Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Chrissy Williams' new poetry blog

Chrissy Williams is an excellent poet and the director of the Poetry Book Fair. Such a point of departure would already make her new poetry blog worth a look. However, if we add in the fact that her writing is fun to read while also thought-provoking, the blog's becoming extremely interesting. Moreover, if we top this off with a terrific post comparing her work at comics conventions (as an editor) with her experience of the afore-mentioned Poetry Book Fair, then it's fast turning into a necessity. Here a quote to give you a flavour of what I mean:

"While I love the idea of secret caves filled with poetry gold, more people need to know about them if they're going to survive. I don't want to live in a cave. I want a better map."

You can read her fascinating post in full here.

Monday, 23 November 2015


I was delighted to read the other day that Sphinx poetry pamphlet reviews are open for business again (see here). What's more, they're explicitly seeking "OPOI" pieces: i.e. "One Point Of Interest".

This format is especially interesting in the context of short, blog-length reviews. Instead of a whistle-stop, sometimes superficial tour round a collection, the reader finds an in-depth focus on a specific point. Furthermore, true to the Sphinx tradition of juxtaposing different reviews of one pamphlet, the hope is that some chapbooks will attract multiple viewpoints, each picking up on a single aspect, as if engaging in an implicit conversation.

I'll be following developments with interest. For the moment, I'd recommend reading the review by Helena Nelson of Clare Best's remarkable new pamphlet, Cell.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Company or solitude, Andrew Waterman's Living Room

There are times when happenstance isn’t limited to the publisher of that name…

…back in the summer, I ordered a second-hand copy of Jonathan Davidson’s The Living Room over the internet. A few days later, a padded envelope turned up. It contained an invoice and delivery note for Davidson’s book, alongside a 1974 first edition of Andrew Waterman’s Living Room, his first collection from The Marvell Press, decked out in their characteristic livery that always reminds me of The Less Deceived.

I was already an admirer of Waterman’s work in anthologies, but this was a chance to get to grips with it as the poet had originally intended. Living Room is a terrific book. Just like Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street, which was published five years earlier, it shows Larkin’s influence in many poems. However, Waterman goes further than Dunn and manages to establish an implicit dialogue with Larkin. One such example is “Calling”, in which the speaker takes on the Mr Bleaney role, giving it a new twist:

“…And I was led up past landing kitchenettes,
And round and up to a slope-roofed room, low bed,
Bed-table, titling wardrobe, cheap bowl fire.

“That’s it, and there’s the meter.” Then,
“You’re young,” he added, “where is your home?”
“Home?” I replied. “Home’s where I find myself…””

There’s a tension throughout Living Room between the need for company and solitude. In this respect, the afore-mentioned poem bears comparison and contrast with another poem, “Betrayal”. In recent years I’ve read a number of successful poems about sharing a bed (Armitage, Duddy and Davidson among them), but “Betrayal” again contributes a fresh, jolting perspective:

“”…Again? To try again again?” he shrank.
And so, apart, both slept.

And wake to find their bodies are entwined
familiarly in warmth and disengage
retreating to the bed’s cold edges,
embarrassed that unwilled flesh should betray
the separation of true minds.”

Waterman’s exploration of his conflicting view on company and solitude also homes in on the accumulation of emotional and physical clutter, the urge to acquire it, then loathe it, then shed it. The collection’s title poem plays a key role, as in the following extract:

“Freedom to thrust like that
through all I’ve dumped into
a bare life since first bareness
seemed failure forfeited
by each act that furnished it,
I dwell here claimed by what
I’ve chosen: living room
that by the more it holds
feels less my home.”

By playing off “more” and “less”, Waterman again achieves an effect that’s reminiscent of Larkin, but the emotional drive is all his own.

Andrew Waterman’s Living Room is a collection that’s held up exceptionally well over the past thirty years. Unlike many of its contemporaries, neither its attitudes nor its poetics seem dated. I feel extremely fortunate to have discovered it, and I’ll be rereading these poems for a long time to come.

Monday, 9 November 2015

All-pervading absence, Fiona Moore's Night Letter

Fiona Moore’s second pamphlet, Night Letter (HappenStance Press, 2015), is very much a sequel to her first one, The Only Reason for Time (HappenStance Press, 2013).

If the earlier chapbook dealt with Moore’s grief and bereavement in the aftermath of her partner’s death, this new collection looks at what comes next. What lies beyond the immediacy of grief when the person in question has been so pivotal to you? Their absence is so all-pervading that it consumes the rest of your life. How are you to face the yawning years ahead?

In Night Letter, Moore meets these issues head-on with the same detached yet committed poetics as she displayed in her first pamphlet. Her focus is on the night-time, when nothing can interrupt the maelstrom of emotions. They veer to and fro throughout the book, expressed with exquisite linguistic skill via devices such as the use of double negatives and self-contradiction:

“…I can’t not imagine you…”

“…both nearer and further away…”

Her poem “The Embrace”, meanwhile, portrays an encounter with her dead partner in a dream. It provides us with a passage that’s key to a greater understanding of this collection:

“…We hugged and
life began to run again through my veins and bones
heart and head…”

Those afore-mentioned contradictions are brought to the fore here, implicit and intense. An embrace brings the speaker back to life, yet the other party is dead. She’s coming alive within a dream, yet the dream is condemned to end imminently and leave her in a living death. Moreover, emotional and physical life and death merge and separate and merge again. The reader is invited to compare and contrast this dream-like state of the night with the terrifying shell of the day that awaits.

