Tag Archives: George Simmers

Calling the Poem: 15. ‘Coda’

Odin
Send me your ravens
I’ll feed them.

*****

It is only appropriate to end this chapbook on summoning poems with gratitude that anything at all is achieved. We generate thoughts and ideas so constantly and easily that we don’t even wonder how we do it – just as we don’t think how it is that our legs are able to carry us forward when we decide to walk, let alone how our stomachs know whether to digest or reject the things we swallow. Thoughts and ideas come from somewhere and something, an internal process that is being constantly fed from the outside… but quite what that process involves we rarely consider.

This work is an attempt at describing the various stages of writing a poem: being aware of a creative mood, telling your subconscious that you want more ideas by making an effort to record and use the ideas you get, focusing your creativity by reading within the genre you want to write, developing your technical skills in the craft that that genre offers, and building your piece from author to audience with all necessary components and as much elegance as possible… and then recognising that it won’t always be successful, but that it is all a miracle that anything is achieved at all, and you can (and should) be grateful for that.

The opinions and their expression are of course personal and idiosyncratic. YMMV.

This series of poems was written and strung together over a few months in late 2016. I sent it to George Simmers, hoping for comments on such matters as whether the pieces were too disparate in style, whether the rudest of them was too offensive and so on – but his only response was that he would publish it as an e-chapbook, and so it appeared in Snakeskin 236 in January 2017. I’ve toned down the first four lines of Poem 10: ‘Inspiration 1’ for these posts, and I’ve continued to tinker with issues such as English vs American spelling, and whether or not every line should begin with a capital letter. Hopefully the Snakeskin Archive will be restored, and the original chapbook will be available again.

Thank you for reading this far. I hope you found some value in it? I welcome any comments you have.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: George Simmers, ‘Strip’

The pub’s old-fashioned, and is somewhat seedy.
The clientele, all male, look lumpish, needy,
And when the stripper comes, their eyes are greedy.

A smile fixed firm upon her painted face,
She starts gyrating with a teasing grace,
Smoothly undressing at a languorous pace.

She struts through routine choreography
Removes her bra, and lets her breasts go free
The silent men watch her impassively.

And still they stare unmoving as she slips
The golden panties from her mobile hips,
Pauses a sec, then sensually unzips

Her smooth pink skin, and flings it open wide, 
To show the flesh and beating heart inside.
Her audience observes all this, dead-eyed.

The flesh from bone she now expertly rends,
And now it’s just her skeleton bops and bends
Seductively until the music ends.

Silence. She picks up flesh and skin, and drawers
So often dropped before on grubby floors.
The men are stirred to offer mild applause.

She dresses quickly, picks up a pint glass,
And then begins the customary pass
Among the men, who goggle at her arse,

Say nothing, but poke fivers in the pot
Because that is expected. They do not
Even try to meet her eye, or speak of what

They’ve seen, but, weekly ritual complete,
Get up, and, bodies drooping with defeat,
They head out to the grey indifferent street.

George Simmers writes: “It must be thirty years ago that I was in a run-down district of some industrial city, looking for a pub that would sell me a pint and a sandwich. I passed one with a sign that said ‘Stripper: 1.30’ and I thought: ‘Why not?’
The audience was very much as described in the poem, though the performance was less extreme. It was a fairly melancholy occasion, and one that stayed in my memory. It was a long while ago, and the pot that day probably filled with £1 notes (maybe even ten bob) rather than fivers, but I thought £5 would be the appropriate donation today – if lunchtime pub strippers still exist. They’re an endangered species in the North of England, I gather, and lockdown has probably killed them off completely.
I wrote this in triplets because the first three lines came to me together, and I thought I’d see how well I could continue. I feel the form somehow suits the subject, or at any rate is better than couplets, which tend to be faster-moving. The triplets seem (to me at least) sluggish and a bit unusual.
I dimly remember years ago seeing an animated film in which a stripper goes on to unzip her skin, so to that extent the poem is not original. But it was the deliberately unimpressed audience I really wanted to write about, and making them still stolid even after watching the impossible made my point, I hoped.
This is one of a series of poems that I’ve written over the past couple of years, telling stories that are extreme or somewhat gothic. I may get some of them together into a short collection later in the year.”

George Simmers used to be a teacher; now he spends much of his time researching literature written during and after the First World War. He has edited Snakeskin since 1995. It is probably the oldest-established poetry zine on the Internet. His work appears in several Potcake Chapbooks.
https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/
http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/

Photo: “luchavavoom stripper” by ourcommon is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Poem: ‘Wild Oats’

He sowed wild oats
From John O’Groats
As far as Walvis Bay;
West to Cancun,
Up to the Moon,
And back to old Cathay.

Who will forgive
The way he lived?
Where are the children, though?
Daughters and sons
Under what suns?
Who’ll ever even know?

