Friday, June 30, 2006

Poetry family trees and brassica subspecies

Something else of interest from the Poetry Paper I mentioned earlier, a feature called The Poetry Family Trees. Featured poets - just-appointed US poet laureate Donald Hall, Sinead Morrissey, Michael Symmons Roberts, Lorna Goodison, Adrian Mitchell - were asked the following questions, which are interesting ones for all of us to keep in the backs of our minds.
  • Which 'family tree' do you think you belong to as a poet - which poets do you recognise as your precursors?
  • Why do you like these poets and what do you value them for?
  • The first poem/poet that made an impact on you. When and why?
  • The next book by someone you're most looking forward to?
  • How much time do you spend reading poetry in an average week?
  • And what proportion are contemporary/from earlier centuries?
  • What else do you read?
Continuing with the many-named vegetable theme, here's another one for you: Chinese cabbage. I'm in favour of going by the Chinese simplified name, "Large White Vegetable". But if you want to do a closer identification, we're talking Brassica campestris, aka Brassica rapa - subspecies pekinensis, Che-foo type. You may also encounter it as: wong baak, won bok, wong nga bok, da baicai, pe-tsai, pai-tsai, pechay, or nappa, napa, Siew Choy/siu choy, tsina, kubis gna, hakusai, celery cabbage and Peking cabbage; some of these names might attach themselves to another category of pekinensis - Chihili type - which is greener and leafier. We are gravely warned against confusing it with another Brassica subspecies - chinensis - better known as bok choy or pak choy and is also called Chinese white cabbage, Chinese mustard, white mustard cabbage.

A good source of vitamin A, this vegetable - let's call it Chinese cabbage - has been grown in Asia since the 5th century, and in North America for about a hundred years. It forms the basis of the Korean wonder-food Kimchi (yum!). It is a wonderful salad vegetable owing to its tender, juicy, mildly spicy flavour. The best ever quick salad meal, which I first had in someone's home in Prague of all places, is:

About 2 cups Chinese cabbage, in 1 inch chunks
3 rashers bacon
1 clove garlic
1/4 lemon
1/4 cup good olive oil
Cook the bacon; cut in 1 inch pieces. While you're cooking the bacon, mince or press the garlic and toss it with the cabbage. Toss in the bacon, squeeze the lemon and drizzle the olive oil. Grind a bit of pepper over it all if you must. Mix fleetingly and eat hungrily. Speak to no one you haven't shared this with - at least until the garlic subsides.

There is something ecstatic in this meal for me: the collision of hot salty bacon with crunchy cold cabbage, the tartness of the lemon and bite of garlic. And the trusty olive oil doing what oil does: dispersing all those discrete flavours across the tastebuds

    Thursday, June 29, 2006

    Little Boris, big Ted and a whole bunch of rapini

    Hard to blog these days: too many distractions. World Cup, dog walks in the glorious sunshine, weeds glaring at me from the stony margins of my garden, and now little orphan Boris (*no* idea why that photo suddenly loaded..?!) who is lodging here for a week while he gets over a nasty cold. Like Anton the wonder dog he is from local rescue society Animals For Life.

    It's been hard to make time to read these days. Still, even with Boris gnawing at the corners of the book and purring remorselessly, I managed to get through the first chapter of Poetry in the Making: An Anthology of Poems and Programmes from "Listening and Writing", a rare old (1967) Ted Hughes book I found on ABE. In his note to teachers in the first chapter, he shines some light on the magic of writing exercises. Time limits of, say, 10 minutes "create a crisis, which rouses the brain's resources: the compulsion towards haste overthrows the ordinary precautions, flings everything into top gear, and many things that are usually hidden find themselves rushed into the open. Barriers break down, prisoners come out of their cells." With all that rushing it's hard to still the internal critic, let alone an external one, so I liked the way he raised a hand to that: "As in training dogs, these exercises should be judged by their successes, not their mistakes or shortcomings." Woof to that.

    And woof to vegetables of many names. When I innocently picked up a bag of something labelled Rapini, I was in for an interesting journey. Aka Broccoli Raab, it may also be labelled raab, rapa, rape, rapine, rappi, rappone, taitcat, Italian or Chinese broccoli, broccoli or broccoletti di rape, cime de rape, broccoli de rabe, Italian turnip, turnip broccoli, rabe, broccoletto, or broccoli di foglia. Rapini works for me.

