Thursday, June 22, 2017

In praise of: Peter Bland #2

A guest post by Mark Broatch.

Nice to get a poetry collection commissioned and published in the UK. But a follow-up? Doesn’t happen.

Peter Bland parted ways with Carcanet, publisher of his Selected Poems in 1998, which the Times Literary Supplement described as “vivid and witty. His impulse has been to continually celebrate the displaced and unremarkable.”

Then, says Bland, “somebody said John Lucas at Shoestring Press likes your work. He said, ‘Why not put together a collection of poems about your childhood in England during the war?’ So it was his suggestion and it got some nice critical responses.” Even better, it sold out. “Then he said, ‘Would you like to do another collection with me?’”

Shoestring Press put out Peter Bland’s Remembering England in 2014, presumably to coincide (ish) with the 60th anniversary of the end of the war. It mined Bland’s smog-filled memories of the 1930s, 40s and 50s as well as the odd one from the 1970s and beyond.

In London Grip, an independent online “cultural omnibus” with a special interest in poetry, John Forth said of it that the poems “are marked by an artfully fluent directness which tries to go unnoticed but creates a lasting effect, their meaning being very much the meat thrown by a burglar for the dogs”. Bland writes about a “lost generation”, he says, “their main gifts being ironic detachment, never taking themselves too seriously and the sense of humour that made us”.

The fluency of Bland’s work, says Forth, “is facilitated by his finding forms that do not draw attention to themselves. In being ostensibly secondary to what is being said in the poems, they become unobtrusively part of what is being said. If you’re still unsure who his ‘lost generation’ are – You can tell us a mile off even now;/ there’s a touch of austerity/ under the eyes…//… a lasting doubt/about the next good time. The effect here somehow leans on the word ‘lasting’, never mind the ‘doubt’ which might seem to be packing the punch. Now that’s what I call style.”

Josh Hinton in PN Review writes that the poems in Remembering England have “a gentle but powerful assurance”:
They do what the book’s title suggests, focusing on the England the poet knew, or rather, the two Englands: that of his childhood and youth in wartime, and that of his middle age in the 1970s, after his return from sixteen years in New Zealand. […] We see the boy in the bomb shelter: ‘Draw more ships,’ Grandma ordered, / keeping us busy between exploding bombs./ So we did, on wood-flecked wartime paper…/ The best were hung in old photo frames’. The violent backdrop is almost (but not wholly) inconsequential before the affectionate memory of children competing to see who could draw the best and win Grandma’s favour.

Shoestring specialises in publishing poetry collections “by established but unfashionable poets” or those who might be well known elsewhere but new to British readers.

“Not particularly fashionable” is the style of the new collection, Working the Scrapbook, says Bland, again heavily relying on the personal. It again uses what he calls “the first person plural” — it’s just another persona, he reckons, like the partly fictional voice of a memoir. But for him, it’s “where the real feeling comes from”.

The title? Bland has long kept scrapbooks, pasting in letters, photos, articles and reviews, family “stuff”, poems sent to him, art images and other gatherings. Often a poem will arise from looking at an old photograph, he says. The second part of Working the Scrapbook includes the poems of Loss, the 2010 collection he wrote after the death of his wife Beryl, and a couple of new ones.

For the six decades he has been writing poetry, Bland has had a foot in both New Zealand and the UK. In 1977 he won the Cholmondeley Award, a UK Society of Authors prize that has also been given to Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Philip Larkin, Fleur Adcock, Kingsley Amis, Allen Curnow and Alice Oswald. In 2011, having settled permanently back in New Zealand, he was awarded the poetry category of the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement.

Health problems prevent him from going to the launch of Working the Scrapbook on 30 June in London, but he says fellow poets Kevin Ireland, Fleur Adcock and CK Stead will do the honours and read some poems from the book.

Stephen Stratford adds:
Coincidentally, the latest issue of local poetry journal Broadsheet, edited by Mark Pirie, highlights Peter Bland’s work. The issue includes tributes by friends and colleagues, including Fleur Adcock, Glenn Colquhoun, Marilyn Duckworth, Riemke Ensing, Michael Harlow, Kevin Ireland, Louis Johnson, Kapka Kassabova, Bob Orr, Vincent O’Sullivan, Elizabeth Smither and CK Stead.

In Peter’s brief introduction he says:
The Argentinian poet Borges admits that there’s a need among poets ‘to be familiar with the renowned uncertainties of metaphysics,’ but only in order to make the best use of staying open to experience, and ‘to help pass on what we don’t know as much as what we do.’ The sources of poetry are as ancient as cave paintings and the modern poet still has to have something of the shaman left in him in order to be able to indulge in a little cave talk and to commune alone with the deeper sources of his imagination.
Here is Peter’s bio at the Academy of New Zealand Literature. His most recent publication in New Zealand is A Fugitive Presence (Steele Roberts, 2016); Elizabeth Coleman reviews it for Takahe here.

So here is Peter (reading from his 2014 collection Hunting Elephants) with Kevin Ireland and Fleur Adcock at the Devonport Library in December 2015:

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