Flash Words – A New Collection From Paul Tobin

Taunton Fest 8.11.14

Nothing flash. Nothing but the poetry, the whole poetry and nothing but the poetry

It’s been nearly two years since I felt I had anything to add to the mania of colliding digitalia we have created for ourselves. Single issue mobs of panic stricken petitioners charge up and down the decks of our suffering steamboat shrieking their shallow formulated brands of SOS messages. A million tweeters rocket celebrity tinsel and cute kittens into an ever accelerating particle belt of orbital noise, superficial synthetic outrage or nano second joy. And it never pauses or stands back from itself. If it did; it would stop. It won’t.

Imagine then the joy of picking up a book of poetry conveying the commanding calmness of a poet reaching an important maturity. Now, come on – no poet thinks he/she is important. What an odd word to choose. Yet, for me “Flash words”,  the new collection by Paul Tobin is important in that it defines where we are and hammers down a marker of sincerity. Paul’s work isn’t showy. His style is flat like a plate of steel. His words slot in like rivets – the right degree of hardness, a tight push fit. It is a poetry made with hand tools, some worn eccentrically to impart the hand that holds it, the mind that knows the feel and balance of its task. There is no machine welding – some seams are left un-filed. There are no nods at fashion. Each poem gets the shape it has arrived at so far. In twenty years he might go back to it. Poems finish off poets. No poet ever finished off a poem.

I read Paul’s first collection “Blessed By Magpies” some time ago and invited him to join a group of international poets in “Freeze Frame“, a text and audio anthology I was editing with a view to promoting the spoken realm of poetry. Since then I have read his contribution to “Juncture 25” which show cases the work of a group of West Country poets.  Unlike me, he exposes his work in progress for critique on his blog “Magpie Bridge“. Brave man indeed.

Taunton Fest 8.11.14 003

Paul has a thing about magpies and all things black and white

Yet I was not prepared for “Flash Words”. His work has overflowed the previous vessels. Added to his blunt observation of unvarnished life in such poems as “Man Shaves The Head Of His Monkey” there is now a deep sensuality. In “Cherry Picking” we arrive at a “dark sweetness that longs to tear its skin”.  Time and time again his poems feel for a metaphysical pattern such as in “End Of The Line” and in “The Birds Return”. In the latter migrating birds arrive. The poet says “You have no say”. It is a thought to fill at least a day unless of course one had already thought it. In my 65 summers, I had not. Many of his poems mature in the mind overnight and I suspect many 4.am contemplations. Referring again to “End Of The Line” it was only now as I write that I saw the continuum from the process and vocabulary of production to the process of the “end”.

In “Tipping Point” the pasting up of a poster becomes a metaphor for the failure of our materialism to adhere properly to our souls. How delicious to contemplate this issue in terms of “friction of the paste”, and “cumulative capillary power of the water”. I won’t say anything more about this poem because I want you to read it.

Only Paul Tobin could conceive a poem about “1979: A Typical Friday On Top Of The K Unit Dechlorinator.”  Working men’s hands are on tools and equipment. Human minds populate an industrial landscape. A “bursting disc”, “a deluge valve” and others form the proud esoteric jargon of unfashionable forgotten men, bleached out by the clean glamour of  digital wealth and un-scarred hands.

“Flash Words” contains a body of poetry only possible from the mind of a lifelong poet. The range and scope are those of an accomplished thinker. Poem after poem convey a preparedness to hide nothing – not the meaning when it would seem cleverer, nor the emotion when it would be easier to pull out of the dive.  I know poetry does not sell so I urge you to buy this book and savour it. If no one buys it, it will matter only to those who miss the chance. To quote the poet himself, the “Ice has been scribbled on the inside of your window”.

I am so happy to have this book here on my desk. It won’t be going anywhere else. All of us held in the gravity of poetry may sometimes dream of weightless flight or migration to some richer planet with paved roads and rules of law. Then we read a poet and know we can never escape. Paul Tobin is that very thing that no man can call himself without some doubt in his heart. It is the gift of others to call a man a poet. All other prizes are baubles and mortality.

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Freeze Frame Poetry Anthology. Featured Poet, Paul Tobin.

Paul Tobin

Today I am featuring the poet Paul Tobin who will be appearing in the ‘Freeze Frame’ anthology which Gallo-Romano will be publishing. I came across Paul’s work about a year ago and started to follow his blog, Magpie Bridge. I’ve since had the pleasure of meeting him and having a ‘Dinner With Andre’ session. (Until I met Paul I had been unaware of this film, but he was kind enough to share it with me. I think it says something about him).