    Originating in the Mediterranean and also China, it is actually a descendant from a wild herb. Although it looks and tastes like it, I discover that it is not a member of the broccoli family. It is, however, closely related to turnips! It is grown as much for its long-standing, tasty mustard-like tops as for their multiple small florets with clusters of broccoli-like buds, which never form heads. When you buy it, it should have bright-green leaves that are crisp, upright, and not wilted. I looked at some recipes - though in the end I thought, like most vegetables, it was nice either raw or simply steamed and tossed with lemon and butter.

    Saturday, June 24, 2006

    Laureates, Bohemians and how do you like them onions

    The City of Victoria has appointed its first Poet Laureate: she is Carla Funk, Vanderhoof's most famous daughter. In a city crawling with poets, I found it a little surprising that only eight threw their names in the ring (no, I did not). Perhaps the $1500 a year stipend dampened their passion.

    According to a city development planner quoted in the article, Victoria stands at number 3 in North America on the Bohemian Index which ranks artistic and creative occupations of our residents. Actually that's not entirely correct: in the information I found, we rank number 3 in a list adjusted for size - i.e. cities of 250,000 to 500,000 - behind Santa Barbara CA and Sarasota FL, and just above Madison WI and Albuquerque NM.

    One of my favourite magazines is BBC Good Food, which I always pick up when I'm in England, or occasionally when I'm feeling flush in Canada. An issue from April 2005 surfaced in the magazine basket, and I read all about onions. We are told that we tear up when cutting onions because of allicin, although I found conflicting advice and more conflicting advice that the problem substance is actually a sulfide that breaks down into a volatile gas called syn-propanethial-S-oxide.

    Whichever it is, the sulphuric compound produced when you slice the onion reacts with the moisture in your eyes to produce trace amounts of sulphuric acid, and the tears we produce to wash it away simply aggravate the problem.

    The good news from plant chemistry is that "Allicin and syn-propanethial S-oxide have strong feeding deterrent activity toward herbivores such as insects." Unfortunate that it doesn't deter the feeding effects of carnivorous insects, but at least it supports folk wisdom about the benefits of planting garlic and onions around your rose bushes.

    You can reduce the tearing effects by chilling onions before cutting. Alternatively, the Onion-USA site advises that the cells that release the sulfuric compounds are concentrated at the base of the onion, so you should cut the top and peel down without trimming off the root end until the last possible moment.

    Or, like me, you could make sure nobody is around when you're cutting and use a pair of safety goggles. I used to have a handy onion chopper that was no more than a jar with a chopping blade, and that worked well too. Looks like there are lots of variations of these devices on the market these days.

    Monday, June 19, 2006

    Fast food and dead metaphors

    Well, he talks so much that inevitably some of what he says is going to be rubbish. But bless him he works hard and has fired up a lot of people about food and eating well. Here's my quote of the week, from Anthony Bourdain: "Fast food institutionalizes low expectations." From an interview last January in Tyee Books. (He continues, "I said once that McDonald's is like crack for children. And eating in proximity to clowns is never a good thing." True words.)

    I heard a radio program a couple of years ago where a Vancouver chef tried to do a Jamie Oliver and show kids how much better freshly prepared food was, by making macaroni and cheese from scratch and then letting them do a taste test. Just as Jamie found, many (most?) of the kids preferred what they were used to, namely Kraft Dinner.

    Obviously. If your taste buds have been fine tuned by processed cheese powders and high levels of salt, why - indeed how? - would you be able to address the subtleties of real cheese? An authentic macaroni and cheese certainly won't have the neon colouring or the gluey consistency these kids are used to either. They were trained to like this stuff by the people who bought and served it to them, without regard to the long term implications to their palates or health.

    Just as we've been trained to expect cheap food, no matter the consequences. We have spawned and nurtured the Costco-Walmart generation, demanding bargains without regard to the quality of the cheap food, the environmental cost of shipping it from the cheapest markets, the crippling effects on local food production in poor countries, and the damage to local food production, processing and distribution industries in our own countries. I wonder what it is we buy with the money we save buying cheap food?

