Sunday, 15 July 2018

Limpid and clear, Neil Elder's The Space Between Us

In his first full collection, The Space Between Us (Cinnamon Press, 2018), Neil Elder has produced poems that are limpid and clear in tone and content. Many readers, poets and critics underestimate the inherent difficulties and risks involved in writing work of such apparent simplicity: any slip and the poet is exposed without any paraphernalia to protect themselves.

As a consequence, there are inevitably a few failures in this book, but they are far outweighed by its many achievements. One of the latter is “Like My Daughter Says”:

“If, like my daughter says,
you are now a million particles
orbiting in space,
may you keep on spinning.
Or else as I look out tonight,
I hope you fall like snow
and settle for a while.”

Elder’s language is unassuming in this poem, and therein lies its strength. There’s no need for him to over-reach himself in his choice of simile (“like snow”), as he therefore encourages the reader to focus on the following line, where “for a while”, seemingly so slight and insubstantial, suddenly charges the whole poem with temporal significance. A less surefooted poet might have attempted an unexpected, jolting comparison so as to obtain their effect, instead of allowing their language to grow organically as in this case.

The most successful poems in The Space Between Us possess an ease and natural ear for sentence structure. They belie the hard work that must have been required to chip away until their choice of words felt inevitable and necessary. Another such example is “In Our Path”:

“There wasn’t anything more we could do –
the kitten noosed by orange wire lay dead
against the works where a team had fixed a leaking pipe.

Before we lay it beneath leaves
in a peaty shallow, you held the body
with the same care you had cradled Daniel
on that morning when everything changed.”

In this instance, Elder deftly layers insignificant details until they take on new meaning, while also holding back certain background information in the last line so as to let the poem open out beyond its ending.

All in all, The Space Between Us represents a strong statement of intent from a poet who’s brave enough to take on simplicity. Neil Elder’s verse offers us an excellent counterpoint to the commonplace usage of linguistic fireworks, and I very much look forward to seeing where he takes it from here.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Review in Under the Radar

Having long been an admirer of Jane Commane's project at Nine Arches Press, having read at the launch of Issue One of its magazine, Under the Radar, and having witnessed its steady growth into excellent full collections since then, I'm especially pleased to report that a lovely review of The Knives of Villalejo has just been published in the latest issue of the afore-mentioned mag.

I'm grateful to Jane Commane, to Maria Taylor (the reviews editor at Under the Radar) and, of course, to the reviewer herself, Deborah Tyler-Bennett, for these generous words about my first full collection:

"...Matthew Stewart's...poems were, for me, moving, sensual and poignant with a rare poetic outcome, at least for this reader - they made me want to go and cook..."

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Richie McCaffery's poetry blog

Richie McCaffery has shut up shop at The Cat Flap, which formed part of his Copy Cats project, and has started a new poetry blog that holds great promise if his previous record is anything to go by. This new venture coincides with Richie's return to the U.K. from Belgium, and you can read his post about that process here.

His second full collection, titled Passport, is due out from Nine Arches Press on 27th July, and is one of the most anticipated books of 2018 in this household. More on Passport once I get hold of a copy...

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Of the moment, Ben Wilkinson's Way More Than Luck

A lot of so-called socially aware poetry falls into the trap of reflecting stereotypes, clichés and a sense of outsiders looking in. In fact, a more personal type of poetry is often more adept at capturing a snapshot of a society at a certain moment. Ben Wilkinson’s first full collection, Way More Than Luck (Seren Books, 2018), is a perfect example.

Wilkinson might explicitly be writing about an individual’s experiences in Way More Than Luck, but he’s implicitly portraying the society that surrounds and affects the individual in question. Let’s look at a number of pieces from the book.

First of all, there’s contemporary U.K. society’s expectations, doubts and demands regarding the role of a young heterosexual male. Wilkinson begins by homing in on depression, as in “Pal”:

“…he’ll be there alright. His smile is a frown.
His frown is a scowl. His scowl is the fear
you hoped was long gone. Still here. Still here.”

The very title of this poem, and by extension the naming of its beast, is traditionally masculine. The poet is thus not only facing down depression but society’s view of how a man with a pal should act, turning the definition of a “pal” on its head.

And then there’s the use of football in poetry, male roles implicit once more, as is the mapping of wider social history alongside the histories of countless families and lives, all filtered through an individual’s perspective. One such example invokes and evokes a child’s first visit to Liverpool F.C. in “This is Anfield”:

“…I still remember it like that: the luminous pitch,
echo of the terraces, players floodlit
beneath an October sky. An ordinary game,
solid win, save for one kid looking on in wonder.”