Paul is a dedicated and gifted English poet. His work has a quality of depth in construction that shrugs off ornament.   He is one of those guys who is poetry. Everything he comes across and thinks about begins a process of conversion into poetry. When you are around him you begin to see that we are living in a world of unexpressed poems. Much of his poetry centres around his birthplace of Widnes. Here is one of them, taken from his collection ‘Blessed By Magpies’

Widnes Bridge Poem.

Back to the Delta,
Up the Muddy Mersey,
Over the green bridge
Whose struts define the space
Of this gentle arc.
It is never still,
It shudders at the traffic,
Undulates with the volume.
And on a day like this; raw,cold,
That lazy wind would slice through
The cantilever and splay your guts below.

For me, this poem exemplifies Paul’s style. The flesh of the living human, Nature and the bridge engineering flow into an exposure of reality which is just a little edgy and dipped in mortality.   As we get close to the launch of the Freeze Frame anthology, I interviewed Paul about his work.

Long before I had started the Freeze Frame project I was aware of your work. I read one of your poems where some men were working on the roof of some kind of factory. Immediately I realised that you were my kind of writer and that we probably had many experiences in common. Coming from a blue collar life of toil and grease; was it easy to come out as a poet?

I was a poet, well aspiring to be a poet, long before the grease and overalls. I suppose I made an existential decision that I was going to be a poet when I was twelve years old. I heard Songs from a Room by Leonard Cohen that would be about the time it came out. I made the connection between him being a poet and getting the girls. It took about another twelve years before the work was anything but awful. But I kept at it with a mixture of naivety and enthusiasm.

I left school at 16 and served an apprenticeship. I was a fitter for a further four years at the local ICI plant. K Unit Maintenance to be precise, which was the title of the poem to which you refer. I wrote it sixteen years after I had left the tools. At the time I was in engineering it would never have occurred to me to write about what I did at work, at that time I was writing mainly about relationships, with the self-absorption of the young.

Looking at your style I notice an enormous range of references. Nature often blends with anecdotal story. The metaphysical often comes down to the personal. Have you always had a questioning mind about existence? Is there a wider quest always in the back of your mind as you write a poem about the specific subject – even if it be an apparently ordinary moment of life?

I have no idea where poems come from, they appear out of the ether and I just grab them and work upon them. I have this idea that poems are all around us and poets happen to be the people who see them then bring them into our world. This sounds a little odd, pretentious even, but is the only way I can describe the experience. Once the poem is here though, caught on the page, being revised and revised through as many drafts as it takes, then I can see where the ideas have come from. But while I am getting the initial idea down I just let it flow with no attempt to shape it that comes later.

Until recently I was a member of a writing group for about four years and what I liked about it was the challenge of sitting down in a room and having twenty minutes to produce something on a set topic. I like the idea of being put on the spot and see what come out. I facilitate a poetry group here in Taunton: Juncture 25, we meet twice a month and one of the sessions is a workshop (can’t get away from the language of engineering)and I usually run the session. I love the challenge and try not to plan it too far in advance, so as not to give my subconscious a head start.

Some of your work is political in the sense that it raises issues of public behaviour and people’s perception of their society. Are you interested in politics and where do you think the poet should stand – as a neutral reporter or advocate of a viewpoint?

I believe that the poet must stand by their beliefs. That said I am not sure what I believe in these days. I think I am interested in ethics more than politics. I cannot see a way forward politically, I think we went wrong as a society probably before I was born, I certainly think we have taken many foolish steps since then. But that’s another interview I think…

Poets attempt to turn the personal into the universal, that’s what I’m looking to do once I catch that idea on the page. And there are dangers in making a poem too overtly political, one is that it will age badly, but more importantly I don’t want a finger pointing, obvious work, that batters the person over the head.

In my last book Blessed By Magpies, there is a version of a poem I am still working on. End of Species Exam is just that the equivalent of an end of year exam in school. On the page it is about forty hectoring lines, in performance it has reduced to about fifteen. I want people to think, not to bludgeon them with a set of simple slogans.

One of your poems is called “Prayer” which is a conventional religious term. The poem, however, has a searching pantheistic flavour which does not seem to relate to a codified theistic viewpoint. Often in poems and blogs you give thanks for your privileged life. What can you tell us about the spiritual context of your work?

Yes. I think it is important to give thanks for our privileged lives, we have enough to eat, to drink, we are not in danger of losing our lives, and we are better off than many of our fellow humans.

I have been very influenced by a sixteenth century English mystic, Thomas Traherne. He speaks of delighting in the success of your neighbours as much as in your own success, of wanting the best for everyone. His most famous quotation is:

You never enjoy the world alright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.

It is such an inspiring vision and one I try to live up to. I have no formal codified viewpoint as you point out. I am though influenced by the Tao. I think the idea of Balance is really important. For me it is essential to have a personal relationship with the Creator, and to give thanks for the beauty around us and the privileged life that I have.