Now settled down,
Mayor of his town,
Friend to both poor and rich,
He’s no regrets
For he forgets…
That selfish son of a bitch.

This poem started with those first two lines, triggered by a photographer’s fundraising paramotor trip from John O’Groats to Land’s End this past summer. BBC story and photos here. No wild oats are involved in the story, but ‘John O’Groats’ is such an evocative name, you have to rhyme it with something… and then you just end up following the rhymes wherever they go. That’s how it often is for me, anyway. No editorial opinion is implied, no persons living or dead, no animals were harmed, etc.

The poem was published in Snakeskin 289, i.e. this October. Editor George Simmers was good enough to point out a particularly weak rhyme and a suggested improvement for it, which I happily took.

“wild oats” by john curley is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Review: ‘Old and Bookish’ by George Simmers

George Simmers has chosen a title for his latest collection of poems that describes it very well: “Old and Bookish”; and also–if being merely in our 70s isn’t premature–self-deprecatingly describes himself. But though he writes with understanding about oldness and bookishness, he makes it clear that he is not being autobiographical: The first section is called “from The songs of the Old Man”, the title immediately followed by: “Note: The Old Man is not me, but I know how he feels.”

The Old Man Walks his Dog; The Old Man Visits a Very Old Woman; even The Old Man’s Song About the Crematorium… poems about the kind of thoughts the Old Man has:
Both the slutty and the proper,
Both the crooked and the copper,
Those who decorate interiors,
And the very very serious,
Both the fervent Corbynista
And her fashionista sister
Who’s obsessed by the length of a hem –
They’ll all end up at the crem crem crem
They’ll all end up at the crem.

That gives a sense of Simmers’ work–smooth and amused in rhythm and rhyme, in tone and in message. Or take The Old Man’s Heaven–how would a music lover imagine eternity in the afterlife? Discounting the “hoity-toity… operatic… Bayreuth-y” and the alternative punk “one long mosh pit”, the Old Man with gentle amusement envisages an older blonde in a piano bar:
With a voice of smoky yearning,
A lady who has seen too much,
But she keeps the old torch burning.

She sings that life is made for love,
And time will kill the pain.
She sings that though your love’s gone bad
You still should love again.
She sings that there is always hope
And those who love are wise.
Yes, I could spend eternity
Hearing those lovely lies.

The second section of the book moves away from the internal view of the Old Man to the external view of Some Oldies. It begins with Rachel, the most energised:
Old Rachel’s fierce and heavy-browed
Her views are strong; her voice is loud.
She says the councillors are crooks;
She says the mayor cooks the books.
She says the government’s a mess –
Don’t start her on the NHS –
While London, which survived the Blitz,
Is being bought by foreign shits,
By criminals and sheiks and sharks,
And kleptocrats and oligarchs…

and ends with Christopher, aware of his life winding down, dozing off with a smile
For he is entering a dream –
A joyous dream where he’s pursued
By several plump and laughing women
In the pink bumgorgeous nude.

The third, final, and largest section of the book is where we get to Bookish. Here are poems on poetry, on poets, on words, on English. There is a 26-line Elsinore Alphabet that starts at the beginning of Hamlet:
A is for armour, which kingly ghosts wear.
B is for battlements, where the guards stare.

and works its way through to the very end:
Y, they’re all dead as Yorick, once such a great hoot.
Z’s for zero plot left. Bid the soldier-chaps shoot.

There is two-page book review in limericks of a book of limericks. And there is my favourite poem of the book, ‘Poets in Residence’. Simmers having been a schoolteacher, he takes obvious delight in his tale of a headmaster who invites all the best English poets to the school. Here are eight of the 33 couplets:
Geoffrey Chaucer came first, on an equable horse,
And Spenser, and Marlowe, and Shakespeare, of course…
Keats arrived coughing, Kipling marched vigorously;
Matthew Arnold began to inspect the school rigorously…
Vaughan was ecstatic, though Clough was more sceptical.
Ernest Dowson puked up in a litter receptacle.
Coleridge sneaked off to discover the rates
Of an unshaven person outside the school gates…

Unfortunately for the Headmaster, there is a Romantic Revolt:
Shelley’d gathered the students out in the main quad,
And roused them to rise against school, Head, and God…
The bards of the thirties were equally Red,
And Milton explained how to chop off a head…
Soon the School was destroyed. Eliot paced through the waste,
And reflected with sorrow and learning and taste,
Which he fused in a poem, an excellent thing,
Though rather obscure and a little right-wing…

And the Head is left amidst the rubble, cursing all poets and poetry.

It all makes for a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the many aspects of ageing, viewed both internally and externally; and the consolations and disconsolations of poetry itself. It is an easy read, the ease belying the breadth and depth of Simmers’ thought, his lifetime of experience including the 25 years he has spent editing and publishing that excellent monthly online poetry magazine, Snakeskin.

