Happy in the haze of a drunken minute

You, The Living – Roy Andersson, 2007

Roy Andersson’s ‘Living’ films are each made up of a series of tableaux – a word I didn’t know the meaning of until two minutes ago. The films are moving paintings and I love that they create and capture strange and beautiful moments.

I rarely go ‘out out’ these days, but when I do, there’ll be a moment when the room is aglow and everything is in hazy harmony. Achieving this state of momentary bliss is a tightrope act, as one or two sips later, the balance and harmony disappears.

The Daily Mash is therefore absolutely correct to pose this question:

 ‘You’re four pints in. The highlight of your evening is behind you. But is it ever ethically defensible to say, ‘Right lads, I don’t want to spend another 30 quid to feel like s***, I’m off home?’

The answer is, of course, ‘Yes!’ The highlight has happened: go to bed and look forward to the next one. But we never do this…

Louis MacNeice was a master at conveying the wonder of a perfect moment. I have probably read ‘The ­­Brandy Glass’ a hundred times:

‘Only let it form within his hands once more –
The moment cradled like a brandy glass…’

He wrote in ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’:

‘We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold…’

Yet, in ‘Meeting Point’, love can cage the minute:

‘God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.’

So, I suppose that a perfect life would be repeatedly drinking brandy in the garden with someone you love…But not repeatedly, as the moment would lose its special uniqueness and you would both be horrifically drunk and in pain.

Ooh, sometimes the truth is harder than the pain inside

I recently told a group of people that I had adopted a new philosophy called ‘Cheerful Nihilism.’ They laughed. Should I have been surprised? I aborted an attempt to do research for this blog (i.e. the usual wiki search: Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche) – what’s the point?

So, this ‘new philosophy’ has basically meant that I am willing to actually do some art instead of just dream about it. Perhaps I should write an art manifesto and hope that it becomes adopted by a group of bored and revolutionary artists in Zurich? Such is the power of a blog, so I am told.

Here goes the manifesto:

• Practise
• Don’t assume that all lists disguised as manifestos are tedious
• Parodies are OK
• Don’t wait until tomorrow
• Don’t accept a difference of opinion or a wall of silence as a comment on your character or the quality of your ideas: if you want it, you can get it
• Just doing your art and/or writing listy blogs that no one will read is not OK – go beyond the guilty pound in the guitar case outside the train station and consider how your skills and passion can further enchance that great swell known as humanity
• Challenge verbosity (e.g. ‘great swell known as humanity’)
• Go beyond the guitar case – be kind whenever you can
• Time is running out
• No, really, the climate scientists have said this many, many times

Cheerful nihilism: it might catch on. You heard it here first. Except that you didn’t, of course. A German with a massive moustache and sour expression has been whispering the truth to you for over 120 years. Listen to him. And me. Type into Google: ‘Pointless existence, willing to have fun, skills in…’ I presume that such a search would lead to a meaningful result…

Let me know how you get on.

Art, Truth and Politics

World Press Photo of the Year 2004 – taken by Jean-Marc Bouju, 31st March 2003: an Iraqi man comforts his 4-year-old son at a holding centre for prisoners of war

George Orwell said, ‘What I have most wanted to do…is to make political writing into an art.’

I listened to a poem a few days ago that mocked art that is made to be political. It was a funny poem, but perhaps it was unintentionally funny in that it was itself an example of political art being about venting and doing nothing to encourage people to become politically active.

In Henrik Ibsen’s play Enemy of the People (1882), Dr Stockman discovers that the baths in his town, which are its main source of revenue, are contaminated with toxins from a factory upstream. The mayor convinces Stockman’s friends that repairing the baths would be financially disastrous for the town. ‘At the end of the play, Stockman remains true to his own moral compass but he and his family are ruined…’*

Aside from the obvious point that, given the current climate breakdown, this play written 136 years ago is more relevant now than when it was first performed, I wonder how many people who have seen it have decided to emulate Dr Stockman? Or rather, I wonder how many people have been inspired to be politically active in whatever small way possible after seeing Enemy of the People? Or were they satisfied that they had done their bit by simply seeing the play? Yep, that’ll show the powers that be: spending money on thought-provoking plays! That’ll show the powers that be: writing ranty poems about people spending money on thought-provoking plays! That’ll show the powers that be: writing a blog about ranty poems about people spending money on thought-provoking plays!

