Monday, 20 August 2018

Keith Hutson's Troupers

My OPOI review of Keith Hutson's pamphlet Troupers (Smith-Doorstep, 2018) is now up at Sphinx. Here's a snippet from its opening lines...

"There’s an argument (often touted by this reviewer) that the most universal texts are rooted in specifics, that they engage and involve us in a specific context to such an extent that we easily transpose their connotations, suggestions and conclusions to a whole host of elsewheres..."

...but you can read it in full here.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Jack Little reviews The Knives of Villalejo for Riggwelter Press

I'm delighted to report that Jack Little has written a lovely review of The Knives of Villalejo for Riggwelter Press. His excellent insights are reinforced by the facets of our lives that we share - both with an English childhood and upbringing, followed by adult lives in Hispanic surroundings - and he has some very interesting points to make, such as the following:

"...The reader feels as if he or she is on a journey with the poet, through the backstreets of his childhood to the present day as he navigates his sense of being the other in both of his home countries..." 

You can read the review in full over at Riggwelter Press by following this link.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

OPOI review of Miriam Gordis' Vinyl

My OPOI review of Miriam Gordis' pamphlet Vinyl (Eyewear Publishing, 2018) is now up at Sphinx and you can read it by following this link.

OPOI stands for "One Point Of Interest" and asks the reviewer to respond to a single aspect of the collection in question that especially interests them. It's an excellent concept, yet another Helena Nelson project to help pamphlets gain exposure. To get a fuller flavour of what I mean, why not browse the extensive OPOI archive while you're over at Sphinx?

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Richie McCaffery's Passport

As mentioned in a recent post, I don’t feel it’s ethical for me to review books which wear my endorsement on their back cover or which include me in their list of acknowledgements and thanks. The latter is true in the case of Richie McCaffery’s second full collection, Passport (Nine Arches Press, 2018), as I had the privilege of reading many of these poems in draft form. I choose the word “privilege” because I feel fortunate to have witnessed the clear development that these delicious new poems represent for one of my favourite poets.

Richie has previously gained a deserved reputation for being among the best in the business at writing poems that take objects as their point of departure, and this new collection won’t disappoint his fans. However, Passport also sees him taking his work in new directions. As a consequence (and in the light of not feeling able to write a review as such), I’m delighted to report that his publisher, the top-notch Nine Arches Press, have granted me permission to post the following poem from his book on Rogue Strands today:

Present Tense

I drift around the village pubs
like a soldier on leave from himself.

I’m fighting with the present tense –
I’ve never felt as ease in it.

I see sparrow fledglings on a wall
flapping their little tambour wings

as if they’re trying to shake off
the life they’ve been shackled with.

I’ve selected this poem because it combines many of Richie’s known virtues as a poet with a display of his freshly extended range. First off, there are examples of successful poetic leaps via his uses of “like” and “as if”. This is a typical McCaffery trait. He invokes a comparison that starts off by seeming incongruous before becoming enlightening and inevitable as in “like a soldier on leave from himself”.

For this reader, however, the poet’s innovation in “Present Tense” is represented by the way he interweaves the concrete and the abstract. McCaffery employs an immediacy and directness of language in a colloquial tone - contracted verbs and a prepositions at the end of a sentence – to reach out towards ambitious concepts. He begins by using a concept as the title and axis of the poem, before anchoring it to the specifics of sparrow fledglings and then finishing off by invoking “life” itself. That’s the ambition of a poet who’s grown rightly confident in the effects he can achieve in his writing.

Oh, and just one final point about the metrics of “Present Tense”. Most of the lines in this poem hover between eight and nine syllables, but the final line suddenly shifts to seven as McCaffery abruptly comes to the core of his inspiration. This is a top-notch example of how form can marry content, the whole thus greater than the sum of its parts.

In other words and in conclusion, this thoroughly biased blogger very much recommends Passport. It deserves to make several shortlists this year, though I wouldn’t put money on that happening even if I were a betting man. To get hold of a copy and see what I mean, why not follow this link to the Nine Arches website?

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Poetry Rules...

...or at least it does in this household!

On a serious note, however, following social media reaction to Helena Nelson’s blog post with a list of Thirty Poem Snags (see here) that she encountered in her recent submissions window at HappenStance Press, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of rules for poets.

By my invocation of rules as a term, I don’t mean the slavish following of norms. Instead, I’m referring to the idea that the rejection of metrics/punctuation/standard grammar/ conventional line endings, etc, tends to my mind to be more successful if the poet first gets to grips with them before jettisoning them to specific effect.

In other words, I’m not usually convinced by poets who simply eschew the learning and understanding of rules and decide to plough their own furrow from the start. In those cases (to this reader’s eye and ear), the poems often don’t manage to argue their rule-breaking case sufficiently.

Of course, there are always exceptions to that rule too… 

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Jennie Farley's Hex

There are times when I don't think it would be ethical of me to review a book on Rogue Strands, times when I've either been involved in helping with drafts or have provided an endorsement for the collection. One example of the latter is Jennie Farley's Hex (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2018). Here's the text that I wrote for its back cover:

"Jennie Farley's poems take the familiar as a point of departure, mixing the real with the surreal, the everyday with the imaginary. In Hex Farley encounters new truths by seeking out fresh perspectives. This is a thought-provoking and engaging collection that invites the reader to accompany the poet on her journey."

As a complement to the above text, I'm delighted to feature a poem from Hex that very much illustrates what I mean about Jennie Farley's work (with thanks to the poet for her permission to post it here):

Vanilla Slices

I wouldn't say no to a vanilla slice
says my mother in a plaintive voice.
She is only a ghost so I leave her
sitting on the sofa by the fire,
put on my coat, and go up to the Co-Op.
Returning, I put my shopping on the table,
two vanilla slices, and a bottle of vermouth.
Whoopee! cries Mum, waving
her legs in the air. She's turned
into a flapper with newly bobbed hair.
I sit down beside her, flipping
my georgette skirt, raise my
glass in a toast to us both.
Tomorrow we'll go shopping!

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.