Old and Bookish is an excellent and memorable collection of verse.

Even the cover illustration gets a little write-up at the end of the book, including a last poem by Simmers:

“I am very grateful to Bruce Bentzman for permission to use again his ‘Raven’ drawing, which made an earlier appearance in our Animals Like Reading collaboration. I approve of this bird, both for his obvious appetite for reading, and for his air of scepticism, which once inspired this rhyme:
‘Human nature? Bloody chronic!’ Raven caws in tones sardonic,
And adds: ‘I’ve read some rubbish as I’ve studied human lore,
But I’ve read no book that’s dopier than Sir Thomas More’s Utopia,
Which imagines human harmony and man (that carnivore!)
Being so nice to his neighbour he abjures all thoughts of war.’
Quoth the raven: ‘Never, More.’

And as for that Raven’s comment about warfare: it should be noted finally that George Simmers also authors a blog called Great War Fiction plus which focuses on fiction of the First World War, but also goes off on whatever tangents seem interesting.

Poem: ‘Poems Like Mice’

Poems should be concise:
quick, small, like mice.
Then one day you find
they’ve made a nest in your mind.

I seem to be writing shorter, more epigrammatic verse recently. Probably influenced by reading too much FitzGerald/Khayyam.

This little poem was published in the December 2020 issue of Snakeskin–which celebrates 25 years as a monthly online poetry magazine, presumably the oldest (or rather “the most venerable”) such magazine in the world. Congratulations to its creator and sustainer, George Simmers!

Photo: “Look at the cute mouse ^^” by letmehearyousaydeskomdeskom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Poem: “The Silence”

“Pareja (Couple)” by Daquella manera 

On those days when, because you felt attacked,
you just won’t speak, it’s like a dress rehearsal
for one of us being dead. (So, a prehearsal?)
Can’t speak for you, how you’d react,
but for myself, if you die, I know only:
I’d be lonely.

After the slow dispersal
of the acquisitions of the years
from yard sales, impulses, unfinished plans–
after the children’s and grandchildren’s tears,
(their own mortality foretold in Gran’s)
there’d be an emptiness.

Routine unravels:
I’d need an act of will to even shave–
the dogs don’t care how I behave.
All I need’s here in cupboards, shelves, on line.
I’d be just fine…
apart from growing restlessness.

I guess I’d restart travels.
Meanwhile I’ve learned how it will be
to live without you, just your memory,
a silent apparition in this room and that,
the ghost of one who used to laugh and chat.

Think of this as a melancholy love poem, written in a temporary (thank goodness) state of being that can occur in any relationship.

This poem was published this month in Snakeskin No. (or #) 276. I feel proud to be in the issue, as I rate it as one of the best ever in the 20+ years that George Simmers has been putting the magazine out. Though much of the poetry is formless (but still worth reading!), there is some truly impressive work by Tom Vaughan and Scott Woodland, with well-structured work by Robert West, Nick Browne and Jerome Betts, and with interesting innovations in form by Marjorie Sadin, Claudia Gary and George himself–in this last, the character of the verse becomes more lively as the character in the verse becomes more alive.

Technically the form of the poem–uneven lengths of iambics, all lines rhyming but not in a structured way–is one that allows the line breaks to echo your intact chunks of thought as well as the rhythms of speech. It is the form of Eliot’s Prufrock and, earlier, of Arnold’s A Summer Night:

And the rest, a few,
Escape their prison and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where’er his heart
Listeth will sail;

It is a casual form, but it retains enough of the hooks of more formal verse to make it easy to memorise and recite.

The Spectator Competition: “Paradise Lost in four lines”

Milton Dictating to his Daughter, 1793, Henry Fuseli

Lucy Vickery runs a competition in the British weekly The Spectator–a truly venerable publication which recently reached its 10,000th weekly issue. Its politics are a bit too conservative for my taste, but the competition is in a class of its own (The New Statesman having dropped its similar competition a few years ago).

The most recent challenge was this: “In Competition No. 3163 you were invited to submit well-known poems encapsulated in four lines.” The gorgeous responses prompted Lucy Vickery to call the results “Paradise Lost in four lines”, after this entry by Jane Blanchard:

Satan found himself in hell —
Eve and Adam also fell —
Good gone bad got even worse —
Milton wrote too much blank verse —

(which exactly reflects my feelings, having had to waste too much of my A Level studies on Paradise Lost at the expense of more interesting poets such as John Donne and Matthew Arnold.)

My personal delight in The Spectator’s competitions is in seeing so many Potcake Poets there (in this case not just Jane Blanchard, but also Chris O’Carroll, Martin Parker, Jerome Betts, George Simmers and Brian Allgar), and in identifying more poets to keep an eye on for possible future chapbooks.

