What’s in a name?


Occasionally people ask me about the derivation of the name of this blog. Regrettably, I can’t take credit – it’s the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens. When I first started, I posted a statement on why I chose it:

In his poem ‘Invective Against Swans’, Stevens has a dig at those lovely birds, bringing them down a peg by calling them ‘ganders’ (which are actually male geese), dismissing their ‘bland motions’. I suspect Stevens had no serious gripe against swans; nor do I. They are decorative, they transform a landscape into a painting, they make me hum Tchaikovsky to myself. But stick them into a poem, specifically a contemporary poem, and they become a metaphor for all that is trite and precious. And that’s Stevens’ beef, all those ‘white feathers’ and ‘chilly chariots’. There he was, facing a newish century, a brave new world that had shaken itself out of a war; a new poet trying to find a new way of saying things. He is railing against the grandiose, the clichéd, the humourless. Never one to miss a joke: ‘gander’ is also colloquial in boon dock Florida for ‘a quick glance’, as in ‘get a gander of that’; also colloquial for the village simpleton, as idiotic as a goose. And as we’re talking specifically about a ‘male goose’, could the poet be referring back to himself, possibly to all his fellow bards (how close that is to ‘birds’!) as well?

I suppose my aim in this blog has always been to explain my notion of what I find beautiful in the world, which is not always typical (swans being an easy measure of ‘typical beauty’). Stevens has been one of my guides. His work has made me interrogate image and language. When I was thinking what to call this collection of random thoughts, he seemed to provide the right phrase. I am not the only poet to reference Stevens in this way. One of my favourite contemporary presses is Shearsman, its name taken from a line in ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’: ‘The man bent over his guitar / A shearsman of sorts.’ The musician becoming a maker (a shearsman being a cutter of cloth), as is the painter (Picasso) or the poet (Stevens). The poem is a manifesto for the making of art, and therefore the shearsman is an appropriate symbol for a press that espouses the made poem, an object that sometimes challenges convention, like Stevens, like Picasso. 


I have recently discovered that an electronic duo based in Brussels have named themselves after one of my poems. Here is a link to Mannequins on 7th Street:

On their site, they talk about the name as an ambient reference to the general chaos of city life, something they attempt to reflect in their music. Ironically, the poem came not from the place itself, but from a drawing by Anthony Eyton; so like the shearsman of Stevens’ poem, who presides over poet, painter and musician, the title Tony gave his drawing now radiates out over all of us. 


It makes me think too of how some artists have the right name. Sometimes a name even becomes an adjective for an artist’s practice; to say a poem is Plathian is to say its images are dark and strange, its language clipped and sparse. Plath’s name is monosyllabic, it sounds like the noise that a pebble makes hitting the water. She loved the assonance of soft ‘a’s.

I have a name that is invented. The story, although intensely personal to me, is really a common one: my grandparents arrived at the port of Galveston, Texas, with their papers in Cyrillic and not a word of English. The desk clerk asked them to say their name aloud, and he took it down as he heard it. YO-SEL-OFF. As a poet, I value the strange name that no one can spell, that was made up on the spot, that makes me sound rare and exotic, the grandchild of Russian immigrants who went to a new country to make a new life. After all, we are always inventing ourselves, making up names for what we create.

Small is beautiful

Coming away from last weekend’s Free Verse book fair (laden with my bag of purchases!) I felt truly optimistic for the first time in quite a while for the future of poetry publishing. The fair was arguably an example of something positive emerging from the recession. True, there are a number of small presses which have suffered (and some which will inevitably close) in the current round of Arts Council cuts, but as many if not more have risen to prominence in the last five years, such as Cinnamon, HappenStance, Mulfran and CB editions (whose founder, Charles Boyle, organised the fair). Here is a statement of intent from the programme:

Writing is not being cut – and the job of making is the most interesting, innovative, inspiring writing available to readers is still largely that of the smaller presses. They are flexible; their overheads are minimal; they are run, most of them, by people who are mad – which is in fact their strength, because their madness is a form of obsessions not with money but with the use of language, which is where it all starts …

And so, the Free Verse fair was inaugurated in a spirit of defiance, collaboration and small-scale entrepreneurship. As the larger presses find it increasingly difficult to support their poetry lists, and, as a result, are taking fewer risks on new poets, there is growing scope for small presses (often very dynamically and successfully run by a single dedicated publisher with a vision) to discover the poetic talents of tomorrow.

I cannot remember a time in the two dozen years I have lived in this country when there have been so many presses producing such innovative and exciting work (‘a disarray of publishers’, as the programme proclaimed); apart from being a bit too young, I was not in the UK during the flowering of the small press and pamphlet movement of 70s – it seems to me from everything I’ve read and heard about that period that it was very much a revolt against the mainstream, whereas the current spawning of new small presses feels far more organic and welcoming. As the diverse selection of voices in Roddy Lumsden’s  2010 Identity Parade anthology perhaps indicated, there are no prevailing trends in poetry these days, apart from a genuine desire to try new things.

So back to the fair. Chris Hamilton-Emery gives a very good account of the atmosphere in the room in his blog: . Along with some indies who have been around for a while (such as Enitharmon, Anvil, Shearsman, and my publisher, the aforementioned Salt) there are more recent arrivals, such as Penned in the Margins and Donut, whose books are collectors’ items as well as great reads. I love my copy of Chris McCabe’s Shad Thames, Broken Wharf, which Penned in the Margins produced as a boxed edition of 200, complete with an ‘Inventory of Items Mudlarked from the Thames’ and one of those items (mine is a blue and white ceramic fragment) contained in its own brown paper bag and separately numbered and labelled. I love my growing collection of Donut Press books, beautifully designed and small enough to fit into a back pocket; their mini-edition of WS Graham’s ‘Approaches To How They Behave’ contains that single long poem, a brilliant new introduction by Sean O’Brien, and a selection of quotes from Graham himself (and all for a fiver!).

I am very much hoping this will become an annual event. Judging by the number of people who poured through the doors while I was there (and the number of people leaving with bags as heavy as mine was!) it should be.