Monday, 27 October 2008

Credit without the crunch?

One of the things I do for the Arts Council is chair the board of ArtCo, the trading company which runs both the Take It Away and Own Art interest free credit schemes. I never thought I'd find myself having meetings with credit providers but there you go: great art for everyone, by any means necessary. (Not that credit provision really counts as sticking it to The Man!) Although some purists have baulked, especially in the visual arts, where putting the subsidy into the customer rather than the curator/gallerist/artist has raised eyebrows, both schemes have made a real difference to many people.

Last month Take It Away combined with Oasis and NME to promote that scheme, and learning to play an instrument. Now Own Art has recently given you the opportunity to creating your own art collection on line. It's a fun diversion - it's a Sims-style design game - and you can also found out more about the scheme. As I say, this may not please purists.

You can find my own art collection on there somewhere. My real house is actually decorated mainly with books and records and the shelves to keep them on. The rest is largely maps, both literal and metaphorical.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Bloodaxe and the helping hand

The day after National Poetry Day I spoke at the 30th birthday celebrations of Bloodaxe Books. Bloodaxe is, for me, absolutely classic example of the difference one or two stubborn, gifted, passionate and dedicated people can make in the arts. Neil Astley – the editorial vision of Bloodaxe since 1978 – and Simon Thirsk – who could be stereotyped as the marketing or business man but is also as passionate about poetry as Neil - have changed the face of contemporary poetry. They’ve published literally dozens of great writers. They’ve challenged many orthodoxies in the poetry worlds of both ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ or ‘experimental’ publishing and poetries. They’ve been criticised for cheapening poetry by putting together anthologies like Staying Alive that have sold tens of thousands of copies – anthologies full of ‘real poems for unreal times’. They have transformed the marketing and promotion of poetry. They continue to be at the forefront of publishing of international poetry in translation, and broke new ground early on with their impressive lists of women, black and Asian poets when that was unusual. (It was fitting that the event last week also marked the publication of the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets.) You’d have to be Neil to enjoy everyone of them, but that’s life.

And I'm glad to say they’ve done it all with consistent Arts Council and before that Northern Arts support. That’s allowed them to take chances, and to keep things in print that otherwise would have disappeared. Looking through my bookshelves the night before the event, to see what the oldest Bloodaxe book I had was (10 North Eastern Poets, 1980, available second-hand for anything between £4.46 and £103 according to Amazon!) I came across a poem by the great Czech poet Miroslav Holub that had a new relevance for me, it becoming some kind of - possibly ambiguous? - description of Arts Council activity…

A Helping Hand

We gave a helping hand to grass –
and it turned into corn.
We gave a helping hand to fire –
and it turned into a rocket.
we give a helping hand
to people,
to some people…

Thursday, 9 October 2008

How are you celebrating National Poetry Day?

It's National Poetry Day today, and the theme is work. So here's a poem about different kinds of work. It's from A Balkan Exchange, which came out last year from Arc - the result of a collaboration between North East poets and Bulgarian poets which began in 2003. It's not typical of my work - it has a middle eight, for one thing - but was influenced by a week listening to W.N. Herbert read aloud, and memories of Adrian Mitchell.

Re-entry Blues
(on returning to work at the Arts Council after a week of performances in Sofia, October 2003)

When I woke up this morning I was feeling no pain.
But I drove me to Darlo and got on the train.
I headed for London and as I drew near
I thought ‘bout the time that I’d had in Sofia.

Got the walking talking
corporate bend blues

I don’t know what I’m doing but I do what I gotta,
Just like in rehearsals way up Mount Vitosha
Where Bluba Lu jammed and we poets studied rhyme
And something came out under pressure of time

But now I got the walking talking
suited booted
corporate bend blues

I’m a profit agnostic and don’t give a damn
But half the North East thinks that I am The Man
Who makes arts decisions and dishes out dough,
Though deep in the Balkans they know it’s not so.

I got the walking talking
Suited booted
Corporate bend blues

Now this is a really exceptional meeting,
to iambs and pulses my head is still beating.
The train speeding there rattles Sofia away
And gives me three hours to think what to say

I got the walking talking
Suited booted
Arts transforming
Corporate bend blues

I could be sticking words to beats somewhere near Boyana
Instead I’m playing jargon bingo eating a banana,
All I needs a mention of building my capacity
And someone here will get to taste my vigourous tenacity
For making words jump and dance around the table
Seven days of Bulgar blues tell me that I’m able
To pull it out the bag and fill the air with lines
But while meetings are a drag they also feel like mine

So I take the damned tube all the way back to Kings Cross
kidding myself bout the gain and the loss
A small step forward, not one great leap.
By Newark North Gate I am sound asleep.

I got the walking talking
Suited booted
Arts transforming
Double meaning
Plain English speaking
Corporate bend blues

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Are novelists more important than MPs?

Do artists carry more weight than people who spend their time directly involving in politics, either as MPs, or campaigners? I ask the question because I was interested to see that the New Statesman, in promoting their 'No Place for Children' campaign ask us to join Monica Ali, Philip Pullman and Nick Hornby in signing a petition, rather than, say, Diane Abbott or Dame Mary Marsh. Whether it's fair or not, I don't know, but it does suggest that certain artists and writers are perceived as seeing things more clearly and speaking with a particular type of authority.

In this case, the writers involved are definitely showing more wisdom and humanity than government policy and practice. The petition calls on the government to stop locking children up in detention centres for immigration reasons. The government has only recently committed to implementing the UN Convention on the rights of the child in full. Now they need to actually stop detaining children, often for long periods in inadequate conditions. It shouldn't take the imagination of a novelist to work that out. You can read articles by a number of writers and actors who have visited detention centres on the New Statesman site, just in case you need some help working out whether innocent children should be locked up or not.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Does art help keep you mentally healthy?

What do you do to help keep your head straight, to avoid or wash away life’s stresses and strains? Mindapples wants to know what the mental health equivalent of 5 fruit and veg-a-day might be. Many of those who took part in the Arts Debate suggested the arts were useful in this respect. ‘Art makes me feel less alone’, for instance – a phrase so good we use it twice in the graphics of the Arts Council plan. Drop in and tell them what you do.

What do I do after a hard day at the executive coalface to keep myself more or less healthy, I hear you ask? Listen to music as I drive home – although simply buying records can help! Read a book over breakfast. Play fiveaside or go to the gym. Have a meal at the kitchen table with my family. Noodle around on the guitar. Sing some old songs.

I don’t write poetry for my health, by the way – in fact I take it so seriously it can have the reverse effect on my mood. (Some years ago, whilst masquerading briefly as an academic, I published some research that suggested writing even bad poetry could be therapeutic, and there was some evidence that craft helped, but insisting on trying to be really good – let alone ‘great’ – and feeling you’d failed could be bad for the nerves.)

Right, I’m off to see a play now, but as it promises ‘seduction, perversion and love’ and warns of ‘full male and female nudity and scenes of a violent and sexual nature’, I’m not sure what it will do for my mental health!