    One thing I bought myself was a ticket to England for the writing retreat in Yorkshire, where I happened upon the second issue of The Poetry Paper, published by The Poetry Trust. In it, Donald Hall meditates at some length on dead metaphors, tagging his own with [DM] as he writes:
    When we speak, when we write letters or newspaper headlines, we use dead metaphors and we understand each other. The dead metaphor is not a criminal activity - but it is an activity at odds with poetry. If a poem is to alter us, or to please us extravagantly, it requires close attention from both poet and reader. Close attention to language is the contract [DM] that writer and reader sign. The terms of the contract require that each word be fully used - so that its signification, implication, association and import may impinge upon us, move us, and reward intelligent attention.
    He is evidently on the side of the fence [DM] (yikes it's infectious!) that says poems cannot be translated into other languages - because their art lies in their multiple meanings and freshness.
    Translation is a useful scam, so that languageless readers may gather notions of what Cavafy or Tu Fu are up to, but Frost's 'poetry is what gets lost in translation' is a definition of poetry. Poetry lies in the minute shades [DM] that distinguish among words commonly known as synonyms. Poetry happens in the differences between the words listed together in Roget: 'chaste, virtuous; pure, purehearted, pure in heart; clean, cleanly; immaculate, spotless, blotless, stainless, taintless, white, snowy; unsoiled, unsullied, undefiled, untarnished, unstained...'
    He gives the nod [DM] to writing groups or at least friendly poem exchanges during the editing process.
    Illness provides ten thousand wounds [DM] to the language, which Hall's Index would nurse back to health [DM]. The dead metaphor is a cancer [DM] in the poem's language which only revisionary scrutiny can cut out [DM]. We are crippled [DM] when we use 'crippled' except in its literal sense... It's only in revision that we uproot [DM] the dead metaphors that inspiration provides - or we may need the help of friends... The brain notoriously overlooks its own errors while it discerns the errors of others.

    Friday, June 16, 2006

    Soho Square, June 2006

    What it looked like on a sunny lunchtime in early June. (And what it looks like the rest of the time.)

    Nineteenth try lucky -- finally it posted! Why?? Why?? I don't understand. As you see I tried everything. I guess Blogger just gets cranky with image files every so often and calls a halt.

    My previous unedited posting read as follows: I have had to admit defeat: photo posting on Blogger no longer works for me, so I'm having to go through Flickr (which worked after several tries). On Blogger, I've tried everything I can think of - tweaking internet options, clearing cookies and temporary internet files, rebooting, uploading from files and urls, adding the url in the Edit Html box. Nothing works. Searched the help files and googled the problem. We must put it down to bad blogger photo karma. Any other suggestions for cures would be more than welcome.

    Skate update, and more on poetry reviewing

    Since my first triumphant experience with skate wings in black butter, back in April, I tried cooking it again and was appalled by a penetrating ammonia odour coming from the fish. What was going on? Had I added too much vinegar, causing some toxic reaction? Delia mentioned nothing about this possibility in the book I was using for my recipe.

    So I did a little further research and here's what I found. Apparently skate, like shark, can become contaminated by the urea both species carry in their skin. Not all pieces of skate will have this: the ammonia odour comes from poor handling when it's first caught and processed, and you should be able to smell it in the raw fish. Ideally you should sniff the fish before you buy it - impossible to do through a grocery store's shrink-wrapped packaging of course. Better to make your purchase through a fishmonger if you can find one; and of course they'll be least likely to sell you improperly prepared fish, so safer all round. (I guess this would be more of our self-inflicted damage from allowing mass-procurement supermarkets to take over food handling from knowledgeable specialists.) However, if you do find yourself with an ammonia-scented morsel, you can rescue the day by soaking it in lemon-infused water for 30 minutes to remove the smell (and taste). I guess that's one more reason skate is a sadly neglected fish... but try it anyway.

    After discussion about the tone of poetry reviewing in Canada, I came across some interesting reading from the archives of Chicago's venerable Poetry Magazine where they once had a major fisticuffs over poetry reviewing. Plus ca change..


    Wednesday, June 14, 2006

    What passes for food in airports

    I had some time on Monday evening - a couple of hours right around supper time to be exact - to meditate on the lack of edible food in our public places, in this case the Calgary Airport.

