John McCollough

A mind of winter

Although it has been an increasingly regular occurrence over the last four winters, Londoners of my generation still consider snow a novelty. Suddenly, the population of the city turns child again, breaking into impromptu snow ball fights, erecting elaborate snowmen in local parks (although the prize for best urban snowman goes to one last winter, constructed atop a toilet discarded on the pavement near my house). To commemorate this common miracle, I decided to take a stroll along the river, starting at the southern side of Tower Bridge, and finishing at Vauxhall Bridge, a walk of approximately 2.5 miles. In all the years I have been exploring London, this walk may have been the most memorable. I chose not to bring a camera, or my iPod; I wanted to concentrate on looking and listening, without imposing extra demands on my attention.

The experience of looking was greatly altered by the haze of snow, steadily falling as my walk began, and continuing for the rest of the day. London is impossibly beautiful in the snow, perhaps because snow seems to cleanse and purify; it softens blemishes (cloaking some of the more horrendous examples of misguided architecture) and renders what is already imposing, such as St Paul’s and the Houses of Parliament and Southwark Cathedral, with an even greater majesty. Somehow, London looks more ancient in snow, and I had a vision of the Elizabethan frost fairs that sprang up on the surface of the Thames (during what was known as the ‘Little Ice Age’) as soon as the river froze. This reminded me of a beautiful poem, ‘The Other Side of Winter’, by my fellow Salt poet John McCullough, where he writes of this ‘crystal weather’:

Overnight the Thames begins to move again.
The ice beneath the frost fair cracks. Tents,
merry-go-rounds and bookstalls glide about

on islands given up for lost. They race,
switch places, touch – the printing press nuzzling
the swings – then part, slip quietly under.

Perhaps what is surreal in John’s poem – the vision of an alternative city balanced on the fragile ice – can still be imagined, as snow erases landmarks, renders ordinary routes unfamiliar, simply by covering our accepted routes of travel: roads and pavements are hidden, margins and boundaries are less pronounced. The snow showed me vistas I hadn’t noticed before, simply by masking others.

It was striking was how quiet the city became. Normally that stretch of the river would be heavily populated on a Sunday by tourists, dogs, families. Apart from the odd jogger and determined Japanese sightseer, the city was emptied, as if the snow had blotted out its citizens as well. Only around the London Eye was there a crowd; a long queue to ride the wheel, which puzzled me, as the visibility was terrible, but I realised it was the miracle of the snow which drew them, as if they needed to reach its source to understand its movement. Snow muffles sound, draws everything closer, so that the peel of City church bells was incredibly clear even from the southern banks.

I have been reading Nick Papadimitriou’s extraordinary book, Scarp, the result of a lifetime’s work of chronicling his corner of outer London, around Hendon, Edgware, Pinner. Not a part of the city I know well, but his book does not necessary require knowledge of the region (although it has inspired me to perhaps take a tour); what he is espousing is the idea of ‘deep topography’ – a complete immersion into a landscape, so that you know not only the names and landmarks, but the native plants, the cast of characters who have populated the area (in the present, and in the past), a full picture of the region in all seasons and aspects. Papadimitriou talks about laying aside knowledge and concentrating on ‘sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through’, and maybe this was why I (sub)consciously decided against equipment which would aid me in recording my walk (or distracting me from it).

It reminded me why I love London so much (as if I need to be reminded), my adopted city of these last twenty-five years. Johnson was right, of course, it is never boring, in its constant flux and flow, and each time I think I know an area well, it surprises me with some new revelation. I look out the window now and see the snow has begun to fall again; the kid in me wants to get out and be in it, to see what its veiling might uncover.

Here’s John’s poem in its entirety on Declan Ryan’s Days of Roses site:

Images are Whistler’s Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Snow in Chelsea
A 1684 etching of a frost fair by Granger
Snow-White by Gerhard Richter

Where all sounds count

I start the new year enjoying the sound of poems (always in tandem with thinking about how they look on the page, of course), how they enter ear and brain through being spoken and received. This consideration of the music of words comes from a pleasant conflation of events – my recent performances of Formerly with musician Douglas Benford; a great evening with the visiting American poet DA Powell (with equally terrific turns from Amy Key and John McCullough); a fabulous reading in Dorset, participating with fellow poets Tim Cumming, Annie Freud and Bethany Pope; and my attendance at last night’s TS Eliot Prize event. These readings and performances have coincided with a recording session of my first workshop as MP3 download: watch this space for more on that in the next few weeks.

Listening to other poets read their work is always a valuable experience – there are issues of pace and voice and cadence that can only be understood by hearing a poem in its composer’s voice. I was thinking of that the last time I heard Paul Muldoon – I find his work is best read aloud to get the extraordinary richness of his word play, but my flat American vowels can never quite do justice to his Irish lilt. We are lucky to have resources such as the Poetry Archive, which brings together recordings of some of the best living poets, but also those who are no longer with us. I regret never seeing Ted Hughes read his work, but his poems come to life for me in being able to hear him.

Someone asked me if performing with Douglas, who has created an urban soundscape for the Formerly poems, alters the way I read. Invariably, Douglas’s rhythms change my own, and I find myself falling into the patterns of the soundtrack, but the soundtrack has also been created from listening to the poems, so the two complement each other.

I’m sure working with him has made me bolder as a performer; I think of people like Patti Smith or Laurie Anderson who are constantly working in the space between music and words – I wish I were as amazing as either one of them, but they are certainly inspirational in showing me how it can be done. Then there are those extraordinary poets such as Paul Dutton, for whom the boundary between music and word merges, and an orchestra can be created from a human mouth.

Over the years, I’ve given much thought to how to present poems to an audience. A live reading is inevitably a very different experience than reading from a book or composing, as both of those are intimate and largely silent (although, as I’ve said above, sometimes speaking poems aloud helps me hear and comprehend, both in reading the work of others and composing my own). An audience is a dynamic structure, sometimes responding back to what a poet gives them; there’s such a thing as a poetry hum or sigh, which an audience emits if a poem pleases them. The beats many years ago used to click or snap their fingers, and sometimes if a poem is a real show-stopper, a round of applause is in order (although I feel poetry readings are like classical concerts, and it never feels quite right to me to applaud between poems!). There is also the vexed question as to whether poets should provide a bit of talk or banter or explanation between poems. As long as it doesn’t overpower or interrupt the actual work, I like it when a poet ‘talks’ to the audience. As a writer, I have always thought that I am a split personality – my writing isn’t necessarily like my speaking, and the way I order my words is a different experience than the way I tell a story when I’m just talking casually. Talking between poems is a way of connecting, a way of introducing not just the poems by oneself to an audience, and so an integral part of a reading, just as choosing what poems to read for each occasion (and selecting a pair of earrings of course. The American poet Tess Gallagher once said to me that it is crucial to wear ‘statement’ jewellery when doing a reading – I think she was wearing a stunning Native American necklace of silver and turquoise at the time – so that the audience has something to look at apart from face and book).

I often wonder if the reading the finalists give the night before has any bearing on the results of the Eliot prize. There were some fine readings last night (and a few jokes between poems too), so I’ll be interested to see what the result is when they award the prize this evening.

Picture is from Janet Cardiff’s installation Forty Part Motet.