Live Canon 2013 poetry performance and prize giving

I’m chuffed to be among such good company in the Live Canon 2013 anthology. Congratulations to Tessa Foley who won the competition with a great poem, ‘Love Story’. And to Doreen Hinchliffe who won the borough prize with ‘Arachne’s Gift’.

My brother was playing a game to see if he could guess which poem was mine while it was being read. He had an inkling at the last line of Poet’s Corner ‘beyond the shore, where the waves are silent’. Great to catch up with him and my sis-in-law at such a good natured event.

I was also lucky to chat with some very talented poets. Isabel Rogers’ ‘The Cost of Living’ showed us the reality behind a political catchphrase. Josephine Corcoran’s ‘Thanks for not switching me off’ explored the inner experience of a patient on life support. David Bowe’s ‘Golem’ and Oona Chantrell’s ‘Vanishing Marsh’ were fascinating, mysterious incantations and very much up my street. All of the poems will bear many readings.

Glyn Maxwell, returning as this year’s judge, talked about how instructive it is seeing and hearing your words interpreted by an actor’s body. Helen Eastman did a brilliant job of bringing it all together and entertaining a room full of nervous poets. No mean feat. The performances were brilliant, as can be expected from Live Canon.

The competition anthology is available to buy from Amazon.

Return to Live Canon

I’ve been shortlisted for this year’s Live Canon poetry competition. Live Canon is a troupe of actors led by Helen Eastman. As well as an annual competition, they memorise and perform older poems you might not hear read aloud often. Their next show is a performance of Sweet Ways the World Ends, a piece specially written by Glyn Maxwell for Live Canon. It’s being performed this month and described as somewhere between ‘a poem, a play and a party’. Check out livecanon.com for tickets.

I’ve been shortlisted in this competiton a couple of times before. There’s a recital at Greenwich Theatre where the hopeful poems are performed. It’s surprising the rush you get when an actor recites something you’ve written from the stage. In 2011, I’d invested so much of myself (and the previous summer) in ‘The Clay Body’ it was really very moving. A release from the private world of the poem.

One of the great things about last year’s event was that I’ve managed to stay in loose contact with a few of the poets via Twitter, one of whom, Isabel Rogers, is shortlisted again. Andrew McMillan won with a great poem that year. I have commitments this month but I’m hoping to attend the performance and maybe meet a few more poets come the big day. I’m happy to be on the list again.

How do you know when a poem is finished?

When Jackson Pollock was asked, of painting, “How do you know when you’ve finished?” He replied, “How do you know when you’ve finished making love?”

I’m about to try The Rialto with some poems, having worked on these particular pieces for around two years on and off. At various times I thought they were ‘nearly there’ but after a cooling off period I would dive back in. There were tendons to be stretched, forests to manicure, buried machinery to be unearthed. At a recent work in progress meet up with some friends, I announced that a poem was ‘basically done’ only to spend the next two weeks making one small adjustment after another.

But what does it mean for writing to be ‘finished’? Digitally published texts can be edited at any time and even traditional books are frequently revised between editions and printings. There are three versions of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind: 1799, 1805 and 1850 (published posthumously). Paul Valery claimed that “A poem is never finished, only abandoned”. Auden agreed with Valery. He also believed the most painful type of poem for the poet to be “the good ideas which his incompetence or impatience prevented from coming to much”. He revisited some of his published pieces many times over his career. I’ve carried the Valery quote around for a long time but I don’t necessarily agree. There is a point at which the forces in a poem pull the rubble into a whole, like a planet pulling itself into a sphere.

How much landscaping should you do once this has happened? A good rule of thumb might be if you can read your poem without wanting to make a single change. Put it aside for an hour. A night. Show it to someone without having to explain or apologise for it. Work on something else for a few weeks. Inspiration is ongoing: it can grow steadily or quickly, like grass. Your subconscious mind holds on to things long after you’ve put them down. Writing goes deeper and is more mysterious than we think.

The ideal would be to combine the spontaneity of your first thought with patience and clarity. After all, what you have on the page may only be a framework for what you really intend to say. Emanuel Lasker, the great chess master said, “If you find a good move, look for a better one”. You may have a good line, but is there something better? You should be prepared to ask that question for a long time. This means living with the work. Waiting. A poem is a journey. You will cover unexpected distance before it is done. A good amount of that distance is time. Seasons change. A new landscape takes shape.

Am I sure that these poems are finished now? Yes. Maybe. I’ve been celebrating a friend’s birthday with a few ales so my judgement might be impaired. I’ll sleep on it one more night.

The living word

I’ve been shortlisted for the Live Canon 2012 poetry competition. The brilliant thing about this competition is that you get to see your poem, and those of the other hopefuls, performed by some great actors. Humour, darkness and beauty all shine more brightly in the embodiment and interpretation that actors can breathe into a piece.

My poem is ‘Weather’. Last year I was shortlisted with ‘The Clay Body’ and seeing that long poem performed on stage is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had when it comes to writing. You can check out the full shortlist on the Live Canon website. This inventive troupe do a lot to promote poetry of all eras.

The expectation of surprise

I sent a batch of poems to Poetry London yesterday. Sending to magazines is a great excuse to catch up on any issues you haven’t read in a while. They give you a sense of what’s happening in poetry. It’s refreshing to see emerging themes and styles. How far this is because of the editorial vision or the movements of a collective muse is difficult to know. If it were obvious the magazine would probably feel laboured and didactic.

But even when you are familiar with a magazine, it’s not really possible to second guess what the editor wants to read because, in all likelihood, the editor wants to be surprised. All we can say is that the poem has to be one of the silver bullets:  self-contained enough to survive when separated from the body of your work. Perhaps all poems should be.