The monthly Open Mic. sessions (on the posters 'Open Mike') at The Imp in Merthyr have been going for over three years. We began with Patrick Jones before his launch was controversially cancelled by Waterstone's and next month welcome David Greenslade ( on March 11th), who I recall doing an amazing performance once with the aid of some unlikely fruit.
Audiences have varied considerably from a disastrous three (including author) when most thought it had been cancelled, to packed evenings for Rachel Tresize, just after she'd won the £60,000 Dylan Thomas Prize and the launch of the 'Merthyr Writing' anthology when Merthyr's writers actually appeared out of their attics in support.
Everyone who regularly attends has their favourites and , on a popular vote, Jerry Hooker must be Number One, with his subtle and evocative poetry. For me (apart from Mike Church's hilarious stand-up) the finest evenings have been where content and performance have been successfully united, from local boy Des Barry's stories, to the marvellous Herb Williams reading from his latest book 'Wrestling in Mud', one of the best books I've read in a long time.
Some writers, so powerful in print, cannot communicate when it comes to readings. R.S. Thomas never failed to disappoint, with his drab and passionless manner. But enough of the negative, when I went to Aberystwyth Uni. so long ago, I was inspired by many readings. Tony Harrison, a regular visitor, combined the erudite and earthy like no other. I got to meet the Scots poet Norman MacCaig, who read with great verve and character and bought me a whisky after ( that's the way to make fans for life).
One of the most revelatory performances was on a course I attended at Gregynog. Four poets lead the course : Harrison, Roy Fisher, Glyn Hughes and Edwin Morgan, but it was the latter's reading which made the most impact. I couldn't believe the audacious variety of his work, from concrete and sound poetry, to the mean streets of his native Glasgow. It altered completely the way I was to write and also think of readings.
The most incomprehensibly moving of poetry readings was one by the renowned Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Though some poems were read by his translator, most were read by him in Russian. The dramatic sound carried the audience along; it was like giving yourself to the sea, floating with your face to the moon. After, I spoke to one of my English lecturers, full of enthusiasm - 'It was a circus and he was the clown', he replied and I wondered how two such contrasting versions could co-exist.
When I was teaching in Merthyr we had many visiting poets. Two of the most memorable were Welsh writers Ifor Thomas and John Tripp, but up there with them were Benjamin Zephaniah and Adrian Mitchell. Both read to halls packed with pupils and wowed them totally.
When Zephaniah was walking the school corridors he was mistaken for Marley's ghost (Bob, that is) and after reading, one little girl approached him asking if she could pull his dreadlocks; he politely obliged. Mitchell was magic : such proof of his own dictum that 'Most people ignore most poetry, because most poetry ignores most people'.......he never ignored the people.
When He Read He Sang
i.m. Adrian Mitchell
It is Christmas
and I still remember
his card a decade previous :
his cartoon elephant
carrying love and peace.
Jazz and blues,
rock and rhyme –
when he read he sang.
He visited my school
took them in his hands,
a whole restless Year 9,
pointing to the playground
and torturers with foaming fangs.
He became like a blackbird
or one of Blake’s angels,
common and extraordinary,
with a song like Brecht’s
to ring the world.
Rhythm and breathing,
roll and scan –
when he read he sang.
His gentle spoken voice
like Victor Jara’s hands,
light as single feathers
strong as they are joined :
rising and beating with us,
taking hopes to their highest.
Saxophone and pen,
blue notes opening –
when he read he sang.
As the British army begins its offensive in Helmand province in Afghanistan and the Govenment warns of increasing casualties, I can't help but recall the astoundingly twp comments of Merthyr MP Dai Havard ( who actually spends more time out there than in this constituency) that 'it is not a war'. How many aid workers help a suffering country with bombs and guns? One die-hard fact, Dai Havard : there were civilian casualties of over 2000 in the first 10 months of last year.
The madness of the world continues, with both Obama and Brown believing they can defeat terror by fuelling it, as they support a corrupt regime.
Yet, the revelation of the week has almost gone unnoticed. I sat down to watch Andrew Neill's 'Straight Talk' interview with Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd last night in the hope that broadcast media had latched onto it, but the programme was aborted by breaking news from the States about a gas explosion.
Elfyn Llwyd,a sober lawyer not a fantasist, has insisted that he should be called before the Chilcot Inquiry (in private, if necessary) because he has seen a confidential memo proving that Bush and Blair came to a secret agreement at the then President's ranch in Texas in April 2002.
Llwyd has stated - ' the deal was struck, incontrovertibly'. Of course, this means (surprise,surprise) that Blair lied to the Chilcot Inquiry and that, as many suspected, the actual decision to go to war was made between these two men and had nothing to do with Cabinet or Parliament. In a week when there has been so much hysteria about MP's expenses, surely we should take things into perspective and demand as well, a proper trial for Blair and Bush, to hold them responsible for so much death and destruction?
Chilcot has yet to call MP Llwyd and has also neglected to call that other vital player, Hans Blix, whose recommendations to Blair about the distinct lack of WMD would be crucial evidence. Blix recently expressed amazement that he wasn't giving his account. As George Galloway said on Question Time last week, the reason for invading was in fact the lack of WMD. If they had existed, the invasion wouldn't have happened and he cited North Korea as a case in point.
