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John Tranter: Two Poems:

    Derek Walcott’s Lips

    Craig Raine’s Arsehole: variations on a theme by Helen Farish


Derek Walcott’s Lips

In an article in the UK Daily Mail on 7 June 2009, Sharon Churcher reported that Nicole Kelby made her claim [of sexual harrassment] against Derek Walcott when she was one of his students.

Ms Kelby said: ‘He once told me, “The key to winning a Nobel is to keep your lips in constant motion. There are a great many asses to kiss."

The Sophomore’s Dilemma, if
she wants a good degree —
      an MFA through
      Derek Walcott’s classes:

should she — must she — make the grade
horizontally,
      and kiss the lips
      that kissed a thousand arses?


This poem is in the pubic domain, and may be reprinted freely,
as long as the author is correctly attributed. J.T.



Craig Raine’s Arsehole: variations on a theme by Helen Farish

A few years ago I noticed a piece in a British newspaper (The Guardian, UK, Wednesday 21 December 2005); a poetry-writing competition based on a workshop run by prize-winning poet Helen Farish. First, below, the note in the Guardian followed by Helen Farish’s handy workshop hints, then the poem I could not help but write and send in. Alas, for all the metrical correctness of my Sapphics, I failed to win a prize. (J.T.)

Intimates by Helen Farish. Buy Intimates at the Guardian bookshop

Helen Farish’s debut collection of poetry, Intimates, won the Forward Prize for best first collection this year, and is currently on the shortlist for the 2005 T.S. Eliot prize. She lectures in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University.

Take a look at her exercise.

 

Helen Farish: workshop

Before you do anything else, I’d like you to write five sentences that begin “I remember …”. If you are right-handed write with your left hand and vice versa.

This is a workshop in which you’ll be asked to use the first person voice. Perhaps you shy away from it for fear of exposure, but that feeling of risk is an essential ingredient if we are to follow Muriel Rukeyser’s advice and keep our writing “close to the fire".

Of course, writing in the first person doesn’t necessarily mean we are writing in our own voice, whatever that means. We can displace onto the ‘I’ whatever we want, and this can be liberating. I used a poem of mine called ‘The Ring’s Story’ (in which I gave the ring a voice) in order to talk about desire, longing, emptiness, loneliness — all states of being which challenge me when it comes to accommodating them in a poem.

What is the ring’s story? One Easter, a man in Italy bought his girlfriend an engagement ring and then had it hidden inside a dark chocolate egg. Preferring milk chocolate, the woman exchanged the egg and the ring was never recovered. If we ask ourselves with regard to our writing: “what is it that won’t leave me alone?” — this was one of those stories that wouldn’t leave me alone. I tried telling it in his voice, in her voice, as a third person narrator and still it wasn’t right. Finally, I realised (thanks to a strange object I was given in a workshop by Paul Farley) that it was the ring that wanted to speak. Here is the poem.

The Ring’s Story

I was so beautiful I loved it
when he tried to push his finger through me.
He bought a dark chocolate egg
to hide me in. She’d open it.
I’d find myself on her tongue
then her finger, then every night
I’d be there.

I’d always thought of myself as silver,
compared my shine to the heart-stopping sheen
the sun lays on water, an expanse of it,
like a life working out the way you’d expect.
But it seems I was more hole than metal
and when she took me back I fell in.
Now no one lifts me, slips me on.

The ring was a gift. Gifts are often potent objects in our lives, sometimes loaded with emotional weight. Often they are next to our skin. I’d like you to think of a gift. It could also be a lost gift, in which case, obviously, you’ll be working from memory.

Answer the following questions about the gift. Don’t edit any immediate responses you have, write down whatever comes to mind

 — When was the last time you really noticed the gift?
 — In your hand, what is its texture?
 — What does it smell like?
 — If you bit into it, what would it taste like?
 — Does it make a sound?
 — Does it prefer light or dark?
 — There’s a word going round the gift’s head: what is it?
 — The gift has one memory: what is it?
 — What does the gift dream of?
 — What is it afraid of?
 — How does the gift feel about you?
 — The gift itself would like to own something: what?

