Funny old week, including a 37 hour journey with a thirteen hour time difference, several hours in A & E (the two may be related: got great care from a junior doctor on the eve of the strike, but not one bed was available) and a visit from China by my old friend Martin Stannard, a poet and critic of some renown, but far less renown than he deserves. He’s one of the most original, interesting, influential and entertaining poets the UK has produced in the last thirty odd years. I’ve been reading his stuff since 1988 and got to know him not long afterwards, due to his connection with John Harvey‘s Slow Dancer press. John brought him here to read and I got him to come and work with my A level students. He moved near Nottingham in ’92 and was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at NTU, where I teach part-time, in 2007, before moving, permanently, to China, where he teaches English culture and literature in a university. But we’ve stayed in close touch. On Twitter, you’ll often find me plugging his daily notations: One Million Elephants Couldn’t Begin To Understand.
Some poems in Martin’s new Leafe collection, his first for several years, Poems for the Young at Heart started life on that blog. It’s a terrific, wide-ranging collection that showcases Martin’s versatility, wit, ambition and contrariness. Plus old fashioned things like wisdom, compassion and philosophical musings. We were discussing the word contrarian when he came to stay with us this week. I was saying how it suited the Nottingham character, but also the Stannard style (albeit he’s from Reading, via East Anglia). For instance, the new collection starts with a bunch of his Pandora poems, Martin told me, precisely because he knew that these were the ones that many people (including me) would like least. Once, when I gave him a reference for a job, stressing how great he was with students, the employer rang me up to check that Martin wasn’t as cruel as some took him to be, because they had only read his criticism (he got the job). His reviews are rigorous, personal and idiosyncratic. They can be merciless. Exactly the kind of criticism we need, I would argue, in an era where the same poets get endlessly brown-nosed to poetry’s (and their) detriment.
It’s uncomfortable stuff, sometimes, but surely criticism ought to be uncomfortable? On Tuesday night, before I fell sick, I took Martin to see a great Rough Trade instore by Field Music, and he loathed them, for reasons that he set out in great detail. We agreed to disagree. The first time I met him, he was doing a joint reading with Simon Armitage, pre-Zoom, and I said something to him about his poem The Flat Of The Land, which I’d looked at with A level students. Martin told me I’d completely misunderstood him. Simon, a diplomat, broke the immediate tension: ‘nothing like getting it wrong’, he said. I’m not sure how he’d feel about this recent take-down of his selected poems, which Martin reviewed for Stride, where you can read a lot of his criticism. But, hey, he’s probably our next poet laureate, he can take it.
Talking of taking it, Martin’s influenced a lot of writers, though his style is so individual that it’s impossible to copy. He has a lot in common with the second generation of New York poets like Paul Violi and Charles North or, most recently, Mark Halliday, with whom he has collaborated. I kept him in touch with some of our recent plagiarism debates (no names here, for the whole thing has become very tedious, with trolls and witch hunters expounding pomposities re supposed ‘crimes’ that would have seen Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare hung, drawn and quartered multiple times during their careers). Martin pointed out to me that he’d noticed how one of the accused had ripped him off and, rather than make a big public fuss, he’d written a poem about it, which he’d published on Stride and which also appears in the new collection. It’s a great poem and an ideal, witty response. So, just before we set out to Wednesday’s Jazz and Poetry, I asked him if he’d read it. Martin being Martin, he said no. And Martin being Martin, he later changed his mind. Here it is.
Thanks to Stannard fan Alan Baker for publishing the excellent new collection and introducing Martin on Wednesday night when I was indisposed. It was a terrific reading. I gather the lunchtime NTU one he gave was also terrific. Doubtless the one he did in Brighton last night was, too. For those who missed the three readings ie most people, I’ve posted all the videos from the Guitar Bar to my YouTube channel and some will be on the Jazz and Poetry Facebook. But check out the video above for one of his best poems and do buy the new book, which I read slowly, carefully and with great pleasure over my recent break in the Antipodes. It’s ‘a major book by a major British poet’ as Ian McMillan says on the back cover and it says a lot about the insular, backslapping British poetry scene that such an accessible, enjoyable and original poet isn’t better known.