Friday, 2 October 2015

Simara running rampage, I have moved!

Last time I was at Vincennes Zoo, for the summer nocturne opening hours, Simara the young female jaguar ran rampage in her pool under the waterfall. She ran back and forth and pounced at the water, racing towards me. I've never seen nature so forceful. She kept it up for an hour while I watched. It was 9pm, I was alone in front of her cage. Afterwards I wound my way towards the exit, but thought I'd check if the fossa was out, preparing myself for disappointment, as he hides in his den most of the time. He wasn't at first, so I turned homeward, then remembered to check the other window. There he was! That night I wrote two poems, one featuring Simara and one about the very strange fossa from Madagascar. Both poems are attempts to describe what it was like for my mother to go mad, to be in the throes of mania and psychosis, in my book in progress Mama Amazonica.

It has been a turbulent time for me, for the first time in thirty years I've moved house, from London to Cornwall, to a remote rural spot near Bodmin Moor. My cat-love of my life Shiva died just before the move. I haven't quite settled in yet, but the garden office is set up, and the beds have finally arrived. When the settees come perhaps Basil my Siberian forest (rescue) cat will come out from his camp under the bed. Mouse who is feral is in paradise in the garden and fields. Yesterday she saw sheep for the first time, her eyes went huge, then she looked outraged that they were reaching into the lane-grass by our gate to munch grass. Molly also ventures out to explore and hunt.

With me came 145 books submitted for the TS Eliot Prize, as I'm chairing the judging panel this year. I sat on my campbed reading one after the other, making notes, keeping the boxes safe among the hundreds filled with my books and household stuff. I'm writing this in the Holiday Inn at Heathrow, at 5am, on my way to the Dromineer Festival today to read. From there I'll go to Swindon Poetry Festival, then Preston, then teach for the second time this year at Ty Newydd. I got back from Totleigh Barton, teaching an Arvon poetry course last week. November will be quieter, it will. December I'm going back to Paris to see Simara and hopefully Aramis the black jaguar, and who knows what? I've one year left to finish my book. Maybe they'll be together by then, and he won't be stuck in the back enclosure. What I've learnt from my many visits is that it's worth sticking around all day, even if they're asleep in the bushes, they will eventually emerge, just like poems.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Reading from French translations of Fauverie at Maison de la Poésie in Paris with Valérie Rouzeau

On June 13th I gave my first reading from Fauverie in Paris, at the Maison de la Poésie. I was honoured to share the event with Valérie Rouzeau, my favourite contemporary French poet, and even happier that she translated the poems I read. She is well known for the verve and inventiveness of the language and the wordplay in her poems so I am lucky to have her as a translator. Susan Wicks has translated Valérie's books Pas Revoir (Cold Spring in Winter) and Vrouz (Talking Vrouz) in superb bilingial editions published by Arc's Visible Poets' series. Cold Spring in Winter / Pas Revoir was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize. I urge you to read them.

I illustrated my reading at the Maison de la Poésie with images. Here is a king vulture's head. It's a sacred bird, a god to Amazonian tribes. I think I must be exclaiming how old Margot and N'golo are – about 50 now – the couple that I visit in the zoo and who feature in both my books The Zoo Father and Fauverie. My poem 'Self-Portrait with King Vultures' draws on the extraordinary encounter I had with a baby king vulture in the zoo nursery, the baby god struggling to stand and fluff up his wingstubs in a child's playpen. Thanks to the Maison de la Poésie for the photo.

The day after our reading Valérie and I went to Vincennes Zoo to see Aramis, the black jaguar who stars in Fauverie and who graces its cover. It was the first time Valérie had gone to a zoo and I'll never forget her reaction to the herd of sixteen giraffes in the distance!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The gate to the Jardin des Plantes, leopards and Mama Amazonica

As this is a flying visit to Paris I booked a little hotel directly opposite the gate to the Jardin des Plantes! This is the view from my window, onto a two hundred year old royal oak, which in the balmy evenings has a crow perched on its topmost twig, swaying in the haze. The gate opens at 8am, when I stroll in to the secret Jardin Alpin. From there, I climb to the top terrace which abutts the deer enclosure of the zoo, and stroke the fallow does.

