I remember attending an Academi conference in the early 80's, when I was supposedly an up-and-coming young poet and had a mane to match a lion into Heavy Metal. 'Who are your main influences? somebody asked , as I sat at the top table. Ever the rebel I knew what was expected (the likes of Idris Davies) and so replied - 'Well, probably Elvis Costello, Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke.'
Despite my need to annoy, there was much more than a grain of truth : as much as literature, music ( particularly singer-songwriters) have always been a profound inspiration.One of the first, alongside Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright, was undoubtedly the lesser-known Kevin Coyne from Derby.
My friend at the time, a fellow petrol-pump attendant in Barry, got me into his work. 'Turpentine' was the first song which struck me (I should say, lit me). Years before punk burst on the scene, Coyne delivered this incendiary song from the persona of a pyromaniac who loathed society. And at a time when my Gran was struggling with Alzheimer's and others in my close family suffered from mental illnesses, it was a revelation to discover his songs about those subjects, written as a result of his time as a psychiatric nurse. 'House on the Hill' for instance, is the most melancholy and sensitive description of a mental hospital and 'Talking To No-one' one of the many songs where he takes the voice of the character and completely empathizes with them.
Only later did I find out that Coyne's politics were very similar to my own. A while back, my daughter Bethan bought me his book 'That Old Suburban Angst' and his final album (compiled after his death) called 'Underground'. Tracks such as 'Mr President' (like a sound poem in song) and 'He Knows Everything' , a perfect and now so apt depiction of an arrogant businessman or banker, showed he'd lost none of his fervour.
I saw him play live on a number of occasions ( all in the 70's), most memorably with a band including Andy Summers, before he joined The Police. I only wish I'd been there at his last concert when, according to his friend Robert Chambers, he had to perform with an oxygen tube up each nostril: he approached the concert with remarkable enthusiasm given that he had four weeks left to live. 'Underground' is not a morbid album and ends with a touching song addressed to his little grandson Billy.
The Blues were always Coyne's bedrock, though he did use many other styles. He had one of the best Blues voices to come from these Islands, but was never afraid to use his Derby accent when necessary, as in 'Marjory Razorblade'.
It's difficult to assess the impact of singer-songwriters like Coyne : it must be a slow seepage over the years. I'm always grateful to other people for leading me towards new ones, usually the Ace Tapeman, Andrew Bartz. Thanks to him, the latest is Tom Russell, a Californian who's been around since the 70's,but is little known over here. He's a favourite of Beat poet Lawrence Ferlingetti, who even recorded his 'Stealing Electricity'. Russell is a modern troubadour version of John Steinbeck, singing about Californian places, people, events, love affairs, migrant workers and Indians. Like Coyne, Russell can also be scathing on matters political: just get a listen to 'Who's Gonna Build Your Wall' (from 'Anthology'.....a double cd and really a best of). His new album 'Blood and Candle Smoke' again has that balance between personal and wider issues, which merge on songs like 'American Rivers' where pollution threatens the history and memories represented by rivers.
Richard Hawley is a Sheffield singer-songwriter who I ought to pursue. I loved his contribution on Elbow's 'Seldom Seen Kid' but have never been impressed by his appearances on Jools Holland. However, his comment in an interview did lead me to write the following poem. He said about his home town - 'Everybody wears a tracksuit. It looks like everyone's going to the gym. They're really going to Pizza Hut and getting 24 cans of lager on the way back.' I hope he's written a song about that.
GOH MY TRACKSEWT
I goh my tracksewt on,
I'm goin f'r the Fat League,
coz we gotta stay up-a top,
we mus stay Number One.
I goh my trainers on
(even though theyer mankin),
coz I'm goin up KFC
f'r a Megawhopperchicken.
I goh my Man U shirt
with Rooney on-a back,
coz I'm off down the Offie
f'r a real six pack.
I goh my white socks on
(even though they int in fashion),
coz I'm goin up-a chippie
f'r a cheesy chips an curry.
I goh my bes shorts on
but they int f runnin free,
coz I'm goin f'r a pastie
to eat while I shop down town.
I goh my wrist-ban's on
t wipe off-a sweatin,
coz I've ad a few jars
an a kebab f'r arfters.
I goh my shell-sewt on
(rest 're in-a washin-machine),
with a fag an a bag o donuts
we'll be top o the League.
A gig! A real one! Apart from actually finishing a poem and being satisfied with it, there's nothing better. Or is there?
There's always the spectre of Llantarnam : the audience consisting of organiser plus spouse and one little old lady come for the 'pottery'.
But this time out, I'm full of optimism. The evening at Narberth is part of a series of 'Poetry & Music' ones throughout Wales. After a long, lazy train journey - the most glorious part as the track wends round the estuary from Gowerton past Llanelli and then Ferryside to Carmarthen - on a day of September sun, I was even more in the rhythm.