I’m not suggesting that we should all be so politically active that we end up with immaculate morals and no money. I just think that some people like talking the talk and letting other people get on with the unglamorous chore of activism.

However, I do appreciate political art for reasons other than its potential to jolt people into action. For example, I recently enjoyed Mark Titchner’s exhibition We Want Responsibility To Be Shared By All, which ‘explores ordinary people’s voices against a world of corporate and political messages.’ Pete ‘the Temp’ Bearder is fantastically talented: I have seen him perform twice, though sadly I didn’t get to see his show Pete ‘the Temp’ vs. Climate Change. He seems unusual in that he is able to monetise his poetry/spoken word and remain consistently politically active. Whatever your artistic or political tastes, you have to admire anyone who can perform an ‘oil orgy’ on the table in the middle of an oil company’s meeting… and with puns!

For years, I appreciated Leon Kuhn’s caricatures of Bush and Blair. Then there’s Banksy, Mark Wallinger, Susan Crile (bleak works such as Bleeding Prisoner, though I think the original Abu Ghraib photos are far more terrifying)…and I still listen to Rage Against the Machine, though given that I do this in the kitchen these days, they simply make me wash the dishes with slightly more vigour.

And there’s Harold Pinter’s poem American Football: A Reflection upon the Gulf War, which prompted Private Eye to start writing ‘Harold Pinter’s Nursery Rhymes’. I love Ibsen and I love Pinter, but goodness me: if ever there was a hilarious poem designed to vent, this is it. And I don’t think in a good way. But who gets to decide what is good in art and politics? And isn’t art just an unnecessary filter when, as Pinter did in his Nobel speech, you can say it as it is?

‘…We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East’…’

Me dressed as Blair – taken by Felix Clay for The Guardian at the Hay Festival, 28th May 2008

*Lara Shalson, Theatre & Protest, Macmillan, 2017, p. 55

Thongs of Praise

See what I did there? I did a pun in the title and I used a word that everyone finds funny…

Why aren’t you laughing? I may as well have said this at the end of the gig I did a few hours ago, but instead I just glared at the audience (nine poets and a barman), pointed, and said, ‘I’ll have words!’ Which, on reflection, was an appropriate threat for a poetry gig, though sadly I wasn’t allowed to share any more words at that moment due it being the next poet’s turn.

In his show Content Provider, Stewart Lee regularly taunts ‘the Southend theatre people’ in the top row. Maybe I should plan my anger next time. Anything less than laughter with tears will result in a rehearsed sneer and silly name calling. I’ll heckle the audience and pretend it’s pretending, when actually I’m struggling to cope with their neutral expressions and my staggering sense of entitlement.


Pleased to meet you…Sascha A Akhtar


Sascha A Akhtar has been widely translated into Armenian, Portuguese, Galician, Russian, Dutch & Polish. She has performed at festivals such as the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam and Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival London curated by Yoko Ono. Her most recent poetry collection is 199 Japanese Names for Japanese Trees. She also works as a freelance editor and healer using therapeutic meditation practices at Be Meditation. Her latest work, ‘Only Dying Sparkles’, appears in the Winter 2018 issue of Poetry Wales in the form of a deck of tarot-like cards. Next year, she will teach a workshop at The Poetry School, ‘Technicians of The Sacred: The Poem As A Magical Event’, and publish a book of translations as the Belles-Lettres of Hijjab Imtiaz on Oxford University Press, India.


What makes you write poetry despite the overwhelming majority of people’s crushing indifference towards it?

Well, one reason is, I actually cannot not write poetry, so there’s that. I suppose it has been a pathway for healing for me since I was very young. So whether or not anyone’s reading it, I’m writing it!! The indifference makes no difference to my practice. #PathologicalPoet 😊 😊 😊

WH Auden wrote that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ – how do you know that this isn’t true?