From this page of notes, I’d you to write a poem in which you allow the gift to speak. In your first draft, don’t think too much about shape — simply go with the voice, preferably into territory that makes you uncomfortable. However many lines you have in your first draft, I’d like the drafting process to involve cutting back each time. Set your own targets. For example, ‘The Ring’s Story’ was originally two stanzas, one of 11 lines and one of 12. I kept chipping away at it until I got both stanzas down to seven lines.

You may already know the work of Sharon Olds. She is a great inspiration when it comes to taking risks. Have a look at her poem about a gift, ’The Blue Dress’ (The Gold Cell, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987).

Please email your entries, with ‘Poetry workshop’ in the subject field, to books.editor@guardianunlimited.co.uk by midnight on Friday December 30.


Craig Raine, 1986, photo John Tranter

Craig Raine, 1986
photo John Tranter

      John Tranter: Craig Raine’s Arsehole

I remember wanting to be a poet.
I remember going to live in London,
thronged with writers. Then, what a let-down: Larkin’s
     grubby old England

clogged with dreck, and thousands of dreary poets!
What a bummer! Back to Australia, thinking
Moi, a poet: oh, what a hopeless day-dream!
     Winning those prizes!

Last weekend I noticed a Gift: a chance to
win a writing prize in a British paper.
Helen Farish, thank you for winning prizes —
     mainly the Forward —

claiming that, I guess you were hardly backward.
Sharon Olds, who wrote of her aged father’s
shrivelled penis…  Oh, what an inspiration!
     Thank you for saying

Sharon’s poems are bound to be useful models.
Now the Gift: so, what does it smell like? Perfume?
Dog shit? Arseholes? Now that you mention arseholes,
     maybe an Arsehole Sonnet

like the Craig Raine version of Rimbaud’s sonnet* —
such a clever tactic to get some notice!
If I bit it, what would it taste like? Craig’s bum,
     what does it dream of?  
    
Sharon’s arsehole, what’s it afraid of? Chillies?
Thank you, Helen, thank you for all those hints and
tricks for writing prize-winning poems, for all those
     clever devices!

How I long to go to your writing classes,
how I’d risk that fear of exposure, learning
workshop knacks, the tricks of the trade, like how to
     write with the right hand,

then the left hand! Suddenly I’m a writer!
“Keep your writing close to the fire”, that’s oh so
true! But maybe “close to the toilet,” in my
     poem about arseholes…  

In “The Arsehole’s Story” — “The Ring’s”, I’m sorry —
did you write “I’d find myself on her tongue and
then her finger”? What an example — risky!
     What does it smell like!

And “I loved it so when he tried to push his
finger through me.” What a disturbing image!
Rich with prizes, talented teacher, Helen,
     how can I thank you?

So I’m writing, here at my desk, a dozen
sapphic stanzas** all about Craig Raine’s arsehole —
then I’ll post them off to the competition,
     hoping to win it!

___________________
* Rimbaud’s Sonnet: Some years ago Craig Raine published his translation of a sonnet by Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud dedicated to the anus. Here’s Mr Raine: “I recall Thom Gunn asking me in San Francisco if I had really published a poem entitled ‘Arsehole’. I had. It was a version of the Rimbaud-Verlaine sonnet called ‘Sonnet d’un trou de cul’. Gunn’s comment was a poet’s comment on two languages. ‘Gee, “arsehole” is so much dirtier than “asshole”.’ (Available on the net at http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=5254) The quatrains are by Verlaine, the tercets by Rimbaud:

Obscur et froncé comme un oeillet violet
Il respire, humblement tapi parmi la mousse
Humide encor d’amour qui suit la pente douce
Des fesses blanches jusqu’au bord de son ourlet.

Des filaments pareils à des larmes de lait
Ont pleuré, sous l’autan cruel qui les repousse,
À travers de petits caillots de marne rousse,
Pour s’en aller où la pente les appelait.

Ma bouche s’accoupla souvent à sa ventouse ;
Mon âme, du coït matériel jalouse,
En fit son larmier fauve et son nid de sanglots.

C’est l’olive pâmée, et la flûte caline ;
C’est le tube où descend la céleste praline :
Chanaan féminin dans les moiteurs éclos !

** Sapphic stanza: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapphic_stanza

 
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