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

Reprint!



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

"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.

Matthew Paul and Then Again

And so I'm now back in Extremadura, following an excellent evening at the South Downs Poetry Festival in Chichester. I very much enjoyed my slot as Guest Poet, thanks to an appreciative audience and high-quality Open Mic. What's more, my visit to West Sussex enabled me to pick up several review copies of exciting collections that are due to be featured soon on Rogue Strands.

For the moment, I'd just like to draw your attention to Matthew Paul's poetry blog. Matthew, who also published his first full collection with Eyewear, wrote an excellent post, titled Then Again, a few weeks ago. It's a reflection on the use of that awkward word ("then", I mean), and it complements my own piece on the subject (see here) a few days previously. This is another example of how poetry blogs can bounce off each other, creating explicit and implicit dialogues, developing the sense of an inclusive community of readers and writers.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Reading in Chichester at the South Downs Poetry Festival

I'll be the guest poet in Chichester on 30th May at the New Park Centre as part of the South Downs Poetry Festival. This event's especially important to me as Chichester is my U.K. base and I'll be reading poems from The Knives of Villalejo that span West Sussex and Extremadura. The evening begins at 7.30 p.m. and open mic slots are also available.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence

I've long been a reader and admirer of Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence. Rob MacKenzie first drew my attention to it back in 2008, and I've been following it ever since. In my view, it's one of the most thought-provoking poetry blogs to come out of the U.S..

As a consequence of the above, I'm especially pleased to note that The Knives of Villalejo is being featured today on Anecdotal Evidence (and grateful to A.M. Juster for facilitating an initial contact a few weeks ago). You can read Patrick's article here, but I recommend you then stay and explore for a while. From personal experience, I imagine you'll need to bookmark it, as his posts lead you on to other interesting posts and exciting new poets and fresh perspectives, etc, etc, etc...