    Having disembarked for my stopover - a tiny packet of pretzel-like substance my only sustenance during the four hour flight from Ottawa - I was looking for something freshly cooked or remotely resembling fresh edible food. But what a wasteland it is for the connecting traveller, with most so called food outlets already scraping up their leavings to shut down for the day at 7pm, or already closed. Unless your tastes run to donuts or foul smelling sandwiches, or greasy steamtabled chinese style food, or nasty looking pasta, you will roam the hallways hungry and without so much as a single decent retail outlet to distract you. There was no longer even a Dairy Queen to brighten the horizon.

    The one sit-down restaurant - Montana's last time I was there, but now replaced by Kelsey's (no real change there since the same American company owns Harvey's, Swiss Chalet, Second Cup, Milestones, Montana's, Kelsey's and Toast Cafe) - served me food and drink so utterly vile on my last visit that I was moved to write a letter of complaint. The response from the company was to offer me a coupon to dine with them again. As if.

    Speaking of ownership, I read in the Guardian an article about corporate ownership changes to ethical companies including Green & Black's (Cadbury), Rachel's (Dean Foods), Ben & Jerry's (Unilever) and the subsequent decline in their ethical rankings. Even the Body Shop is no more the lone voice in the cosmetic wilderness, since it's been sold to L'Oreal! It's so hard to keep up. Another good reason to try to give your custom to the dwindling number of locally owned operations wherever possible.

    Tuesday, June 13, 2006


    So, party's over, and I'm back at the trail's end/beginning.

    League of Poets AGM ended after two more days of meetings and readings and meetings and readings. By the end of Saturday's banquet I could not have eaten another bite or heard another word.

    We had a keynote address on Saturday night by longtime member (indeed present at the founding meeting of the League) Margaret Atwood. She was in droll mood and after a charming and carefully bilingual introduction by Pauline Michel, she launched into a quip-packed 40th anniversary address, on the subject of Why Poetry? (Her lecture will, they tell us, be printed in full in a future issue of Prairie Fire.)

    She said she'd joined the League back "when poetry was top dog," when, like her, many of today's Canadian novelists were beginning their careers -- as poets. Recounting a couple of sweetly sordid anecdotes, she remarked that back then the poets - mostly male - were living in the afterglow of Dylan Thomas and John Berryman, and self-destructive acts were part of the job description. She felt that these days she'd send aspiring poets to plumbing school: there's always a demand for your services; it's easier to think about poetry when doing something with your hands; and it's nice and dark under the sink.

    So then she got to her question. Though we no longer think we can conjure rain, or even mildew, or have our heads chopped off for writing poetry, we are in a tamer age than when words were more potent. Why then do we do this poetry thing, whether written or oral, or is it built in?

    Instead of providing answers, she offered what she called some potentially interesting sidelights.
    1. Reading, writing and speaking are all located in different parts of the brain.
    2. If the speaking part of your brain is knocked out, the singing part may still remain.
    3. Words have their own address book in our brain: we recognise that John Smith is a different thing from a carrot. Poetry can serve as an aide-memoire (to prove her point, she had us filling in the blanks of Alligator pie; Alligator pie... )
    4. Music, poetry and mathematics are more closely related than poetry and prose. There's a system of pattern recognition at work that's connected to music and math - and of course she was speaking here of rhymed and metered verse rather than "that which resembles prose".
    5. Fire and grammar are what distinguish humans from other life forms. Only humans cook their food, and having reduced the time we would have spent digesting unprocessed food, we have thus liberated up to five hours per day for other pursuits. And though animals may communicate through noise, they lack grammar. The dog can and does think in past and future tense, but no dog is likely to question where the first dog came from, and where do dogs go when they die.

    Oral cultures, she went on, swam in a sea of language; but now we live on comparatively dry shores, extruding our brains into other technologies, and so that part of our brain has probably shrunk. Technology and numbers are said to represent 'the real world' - as opposed to the obsolete world that poets occupy. But we make what we long for, and destroy what we fear, as we have always done; these things have not changed, and we know this because we have poetry. Human imagination drives the world: it directs what we do without our tools, and poetry is part of the way we sing our being.

    There followed the banquet (some very good grilled chicken or cedar-planked salmon) and awards ceremony. I was thrilled that Suzanne Buffam won the Gerald Lampert Award for her wonderful book Past Imperfect. She read the lovely poem Please Take Back the Sparrows.