Doors opened 7.30 pm and by eight the Llantarnam factor was setting in. The two other poets Richard Douglas Pennant and Richard Marggraf Turley ( I'll have to adopt 'Geraint') looked equally despondent. The jazz group warmed up, oblivious it seemed. Till, amazingly, as the lights dimmed and the superb Frank Harrison Trio began their first set of improvised mood-changes and subtle exchanges between piano, bass and drums, the place had filled up.
The lighting was tricky, but I only stumbled once and thoroughly enjoyed the evening as did fellow poets and the band. I think the audience had a good time as well. I managed not to fist the mike off the stage as I had done at the Merthyr Punkfest ( angry and frustrated at the way the Red Poets had been messed about)........especially as there were no mikes.
Afterwards, pianist Harrison joked that if you multiply a jazz audiece and a poetry audience that would be the sum of '0 x 0'. More importantly, with the musicians we talked about the great similarity between us : poets beginning with a blank page and not really knowing where it will lead and jazz pieces original every time, so much so that Harrison didn't even know which number he was going to play as he began.
All of which has no relevance to my following and most recent poem , inspired by the LibDems declaration of 'savage cuts'. It's more a manifesto than poem and probably an example of 'pissin' on a desert cactus' to quote the neglected songwriter Rod Tolchock. However, sometimes when a man's gotta piss, a man's gotta..................
THE 43 LETTER WORD
Ladies and gentlemen -
nay, comrades and friends!
Welcome to the inauguration
of the Not-Like-The-Rest Party.
Lend me your ears -
no, I won't slice them off!
Our cuts will be vicious,
they will be machete-wielding.
Our cuts will be all-encompassing -
we will cauterize to maximize.
We will begin by cutting the Monarchy
and its hangers-on........saving billions.
We'll follow by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan,
Germany, Falklands,N.Ireland and Brecon.
We will declare peace with a vengeance
We will stop paying the pointless Lords,
close down all tax havens.
We will not pay a single pfennig
to banks who hold us to ransom.
Trident will be sunk without trace
saving billions....I've done my figures.
Then we'll abolish Westminster
and have parliaments from villages to nations.
So that, once and for all,
the Britain of war and empire can be buried.
So vote for us, I'm not afraid
to use the 43 letter word...........
Anarcho-syndicalist Welsh Socialist Republicanism.
I return to blogging wondering if there's anyone out there ( I think writers are probably familiar with this feeling). I return after a wonderful week spent in Llydaw and afterwards a knackered router ( to match my dicky back!). I return after over a week spent pestering Aol via Delhi, Dublin and Ballymegabyte. I return, above all, after my amazing wife installed it all. I would,no doubt, have re-routed the router through our toaster and ended up frazzling the hard drive! I return after a week trekking down to Merthyr library to sort my e-mails: great idea, beats books any day.
I am now officially an ex-teacher, claiming redundancy pay-off and pension. My nineyear-old asks me most days what I've been doing. She 'bagsied ' the internet soon as it was back working, saying I had the rest of my life to use it anyway. When I reply 'writing' she gazes at me, puzzled and asks - 'Will you make any money?' I seriously wonder if we've gone wrong somewhere. She has now abandoned her ambition to be a fireman (as in Sam Tan ) and wants to be a doctor, as in Casualty, Holby City, and soon-to-be Crash. She is already well-qualified, having followed avidly the crash,bash,slash, dash, mash and hash of those popular series.She will be surrounded in hospital by glamourous colleagues, plenty of disturbed patients and a few stock, Shakespearian (see Bottom or the Porter) working-class 'mechanicals'.
As ever, writing doesn't go where you plan. At least I haven't had writer's block as Swansea artist and author Alan Perry did throughout his bursary. Having fully intended to resume the novel I started over a year ago for teenagers, I perversely had another idea, for a long narrative poem ( aimed at Years 6,7 and 8 I think). It just took off from the rooftops
and hasn't stopped travelling since.
However, the poem below is one of several I wrote after Brittany ; this about my young daughter. It's in 'open field' style which I sometimes use, with phrases spread out and space vitally important and with one poem being one sentence -
A Bonfire in Brittany
It is the beginning and end
a Saint's day
a turn in the weather
she watches it rise
its waves of fire
its spitting sparks
she shields her roasting face
in it she imagines
a cave a hut
she dances to the crackle
of hedge-cuttings and twigs
in later light
she's a giant shadow
with stilted legs
like everyone else
she is smoke
through layers of clothing
as if her skin were ashen
her hair the colour of hay
smelling of a stubbled field
after the harvesting
when the bonfire settles
to a hive of light
she lies on the grass
as stars press