WH Auden must have been a very depressed poet if that’s what he believed! It is important though to put that in the right context. In his time, in his generation as a man, perhaps there were expectations of him that he did not fulfill and indeed poetry “made nothing happen,” like food, shelter etc (and it still doesn’t) It all depends on what you feel a “happening” is. Any action we take in this world with intention can affect change. Words are more powerful than most things; the most powerful of all. In that way, according to the laws of manifestation and even if you look back at the usage of words throughout human history, poetry has always been believed to make everything happen!! It was only when we started wanting to be “civilised,” and “enlightened,” that we lost the sense of our own individual power and how we can wield it.

Once when I sneezed, a piece of sweetcorn came out of my nose – can you tell me something interesting about you?

I name animals as soon as I meet them. In particular, if it is a goat or a duck. They may well be my spirit animals with the kinship I feel. 😊 😊 😊 So I named a goat Seymour and named two ducks that then became my pets actually Sophocoles and Socrates. The fact they are all “S” names is a coincidence.

Sherman the Goat in rural Northern Pakistan, the wild country where the mountain goat rules!

If poetry was a metaphor, what metaphor would it be?

The reading of it, the writing of it, the performance of it or witnessing a reading/performance? The reading of it: Can be like digging a ditch or meditating, depending on the poem. The writing of it: Digging a ditch or meditating, having open heart surgery, performing an alchemical act. The performance of it: Having open-heart surgery, being disembowelled, dying, creating a magical, healing space. Witnessing a performance: Digging a ditch & getting into it, undergoing an alchemical act, dying, soaring, healing.

What is your favourite room?

In my home? My daughter’s room. I feel safe, relaxed and happy there! 😊

What is the worst poem you have ever written?

Possibly the first poem I ever wrote when I was 7, directly lifted from Tyger, Tyger and beginning with “Oh Lord I thank thee”? (Colonial education did strange things to us in the countries where we were taught ONLY dead white men in English poetry)

Which poems or poets are currently inspiring you?

Sylvia Legris, a secret book of poetry I just discovered as the only work of a female occultist and hunted down via the Smithsonian Archive, which I will be sharing with students in my Poetry School workshop Technicians of The Sacred: The Poem As A Magical Event, the lyrics of most Delta Blues musicians, especially Vera Hall, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith. Paul Celan.

What is the most annoying moment you have ever experienced at a poetry event?

Annoying in what way? I curated a poetry event with Anthony Joseph for about four years La Langoustine Est Morte, at the Poetry Cafe so there is a whole slew of moments that could be rated from Mildly Annoying to Moderate Irritation to Total Freak-Out!

What advice would you give to someone thinking about writing poetry?

Do it. If you sense that you are stopping yourself, before you even begin use the tools of introspection and circumvent that. I find ritualising the act can help. Make the intention, I’m going to allow myself to write. Think about if you like pencils or pens. Go to a stationery store that makes you happy. Hang out with the pencils, the pens until something calls to you. Do the same with a notebook. What will lend itself more easily to you getting it out at any moment? In the grocery store. Getting your morning coffee before your “day job”? Look at ALL the sizes. I used to always have small ones, which worked for me, blank pages, but then I found (after many years, mind) the space was restricting my poetry-thoughts. Then I had medium-sized ones, which helped the “flow,” better, but were hard to carry around, so then I had a small one for when I was out, and medium ones at home (I really enjoyed the size & format as the space for my words) and now I have really big ones with lines. Preferably hard-bound. Those suit me the best. I very rarely write straight into the computer.

What is the point?

The point is the point. Find it.



Call Me By Your Name

So I finally watched ‘Call Me By Your Name’, having refused for months to pay £6.99 for the DVD. I saw it in a makeshift cinema, and just as the two lovers crept into bed, an appropriately early 80s-style notice flashed up on the screen: ‘Projector is overheating: Clean your filters.’ That got the biggest laugh during the film. But none of us were there for laughs (though perhaps, like me, some in the audience were bracing themselves for a nervous giggle to relieve the tension caused by ‘the peach scene’). I spoke about the film with a friend, who said, ‘It has a lovely air.’ That’s a lovely, succinct, accurate way of describing it. It’s smothered in gorgeous light and made me wish I could spend a summer in northern Italy reading classics, playing the piano in a massive room and falling deeply in love. And if that wasn’t enough, the songs by Sufjan Stevens are incredible. This is my new favourite lyric:

‘Oh to see without my eyes
The first time that you kissed me.’