    The winner of the Pat Lowther Award was Sylvia Legris, for Nerve Squall, reviewed with considerable venom in the Globe and Mail earlier that day. A tragic waste of newspaper space for the single review of poetry on offer, and a badly ill-judged match of reviewer to subject, as the reviewer himself admits: "Those who enjoy linguistic foreplay, and the pinball wizardry of caroming words, will favour this book. Those like me will find that it all adds up to narcissistic inconsequence." Well, it's not my cup of tea either, but if it was good enough to engage the not inconsiderable intellects of the juries of both the Griffin and the Lowther awards, and prove itself the stand-out over hundreds of other collections, it can't be as bad as all that. It would have been far more useful to hear from a critic able to explain just what that power was, in the context of all its competitors. Surely the Globe could have scraped the barrel a bit harder and found a reviewer who could deal with the book in its own terms?

    A more interesting article in the Globe and Mail about the origins of ABE, the online treasure trove for book lovers.


    Friday, June 09, 2006

    League Day One

    Day one of the League of Canadian Poets AGM (and 40th anniversary celebration) was meet 'n greet -- lots of people I haven't seen since my first League AGM in 1993, and some I have met along the way. We had an open mic (asking for trouble, I read the Rhonda Poem, but it didn't - as I feared - initiate a rash of "d" word mishaps) which rattled along despite the looong list of participants. It was a great way to introduce ourselves to our fellow bards. After lunch there were a couple of afternoon workshops.

    I went to the poet laureate panel, which featured Pauline Michel (Poet Laureate of Canada), Louise Halfe/Sky Dancer (PL of Saskatchewan), Lorri Neilsen Glenn (PL of Halifax) and Alice Major (PL of Edmonton) plus Cyril Dabydeen who had been the second (and second last) PL of Ottawa. They spoke about their various duties and the many surprises that awaited them when they took up their laureates.

    Michel spoke at length, in beautifully written English, and occasionally burst into song, about what and why she does what she does. For her the job of the poet ("we are all poet laureates") is to promote writing as a means of artistic expression: "what is not expressed either implodes or explodes" she said; "but where do the arts firt into a culture where a good living is more imnportant than a good life?" She had managed to get funding for an assistant to schedule her events, a role that was fulfilled during the term of the first PL - George Bowering - by his wife; the requests come thick and fast and Michel said she thought three years should be the minimum length of the term to allow enough time to see through her various projects and duties.

    Louise Halfe spoke first in Cree, and sang in her language as well. She assumed the Saskatchewan mantle from the province's first PL, Glen Sorestad, and has relished her ability to reach audiences and communities that she is uniquely able to connect with. A former social worker and addictions counsellor, she says she no longer practices but has incorporated her work into her art. She remarked that once again she was the "lone Indian in the room" and that she is expected to represent all the Indians of Canada, regardless of the fact there are many nations.

    Lorri Neilsen Glenn, the second PL in Hlaifax, is a year into her four year term. She has a Cree grandmother and Quebecois grandfather and has lived in Halifax for 22 years, "which of course makes me a newcomer" she said. Her appointment coincided with a cut to the municipal arts board, which was shortly followed by the resignation of the cultural officer, so she has struggled without a helping hand to coordinate her duties and help her obtain funding for events. Like the others on the panel she observed the role could easily be full time if she allowed it - though the $1200 stipend would make that tricky. She hopes to help prove that "there is more to Nova Scotia than lobster traps and people who say 'buddy' and 'arse'."

    Alice Major, the first PL in Edmonton, spoke about the politics of her role. She said on her first (of potentially three) command commissions she was asked to write something for a gathering which included the premier. "What," she asked, "can one say to Ralph Klein?" But because she was there by invitation by the supportive city council who had worked so hard to create the role she was occupying, she put her politics in her pocket and wrote something suitable to the occasion. "Nice," said Ralph as she walked back to her seat. Her second commission she titled "The hockey poem I thought I'd never write" - a work dressed to impress her audience, it was printed in the Edmonton Journal the following day and then hit the national papers the day after. "All these volumes of verse I have written, which no more than 500 people will ever see" she mused, "and the poem that makes the national papers is the hockey poem."