Then, when the zoo opens, at 9am, I go in, always straight to the Fauverie, past the owl cages, the red pandas, to see what the fauves are up to. Yesterday was very exciting because at last the aged snow leopard Karu was mating with his young mate Esha. His previous mate died two years ago, and it had always seemed as if Esha was too boisterous for him. She is raw energy, leaping from the top branch of the high enclosure to the floor in one bound, while he cowers in the corner. 

Here is Esha, in a rare moment of stillness. But alas, all was not well, when I returned at closing time, when the cats are lured into the interior of the Fauverie to eat, Karu had a limp on his back paw, and looked very sorry for himself. The vet was called to give him anti-inflammatories, and when I asked her about him she said that he was old and Esha was too rough for him, they were not tender with each other. Poor Karu. 

This is Karu and Esha's neighbour, Tao the North China leopard. Esha kept racing up to peer at him through their barriers and this is him looking rather puzzled at this white madcat that kept flashing her tail at him. The expression in his eyes is an exquisite cross between innocence and ferocity, I don't think I've ever seen anything so wild. Both he and Bao-bao his mate are untameable, Bao-bao especially snarls at people, while Karu loves people as he was hand-raised.

I came to Paris this time to take part in Inua Ellams' Midnight Run, and to give my first ever reading from Fauverie in Paris, at the Maison de la Poésie, with the fabulous French poet Valérie Rouzeau, who translated the poems I read. It was a special event for me as Fauverie is all about Paris (the wild side), where I was born, and Valérie is a poet I very much admire.

This is a quick note because today is my last day and I must rush to Vincennes Zoo, to see Aramis the black jaguar and Simara the gold female jaguar. Valérie and I went there on Sunday but A and S were asleep.

I'm working on my seventh poetry collection Mama Amazonica, which I'm delighted to announce will be published by Bloodaxe in 2017. There will be research in the Peruvian Amazon, if all goes according to plan, next spring, but meanwhile animals still are very central to the book, as is my mother, who was severely mentally ill. The book takes place in psychiatric wards and the Amazon rainforest.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

My Tate Modern course The Spirit of Things: Poetry of the Body, Marlene Dumas and Nicholas Hlobo

For the third week of my Tate Modern course, The Spirit of Things: Poetry of the Body, we worked with Balindile I by the South African artist Nicholas Hlobo and three of his drawings that incorporate rubber and coral-hued embroidery in his signature baseball stitch. 

We spent the first two weeks in the powerful Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden exhibition, almost overwhelming with its vast rooms of over-life-size faces and bodies staring out at the viewer – confrontational in their gaze, conjured from her masterly brushstrokes, at once alive but ghostly.

This is her portrait of her daughter, The Painter. To attempt poems responding to Dumas' portraits we discussed the exquisite poem 'Michael's Dream' from Mark Doty's sequence 'Atlantis', where he asks, "What is the body? Rain on a window, / a clear movement over whose gaze?" We also discussed Natalie Diaz' erotic and linguistically adventurous poem 'The Cure for Melancholy is to Take the Horn',  Sharon Olds' 'Poem for the Breasts' from her TS Eliot prizewinning collection Stag's Leap, and the haunting, floating-on-the-page-like-a-spectre 'Some Ether' by Nick Flynn, the title poem of his debut collection, where the main portrait is an absence with a visceral pressure on the narrator, her hands "resting on my shoulders // trying to steer." Marlene Dumas has written much about her art so we also consulted  her writings and quotes, which include this wonderful one:
Drawing is closer to whispering into someone's ear,
while painting is more like the ear itself.
It contains all that has ever entered there.
It listens more than it speaks.
It throws speech into the dark.
Painting is not speechless.
It overflows.
It is a drunken mermaid's song.
Dumas' bodies are figurative, but Nicholas Hlobo approaches the body in a more ambiguous way. He titles his work in Xhosa, an Nguni language spoken in South Africa, so like Dumas, there is much attention to titles and the power of words for him. But it's the materials and textures that dominate, industrial rubber such as the inner tubes of tyres, hosepipes, are contrasted with drawings woven and stitched in precise pink and coral thread. His figures are active and organic, giant coiled blossoms suggestive of inner body parts and sexual organs.

