Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Review in The North

The new issue of The North (nº59) is now out and features an excellent review of The Knives of Villalejo. I'm very grateful to D.A. Prince for her extremely kind words. If you want to read it in full, alongside a host of other reviews and original poems, you can get hold of a copy over at The Poetry Business website. For the moment, here's a quote that I'll savour:

"...There is a richness and depth in this collection, far more than its relatively short length might suggest...Despite the vivid pictures of his own life Stewart’s concentration does not exclude the reader; instead, it opens up ways of examining what gives texture to all our days. Short poems, and a short collection but within The Knives of Villalejo there is a resonance beyond many longer, wordier volumes."

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Feminine muscularity, Naomi Jaffa's The Last Hour of Sleep

Naomi Jaffa is perhaps best known for her old job as Director of the Poetry Trust and driving force behind the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. However, she’s also a poet herself. I was dimly aware of this fact, but Anthony Wilson’s recommendation of her recent pamphlet, Driver, brought my interest into focus. Of course, being contrary, I decided to begin exploring her work by going back to the start and getting hold of her first chapbook, The Last Hour of Sleep, which was published by Five Leaves back in 2003.

It’s a remarkable book. A detailing of its qualities might theoretically provide insufficient insight, but there is a definite usefulness in listing them, as its surprising juxtapositions and delicately achieved combinations of theme and technique are key to any understanding of The Last Hour of Sleep. In Jaffa’s hands, the everyday becomes disturbing, the ordinary becomes startling, bold expressions of sexuality become matter-of-fact, clear-cut emotions become loaded with ambiguity, straightforward lines become complex.

The ending to “Weekend” provides one such example:

“…That winter, another weekend, holed-up beside a lake
in a log cabin in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, you opted out

of our fantasy with us and your best friend, Richard. I still wonder
what you felt looking down through the banisters,

why you risked leaving us in front of the fire, seeing
much too clearly what you were missing.”

Such long lines are notoriously difficult to pace and control, but Jaffa’s sense of cadence is surefooted here. Moreover, her juggling of pronouns and prepositions is so clear and precise that it almost goes unnoticed. And then there’s the incredibly skilled manipulation of “risked”. Jaffa turns the verb on its head, making the reader wonder just who was risking more, what they were risking, whether this piece itself is a fantasy or reality. The poem’s feminine muscularity is striking.

The Last Hour of Sleep is packed with such instances of verbs being invested with fresh meanings, as in the following extract from “Unrehearsed”:

“…When skin no longer breathes it yellows and grows cold,
one-sided conversation soon runs dry,
trousers stain and smell without embarrassment.
Everything and nothing is too late…”

Of course, breathing wouldn’t initially be associated with skin. However, Jaffa pulls off the achievement of jolting the reader with this surprise before making it feel natural and inevitable, thus reinvigorating and strengthening the verb’s power.

This extract also highlights Jaffa’s deft use of juxtapositions. Not only is an everyday detail followed by the invocation of abstracts but those two apparently opposing abstracts – nothing and everything - are conflated and given the same quality.

The Last Hour of Sleep is an exceptional pamphlet. It goes without saying that I’ll be seeking out Driver as soon as possible, while a full collection from Naomi Jaffa would be a thing of wonder.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Necessary poems

There's a school of thought that claims poems can only be any good if they "need" to be written. The argument goes that any poem arisen from a prompt, exercise, workshop, etc, is inherently flawed because there wasn't a necessity of expression at its source.

The opposing argument, however, would have it that many poems can become necessary. From this perspective, an inconsequential or artificial starting point is irrelevant to the degree of necessity that's expressed by the finished product. In this respect, I'd personally suggest that the dichotomy should be nuanced to reflect the difference between a writer's need to write a poem and a reader's need to read it.

However, my own conclusion goes further. I've seen rubbish that's been written out of so-called necessity, while I've seen exceptional poems that were written out of exercises. It all depends, like always, on the individual poet's capacity for taking a point of departure and taking it on a journey.

One such example can be found in Paul Stephenson's terrific recent pamphlet, Selfie with Waterlilies. He clearly states that many of those poems in the afore-mentioned chapbook were born out of workshops, yet that doesn't make them any less authentic or moving. The success of a piece still depends on the poet's capacity to make leaps and thus engage the reader, whatever the source. That's the key to writing a necessary poem.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Reading in Shrewsbury

I'll be kicking off 2018 with a return to Shrewsbury (must have done something right last time if they're inviting me back!), this time to read from my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo.

