Archive for the 'History' Category

Nightingales: an addendum

January 12, 2022

Mr Bentzman has asked me to add an addendum to his essay this week:

According to my brother-in-law, Malcolm, far wiser than me in British ornithology, as poetic as it might have been to identify the singing birds in my essay as nightingales, these are, unfortunately, on the decline. The birds I heard were almost certainly robins. Indeed, it is very likely that Vera Lynn was actually singing about a robin in Berkeley Square. Robins are drawn to areas where there are street lights.

I have happily made the addition, and am quite happy to acept that the birds Mr B heard were not nightingales. There are not many of them about these days.

Hovever, I must contradict him to insist that Vera Lynn, and even more so Judy Campbell, who first introduced the song, in the revue New Faces, knew exactly what they were singing about. The whole point of Eric Maschwitz’s lyric is that the song of a nightingale in an urban setting is something so rare as to be miraculous – as miraculous as love, in fact. Maschwitz wrote a nightingale and he meant a nightingale.

On National Poetry Day

October 7, 2021

October 7th. Today is National Poetry Day, they tell me. I wrote a poem on that subject a long long time ago, and haven’t much more to say about it.
But then pretty well every day is Poetry Day here at Snakeskin headquarters, though some days are more poetic than others.
A good day was a Saturday last month when I was sniffing round Huddersfield’s open market as usual; Saturday is secondhand day, and there’s always at least one treasure to be found. As it happened, I had not come across much of interest that day, till I encountered a stall with a small pile of books. Mostly railways and military, as I recall, but there was also 33 Poems by Radnóti Miklós . It was a dual-language edition, published in Budapest, the Hungarian facing the English. I knew the name, of course (though slightly anglicised as Miklós Radnóti).
For years, Thomas Land sent translations to Snakeskin of poems from the Hungarian Holocaust, and Radnóti was one of the most treasured poets in his canon.
The book was cheap, and I bought it without looking far into it. It was only when I got home that I saw that the translator was Thomas Ország-Land – our Tom, by his more Hungarian name.
The book had been published in 1992, three years before Snakeskin was even born. Many of the translations appeared again in Thomas’s 2009 Snakeskin e-chapbook, Deathmarch – where there is indeed an acknowledgement to this little volume, a reference I had quite forgotten.
It reminds me of how much I miss Thomas, and his monthly submissions of versions, sometimes lyrical, often horrific, of translations recalling the poets of Jewish Hungary (many of whom had been killed during the war years).
Snakeskin is happy to frequently publish poems that are light, or humorous, or dealing with ephemeral issues. We like to think we cover the whole range of poetry (apart from the pretentious). But the poems Thomas sent us, reminders of the greatest crime of the twentieth century, were there each month to remind us of the worst facts of life, and of the role of the poet in speaking up in times of horror.
I miss him indeed.

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A refugee from Baghdad

June 21, 2016

Then one day, men with serious moustaches came knocking on our door. Would my father care to join them for a little chat? Mum’s face grew ashen as the hours passed slowly and Dad hadn’t returned. I knew something was wrong, but no one, not my mother, nor my grandmother, would tell me why Dad was suddenly taken away.

In today’s Guardian newspaper, Snakeskin poet Hassan Abdulrazzak writes about his childhood in Baghdad, and the reasons why his family became refugees, eventually settling in England:

The experience of leaving Iraq has also been described in his poems, for example in  ‘The Shadow of their Former Selves’, which appeared in Snakeskin back in 2001:

Hassan’s play, Love, Bombs and Apples is at the Arcola theatre, London until 25 June 2016.

Twenty years on

December 1, 2015

December Snakeskin is online, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the month when I decided, just for fun, to make use of a tine amount of webspace that I had been offered. You can read the story in the interview reprinted in this month’s magazine.

In the interview we talk about e-chapbooks. Snakeskin hasn’t printed many of these recently, so perhaps it’s time to revive the practice. If you’ve ten or so poems on a theme, maybe, that would fit neatly into a smart little pdf file that readers could print off to read at leisure – let me know.

The interview harks back to the ambitions of the early days of the internet (and some of us are ancient enough to remember when there wasn’t a single advert in the whole of cyberspace…) Some of these ambitions have been realised, others not.
To remind us all of how once we had a sense of the medium’s possibilities, here’s Ken Payne’s Manifesto for the Internet Poem, from 1997:

Because the Bit moves through a virtual space, across beleaguered continents and doomed regimes, unabashed by the sniper’s ballistic veto, the reprimand of cannon, and the armoured tread of tanks, because the Bit moves across seas unhindered by the submarine and the belligerent battleship, over the walls and past the fences of the snide censors, the moral Mommas and the mad dictators, I assert the ubiquity of the Internet Poem.

The tyrant tore and torched the texts.

Because the Bit can replicate, because the Bit can be stored and multiplied, because the Bit can be printed on paper or T-Shirts, because the bit can be carried on diskette in the back pocket of a pair of democratic Levis or the jacket pocket of a Saville Row suit, because a purse or handbag can hold an archive of epics, I assert the continuity of the Internet Poem.

On magnetic media, millions of minds.

Because the Bit is not in the gift of Academics, Editors, Critics and Pundits, because the Bit is unabashed before the terminals of the mighty and unashamed on the laptops of the low, because the Bit is created at the screens of the outcast, the unconventional, the dreamers, the dispossessed and the exiled, because the Bit is prolific, precise and passionate, I assert the quality of the Internet Poem.

Postings of passion were placed on the server.

Because, by the grace of the Bit, reader and writer are drawn into a closer community, because the Bit enables the creation of new types of verse and new ways of meaning, because the Bit unites the artist, the poet and the musician, I assert the superiority of the Internet Poem.

The landscape is lively with electric laureates


November 26, 2015

It was a week or two ago that I suddenly realised.
December will mark a notable Snakeskin anniversary.
It was in December 1995 that the first issue of Snakeskin went online, which means that we’ve now been carrying on, more or less steadily, for twenty years.
I thought about writing some sort of account of Snakeskin’s early days for the December issue, but then remembered that the job had already been done. A few years ago, Helena Nelson was interviewing poetry editors for her excellent and fondly remembered print magazine, Sphinx. When she interviewed me, I said quite a bit about Snakeskin’s origins, aims and history.
Quite a few readers will not have seen that interview, so, with Helena’s permission, I am reprinting it in the anniversary issue.
But – twenty years!
Are we the only webzine to have survived from those early days?
If so – how did it happen?
Well, I suppose I got into the habit. And I don’t feel like stopping quite yet.

A Literary Café

September 28, 2011

Could anything be more banal than a chain café?   In this case it’s a Caffè Nero, though you might notice that the surroundings of this branch look a bit distinguished. It has a story.

It’s in St Martin’s Lane, near Trafalgar Square in London, and I’ve passed this café many many times without realising its history.

A century ago, this was the St George’s Cafe, and poets used to meet regularly on an upper floor (the entrance to which was via that side door). It was here that Edward Thomas first met Robert Frost,  with tremendous consequences for both poets. Why isn’t there a blue plaque?

The ornamental building nect door is the Coliseum Theatre, currently the home of English National Opera, but once  dedicated to the glories of spectacle and variety. When very young I saw the pantomime of Cinderella here, with Tommy Steele as Buttons, Yana as Cinders, Jimmy Edwards as the King, and Kenneth Williams and Ted Rogers as Ugly Sisters. Ah, memories, memories…