PBF 2014 Readings

Once again it’s that time. If you can possibly get to London next Saturday – the 6th, that is, not tomorrow – and are even remotely interested in the state of UK poetry, Free Verse is the place to be. I think this might be the fair’s fourth year; it’s now such a well-embedded date in the poetry calendar that I can’t believe anyone hasn’t heard of it, but if you haven’t, or if it’s slipped your mind, let me remind you! Big rounds of applause to Charles Boyle – doyen of CB Editions, one of the two best indie presses of the moment – whose idea it was in the first place, and to Chrissy Williams, who has tirelessly and imaginatively run it with him since the start. Free Verse is a once-a-year opportunity to see the current playing field. There are books on display you  might otherwise never see unless you went to their authors’ readings, and presses you’ve never heard of, and gorgeous design, and there are readings, and it’s a great chance to meet people and just pick up on the poetry buzz.

Yes, there is a poetry buzz. Come and hear it!


The other thing that’s happening (later) on the 6th is a party celebrating ten years of Penned in the Margins – which has proven itself, I think, to be the most robust, innovative, openminded, diverse indie press in town. In its different style, it’s just as serious and assured as CB Editions, and Tom is still only 31!

Just the way CB Editions has built a fantastically respected list around Charles’ taste – he publishes for love – Penned in the Margins reflects its founder, Tom Chivers, almost like a mirror: his love of London, its geography, history and people; his commitment to opening out the fields of poetry, crossing genre boundaries and poetry war fronts; his excitement about literary criticism, and his determination to find new ways of doing things. The Penned inthecatacombs in the Margins anthology Stress Fractures was the first recent attempt I can think of at a really eclectic approach to lit crit; the recent book of essays, Mount London, uses the same approach with the city’s topography; and the poetry anthology Adventures in Form has become a contemporary classic after less than two years of existence. I’m currently reading ChrisMcCabe’s new PITM book, In the Catacombs, which combines one London cemetery, personal investigations, and the guiding lanterns of a few presiding spirits into a really fascinating, personal, eclectic book about poetry, death, posterity, and – er – us.

And Penned in the Margins is publishing a book of my essays in late 2015 – so they’re obviously the best! Clearly it’s time for a party.

Maddy Pxman

This year marks ten years since Michael Donaghy died. As it happens, this autumn his Collecteds – poems and prose – are both going to be out in paperback, at last. Almost more to the point, the first critical guide to his work (appropriately called Smith: A Reader’s Guide to Michael Donaghy) will be published by Picador in I think October, written by Don Paterson. It feels like almost more of a milestone than the others.

The anniversary will have come and gone by then.

Already, in June, a quiet little book was published quietly by a small press, Garnet Publishing. It’s The Great Below, by Michael’s widow, Maddy Paxman.

It’s instinctive to me not to try and relive that awful period, but that is exactly what Maddy’s book unflinchingly does. She begins with the minute-by-minute story of that last week in Spain, his collapse, the day with him in hospital (his last-ever day), and the days that followed when he was on life support. She describes her thoughts and feelings during that time, even the ignoble ones like irritation and snappishness, in a way I found quite awe-inspiring. The unblinking gaze.

The aftermath of his death, the process of becoming a widow, a single mother, a new person, of going through the thing, is interspersed with flashbacks to their life together. It’s very well-written. There are intimate details, but it’s not indiscriminate (there are a couple of discreet veils in evidence). This isn’t a flailing widow’s memoir. It’s a woman telling the story, making a story out of her story and claiming her life. The Michael Donaghy in the book is very familiar; there’s little in here that will shock anyone who knew him. She tells what it was like living with him (the hypochondria, the flakiness, the weird hours, the friends, his devotion to Ruairi); she brings him to life. I laughed out loud several times when Michael walked out of the pages (in this case, a bit ruefully):

Michael had a rather extreme side to his personality; I often felt that he experienced the full taste of life, in both good ways and bad, whereas I lived things more at arm’s length, mitigated by an inner observer. One of his friends described him as living ‘in beauty’, rather like William Blake, whose every experience was imbued with great intensity and meaning. This may well be appropriate or a poet, but I think it sometimes led Michael to seek out stimuli in unhealthy ways,m as it he needed to keep the intensity of the feeling going all the time, no matter the consequences. Of course this could make him tremendous fun to be with, particularly for his friends.

So in this book, ten years on, we get a little crackling film reel, where we can see Donaghy move and speak…

The book also brings something else to life, something that always bothered me a bit as one of his students (& drinking cronies, yes), and which makes it a slightly uncomfortable read for many of us in the Poetry World. It’s the giant looming cloud, like an enormous squid  (or cuttlefish) that had to be kept at bay. Us. The Poets. The Students. The ‘Panting Poetesses’. (This made me laugh;  every time I had to ring the house I’d say, ‘Hi Maddy, this is KATY’ – though I’m sure she knew which ones they were…) Because Michael had that famous gift of making everyone feel as if they were somehow his special friend. I guess we all were, but there were so many of us…  It must have felt totally unmanageable. As well as describing her effort to keep some kind of family bubble together – after his death as much as before it – Maddy enacts it through the simple structural device of not naming external people involved in the story. The ‘young man’ who spent years sorting out the Donaghy study and archive, and co-editing the collected prose. ‘A friend of Michael’s', ‘a generous friend’. The former student  who actually paid for Michael’s headstone – I’m sure I knew who that was, but now I can’t remember… Everyone chipped in as they best could. These acts of generosity were the lifelines people caught hold of. But those life lines are in their stories. This is Maddy’s story of her journey, and let’s face it – much of that journey has been about trying to make space for herself. If you can’t do that in your own book, well…

She writes about going to poetry occasions as his deputy – as it were – only to feel like, vaguely, a disappointment, unable to be the person everyone really wanted. This book charts her acceptance that she can only be herself, that that is actually good enough, and what seems to me like a gloriously clear-seeing (though hard, sad, fraught with illness) journey into her new understanding.