Sufjan Stevens – The Mystery of Love

Stoner: A revelation

Image result for stoner book

It’s a few weeks since I read Stoner by John Williams and I still think about it. I remember picking up a copy of the book in my local Rise a few years ago and thinking that it looked a bit hipster-ish and, well, boring. A book about a fictional forgotten academic? Nah, there are plenty of other books that I’ve already bought and still haven’t read…But recently I read an interview with Julian Barnes in which he mentioned Stoner, and his endorsement, possibly coupled with the fact that I work at a university and occasionally fantasise that I am a scholar, propelled me into the local library. A few pages in, I started to imagine Stoner as being Adam Driver in the film Paterson – a sensitive, weary, kind poetic soul. I still think about the inane cruelty of his wife and the frustration that he spent so little time with the woman he did love. And the image of him literally clinging to his work while the world indifferently carries on… Apparently Williams thought it was a happy book, but I’m not convinced. He does, however, make sadness seem unbearably beautiful.



Very, Very, Quite Contrary

‘I’m allergic to “light verse”, because it seems a betrayal of the purpose of poetry.’

So said Robin Robertson in an interview published last month in The Guardian, which you can read here. I find myself vaguely appalled that someone can be so certain that poetry has one single purpose.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.*

I do like a bit of ‘light verse’ and parodies – I love parodies. I’ve just been enjoying ‘Harold Pinter’s Nursery Rhymes’ by the Private Eye satirist Craig Brown. Very funny. If poetry has one purpose then surely it’s to provoke a strong emotional reaction? In that case, a theatre full of people laughing so much that they cry fulfils the criterion. Well done, Mr Brown. Come on, Mr Robertson.

*From Snow by Louis MacNeice

Pleased to meet you… J.S.Watts

J.S.Watts is a poet and novelist based near Cambridge. Her poetry has been published across the world and in magazines such as Acumen, Envoi, Mslexia and Orbis. Her latest poetry pamphlet, The Submerged Sea, was published earlier this year by Dempsey & Windle and her novels, A Darker Moon and Witchlight, are published in the US and UK by Vagabondage Press.

What makes you write poetry despite the overwhelming majority of people’s crushing indifference towards it?

Because I’m not indifferent to it. Because I know many people who are not indifferent to it. Because other people’s indifference should not prevent anyone from practising their art. Because I’d like to decrease the indifference of the many (if it exists).

WH Auden wrote that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ – how do you know that this isn’t true?

How do you know that it is? Anything written is unlikely to have a direct impact. It’s not like building a bomb or saving someone’s life during surgery. Poetry, and writing in general, spreads ideas, influences, makes people think, feel, respond and who knows what may come of that? Things happen because of how people feel and poetry stimulates that, but it’s rarely direct cause and effect and even if it is, you probably can’t see it.

Once when I sneezed, a piece of sweetcorn came out of my nose – can you tell me something interesting about you?

Eurgh, gross! I have never knowingly mistreated sweetcorn. I am, however, a French Horn player, which I think is interesting.

If poetry was a metaphor, what metaphor would it be?

Poetry is one long metaphor. Poetry is every metaphor ever written. Poetry is a metaphor for itself.

What is your favourite room?

When I’m sleeping, it’s my bedroom. When I’m working, it’s my study.

What is the worst poem you have ever written?

Sshhhhh, I’m so not telling.

Which poems or poets are currently inspiring you?

This is a difficult question to answer, because there are so many. As soon as I write one name down, I think of another and I don’t want to leave anyone out. So, in no particular order and naming both the living and the dead (and apologising to some who should be down here, but I’ve momentarily overlooked): Charles Causley, Alice Oswald, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Wilfred Owen, Liz Berry, Fay Roberts, Pascale Petit, Dylan Thomas, Carole Satyamurti, Benjamin Zephaniah, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Imtiaz Dharkar, Allison McVety, Helen Mort, T.S.Eliot and John Donne. There are more. There will always be more.