Emma Purhouse and I will be the guest poets at Shrewsbury Poetry on 4th January at The Old Market Hall. Events will begin around 8 p.m. with the chance for a chat and drinks before the readings themselves start at 8.30 p.m.. I'm very grateful to Liz Lefroy for organising and I'm looking forward to seeing a few familiar faces as well as some new ones.

This is an especially significant reading for me, as it's the first time I'll be able to take David, my son, along with me. He's usually left behind at school back in Spain when I give my readings in the U.K, but Christmas holidays don't come to an end in Spain till after Epiphany, so he'll have the chance to see his Dad in action at last. Gulp...

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Clear Poetry Anthology 2017

First the bad news: Ben Banyard at Clear Poetry is shutting up shop to concentrate on his own writing, which is understandable, bearing in mind that his first full collection is coming out in 2018.

The good news, however, is that he's going out with a bang. The Clear Poetry Anthology 2017 is now available for download here, and it's packed with a veritable treasure trove of excellent work from well-known poets and new names alike. There's even a piece by myself in there, taken from The Knives of Villalejo.

Friday, 22 December 2017

The Poetry School Books of the Year

The Poetry School have just published their Books of the Year on their blog (see here), and I'm delighted to spot The Knives of Villalejo on the longlist, especially so once I consider all the excellent collections that didn't make it.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Poet in transit, Rory Waterman's Sarajevo Roses

The blurb on the back cover of Rory Waterman’s second full collection, Sarajevo Roses (Carcanet Press, 2017), talks of a poet “on the move”. Rather than on the move, however, he seems “in transit”.

First off, there are the obvious physical moments of travel, of the contrast and comparison of places. Nevertheless, these moments are restless instead of fulfilling. The poems in Sarajevo Roses wrestle with the search for truths in elsewheres, yet they often reflect the unease of filling time with travel. With each trip, each new place, an implicit tension develops within the underlying emotional dynamic of the travellers, as in the following examples:

“..you joked and moved, I thought, closer to me
as another couple stepped out, their business done…”
(from “The Brides of Castell de Belver”)

“…My hand
knocks yours, takes it…”
(from “Getaway”)

The use of “I thought” in the first extract is pivotal. It qualifies and undercuts the relationship between the travellers, ramping up the above-mentioned tension.

And then there are other forms of transit, as in “Sots Hole”. A place is revisited and the protagonist has changed:

“…Twenty-five years later, and he goes back
with her to that bank, leads her down that metalled cycle track
and takes her on a bench-rail, hid in a hide.
The latch would open to a world still simplified,
where willows comb water and unseen mallards meander.
And she pulls him close – all he once thought he wanted.”

This passage not only highlights Waterman’s metrical strengths and control of sentence structure and length, but it shows him yoking them to a lack of certainty, to the loss of physical and emotional anchors, to a world no longer simplified, to the layered portrayal of a poet in transit.

Some would argue that perhaps the most powerful reflection of the fragility and transitory nature of human relationships is not the line from life to death but the cyclical shift of generations. Waterman is only too aware of this (yet another form of transit), and several of Sarajevo Roses’ most powerful moments revolve around it. One such instance occurs in “Family”, where doubts over potential parenthood send the speaker back to their own parents:

“…and I set to, scrawling postcards to my parents:
an only child must remember more.
Each while, my mother hopes for news.
Each while, my father, elsewhere, hopes for news.
Will none of us say the things we’ve thought
until there isn’t time? I’ll harden my thought.
We are too many. We haven’t seen enough.”

There’s a hint of Larkin’s “The Mower” here, but with the personal Waterman imprint of an impatient, foreshortening thrust towards the poem’s core via the statement “I’ll harden my thought”.

“Family” reflects uncertainty and the fragile, shifting sands of a couple’s relationship, but its significance grows further in the light of the poem that follows it, “34, Above Cwmystyth”, which ends as follows:

“…But only us up there,
alone and quiet,
together and separate

until I snagged her gaze.
“Do you ever want children?”
And was it being in this

over-fertile ridiculous cwm
made me ask it?
And neither quite said no –

watched suddenly
by the person
we won’t make happen.”

There are two fundamental tensions running through this extract: semantic in terms of “together and separate” and grammatical in terms of the implicit jolt and jar between juxtaposed uses of the past and future tenses in the final stanza.

Sarajevo Roses is a collection by a poet who’s in transit. That doesn’t mean it should be seen as a stepping stone or an insignificant volume in itself. In fact, quite the reverse is true, thanks to Waterman’s honesty and self-awareness. His collection provides the reader with fascinating insights into how we move through life, all harnessed to the formal control that’s exercised one of the outstanding versifiers of this generation. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2017.