christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Matthew Sweeney

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.



Walking on water with Billy Collins

I’m not the first to write admiringly, and enviously, of Billy Collins’ work. Like Matthew Sweeney, he delights in strange, self-contained narratives where the poet himself often figures as a bit part player, or witness. They play out at a relaxed pace – often in the poet’s own study – where a thought is informed by everyday objects – an orange, the sun on the grass or the steam rising from the day’s first cup of coffee. Collins’ work is full of small pleasures; the radio, the prospect of lunch; a delightful painting. The voice is fresh, unforced and not self-consciously poetic, as if the poem is an effortless daydream – you are merely following the poet’s own charmingly haphazard thought process.

I could talk about any of his poems – all are so easy to enjoy, but a case in point is Walking Across the Atlantic, where the narrator ‘waits for the holiday crowd to clear the beach’ before walking on water. How considerate of him, how modest, how downright nice of him not to want to want to alarm passers-by with his miraculous powers. The poem is not outlandish in its detail – his concerns are entirely practical, looking out for ‘whales, waterspouts.’

There is no grand-standing, just simple, albeit astounding, statement of fact, such as ‘tonight I will sleep on its (the Atlantic’s) rocky surface.’ Like many excellent poems, there is no back story, no final dénouement, just a set up, a stroll around the idea and an unexpected pay off. In this case, it is merely imagining ‘what/this must look like to the fish below/the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.’

Given that the poem is so slight – ten lines – what makes it so successful and appealing? The ironic detachment of the voice – the impossible given a deadpan everyday delivery certainly. Then there’s the clever cadence, mirroring the ebb and flow of water beneath his feet – the ‘rocking surface’ below his ‘shifting feet.’ But really it is just a delicious oddity; a wonderful joke perfectly delivered.

I would also encourage you to seek out another Collins’ poem: Candle Hat, rather longer and more developed, but equally wonderful, about a man painting himself by the light of the candles fitted around the brim of his hat. It’s poetry that’s lighter than air, exquisitely judged and rendered in a voice of astonishing poise and balance.