Anyway, if you want to see nice condensations of famous poems, have a look at that specific competition’s results. My favourite is Martin Parker’s take on e.e. cummings’ ‘may i feel said he‘:

foreplay
(more play)
errings, ummings
(and cummings)

Poem: “Time”

Time takes the young child by the hand
and leads it through a golden land
so timeless it will never note
Time’s other hand is at its throat.

This little poem was just published in Snakeskin, in one of its richest issues ever. I’m glad to have been included, along with several others–Claudia Gary, Tom Vaughan, George Simmers, Marcus Bales–of the formalist poets who appear in the Potcake Chapbooks. And a shout-out to Nikolai Usack, who made me clear up clumsy pronouns in the original draft.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: George Simmers, “The Old Man’s Heaven”

George Simmers

George Simmers

Do those whose taste in music
Is grandly hoity-toity
Think Heaven’s operatic
And ineffably Bayreuth-y?
Do those who go for punky gigs
Think paradise less posh,
Packed hard with spit and violence,
So Heaven’s one long mosh?

Let me describe the paradise
My ageing heart prefers–
A dimly-lit piano bar
And a bottle-blonde chanteuse.
Some broad who’s been around the block,
With a voice of smoky yearning,
A lady who has seen too much,
But she keeps the old torch burning.

She sings that life is made for love,
And time will kill the pain.
She sings that though your love’s gone bad
You still should love again.
She sings that there is always hope
And those who love are wise.
Yes, I could spend eternity
Hearing those lovely lies.

George Simmers writes: “I’ve sent this poem as a favourite because it starts off very definitely as light verse, but then modulates into something else. I like poems like that (and dislike the opposite – the ones that start off sounding deep, but then opt out and end up flippantly).

In the description of the singer and her music, I’m celebrating the kind of music I most enjoy – the torch-songs of the Great American Songbook, mostly from that golden age between 1920 and 1960. As I listen, I enjoy remembering that this is the kind of popular song that in its time was fulminated against by vicars and Leavisites for being popular and shallow (but more deeply perhaps because such folk were made uncomfortable by the Jewish melodies and African rhythms). Great singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan made perfect art of it, but I prefer to think of a more imperfect one, a singer in a smallish bar, provincial, earning her rent doing what she loves, and finding in the songs a way of expressing the trials and yearnings of her own imperfect life. The customers drink, and maybe some of them chat. She sings.

Her repertoire is heavy on the music of Harold Arlen, but there is plenty of Rogers and Hart there, too, and Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, and Gershwin, of course. And yes, Herman Hupfeld and… you name them.

I’m amazed, when looking into anthologies of twentieth-century American poetry, that they do not include ‘The Man I Love’ or ‘I Wish I were in Love Again’ or ‘Blues in the Night’. These are words that will surely outlast those of the poets academically respectable in their day. My poem is a tribute to those songwriters.”

George Simmers used to be a teacher; now he spends much of his time researching literature written during and after the First World War. He has edited Snakeskin since 1995. It is probably the oldest-established poetry zine on the Internet.
https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/
http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Dervla Ramaswamy, “Woman vs The Virus”

Dervla Ramaswamy

Dervla Ramaswamy

Dervla Ramaswamy writes:

The poem of mine that you will print is my most recent, which contains my thoughts on the Coronavirus epidemic:

WOMAN vs THE VIRUS

the virus is the virus

the old and the debilitated
sadly become victims to its power

the doctors quake
the politicians tremble
but
I am woman

the power of woman confronts
the virus
for males are fifty
percent more likely to expire
due to the virus

such is the fortitude of women
I am the strength of women

yes, for my hips are monstrous
my belly is glorious
my appetites are profound
my cunt terrifies clergymen
power must bend before me

I am woman
I am the strength of all women
I am Marie Curie
I am Marilyn Monroe
I am Viginia McKenna
I am Jiang Qing
I am Winnie Mandela
I am Meghan Markle
I am our NHS
I am woman

Undefeated

Dervla Ramaswamy’s Potcake Poet bio simply states: “Poet. Thinker. Woman.”

She is hard to track down. Through our mutual friend George Simmers, Editor of Snakeskin, I heard she had entered a two-year writing retreat somewhere in the Balkans, with the project of creating a thirteen-line sonnet. “Luckily,” he continued, “the Mother Superior of the convent where she is currently on retreat is an ex-girlfriend of mine.”

This led to Dervla Ramaswamy herself suggesting that Potcake Chapbooks should publish what she describes as “my major work. It is a 4,000 line epic in free verse, describing the grim struggles of a family of Bulgarian potato farmers through seven depressing decades. I think you will enjoy it.”

Perhaps. But there are shorter, more traditional poems of hers which I look forward to including in future Potcake Chapbooks.