Templar Poetry Launch: Weir and Onitskansky

On Tuesday evening last week I went to the Keats House Library in Hampstead for a reading which was both part of the on-going Keats House Festival and one of Templar Poetry’s regular slots there. Jeri Onitskansky (who I know a little via a workshop group) was launching her Iota Shot pamphlet, Call them Juneberries, alongside Tom Weir who, having had an Iota Shot last year, is already launching a full collection with Templar, All that Falling.

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Cover image from ‘All that Falling’

Run by Alex McMillen, Templar http://www.templarpoetry.co.uk/about.html is an immensely busy and enterprising press, holding frequent competitions for full collections and Shots (small pamphlets) as well as the Iota magazine. The books all look very good and there was a good crowd at the reading. I was happy to find myself sitting between friends, Mimi Khalvati on one side and Lynne Hjelmgaard on the other. Later, I had a chat with Linda Black about both her writing (fascinating prose poems published by Shearsman) and her work in the visual arts.

All good and fine then? Well – I went away a bit disappointed actually and it was for the good reason that I wanted to hear more from the poets and their publisher, more than the bare poems themselves which I can (I am) reading at my leisure with the printed book. Perhaps there were time restrictions at Keats House but both poets read briefly (with no interval, we were out within the hour) and Weir in particular did not spend enough time introducing his poems. This art of introducing your own work is – I realised all over again – one of the key issues at a live reading (the other reason to go of course is to network and get noticed – quite different to meeting friends – but that’s just miserable). Alex MacMillan spoke economically to start with, just a basic biographical note to each poet. I thought more might be said since both these poets had ‘won’ competitions to get published. I bet there were people in the room who were keen to hear what he liked about these writers, what kind of work Templar published, even where he saw Templar in the twinkling firmament of poetry publishing.

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Jeri Onitskansky

But . . . on with the show. Onitskansky started with several poems drawing on childhood memories of life in the US. ‘Minnows’ is a vivid recall of Summer Camp days though, for this graceless “fifth grader”, catching minnows from a creek was preferable to other more vigorous activities. Plus it provided imagery years later for a poem about wanting to be “filled with grace”. Rather more graceless (though still epiphanic) is ‘Friendship’ where two girls climb up a big rock and then pee down it, “watering a little pee forest” at the foot of it. Onitskansky is very good at innocence, though often a rather tilted, skewed version of it. ‘Girl with Dandelions’ has a child blowing a dandelion clock though she hasn’t yet “learned / they’re the same buttery stars that last / cheered the meadow”. Time passes in many of her poems and there are quite a few creatures too. Adulthood is a place of greater confidence mostly, though also there (in a thoroughly rat-bothered poem) “the long tail / of your mind scurries across the page”. These are interesting poems and Onitskansky is a name to watch.

If Onitskansky’s stage presence is quiet but assured, Tom Weir’s is gauche, jittery, rather apologetic, seeming younger than he really is. Acumen magazine published an interview with Christopher North a while back in which he listed annoying comments, cardinal sins committed by poets at readings. Here are 8 of them:

1) Have I got time to squeeze in a short one?
2) Now let’s see if I can find it…
3) Now if I can just get this thing to work…
4) This is one I wrote on the way here…
5) We were each asked to write a villanelle…
6) I know it’s here somewhere…yes. Oh no, erm, let me see…
7) How long have I got?
8) It’s a load of rubbish, but I’ll read it anyway…

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Christopher North

Unfortunately, brief though the reading was, Weir managed most of these (OK – not 4 or 5). But his opening poem ‘Day Trippin’’ was charming, recounting dealings with a recalcitrant child: “with an ice-cream which you wore // like a glove as it melted over your hand”. That’s a great image but there were fewer of these than I’d expected. Maybe I just missed them. Weir’s delivery did not help his cause being gravelly and short of breath and losing the ends of phrases too often. I had bought the book so I could follow the poems but those listening will have missed phrases for sure. And some of these poems needed a bit more context (‘The Send Off’, for example). I don’t think I’m alone in liking to hear how poems arose, the poet’s thoughts about person, voice, form. A few moments of introduction also allow the auditors’ minds to pause, change gear ready for the next poem.

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Tom Weir

Weir likes to be blunt, direct and there’s an Armitage-y feel to many of the poems, though without the catchy phrase-making and word play. A poem about a dog (apparently intent on suicide by drowning) was a curious choice, especially alongside the more powerful ‘Monsoon’ where men are caught “up to their waists in water, the children held high / above their heads like an offering to a god nobody believes in”. Weir has travelled plenty, particularly in South East Asia, and several of these poems are very interesting (a shame he do not read them on the night). Overall, the book seems a bit hit-and-miss especially as it includes two-line poems on both ‘Muscle Memory’ and seeing a woman dancing through a lit window. There are just 5 lines on ‘Closing Time’ and a 6-liner on a ghost. It’s hard not to see these as fillers and I worry the collection has been rushed out quickly and would have benefitted from editing the weaker pieces.

But it was all over quickly. And, returning to North’s complaints about poet’s reading aloud, I was certainly happy, on this occasion, not to have to suffer anything resembling sins 9 and 10:
9) So all you need to know is that a squawk-bogger is a Tasmanian newt and that ‘ramping in the dolditts’ is an expression used by Romany folk of Upper Silesia referring to their annual bean throwing festival and that Durnstadt-Terminium is a village in Bavaria where they make clay pipes – well, you’ll see what I mean when…
10) (Already 15 minutes over allotted time) …and here‘s one I simply have to read. It came about after my son’s first session in rehab – he’s out now and all seems OK Hooray! Hooray! And it’s an important poem for me because it was like a coming to terms emotionally with..blah, blah, blah.

Thanks Christopher.

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