Back in 2013, The Only Reason for Time seemed an immense achievement in itself, a remarkable stand-alone project. If anything, the only doubt was as to how Fiona Moore might progress from there in poetic terms. Well, Night Letter provides a conclusive answer. She’s built on her earlier book and explored new territory beyond it. This is poetry that will last.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015


There are certain books that inhabit my desk. I love to have them close at hand, to pick them up and encounter old friends: poems that accompany me.

One such example is Matt Merritt's Making The Most Of The Light. Back in 2005, it was one of the first ever pamphlets to be published by HappenStance Press and is long out of print. Of course, Merritt's verse has developed since then, and I also very much enjoy his later books, but the poems from that early pamphlet are special to me. Moreover, he didn't include any of them in his full collections, so there's a certain rarity value involved.

Perhaps my personal favourite is "Comeback". I'm grateful to Matt Merritt himself for permission to reprint the poem in full here:


And to finish I'll double
- no, treble - the black.
Corner pocket, after getting
just enough screwback
on the final red.

This one's for all the times
we played for safety
when we could have played
for so much more.

For all the times we worried
about keeping
one foot on the floor.

I requested the afore-mentioned permission because short quotes wouldn't have done the piece justice. It's only on reading the whole poem that its emotional power, expressed with elegant simplicity, becomes clear.

"Comeback" begins with apparent liberation: an extravagant shot to finish a frame. From there on, Merritt qualifies the act. Syntax marries perfectly with semantics, as linguisitic and emotional restraint come together. By the final stanza, the reader has realised that the shot on the black is far from a liberation: in fact, it's an expression of anger at not having achieved any liberation at all.

As a consequence, the reader is sent scampering back to the start as soon as they reach the end: a terrific quality for any poem to possess. Limpid language doesn't have to be facile. In Merritt's hands, it's textured and layered. That's why I love his verse.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Tasting Notes has now sold out

Tasting Notes, my second HappenStance pamphlet, has just sold out, although I've kept back a few copies for sale at forthcoming readings. This means that almost the entire print runs of both my chapbooks - 350 copies of Tasting Notes and 250 copies of Inventing Truth - have found a home. Now it's time to get back to work on polishing my first full collection manuscript...

Friday, 23 October 2015

Depth and coherence, Jonathan Davidson's Early Train

Perhaps my greatest thrill as a reader is the discovery of a new poet, that moment when I open a collection, start gulping down the poems and immediately realise they’re going to be with me for the long haul. Of course, such moments become rarer as time goes by, but that only serves to render them even more significant.

It’s for this reason that I’m featuring Jonathan Davidson’s 2011 Smith-Doorstep collection, Early Train. He might not be a new poet, but he has been to me this year. I’ve gradually got hold of all his books, and they’re now fixtures on my desk. However, my favourite is Early Train.

There’s no doubt that this collection was unjustly neglected on release. The manner of Davidson’s poetry is unassuming, as is his profile as a poet, yet his work is packed with rewarding punches. As his verse has developed, Davidson’s poems have acquired a quiet depth and immense aesthetic coherence that resonate far more than the work of other more famous contemporaries whose main concerns are their haircuts, best camera angles and poetic posturing.

Early Train offers us page after page of poems that provide the jolt of recognition. In other words, they provoke a sudden self-awareness in the reader that sets us off on our own imaginative journey. One such piece is “The Flowers”, which uses understated syntax to powerful semantic effect, as in the poem’s final quatrain:

“…They are often seen on bridges
spanning motorways, the stems
wilting but unable to collapse,
traffic moving freely beneath.”

Davidson is implicitly inviting us to recall moments when we have seen such flowers ourselves, asking us how we were affected. Moreover, his use of apparently everyday language enables him to load certain specific words with additional connotations, creating a tension via juxtaposition: ”..wilting...unable…collapse…freely…” all qualify each other and all build on each other’s power.

The everyday is present throughout Davidson’s poetry, but this is never kitchen-sink verse. Instead, he plays concrete acts and details off with an intense imaginative world. One such instance can be found in a comparison between the opening and closing lines of “Tony”:

“I’m reconciling a bank account, thinking of you.
A thousand little contracts keep me in the black…

…I find you in the charnel darkness, in the chaos
and disorder, the lost stuff. I am un-reconciled.”

And Early Train is full of poems of such quality. It’s a collection of maturity by an outstanding poet. I’m hugely saddened by its lack of impact on publication but also encouraged that its slow-burning reputation is growing among discerning readers of poetry. I know that many of my friends are already keen fans and I hope this feature will contribute in some small way to the process.