Saturday, 22 November 2014

The ripple of moments, Liz Lefroy's Mending The Ordinary

The poems in Liz Lefroy's Mending The Ordinary (Fair Acre Press, 2014) ripple out from pivotal moments. They begin with "Years on I return...", "Son, you don't know this, but last night..." or "Two weeks away, and when I return it's dark...".

This pamphlet is rooted in the specifics of time and place, of episodes that might initially seem everyday but are then charged with ramifications. One such example is "The School Concert, in which a mother's pride at watching her son's performance opens out to an understanding of what has come before:

"I shut my eyes, controlled my breathing
as at your birth.
                           It was as useless
as it was then and my life burst out of me..."

Lefroy often makes use of a linguistic change of gear at a key point in the poem. In "Grace", for instance, she shifts from mundane turns of phrase to highly charged imagery as she reaches for meaning, starting with...

"Today we played Frisbee on the beach.
You weren't there. I skimmed it to you anyway..."

This same poems ends as follows:

"...a sudden lift of wind,
an unexpected flight."

Lefroy is never unambitious. Mending The Ordinary takes experiences, launches them and explores those afore-mentioned ripples. What's more, abstracts are melded to concrete details in her exploration.

The closing lines of the pamphlet's final piece, "The Square Root of Paradise", offer us an excellent example of her poetic method. In this case, a context is not being provided for a moment as much as for all the poems that have come before, casting a new light on the collection's title:

"...like syrup twisted onto a spoon, lifted up high,
tipped to a skeining - a long stitch of sweetness
mending the ordinary."

There's a freshness to Liz Lefroy's verse that very much does lift it out of the ordinary. The reader is unexpectedly moved by every poem. That's a considerable achievement.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Dave Poems

Just as I'm committed to publishing positive reviews of the new books of verse that I most enjoy here on Rogue Strands, all with the aim of helping them find a wider readership, so I'm also aware that poetry blogging and reviewing can adopt many different but equally valid approaches. One such example is Dave Poems, run by Dave Coates.

I've been reading his blog since 2011, initially intrigued by his use of a disclaimer at the beginning of each review, in which he states any prejudices or connections with the poet in question. I've always found the posts a maelstrom, especially the earliest ones. They were daring, provocative, forthright, sometimes a car crash and sometimes extremely perceptive. Above all, they were the work of someone who was wrestling with his own views of poetry.

To write and offer up such reviews for public consumption takes a lot of guts. Moreover, as time has gone by and Coates' work has evolved, he hasn't hastily removed those first articles. Instead, he's done an excellent job of placing them into a personal and general context, recently publishing a remarkable retrospective post on his first fifty reviews.

In the afore-mentioned piece, Coates encourages “the understanding that negative criticism is not a personal attack, and that personal attacks are not good criticism.” In other words, he might now be choosing his words with greater awareness of their consequences and the potential for personal hurt, but that won't stop him criticising or praising poetry as he sees fit.

Dave Poems is already a terrific blog. The coming months and years, however, promise even more. I know Coates' views are going to challenge my preconceptions, and that's invariably a good thing!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The rootlessness of professional poets...?

In his recent blog post about the relationship between his verse and his day job, Tim Love remarks on how many young U.K. poets are forced to chase residencies and short-term contracts from place to place. He highlights their consequent sense of disconnection.

I would argue that many professional poets do actually feel a sense of community, via their colleagues and social media, etc. However, I'm not at all sure whether such physical or virtual surroundings are entirely beneficial to their verse. I can think of several examples of such poets whose early work I enjoyed far more than later books. I admired them when their poetry was anchored in experiences and a feeling of belonging that necessarily lie beyond academia.

Let's take a successful young poet with poems in top-notch mags and a well-received first collection. What's the next step? This is not just a question of careers: the course of a whole life depends on such choices.

Is poetry a vocation or a job? Will an alternative career take over or leave time to write? Will creativity be boosted or stunted by the constant company of other poets? Will an unusual approach end up being over-rounded and homogenised or will it be honed and perfected?

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Playful humanity, Declan Ryan's Faber New Poets 12

If the Faber New Poets series is meant to be a series of snapshots into the future of how a Bright Young Thing might develop, Declan Ryan's pamphlet (nº12) is a miserable failure. That's because the future is already here. Ryan's poetry is fully formed, original and waiting to strut its stuff.

The chapbook may only contain ten poems, but each of them offers up a perfectly layered narrative. Dramas reveal themselves, line on line. One such example is the opening to "Girl in Bed":

"He brought the painting to be valued,
knowing something of the price
of this tantalising neck..."

Of course, as readers, we too now know something and are being tantalised ourselves by these very lines. Empathy is immediately established. There is warmth.

And this warmth is key to an understanding of Ryan's verse. While his is a poetry of cultural and geographical baggage, shot through with such connotations, it never loses its keen humanity. Joe Louis, Trinity Hospital, John Coltrane, The Hague, The Washington Post and Kilmainham take on the significance of characters in this collection, yet we encounter them alongside intimate turns of phrase such as the following stanza from "Transmission":

"I suppose that was a sort of dance
on the platform, afterwards:
our feet shuffling towards one another's,
your palm on my chest,
exactly the right size for my heart."