This stanza, which brings the poem to a close, is an illustration of Wilkinson’s deft use of line endings and sentence structures, first panning out across the stadium before homing in on the eyes of “one kid”. At this point, the reader is reminded that the scene forms part of a person's story.

As the collection moves on, so there are poems with clear political overtones, such as “Building a Brighter, More Secure Future” or pieces that set out to describe a set of physical surroundings with social connotations, as in Byroads, which mentions “hanging baskets…the pub’s carpark…the village shop…the borderline/where post boxes change from red to green…hillside housing estates…”.

However, once again, the most affecting poems, those with most powerful social ramifications, are personal in nature. “The Argument” is an excellent piece in this respect. Its final stanza reads as follows:

“…And it isn’t that they won’t come though this, but what
the house alone, insidious, is able to articulate. Half-empty
cups on a table. A dust-thick windowsill. A washer spinning
through its final cycle, like a HGV thundering downhill.”

The poem in question is taking a specific couple’s argument and layering it with their context. The roles of the man and woman are clearly no longer those that traditional society assigned, while this final stanza also undermines itself on purpose. It starts by stating that only the house itself, internally, can find the right words, while it ends by reaching out beyond the humdrum washer (who put it on?!) to an external and extremely contemporary element, the HGV. The poet’s choice of simile is shocking and mirrors a “thundering” threat.

Ben Wilkinson’s first full collection is of the moment. It succeeds in capturing the here-and-now of society via personal involvement instead of rhetorical soapboxes. As a consequence, Way More Than Luck will resonate for years to come.

Thursday, 14 June 2018


I'll always remember that sweltering but terrific evening at the LRB bookshop last June when I launched my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, and met my friend Mat Riches in person. By a happy coincidence, as stocks were running extremely low last month, Eyewear kindly ordered a reprint, and my shiny new copies arrived this morning!

Friday, 8 June 2018

Hitting her stride, Robin Houghton's All the Relevant Gods

Becoming a poet isn’t just about learning the craft and art, about producing work of a high technical and aesthetic standard. It’s also about finding the aspects of life where you can cast unusual, idiosyncratic and insightful light, where you can simultaneously surprise, jolt and gratify your reader. On reading Robin Houghton’s new pamphlet, All the Relevant Gods (Cinnamon Press, 2018), I felt like the witness to the culmination of one such process.

In other words, while I might have enjoyed and appreciated the examples of Houghton’s work that I’ve previously read in journals and on the internet, I feel it’s now, in this pamphlet, that she’s really starting to hit her stride. The most outstanding poems have acquired the confidence to riff on the corporate world and play on inner-city life, highlighting paradoxes, absurdities, rewards and difficulties that are inherent in both. Here are some relevant quotes:

“Between the red meeting room and the blue meeting room
I stopped believing in sock liners and moulded footbeds…”
(from “She discovered the internet”)

“…In half an hour all this will be my history.
These sheets will be stripped, the last traces of me wheeled
to the service lift, like all the other cells I’ve shed
in all the four-star beds...”
(from “Four Star”)

“Shoot up in the fast lift,
Poke the faux grass with toothpick heels.
Late lunch at the Coq d’Argent –
accept a drink, plan your exit…”
(from “1 Poultry”)

There’s a confident authority running through these poems that enables Houghton to undermine herself on purpose without risk of falling flat, thus providing her words with extra implicit layers of complexity. Their grounded specifics and authentic bite are qualities that allow the reader to compare and contrast attitudes to London and many other cities around the world, while reflecting on the nature of work and so-called success.

Of course, all this isn’t to say that Houghton is a one-trick pony who’s found her niche. In fact, mastering one subject matter becomes a point of departure for poets to reach beyond it with far more sure-footed ambition, as she shows here in pieces that reflect on the acting-out of roles in other facets of life such as foreign travel and gender-based behaviour.

All the Relevant Gods is an excellent calling card. It’s also an indication that Robin Houghton’s first full collection can’t be far away. I look forward to reading it.

Monday, 4 June 2018


"Now" is another word with which I have a deteriorating poetic relationship. I used to drop it regularly into my work to indicate a sequence of events and often the arrival at a poem's core. However, various keen editorial eyes have homed in on it as a customary weak spot. They've made me see that its explicit employment tends to feel awkward and forced. Moreover, even the use of more specific terms such as "this morning" or "tonight", etc, can fall into the same trap of clumsiness.

What are the alternatives? One of my main techniques involves the shift from explicit to implicit expressions of temporal movement, either via context or through a change in tenses. In this case, the poet's task is to ensure clarity of communication remains without the need to shout at the reader.

Of course, all the above doesn't mean I've eliminated "now" from my poems. The automatic rejection of any linguistic resource is inherently absurd. Instead, I tend to invoke it to break a poem's flow. Its role has become less to provide narrative links and more to arrest attention.