We'll spend two sessions with his works. Last night we started by playing the Definitions Game to create unexpected juxtapositions of concrete nouns and their definitions. I gave everyone  two nouns, each one on a paper strip, they defined them, then we tore the noun from its definition and passed it to the next person to pin to their nouns. So the definition of a purse which starts as "a receptacle for keeping money safe" was matched to a breast: "a breast is... a receptacle for keeping money safe" and so on, 40 surreal definitions which we laid out on the floor to pick and choose from.

We discussed CK Williams' magnificent poem 'Tar', as it's so full of textural descriptions of industrial black stuff – "licorice", "Dantean broth"– the kinesthetic sensations of flexing ladders, and air "gunked with burst and half-burst bubbles". These helped to write poems in response to Hlobo's rubbery and sutured black and pink forms. The group also consulted a list of eight senses and had to write a poem that included them all, as well as one of the surreal definitions.

Next week we'll study CK Williams' poem 'Invisible Mending' from his collection Repair, to take a closer look at the embroidering aspect of Hlobo's work. His needlework, traditionally women's work, challenges gender roles in his Xhosa culture.

Review by Dave Coates and some thoughts about why I wrote Fauverie

Dave Coates has reviewed Fauverie on his blog and for the spring issue of Poetry Wales. His is an in-depth analysis that explores the spirit of my book:

Here is an excerpt:
"Fauverie works partly in light of her 2001 collection The Zoo Father, if at all possible I’d also recommend reading the earlier book."
"Though it too has its moments of tenderness, The Zoo Father seems in its most emotionally charged moments an angry book. In the first section its imaginative strength is employed in disempowering, making safe or actively harming the father in something like acts of retribution; these poems explicitly relate what the father has done to his family, and are difficult and painful to read. It’s an important collection, one I wish I’d read sooner. Fourteen years later, Fauverie – though it too openly confronts plain facts of violence and abuse – is at heart, I think, a book about finding peace. Though the organising details – the poet visiting her father on his deathbed in Paris – are the same, it does not so much re-write the story as examine it from different angles. The third poem in the collection, ‘Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier’, quite explicitly questions the morality of returning to a story, or of selecting another imaginative reality:
‘The one a nightingale serenades
just because he’s in pain – that’s
the father I choose, not the man
who thrusts red-hot prongs in their eyes
so their songs will carry for miles.’

The poem ends with this certainty undermined:

‘He does not make canaries trill so loud
that the tiny branches of their lungs
burst. I am sure of this, though I am just
an ounce in the fist of his hand.’

The poem sets out the risk being taken in this re-examination; the book gives the father a voice on several occasions, and at times permits a view of him not solely as the monster of The Zoo Father, but as an old man himself confronting death; though the potential even for a dying man to commit or denote violence is, as in these lines, rarely far from the surface. It is noticeable, for example, that the father’s pleasures, like ‘Pâté de Foie Gras’ or ‘Ortolan’, require the incarceration and torture of wild animals.
He concludes: 
"The final line of the poem and book is ‘I proclaimed peace after bloodshed’; for Fauverie to find this redress at a cost very clearly laid out in the body of the collection, this balancing of books where The Zoo Father perhaps did not, is a rather extraordinary gesture."
It might seem strange to write two books about an abusive father. I didn't expect to write a second. I hope they are not just 'confessional' books. I see my personal experience as an insight into the problem of violence against women and children, rape and child abuse, the abuse of power. It seems a worldwide issue within the family and society. At its worst, there is sadism as well as contempt for women, as apparent in the case of the 2012 Delhi gang rape of a 23 year-old student, Jyoti Singh, on a bus, where the young woman shortly afterwards died of her injuries. I can't comprehend why those young men did that.