    The second and last workshop I went to was about poetry in health and mental health institutions. Shirley Serviss kicked things off by describing her work at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton. Working 15 hours a week at this, she is part of a group of professional artists - poets, visual artists and musicians - who are based there, together with volunteers (including poet Ted Blodgett who comes by to play the lute for patients). She described some of her efforts which take the form of anything from transcribing poems to the white boards that seemingly cover every wall, to dispensing poems to doctors, nurses and patients, to bedside work encouraging patients to talk about their lives so she can write them poems, or helping them to shape the words themselves. When she undertook an MA in Theological Studies she had thought she wanted to do a hospital chaplaincy but she prefers this work, which she has had incredibly positive feedback on from family and patients alike. She thinks it fills a gap in patient care as well. "They can turn chaplains or counsellors away," she said, "but we disarm them: all I'm doing, after all, is giving them a thought for the day."

    Ronna Bloom is a psychotherapist who has given many workshops to health practitioners. She described one of her popular ones on overcoming personal blocks, which works well on people even if they are not writers. She is careful to explain to participants that the exercise will not solve anything, but it might give them extra information about what is blocking them in their lives or work. She pointed out that blocks are there for a reason, and it's important to remember we might love the places we're stuck, so her workshops are not about simply kicking them away. She says she knows the things that won't work, and these include guilt, denial, willpower, or moving house or countries. Her workshop aims to help participants get a good clear look at their block by making it larger. She alluded to a principle of martial arts which suggests that you cannot overcome an opponent by fighting them; but if you join the opponent, you can use that energy to defeat them. And so her workshop starts by allowing participants to describe what they love and hate about the block. They write about what they really want. Ronna then reads them a poem of hers which is a blessing, and asked to write one that blesses some aspect of themselves.

    Ron Charach is a psychiatrist who also writes poetry. His poetry column in the Medical Post elicited enough poetry to engender an anthology by Canadian medical practitioners, and he's had poems in such oblique markets as The Lancet. He discussed research that had been done into connections between poets and mental illness, and ended by giving us a handy prescription to assure mental soundness to allow us to carry on writing.
    • Get enough sleep and natural light;
    • avoid substance/alcohol abuse;
    • keep some structure in your life;
    • pace those overwhelming projects;
    • maintain your relationships;
    • take all threats of suicide seriously;
    • don't hesitate to get professional help.


    Thursday, June 08, 2006


    I left West Sussex yesterday, on a scorching cloudless morning and landed in Ottawa drizzle, with temperatures on the monitor dropping from 19 to 14 in the time it took to taxi toward the terminal. This trip has been a see-saw ride from hot to cold and back again. I am staying in a b&b in the heart of Ottawa, and from the conveniently supplied pc in the lobby I can gaze between the high-rises up at the leaden skies and count the intermittent umbrellas before making my move up the road toward the National Library.

    I dined Wednesday night in the Swan Inn in Fittleworth, described a bit snootily on a Real Ale website as an "Impressive 14th-century coaching inn with pretensions as a quality hotel." Well be that way then. I thought it was charming in appearance, whatever its pretensions, with oil paintings set in panels all the way around the dining room, each with a tiny name plaque underneath. Given the number of similar views it on display looked like a long ago group of local painters might have contributed works. The art, sadly, was better than the service, and the roast Sea Bass better than the sea trout fillets, and the creme brulee far superior to the bread and butter pudding, but I had a wonderful meal with my beloved aunt and cousin and a charming gentleman to round out the numbers.

    Said gentleman had just turned 88 and was a long retired Desert Rat with many travels to many places since those days. He and my aunt and cousin were all on the same cruise a year ago, steaming toward St Petersburg on a Swan Hellenic discovery tour of the Baltic, but they said the operators are sadly headed for merger with P&O later this year. Their charm apparently is the small size of the ships and the excellence of the lecturers. Gentleman mentioned the Hebridean Princess as a good alternative, but my aunt said they are spectacularly expensive. Very plush too from the looks of it. One day my cruise will come...

    The day before, dear cousin and I had driven down from London after a hearty lunch at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen in Chiswick, where you can get a mountainous Aberdeen-Angus beef burger (with tomatoes, red onion, tomato relish and garlic mayo) guaranteed to give you a good mandibular work-out and leave you well fed and covered in burger goo. I am surprised they haven't thought to hand out hot towels...

