christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: arc publications

The Next Big Thing

I am indebted to Michael Bartlett of Crimson Cats Audio Books for inviting me to join his Blog Hop, wherein authors answer some semi-searching questions about a forthcoming piece of work ie ‘The Next Big Thing’. His next (actually recent) opus is revealed on his own blog  over at Crimson Cats. Of course the thing about a future piece of work is that it’s liable to change substantially, or even vanish entirely from the record.

1) What is the title of your next book?

At the moment, it’s ‘The Book Dragon.’ I like the idea of a title being unique, or at least unusual – not only so that you become the first result in an internet search, but as a statement of intent about its originality. It’s also a great way to pique interest. Other possible choices include ‘The Nurse Who Sold the Atlantic Ocean,’ ‘The Empress of Ice Cream,’ (about the Italian Duchess who brought ice cream – or sorbet really – to the rest of Europe, plus a nod to Wallace Stevens) ‘The Patron Saint of Television’ (and yes, there is one – St Clare, a friend of St Francis of Assisi; she was too ill to get out of bed to attend mass, and instead believed she could see it being beamed onto the wall of her room!) But the most likely candidate is ‘The Book Dragon,’ which is the poem I’m currently most pleased with.   

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

If we work on the basis that it is going to be called ‘The Book Dragon’, to a certain extent it is a reflection on authors and their books; what their extended lives have become through the popularity of their work and how their text is likely to be interpreted in the age of digital media. The title poem itself is about an extinct creature, a beast made from every book ever written who is caught and killed in the hills of China and its carcass taken to the British museum. It’s a metaphor for (and not an entirely serious one) the idea of the death of the paper book.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry is the obvious answer. There are some formal pieces in there, but predominantly it’s free verse. There’s plenty of rhyme, but very little falls at the end of the lines. Sorry to disappoint fans of more traditional fare. Having said that I’m a great fan of John Betjeman (there are two poems about him in the collection – one about his semi-imaginary honeymoon, church crawling around East Anglia on bikes, and the other about his waistcoat, possessed of magical properties, which he inherited from Henry James.)

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Well, the Book Dragon itself would have to be some sort of CGI animation – perhaps with Peter Jackson directing. There’s a poem in there called ‘The Fool’ – about Lear’s Fool – who I think would be played brilliantly by Michael Sheen who I think is the most talented English actor of his generation.

 5) What is a one sentence synopsis of your book?

The secret lives of books. 

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I had two books appear in 2011; and one in 2012, so I imagine it will be a little while this sees daylight; I would hope that it will be published by a recognized publisher. I’m not particularly interested in self publishing, but I was delighted that there is a Kindle version of my second collection, Farewell to the Earth (Arc 2011). I also like the idea of recording the collection and releasing it on iTunes. I don’t quite know why people don’t do this already.   

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

A manuscript develops over time, but roughly a year; I put my best poems at the top, which gradually nudges the also-ran down to the bottom. When there are 65 or so of quality then a collection becomes feasible. A theme starts to emerge around the midway point. For Farewell to the Earth it was the theme of death – which astonished me, as I’m quite a cheerful person.

8) What other books would you compare yours to?

Anything by Billy Collins, Bill Herbert, William Blake; William Shakespeare; sorry I’m being facetious. It’s modern poetry, which is quite a crowded market place, but I would say that the poems are more narrative based and character driven than most. If your favorite book is the selected poems of Matthew Sweeney, chances are you’ll like this.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Each poem has its own inspiration, which could be a thought, an image, a different way of looking at something. Often books, usually biographies, contains a detail that provides the seed for a poem – whether it’s Dickens swimming in the Thames, Katherine Mansfield in a freezing French chateaux chopping carrots in a fur coat. Claire Tomalin is our greatest living biographer, although Bevis Hillier’s three volume Betjeman is almost an unparalleled achievement in the modern age – a riotous comedy and an audacious work of art. 

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Each poem has to hold its own – and it’s so easy for a poem to overstay its welcome.  A longer poem really has to earn each line. What can I say, except that readers will find out the names of the songs on a long lost Beatles album; what happens when a scarecrow becomes unemployed , how people celebrate Oliver Hardy Day and what happened when they tried to drill through the centre of the Earth.


A Spanish Dancer in Highgate

At a magnificent reading last night with the Arc poets at Lauderdale House in Highgate. Spent half an hour beforehand in Waterlow Park eating white chocolate and reading Treasure Island while a tree sheltered me from the rain. The perfect preparation I think for two hours of poetry.

The line up included James Byrne (with the beguiling line: ‘September – the month that tends all others’)  a lumious reading from Astrid Alben including an amusing anecdote about her drinking session with some Romanian monks. With little mutual language, one of the monks raises his wine glass and exclaims: ‘cheese!’

All poets had something unique to offer; there was tremendous anecdote too from publisher Tony Ward about Branwell Bronte, ill-starred brother of the more famous sisters; the station where he served as the ramshackle, inebriated station master’s assistant (see my earlier post on poor Branwell) was apparently carted off by wheelbarrow, stone by stone, to build someone’s shed. It all adds to the ignominy.   

The highlight perhaps was a thumping set of translations of Rainer Maria Rilke by Ian Crockatt, who came down all the way from North East Scotland for the night.

Ian’s introductions alone were totally absorbing. It was a relief to hear him say that Rilke’s poetry does not always make perfect sense – it is more about the image, the tone, the moment and the feeling in his work; a relief because I have sometimes struggled for the sense of his poems. The fact that Rilke wrote in French rather than his native German also says something about the distance and sense of strangeness and disconnectedness Rilke wanted to achieve.

Ian ended his set with great panache with a sparking, vivacious version of The Spanish Dancer (concluding with a dramatic flamenco stamp no less) which more or less stole the evening. It is a more complete and straightforward poem than many of Rilke’s and I apologise that this translation is not Ian’s own. It is an excellent example of the theme of transformation that pervades his work. It is so completely vivid and alive – the poem practically catches fire on the page.

The Spanish Dancer

As on all its sides a kitchen-match darts white
flickering tongues before it bursts into flame:
with the audience around her, quickened, hot,
her dance begins to flicker in the dark room.

And all at once it is completely fire.

One upward glance and she ignites her hair
and, whirling faster and faster, fans her dress
into passionate flames, till it becomes a furnace
from which, like startled rattlesnakes, the long
naked arms uncoil, aroused and clicking.

And then: as if the fire were too tight
around her body, she takes and flings it out
haughtily, with an imperious gesture,
and watches: it lies raging on the floor,
still blazing up, and the flames refuse to die –
Till, moving with total confidence and a sweet
exultant smile, she looks up finally
and stamps it out with powerful small feet.

Rainer Maria Rilke