Friday, 30 August 2013

We still believe what we hear: Seamus Heaney

Sometimes you can take great artists and writers for granted if they stay around and productive for a very long time. They can become monuments to themselves in our minds, part of the landscape we navigate by perhaps, but the original, transformative, impact and achievement become forgotten, implicit. (Or, in some cases, form an implicit rebuke to their later work.)

Then they’re suddenly gone and the loss sadly, paradoxically, gives you them back again. So it is with Seamus Heaney who died today.

The passion in the many tributes I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter from other poets flows from both the power of his poetry, and the man himself, his unassuming, interested, warm and rooted nature and desire to connect to the people he met. His work has all kinds of importance, as the work of a rural boy exploring the world, as a translator, as an Irishman in Troubled times, and he was also a very fine love poet.

If anything, Heaney’s book of essays The Government of the Tongue was even more important to me personally as a guide as I set out to learn to write. His explorations of the tension between Song and Suffering were powerful influences. I’m not sure there’s a better summing up of what I think a poem can be than this, from his essay ‘Nero, Chekhov’s Cognac and a Knocker’:

‘The achievement of a poem, after all, is an experience of release. In that liberated moment, when the lyric discovers its buoyant completion and the timeless formal pleasure comes to fullness and exhaustion, something occurs which is equidistant from self-justification and self-obliteration. A plane is – fleetingly – established where the poet is intensified in his being and freed from his predicaments. The tongue, governed for so long in the social sphere by considerations of tact and fidelity, by nice obeisances to one’s origin within the minority or the majority, this tongue is suddenly ungoverned and, while not being practically effective, is not necessarily inefficacious.’ 

The first time I saw him read was at a poetry festival in Grasmere. I found myself sat behind him at one of the other readings that weekend, and spent the reading mainly thinking ‘That’s the back of Seamus Heaney’s head…’ I’m not entirely sure I can even remember who the poet was…

I was lucky enough to meet him a couple of times later on, the last time in 2009 when he read in Newcastle at the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts. The University held a reception for him, and I was, I think, just one of many there rather holding their breath and wondering why we were sharing the room with one of our genuine, ageless, Elders. The NCLA had put together a book for him, which they’d very kindly (not to say generously) asked me to contribute to, and I recall the contributors being asked to sign a copy for him. I have rarely felt such a mixture of pride and absurdity.

The video above is not of the reading he gave that night, though that can be seen here. I preferred to share this older event because of the discussion of Patrick Kavanagh’s distinction between provincialism and parochialism he begins with, before reciting Kavanagh’s ‘Epic’ and because of the introduction, which says more than I can here about his poetry. He may write no more, but to quote Heaney himself, when we read his work, or listen to him read, ‘We still believe what we hear.’

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Free and Native

Native is the journal of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, which is a joint initiative between Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Nesta. They recently commissioned me to write about Makers, the New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson, and you can see the rather sceptical article I wrote here.

Anderson is best known as the populariser of the ideas of 'free' as a business model, and of 'the long tail'. Makers is his take on 3D printing and how it might revolutionise manufacturing, amongst other things. You can read the essay for my full take. I can see all sorts of creative possibilities - I want to see a machine version of Raymond Queneau's One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets - but take issue with his enthusiasm for exploitative business models, for the seemingly trivial uses this technology is being put to (so far, I admit) and for the idea that more is better. This is my conclusion, responding particularly to his line ‘What we will see is simply more’:

 'I’d argue our task is to use the kind of technological and social changes Anderson describes to think about Less and Fewer. How do we add to the beauty and richness of the world with less damage to the environment? How do we, in the Western world, learn together to live with less? How do we make a more sustainable living? How do we wean ourselves off the sugar rush of buying ‘stuff’ to make ourselves feel better? Especially if it’s a 3D printed Sharpie holder?'

Gillian Welch's rather pithier response to the idea of Free can be enjoyed in the video above.

Normal service resumes


Celebrating crowds gather in Green Dragon Yard at the news that Mark Robinson may be about to finally get his arse back in gear on the blog... 

Actually this is Pere Faure performing at SIRF 2013 earlier this month. He's miming to local radio, as you do. if he was miming to my 'radio' for July and August so far he'd have had to find comic, amusing and charming ways to physically represent some of the following: 
- evaluating the Festival of the North East (see full report here
- helping people in Darlington think about how the Council might spend any money they get from the sale of the sadly-former Arts Centre (see Darlington for Culture chair John Dean's article on Guardian website here) 
- facilitating the Northern Dance Artists Seminar in Leeds (Actually very easy to depict me here: shoulders back, belly in, except when I forgot) 
- helping AV Festival recruit some great new staff to work on next year's festival 
- agreeing to advise the North East Cultural Partnership which was launched in Durham, showing continued commitment from the region's local authorities to working together on culture, despite the removal of the R word from 'official' lexicons 
- RT-ing the hell out of Seven Stories shortlisting for the National Lottery Awards 'Best Education Project', which they won - big congratulations to the team there. Great organisation to be on the board of
- some tendering and sorting out of exciting future work 
- flogging a few copies of How I Learned to Sing, getting that first review (thanks, The Crack) and it being a good one - 'a fabulous collection' to cut it short! - and sorting readings for the autumn. (If anyone who's bought and read and liked the book (a considerable 'hat-trick' I know!) fancied 'reviewing' it on Amazon or elsewhere to give potential readers a feel, that'd be much appreciated too.)
- intensive research trips to the galleries and museums of Paris, Marseille (Capital of Culture this year, more on that anon) and Nice 
- and the small family matters of son's degree show, throwing a party to celebrate 25 years of being married, and watching my father-in-law get an honorary doctorate at Huddersfield University. 

But one of my 'resolutions de la rentrée' is to blog more regularly, at least once a week. If I don't deliver on that, you may have your money back.