    I flew across the ocean yesterday afternoon on Zoom, another budget airline with Canadian roots. It was quite pleasant and the crew were helpful and kindly. We managed three movies in a six and a half hour flight: some nail biting Harrison Ford film, followed by the Steve Martin Pink Panther, followed by the new King Kong, whose vertiginous finale was a bit of a questionable idea coming as it did just before we began our descent into Ottawa airport. Such was the scale of amusement on offer that disappointingly my seatmate did not manage to get to her Hello magazine with its full and exclusive coverage of Angelina and Brad's new arrival, so I landed unenlightened on that score, but it was still a pretty reasonable flight back to Canada.

    Poetry doings this morning and more news from the front to follow, and so to all a good day.

    Tuesday, June 06, 2006

    Well fed in Primrose Hill

    Spent another glorious sunny day in London. EVERYone was in Soho Square today (check back for photos one day next week to see what I mean by that) when I walked through. I had lunch with lovely Laurie (anyone need a crack information services consultant in London, let her know) - a sarnie in Soho - followed by a silky caffe latte at the incomparable Bar Italia on Frith Street (check it out at 3 or 4am when some club or other has closed and you want a je ne sais quoi before heading home on the night bus.. and it is an experience beyond words) with a custard tart that looked a great deal better than it tasted after a morning in the display case.

    After which I wandered to Foyles, whose bags modestly proclaim it to be The World's Best Bookstore, and bought a couple of books of poetry (Alison Brackenbury's After Beethoven and Lavinia Greenlaw's Minsk). Didn't find what I went in there for, which was an excellent volume called The Ghost Twin by Anne-Marie Fyfe, which Leah had a copy of and which I've been reading with much admiration.

    Then on to my third spiritual home of the day - Pamela Stevens Swiss Cottage, where Nicci - another of their seemingly endless stream of superb South African trained beauty therapists - gave me my annual facial to die for. Having sprinted around Waitrose for an hour or so collecting various exotic items - mackerel in brine, Hula Hoops, Spanish olives stuffed with anchovies - I walked back from Chalk Farm , stopping for a drop of cider at the Queen, and admiring the picnickers and sun worshippers dotted on the grass of Primrose Hill. I'm now extremely well fed, after Leah's sublime dinner of pork steaks with mushroom gravy, mashed parsnips, asparagus with red pepper and basil, and melon with blueberries.

    Monday, June 05, 2006

    London in the sun

    I've been checking London's pulse and it's still bashing away long into the night, particularly hot steamy nights as we had last weekend. That got the sirens going late into early. The plane trees are in full leaf, the sidewalk cafes are heaving and the natives are unveiling the precise pearly shade of the Anglo Saxon post-winter skin, at least the Anglo Saxon natives are. And it's football madness of course, as the World Cup draws alarmingly near.

    But down in the cellars of the Troubadour on alternate Mondays, all is reassuringly still poetry (not to mention accordion music by mega award winning poet C.L. Dalat). This week's ensemble was Sans Frontieres I, "celebrating the breadth of contemporary European poetry". First up was Valeria Melchioretto, born in German-speaking Switzerland to Italian-speaking mother and writing compelling poetry in English. Nisia Studzinska was also very fluent, not surprising with her UEA MFA out of the way. Polish born Maria Jastrzebska was raised in Britain and read from her third poetry collection, Syrena, and some new poems as well. Practically a British literary landmark herself, Lotte Kramer has just published her tenth collection, Black Over Red, with Rockingham Press and read us the title poem (about Mark Rothko's paintings) as well as some of her signature pieces drawing on her German heritage and dramatic pre-war move to London in 1939.

    Andras Gerevich was quite a showstopper. Hungarian, he's lived in five countries and though fluent in English, writes still in Hungarian. He had interesting things to say about translation. He likened it to a favourite recipe (my ears perked right up) which in the hands of a dear friend may produce a similar dish to the one you love, but it will taste different. Likewise he says, although he's blessed with excellent translators (including no less than George Szirtes) he doesn't recognise the translations as his own words, so much: the meaning may be right but the prosody is off, for example, and there's nothing you can do. Start changing the words, he says, and you violate copyright. He remarked as well that because Hungarian is a genderless language, his love poems in his native tongue were androgynous, which had always grieved his gay friends, and he was bemused to discover his poetry had been outed by the English translations, where "he" vs "she" had to be specified.