I suppose I have been drifting in this direction for most of my life. I like working in groups with other people, I like that energy of creating that you get in groups. I have influenced by my work as a Rieki Master, I think it is that growing sensitivity to the energies that make up the world has brought me to realise how fortunate I am.

Much of your work is cleverly observed human interaction and intercourse – some of it quite conflicted. Were you always an observer of mankind?

I suspect so. I people watch all the time. One of the poems in the anthology For I Keep Watch came about one day when I was just walking about Taunton and on two separate occasions people walked into me. My first thought was that I must be invisible today, then I was struck by the idea of the Stasi, the East German secret police and how they kept files on everyone. Then I thought who follows the follower (to misquote)? I wrote the first draft in a doorway.

As to charting the conflicts within interaction, yes, I do. It is how I see people, we are complex and at times we are in conflict. I write poems about the conflicts I have been involved in to make sense of them.

In a few poems you touch on personal unhappiness and failure of relationships. Do you think that poets need turmoil and sadness to see the truth of things and human nature?

No. As I say I use my poetry to make sense of my life. Even if I am never sure what I am going to write about, when I work on it on the page I can usually chart where the component pieces have originated.

Actually I am an optimist, I can usually see the positive in most situations, though on a few occasions I have become depressed. Then I actually can’t work.

Actually I get many ideas when I am in a calm, contemplative state, when I do Tai Chi or Reiki, or I am meditating. I find as I get older I can turn off the chattering monkeys in my head and just be. First thing in the morning is a very productive time for me. That’s usually when the poems come tumbling out.

You are poet in residence at the Fishguard Folk Festival. To me this is something of a true accolade.  It also sounds like a chance to be out there and beating the drum. Tell us a little about this and what it is like?

What is it like? Well that depends upon the festival. I actually have been poet in residence at a number of festivals, last year at The Purbeck Folk Festival and this year at The Acoustic Festival of Great Britain as well as Fishguard Folk Festival. I have also performed at a number of others around the country. They are all very different, some are more organised than others. Fishguard is a gem of a festival, well organised, with a variety of good venues, friendly audience and its free! There is a marked difference between the way the arts are supported in England and Wales. In Wales they are far more passionate and supportive.

I think my abiding memory of festivals is the communication. I tend to walk around the festival site and engage people in conversation and read them a poem. It’s a good way to contact people.  I feel quite naked when I do it but I usually get a reasonable response. It is always surprising what poems go down well, though I have a small set of poems that I usually save for the end of a festival set.

There is a difference between the audiences I read to at music festivals and those at poetry evenings or poetry festivals. People at a music festival are primarily there for the music, the poetry is an add on. At a poetry event you can take more chances. I suppose in the end that is what all performance is about, taking the chance of baring the soul and speaking from the heart.

I am excited about the Freeze Frame project and Paul has contributed some fantastic material and also an audio track that brings so much out of his voice as a poet. My next interview will feature a very different type of poet who has such a depth of image power that sometimes I just have to stop for a WOW! Of course, I’m talking about  the American poet Jo Von Bargen.

As I’m beginning to shape the show and decide the order in terms of voice and style, I cannot help but having a real sense of joy at bringing these guys together and putting out this collection. The contrasts, juxtapositions and the human voice are adding so much to the mix. OK – head down and editor’s hat on……..

The Poet Lorry Park Drives On.

I have been working. Poetry calls for periods of intense idleness during which I cut grass, drive lorries, fix bicycles, service cars and test the contents of corner shop beer cans for strength and quality. I talk about football and have opinions about deep or attacking mid-field play. Most of this is pure fake ( re-cycled punditry and remembered phrases) but no one seems to notice or are too polite to say. Poetry is not on the radar of my day to day life and I always feel very self conscious about being one. I think there are quite a few others who are like this.

Imagine then my disquiet at setting out to film my favourite subject (me) reading a poem in a public place where anyone could see me. At any moment some person could start pointing at me and declare that I was that old geezer who mends bikes. I bet the poetic  Greats did not have this issue. All the same, I did it and here is the result

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My motivation was an invitation from Jeff Hansen to join the team on the at the Altered Scale blog. Here is the man himself talking about his creation. 

Now, for someone like me, this magazine gives me an insight into what artists are doing. The breadth of talent and imagination are staggering. Some of it is on the outer reaches of avant-garde but don’t be shy. Just relax and enjoy. A few days ago I came across Donna Kuhn on Altered Scale. Check this out.

What I love is that this kind of Art gives permissions. We are all squeezed into narrow roles of self consciousness and inhibition. Magazines like Altered Scale open up a whole new trunk. Dip in and dress up.