The one topic not introduced has been the importance of oil. The whole motivation behind regime change was the need to secure the vast and profitable Iraqi oil-fields under the control of Western companies. There's a
great song by Texan singer-songwriter James McMurtry called 'God Bless America' which rails against US economic imperialism in a bitter, bluesy way . His image of 'sucking up the oil through the barrel of a gun' is especially evocative.
Like Elfyn Llwyd's revelation, the news from Iraq itself seems to be sidelined from television. Blair, in all his smug self-righteousness, can claim that Iraq is so much better without Saddam Hussein and not be questioned. Yet, this year alone over a hundred people have died as a result of suicide bombings. Before the invasion, there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq. The war has managed to divide that country to an even greater extent, creating Sunni fanatics and an Islamic fundamentalism which hardly existed before. There is no doubting Saddam's dictatorship, but in overthrowing his regime methods were used which were remarkably similar to those he deployed.
This poem came from reading the account of Omar Deghayes who was arrested in Pakistan because he had lived previously in Afghanistan (working as a businessman). He was tortured by the US secret service, with the British equivalent in attendance and spent six years in Guantanamo Bay, where no evidence was produced to suggest his guilt and where he lost the sight of one eye when a guard tried to gouge out both his eyes. He was eventually released and now lives near Brighton. Despite his promise, Obama has yet to shut down Guantanamo. The title is taken from Omar's own words.
'I AM A NUMBER'
through the blur
one moon, one star -
I am a number
too many zeros in this world -
the black hole
of my left socket
not the number
they knew me by,
those guards and bolt-hole
mouths spraying pepper
but a number recurring -
one I insist on,
the horizon of clifflines
a number they wanted to gouge out -
I struggled to count
as my eyes turned liquid turned blood.
when I saw the landscape
of my face
what they had done to it
it was both east and west -
the starved desert of cheeks,
dead pit of one eye-ball
my nose a broken Tower of Babel -
even the wrinkles were treads
of boots of soldiers invading
when I saw this place
I knew I'd fought with hands and feet -
battlefield where I return at night
and now, the salty breeze
can soothe these spoil heaps,
the history of my skin
but I won't rest as they defile others -
precious countries from the southern foothills
to headlands of the north.
On Wednesday a package arrives at the door. I believe it's a late birthday present of cd's from my daughter Bethan. It turns out to be copies of my new book 'The Climbing Tree', a novella for teenagers who've had enough of Harry Potter wizardry and books thick as breeze-blocks.
I'm excited. It's a premature delivery and about as slim as I'd anticipated. I love the cover with its bulbous tree seen from below and line of rope running from top to bottom. Later on in the week, publishers Pont tell me the official publication date is Feb. 15th, so this is a bonus.
My young daughter, an avid fan of Jacqueline Wilson and , more recently, Michael Morpurgo, arrives home and grabs a copy, declaring 'It's mine!' My wife reads it for the first time and thinks she might appreciate it more in a few years time. My daughter thinks it looks a scrawny beast next to her current reads. It's like I've finally given her a pet, only it's turned out to be a stick insect not a nice, fluffy kitten.
The book's dedicated to 'My former pupils at Radyr Comp., Cardiff' , but maybe I should've named all of them.
I write up answers to an interview for the Pont website. 'Where did the inspiration come from?' I began writing it ten years ago ( then a play called 'Waste' ), so it's hard to remember. However, the actual tree which features as an important 'character' is still there. I can see it out of my window and it's the best around for climbing. It used to have a rope tied to one branch where kids and youths would swing. Nowadays, the area's fenced off and it's more difficult to get to, so few go out there.
It's great to touch the book and I can't imagine a world without them, though recent technology such as i-pads suggest they could disappear.
I'm delighted now that the original play, the bleaker 'Waste', was never produced. Thanks in no small part to Viv at Pont, this is more optimistic and, I hope, better for it. Also, I can't imagine how some of the special effects would've been achieved on stage, especially the 'siles', which are missile-like fireworks.
I've always been fascinated by dystopian novels since reading 'Brave New World', 'We' ( another novella),'1984' and 'The Handmaid's Tale'. However, I don't claim this book to be a wide-sweeping vision : it's more of a fragment.
In retrospect, one of my main influences was 'A Clockwork Orange' with its gang of 'droogies'. I would have liked to create a whole new vocabulary like Burgess, but give a sense of it with the 'wraps' (their drugs) and the 'fedicopters' ( police helicopters).
What will become of this novella when it's released into the wider world, I don't know. If it's truly a stick insect maybe it will be noticed moving amongst the branches of an oak and be adopted.
Just to prove my obsession with trees , here's a recent poem about another oak, this time one with a different sensibility to the climbing tree (oh no, I'm beginning to sound like Carlo/ PC!) -
Oak's root rising up
into the lawn
a bulky thigh-bone
not yet exposed
too many lopped limbs
and now it plans
to leave us
by its own force
hurdling the fence
stumbling over reed-beds
hauling itself out of muddy streams
till it reaches
a thicket of trees
where it will end its days
you can't avoid
yellow fungus bright as blood
soon the charred stub-ends
rings of age
will blacken beyond telling.