    On Sunday I visited another of my many spiritual homes here, the London Review of Books Bookshop, near the British Museum, where Marilyn Hacker was speaking about form in American poetry. The talk attracted a hearteningly full room despite the £9 ticket price and the perfection of the weather. Hosted by Fiona Sampson, Hacker was flanked and cheered by a good audience of local formalists which included George Szirtes, Mimi Khalvati, and Ruth Fainlight. To me, her most interesting comment was that she preferred form because she never knew where the poem would take her within its constraints: "the collaboration of form and language will take me somewhere freer than free verse, where the conscious mind has to tell you something." She also observed that "rhyme is fun, but meter is the skeleton" and concluded the afternoon with a short reading from Squares and Courtyards ( a couple of complicated 15 line sonnet-like paragraphs whose form was invented by and results dedicated to Haydn Carruth) and Desesperanto ("Talking to Apollinaire") .

    Afterwards I joined Meli and friends for supper at The Duke, a gastro-pub in Clerkenwell. Meli's pea pancakes were quite amazing - literally green peas within a pancake, topped with haloumi cheese and sweet roasted tomatoes, garnished with shallot marmelade.


    Sunday, June 04, 2006

    Yorkshire been and gone

    Photos will follow; can't seem to post them today. I'm working on a laptop equipped with Office 2003 which for me lacks the most important and useful freebie from the Office portfolio: PhotoEd, which was removed by the software nazis after Office XP, sad be the day. It was replaced by the less than wonderful Picture Manager which is a pain in the jpeg. Here endeth the rant.

    Spent last week at Lumb Bank, a baker's dozen of us on a NAWE writers retreat. A good mix of prose and poetry writers from all over Britain, plus one Canadian, wrote feverishly in a scant week of freedom – for most – from the stopper of teaching duties and family responsibilities. The poets took matters into our own hands and five of us sat round the big library table and constructively admired one another’s work for a couple of hours. There was a kick-off workshop by Paul Magrs the first day, which I sadly missed due to an overwhelming need to nap after the previous day's long journey to get here. Magrs' name is known to me because of the Creative Writing Coursebook which he edited with Julia Bell, so I was sorry to miss his workshop. He stayed on for consultations and to give us an entertaining reading in the evening.

    We were accompanied in our musings by the cat Ted Hughes who has taken over her namesake’s former home and cosies up to all who dwell here, sadly for the departed dormouse who had an ill fated encounter with her one afternoon and had to be dealt with by two of the writers.

    We, as is the custom at Arvon courses, took turns in teams with the cooking, and it has to be said we ate well. Wednesday night’s meal, lovingly prepared by the ro-ro-rho team of Rosie, Rosemary and Rhona, was a Jamie Oliver special, chicken with sweet tomatoes and chillies, and a smoked tofu/falafel variation for the half of us who were vegetarian; tender new potatoes, and carrots and broccoli. Dessert was a heavenly fruit (apple, strawberry, blackcurrent) crumble served with cream, yogurt or ice cream. The night before was a West Country Casserole, which delectably perched grilled sausages on a mixture of onion and apple, accompanied by mashed potatoes. Cheat’s Dessert was a surprising and successful pairing of sliced oranges with crushed gingernut biscuits, smoothed out by ice cream. Vegetarian lasagne was followed by Raspberry Crowdie – raspberries crowded into a bowl of thick yellow cream and sprinkled with oats and cinnamon. We had some spectacular slabs of salmon with perfectly cooked asparagus to end our stay, with a health giving fruit salad to finish.

    What there wasn’t was interruption by phone or email: a request to keep phones switched off and the total lack of internet took care of these. Although I had hoped to slink into town to visit the internet café in Hebden Bridge I was thwarted when I learned it had been closed down, and the public library was reportedly out of commission due to renovation work.

    Unfortunate. It’s not just the email I wanted to have available, but the resources I’ve become accustomed to using even for poetry - rhyming dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia and quotation resources as well as instant research - I need them all. The centre director - who has to balance the needs of a few grown-up writers on retreat as well as school groups and workshop attendees - insists his policy holds firm because he wants to make Lumb Bank an island of undisturbed tranquility amidst the crashing and intrusive waves of today's technological sea. All very well till you have that one thing you need to deal with from afar...