National Poetry Day

It has been so long since I passed by. Today is National Poetry Day here in the UK. Maybe the wider world did not know that. To be honest, I chanced to hear of it on the radio a couple of days ago. The trouble with being a poet is that I am just not engaged with the world of poetry. I used to try and even joined the Poetry Society. I joined the John Clare Society. I hung out with the National Poetry Foundation.  I went to poetic gatherings and felt entirely out of it. I used to feel as if I should be delivering the wine or looking in while cleaning the windows. I wanted to write poems that were about not being a poet. If I write anything at all which is worthy of the name poetry, it is because I do not feel like one. My ideal reader is someone who does not feel like a poetry reader. This means that my target audience is immense. As a young writer I wanted to say something profound about 10mm and 13mm spanners and their special relationship with nuts. I did not get accepted by editors but I picked up some handy car servicing work. If you are a big tough guy out there and know what I mean about the strange satisfying symmetry of those spanners please get in touch. We could create a special website.

To mark the occasion, the famous landmark advertising display at Piccadily in London  is carrying a poem by the Cornish writer Charles Causley. It is a wonderful poem and if you check out the Poetry Day web site you can see some great poems awarded prizes in honour of the event.

The only way a poet can celebrate a special poetic day is by producing a poem. I have been working in my poet’s overalls at the back of the cave on some new poems. I am compiling and editing a collection involving a number of other writers. I am so excited by the quality and range of the submissions. I’m also going to feature audio and there’s a couple of tracks that just give me a big WOW.  The great thing is that being the self appointed editor, all my stuff goes in without any tears, hate mail or counselling sessions with my rejection therapist. Just between us, I’ve been thinking of getting rid of him but I’m not sure how he will take it.  Here is my poem.

Falling.

Raindrops hitting the river flow
collision of birth death,
a  coming home to die.
Identity sweeping on and away;
a fluidity of self.
Ripples spreading on
the moving face of time
reaching forward
reaching back
helpless.

We watched the rain
from the river’s edge,
not lovers then,
two selves as yet
un-drowned in each other.

Let us kiss
and fall as raindrops
to be water, time and no one
but our love.

A Sacred Cow in the Orchard

How ambitious should a poet be? I think I would be very concerned if the corporate ladder were crammed with poets, other than the versifiers and prose monsters of the marketing maelstrom. And yet ambition is the true focus of the poet. Why speak of a rose if you do not long in some way to stick it, thorns and all, under a nose?.

A couple of days ago I fell upon a poem by an American writer – Jo VonBargen, the scope of which had me taking a deep breath. Quite simply it is a look at human history with a view to providing the opportunity to those ahead of us in time, to do better. We start in the mud of non individualised atoms and molecules of  pre-consciousness (My phrase) and follow through to the conscious manipulation of atoms in the mud of money and politics. It would have been very easy to get this wrong and as I read the foreword I was nervous. I would have taken one look at the tightrope and gone to the bar for a long think, followed by another drink. Then I would have called a cab and gone home.(Actually poets can’t afford cabs but sometimes drive them).

Words are dangerous to art. They are the succubus, the half eaten tray of chocolate. A few more could not hurt could they? Jo VonBargen, I just know by guessing, has been through that cloying land. This poem is not written, it is speared and pruned.Where you could throw more words, she has spiked the one she wanted from the tempting glittering shoal of extra adjectives. It is light and lean, a thin blade, a jab. In a sense it is an old fashioned epic poem but without any grandiosity. The selection of history is from the catalogues of genocide, division and greed. Happily the lusts and delicious passions receive, I suspect, the compassion of the humanist and  largely escape the the list.

A poem is for the reading. Poetry read aloud cannot just be folded back into the book (or switched off on the e reader). For a poem to live on beyond its return to silence it has to stick in the mind and this for me is where this work is very special. Short phrases expressing wisdom jostle with sudden sparks of imagery. There are too many to quote but here are a few. “A glissando of slow subterraneans” – as life evolves,(I could hear Wagnerian trombones). “Do you not see separate gardens?” as property and tribe divide us. “Plowmule of the dragging days” takes us to apartheid, racism and slavery in an inspired brilliance of insight.  When the poet looks rather sadly at the Rule of Law, she gives us a left hook of wisdom “No law can transform what the soul hasn’t learned.” These are just a sample. You could not read this poem without taking away a phrase or two or without pausing to reflect. Luckily as a European, atheist, Buddhist, lighter of cathedral candles, mumbling coin thrower at wishing well grottos and crosser of fingers, I have no sacred cows except for wanting quite often to kiss them for their gentleness and weep for their innocence.

Bref: “From This Far Land” is the  mature work of a deeply intelligent mind. It is wonderful to know that there are folk out there who actually think. It is always tempting to wave the flag and shout the slogan. Once upon a time, the world of published poetry was controlled by just a few editors. Most poets seemed to me to be professors of poetry. Now the savages storm the orchard and all may gorge. A new nobility will arise. Jo VonBargen wields a sword.