Deft handling of linguistic expectations is in evidence here. The poet is only too aware of the overdone image of a heart lying in someone's hand. He thus subverts it, recharging its possibilities.

Declan Ryan's Faber New Poets 12 is buoyed by the delicious challenge of portraying individual emotion within society. His meshing of sociocultural allusions, linguistic playfulness and authentic feeling creates a poetry that stands out in contemporary verse. Get hold of this book and see what I mean!

Thursday, 30 October 2014

An example of my writing process

This morning I sat down in front of my computer to transfer "a first final draft" of a six-line poem from my A4 notebook to a Word file. This was after a dozen pages of handwritten drafts since an initial idea arrived in July.

These records are crucial to my writing process. If I'd typed directly on to a screen, I would have lost all the blind alleys and red herrings that I often later pillage for other lines in the poem, juggling the components until they fall into place. The physical act of marking a blank page, meanwhile, is also significant. There's no delete key in my notebook!

And so 59 words are now typed out and placed in a folder, yet that's far from the end of the process. I'll read the poem a few more times over the next few days, but then I'll force myself to put it away and slowly fall out of love with it.

Once a couple of months have gone by, I'll look through the poem once more. That's when previously unnoticed faults tend to show up. I'll try to sort them out back in my notebook, often referring again to those records of my first set of notes, before typing up "a second final draft" and stashing it for a further period. And so on and so forth. This process continues until there comes a point where I go back to the poem and feel no more changes are necessary. On a few occasions, this occurs quickly, but it usually takes at least a year from start to finish.

And then there are the poems that simply refuse to click, poems that keep dodging attempts to make them work even though I'm dead sure there's decent verse in there somewhere. How to deal with them...? Well, that's what friends are for...

Monday, 27 October 2014

Not a negative review in sight

There's certainly a place for negative reviews, so long as they are constructive in their criticism and not just a drawing of battlelines. No poet enjoys taking a hit, but reflection follows the initial surge of hurt if a decent discussion is to be had.

However, you won't find a single negative review on Rogue Strands. That's not because of any sycophantic attitude. Instead, my aim is for this blog to be a celebration of the new verse that I enjoy. My intention is to help readers discover poets and books, each review attempting to provide a flavour of the collection under scrutiny. I've written critical pieces for magazines and journals on several occasions, but Rogue Strands will continue to share terrific verse and encourage people to read it!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Overlapping margins, Lydia Fulleylove's Estuary

Estuary (Two Ravens Press, 2014) is Lydia Fulleylove's first full collection. It displays many of the virtues of Notes on Land and Sea, her 2011 HappenStance Press pamphlet, but the longer format provides her with more room to build and develop connections and tensions, not just within poems but between pieces and even genres.

This last point is especially significant in the case of Estuary, as the book intermingles verse with diary extracts and prose monologues, while also featuring artwork by Colin Riches. The aim is not simply to evoke a place. Instead, a dialogue is established between self and place, together with a gradually evolving attempt to map inner as well as outer landscapes.

In this context, a consideration of Fulleylove's perspective is pivotal. Points of comparison and contrast might be found in Hilary Menos' collection, Red Devon. Both poets have much to say about modern farming methods and their effects on traditional life and nature. However, Menos writes from within, as a farmer in Devon. Fulleylove, meanwhile, is an outsider, always keenly aware that she only has one year to capture the Yar estuary on the Isle of Wight. As a poet in residence there, as a guest, she's invited on to the land and along to events, and many such margins are at play throughout this collection.

The estuary is on the border between land and sea, each impinging on the other. For instance, Fulleylove's work in a prison and her father's illness inform her visits to the estuary, while this illness and work are then informed in turn by the estuary. Different worlds overlap. As a consequence, the poet's use of diary extracts alongside poems is very successful: the diary contributes to the verse and vice versa.

For example, here's a snippet from a diary extract:

"Sun floods through wintry trees and then a scud of rain. Yesterday my sister collected my father who has been staying with us and today he's an emergency admission to the hospital's psychiatric wing. I walk on steadily, Causeway Cottage ahead. What would it be like to live there by a tidal river? You could watch the continual uncovering. You would begin to know the river by heart."

The above prose is then followed by a poem titled "The call of the water rail":

"What you do when he's been admitted
is go to work as usual, the group waiting for you
in the café, coffees already frothing, words buzzing.

What you do is explain the plan of action,
advise warm coats, gloves, woolly caps,
lead them out towards the marsh

where if you sit still for long enough
you may hear the call of the water rail,
though this shy bird is seldon seem..."

Lydia Fulleylove's Estuary is not yet another collection of nature poems that revolve around the sea. It's a profound meditation on the enriching internal and external tussles that take place when we spend time both in such landscapes and in contemporary society. This book invites us to reflect on how we are leading our lives. It really is poetry for our times.