Any of us who’ve been through a cataclysmic death, or a life change so profound that it required deep reinvention, or even a chronic illness, will recognise ourselves in parts of her story, I think. A friend of mine, the other day in a Facebook thread (and Oh my God, WHAT would Donaghy have been like on Facebook, how many fake accounts would he have had), said something rather apposite:

Good friends hold us to account. Friendship is a tender stick-up. It’s healthy to part with bits of yourself – it’s the bits that others look after that keep us from drifting off altogether.

The Great Below is Maddy’s account of not drifting off altogether when the person who held the biggest bits of her disappeared. She talks about her relationship with Ruairi, eight when his father died, and her inability to be the crazy big-kid dad he had been so close to. She talks about the sides of her personality perhaps given up in the necessity of being a counterweight, the ‘together’ one – and not the literary one, though she had written poetry before. Of editing the posthumous work, she writes:

One thing that kept me connected to Michael was my involvement in his work. The young man [n.b., Adam O'Riordan] had been continuing to catalogue the books, and he and I had begun to collect Michael’s prose writings for an anthology… This I found an immensely enjoyable process that stretched my brain in ways I had forgotten and gave me a further insight into the brilliance and originality of Michael’s mind. I felt more in touch with his intellectual life now than I had when he was alive, when my role had been more one of a practical and emotional support.

This is quite an important moment, and I think writing the book is important, too. It is an intelligent, open woman’s charting of her various attempts to find a new way of being. That new way emerged in its own good time – not not as she thought she needed it, with several false starts, but as she was ready for it, piece by piece. It reads like a gripping story. You have to find out how she is, what happened next. She emerges at the end of the book healing, and more at peace with herself and her still-very-present husband – still full of the love they had – and, it seems to me, wise. She is wise. It’s a difficult, but really wonderful, book.

There’s one small thing, though. There’s a point where Maddy writes, ‘I think it might take a generation for Michael’s charming personality to get out of the way of his impact as a writer’. Now, this is obviously true. Anyone who thinks we can see Michael’s poetry clearly should read Stanley Plumly’s fascinating book, Posthumous Keats, which traces – one theme at a time, not just chronologically – how Keats’ reputation was moulded by his passionate, bereaved friends into their various images of him. As my friend Joe might say, they each grabbed the bit of the mirror in which they could see the bit of themselves that Keats had held. But, as such, for many, many of us it isn’t Michael’s ‘charming personality’ that keeps us from being able to gauge his posterity. It’s love and friendship. And gratitude, because Donaghy helped so many people learn how to be their real selves, too. (I, for one, even though I had always written, arrived in his workshop virtually as a refugee.) No one else could have done that the way he did.


Purple prose for purple times

August 4, 2014

1980: One of the things I really wish I hadn’t lost over the years is my great-grandfather’s scrapbook. It was a large, old-fashioned tome with dark pages, on which anything that meant something to my great-grandfather had been glued. A lot of it was very boring to the teenager I was when I read it. […]

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John McCullough: blog tour guest post no. 4

August 3, 2014

John McCullough had been on the poetry scene for ten years or so and had three pamphlets published (including the Tall Lighthouse pamphlet, The Lives of Ghosts) by the time his first collection came out in 2o11.  The Frost Fairs - one of the many generation-changing first collections made possible by the Salt – won the Polari […]

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Jen the Zen: or, how we live today

August 1, 2014

Tomorrow, John McCullough’s guest post on his writing process – the final one in the series – goes up. In the meantime I came across this video of Jen Hadfield talking about her remote life as a poet in Shetland and it really resonated with me, as well as setting up a sort of base […]

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Pop-in summer poetry!

July 22, 2014

On Tuesday 29 July and 5 August I’m running two pop-up poetry workshop sessions, over the Poetry Café in Covent Garden. The workshops will be mixed level – as long as you’re self-generating and not a complete beginner, you’ll fit in. My groups are very inclusive, and are open to the whole range of poetry […]

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‘A hell of an underwriter’: three insurance men with a difference

July 20, 2014

Here are three unlikely leading lights of the life insurance bizz for you: 1. The Welsh moral philosopher Richard Price,  an important Dissenting thinker of the eighteenth century,  pretty much created the modern idea of life insurance. Dr Price had been involved with, and thinking hard about, the assurance and benevolent societies for decades when he […]

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Matthew Caley: blog tour guest post no. 3

July 16, 2014

Matthew Caleyis a bit of a phenomenon in contemporary poetry: erudite and intellectual, with an iconoclastic eye turned to Paris while his feet are firmly planted in Brixton, as funny as he is highbrow (and TALL), he’s not quite like any other poet I can think of. He plays, he experiments, he smokes a lot […]

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