funny ones. And, Jesus, let me tell you, there is a collapse in quality over the course of that career that on one level makes me very sad. I agree with the people who are close to me that All About My Mother is probably his best movie, but even that shows the roots of what over the past twenty years (by 2020, Almodóvar will have been releasing movies for forty years, which is maybe part of the problem) has hardened into mannerism and an absolute privileging of sheen over substance. Or maybe I don’t really mean that, because the sheen has always been the attraction of his movies, but the early movies, which were about the sheen in some ways, or certainly had the actors engaging with the sheen, are infinitely more palatable than the later ones, in which the obsession with surfaces and the look of the thing has eaten into the spaces where the actors were previously allowed to play. Also, he’s working with different, sheenier actors more often now, and I’d swap Elena Anaya for Chus Lampreave any day. No disrespect, but sometimes you just have to bow before genius.cover7


One of the people I’m teaching at the moment is writing a dissertation on nonsense literature. Of course, it’s surprisingly difficult to get a handle on it: it’s not satire, it’s not purely humorous, it’s sometimes an element of something larger than itself. It can be the Vikings singing about Spam, but Monty Python isn’t entirely nonsense. It can be a part of ‘perhaps the greatest anonymous poem in English’, but no one would read Tom O’Bedlam’s song and think it was entirely nonsense ,either. Lewis Carroll isn’t nonsense; Edward Lear is: is that right? It can be Spike Milligan, who makes his own kind of comic sense, or the art-school pranks of Vivian Stanshall and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, all goggly-eyed policemen and semi-ironic recorders. Speaking of Stanshall, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End is nonsense, but it’s also satire, and something queer all of its own at the same time. How much of a shared background of knowledge and sensibility does nonsense call for? Is it nonsense if it makes you laugh, if it’s trying to make you laugh? Is it nonsense if it scares the willies out of you?12editorial2-superJumbo

Teaching Creative Writing

It’s been an odd week, an odd couple of weeks. I started a new job, and am still settling into whatever it might turn out to be. I mean, I know what I’m employed to do, it’s not like I’ve been blindfolded and taken across the border into the East, forever to make movies at the whim of a mad king. But how what I’m employed to do will manifest itself is still up for grabs. Everyone else is being very helpful. But even so, that doesn’t stop me from feeling a little lost.

Thank goodness for my other job, the one where I know what I’m meant to do. I was at the Creative Writing MSt in Oxford this weekend, teaching a couple of workshops on writing poetry. In the first year of the MSt, everyone has to try every genre, and so I was teaching 29 people, only eleven of whom stated that poetry was something they were interested in. A difficult one to pitch.


One exercise we did, and which seemed to work well, was one I’d picked up from Alastair Brotchie’s A Book of Surrealist Games. The students write a question on a piece of paper, which they then fold in half. The questions are handed in and shuffled. They are then dealt out to the group again, and on the outside of the paper, the students each write an answer. The poem has to link the question and the answer. Nothing as great, or as unarguable, as what came up when I was playing this with a friend of mine once: ‘What is love?’ ‘A hedgehog’.