What is the most annoying moment you have ever experienced at a poetry event?

Timing is always a frustration. One open mic event I went to was advertised as starting at 7pm. The MC advised everyone to get there early to make sure they could sign up. I arrived at 6.50pm. The MC didn’t turn up until 7.30pm and then said things wouldn’t start till around 9pm because people were always late. Grrrrr.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about writing poetry?

Go write it. Why are you hesitating? Enjoy writing it. Don’t, however, expect to earn a living from it alone.

What is the point?

The end of my pencil.

Pleased to meet you (again)…Jonathan Pinnock

The Truth About Archie and Pye is ‘an absurd mathematical murder mystery’ and a ‘humorous thriller’ written by Jonathan Pinnock. I know Jonathan through his funny poetry website Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis and his own poetry collection Love and Loss and Other Important Stuff (Silhouette Press). I am honoured to be part of his blog tour to promote The Truth About Archie and Pye (Farrago Books) and I am sorry for repeatedly talking about poetry and not mentioning the book at all in the interview below.

What makes you write poetry despite the overwhelming majority of people’s crushing indifference towards it?

Well, the sad fact is that I’m on a bit of a sabbatical from poetry at the moment, as I am fully immersed in the world of the novel (OUT NOW: THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE. IT’S VERY GOOD. SEE PICTURE. ISN’T IT AN AWESOME COVER?). However, when I do come back to it, I think “Crushing Indifference” would be a great title for my next poetry collection.

WH Auden wrote that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ – how do you know that this isn’t true?

I’m not sure I do. It’s certainly done very little for my bank balance. But then again, not much of my writing has, so it’s not an observation that only applies to poetry.

Once when I sneezed, a piece of sweetcorn came out of my nose – can you tell me something interesting about you?

Oddly enough, a long, long time ago I once managed to do a similar trick myself. I found myself on an effective writing course at work with someone I fancied, and for some reason she started talking to me during the lunch break. I was so embarrassed and awkward that I managed to choke on the sandwich I was eating at the time and most of the filling went up my nose. Spent the rest of the afternoon blowing pieces of lettuce into a handkerchief. Oddly enough, she never spoke to me again. Not sure I’ve ever told anyone that story before, and I’m wondering why I’m telling it to you now, to be honest.

If poetry was a metaphor, what metaphor would it be?

Probably life. Most things are a metaphor for life in the end.

What is your favourite room?

The Albert Hall. Because I met my wife in the queue outside.

What is the worst poem you have ever written?

I have written many bad poems, but the very worst is probably the one that I submitted a very, very long time ago to “Poetry Now: Redundancy”, called “Violation”, which used a horrendously inappropriate sexual metaphor for being made redundant. I have no idea what I was thinking. It actually got worse, as the wires got crossed at the publisher and they were about to publish it in “Poetry Now: Relationships,” until I pulled the plug on it. I still have nightmares about that one.

Which poems or poets are currently inspiring you?

As I said, I’m taking a bit of a sabbatical from poetry, but I think the last poetry book I read was Brian Bilston’s “You Took the Last Bus Home”, which I enjoyed a lot. Good thing, because I supported the crowdfunder for it.

What is the most annoying moment you have ever experienced at a poetry event?

It’s not exactly an annoying moment, but there’s one bad memory that stands out. I was shortlisted in a competition and invited to read some of my poems along with the winners at a special event. This was the first time I’d actually been asked to do something like this, and I failed to realise that I really should say something about each of the poems before I read them. Instead, I just gabbled through them and about halfway through, I realised I was losing the room. There was one member of the audience in particular, with a shock of white hair, who was staring at me with such malevolence that the look on his face haunts me to this day. Then again, it’s possible that he was just bored, I suppose.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about writing poetry?

Make sure every single word is earning its keep. If it isn’t, kick it out, or at least remove a letter or two to encourage the others.

What is the point?

It’s usually the sharp bit at the end. But sometimes it can be quite fluffy. There’s a lot to be said for a fluffy point.