I have, however understood some of the factors that made my father behave as he did, he even explained one of them to me, that he himself was abused in the Jesuit school he attended, though he didn't explain that to accept any guilt, just to justify why he went wild when he left home.

It was important to me that in Fauverie every attempt is made to redeem the father as he was dying, but not to flinch from what he has done. If I couldn't forgive him in life perhaps I can in a book, in art.

Image credit: Dragana Nicolic, from the illustrated edition of The Zoo Father, Serbia.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

My T S Eliot Prize Shortlist Reading, my Paris Retreat, Charlie Hebdo Attacks


Here is the recording made by the Poetry Book Society of my reading for the T S Eliot prize shortlist event at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 11 January 2015. I was first on the huge stage so was very nervous. I was lucky to have made it too, as I'd just spent a month on a writing retreat in Paris and was there during the terrorist attacks. So I'll never forget that week, and was still feeling shell-shocked as I took part in the TSE events.

A siren went off for about half an hour on that morning of Wednesday 7 January. I was writing at the time and wondered what it was for. Was it the river police? Was a boat overturned on the Seine? I later glanced at Twitter and saw Charlie Hebdo everywhere and the word 'attacks' and 'Paris'. I had no idea who they were until then. The killings took place just over the river, about a mile from my garret in the Latin Quarter just by the Jardin des Plantes, and the next few days were very tense. I hardly dared go out and when I did everyone on the streets would jump each time a police car whizzed by. It was in this strained atmosphere that I tried to finish my poems and to practise the four poems I had decided to read for the T S Eliot Prize readings: 'Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier', 'Kissing a Jaguar', 'Ortolan' and 'Emmanuel'.

Luckily, I decided to come back the evening before, instead of on the day as planned, of the massive 'Je Suis Charlie' support march, which would have prevented me gettting to Gare du Nord that Sunday of the readings. I was sorry to miss the march but did hear the Notre-Dame 'Grand Solemnel' bells ring after two minutes' silence on the Thursday, to commemorate the dead. The two bourdon bells are only rung on special occasions. I opened my windows although it was freezing and listened to the low stately peals of Emmanuel and Marie, which always have an emotional impact. I'd heard them on Christmas day and hadn't expected to hear them again so soon. So when I finished my reading with my poem 'Emmanuel' the poem had gathered extra significance for me.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

About 'My Father's Wardrobe' The Saturday Poem in the Guardian

This Saturday my poem 'My Father's Wardrobe' from Fauverie was featured as The Saturday Poem in the Guardian. This poem grew from my admiration of Peter Redgrove's exuberant poem 'Wardrobe-Lady'. I wanted to write my own version of a person conjured through surreal clothes, to portray my elusive father who I only got to know in the last two years of his life.

My poem draws on scraps of information I managed to elicit from my father and from writings by my mentally ill mother about their brief lives together in Paris in the early 50s. It appears he was quite a playboy. After his death I found that one of the places he'd resided when he was older was the Argonautes Hotel in the rue de la Huchette, frequenting the jazz cellars there, and then in the Hotel Notre-Dame, overlooked by gargoyles. In his youth he'd boarded in a pension in St-Germain-des-Prés, where Django Reinhardt was a neighbour.

 "He wears a cathedral cloak with chimera eyes". The uni-horned goat chimera overlooking the quartier latin and Hotel Notre-Dame

 "A carousel turns silently between his knees / and in it a boy is singing on a lacquered foal". The century old hand-cranked carousel in the Champ de Mars.

 The devil chimera from Notre-Dame's south tower, overlooking his quartier

"One tie is an escalator, another a fountain / with Saint-Michel fighting Satan". My father was called Michel.