Sunday, 21 May 2017

Recasting old territory, Simon Armitage's New Cemetery

At first sight, this review might seem a contradiction in terms. If Rogue Strands tends to concentrate on poetry from beyond the big publishers, why feature Simon Armitage, who’s among the most renowned contemporary poets in the U.K.?

Well, the reason is easily clarified. Today’s focus is not on his recent publication from Faber, but on New Cemetery, his collection from propolis books. They are an imprint that’s been created under the auspices of The Book Hive, one of the best independent bookshops in the country and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the Norwich area.

New Cemetery is unusual in several ways. First off, there’s the physical aspect. At a distance, from the other side of a room, it might resemble a desktop diary, but closer inspection shows it’s a gorgeous artefact with extremely high production values. Some people might be sniffy about paying almost thirteen pounds for nineteen pages of actual verse, but you’re getting far more than that for your money. The quality of the paper is palpable and the typesetting impeccable, while the artwork is limpid and complements the verse with a stark, naïf quality.

All of the above leads us on to the verse itself, which is also unusual. It might initially seem a break with Armitage’s trajectory: a book-length sequence that’s written in three-line stanzas without a clear narrative drive. Collage effects are achieved by juxtaposing physical descriptions with ruminations on life and writing, all interwoven with illustrations. Nevertheless, a detailed reading of New Cemetery yields unexpected connections with Armitage’s previous work, all alongside indications of a new way forward for him.

Whether you like it or not, Armitage’s first full collection, Zoom!, was a landmark in late 20th-century U.K. poetry. What’s also clear is that his following books struggled to match its incredible energy, intimate and social connections with its surroundings, and intoxicating immediacy. Instead, book by book, Armitage’s verse gradually seemed to step back somewhat from everyday life so as to understand it better, taking a route that led away from Zoom! New Cemetery, meanwhile, finds the poet reconnecting with the physical and aesthetic territory of his first collection, but approaching it from a different direction.

New Cemetery homes in on the West Yorkshire countryside via a shed where the writer works. Nearby, the local council have begun peeling back turf to turn a former cow-field into the new cemetery of the title. This book is littered with local and personal landmarks, as the poet blends physical observations with layered meditations.

And what about the fizzing syntax of Zoom!? Or the conscious stretching and straining for effect of Armitage’s later collections? In New Cemetery, both are replaced by short. sparse, pared-back lines that reflect the poet’s re-found ease with his own use of language, as in the following extract:

“but no amount
            of deranged swinging
                        can begin to unlock

the dead from the living.
            The winds of the world
                        blast and rattle

that private wood,
            and the wishbone rides
                        in the tuning fork.

New Cemetery might first appear an insignificant volume in the context of Simon Armitage’s work. Nevertheless, its importance shouldn’t be underestimated. By recasting old territory in the light of maturity, the poet has successfully pushed back his own boundaries and found a direction to be explored in future volumes. As such, this little book isn’t just a curiosity; it’s pivotal to our understanding of Armitage’s development.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The launch of The knives of Villalejo

A spot of advance warning: The knives of Villalejo will be launching at the London Review Bookshop (14 Bury Place, WC1A 2JL) on Wednesday 21st June at 7 p.m.. I'll be giving a reading alongside other Eyewear poets. If you're in the area, I'd be delighted to see you there!

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Atrium Poetry

Atrium is a new U.K.-based poetry webzine, run by Holly Magill and Claire Walker. They aim to publish a new poem twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, and you can already read their first selections here. Moreover, they're also on the lookout for top-notch new poems, so why not send them a submission if you're a poet yourself?

Of course, I have to declare a vested interest, as they'll be featuring a poem from my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, at some point in the coming months. More details on that in due course...

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Kathryn Gray's route to a second full collection

Ever since the publication of her first full collection, The Never-Never (Seren Books), back in 2004, I've been a firm fan of Kathryn Gray's poetry. In fact, I'd go as far as to state that The Never-Never bolstered my poetic beliefs at a crucial moment of self-doubt. Here, finally, was excellent contemporary work that hit my sweet spot. Moreover, it was recognised by a many critics and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. For me, it represented the first hint of a pivotal sea change in British poetry that showed me my own approach might finally be welcomed in certain quarters.

And since then, I've always kept a keen eye out for more poems from Kathryn Gray. How would her work develop? The problem was that none seemed to emerge. By reading her blog, I discovered that she'd hit a "hiatus" or "block", as she fought to find a way to move her poetry forward. This admission of (and wrestling with) such matters is in itself an act of bravery! Furthermore, it's also a reminder for struggling poets that public anointing of initial success doesn't automatically bring with it an easy path to the process of writing. What does, however, mark Gray out, is her ability to recognise the problem and refuse to churn out a quick second collection that would have been a pale reflection/reworking of what had come before.

Instead, she waited. And waited. And that was even braver! As a consequence, I was absolutely delighted to see the publication of her new Rack Press pamphlet, Flowers, earlier this year, and then her latest blog post, titled Love Again. It's a terrific reflection on her struggle back into writing poetry, on her own complicated relationship with the genre. What's more, a second full collection does now seem in the offing. That's a book I'd queue up to buy.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Surroundings Two

When I started Rogue Strands back in 2009, my main points of reference were poetry blogs from two HappenStance pamphleteers who've since gone on to publish multiple full collections: Matt Merritt at Polyolbion and Rob Mackenzie at Surroundings. The latter petered out in 2014, but I'm delighted to report that Rob's now started a new blog, aptly titled Surroundings Two. It's kicked off with a couple of excellent posts that you can read here.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Blind tasting and blind reading

As a wine professional, I have to admit to a degree of ambivalence when it comes to blind tasting, the supposed art of spotting a wine (region, grape, maybe even producer and vintage) purely on the back of sniffing and slurping the contents of a glass. It too often feels like a contest for bragging rights. However, it does have certain benefits, especially when a blind comparison of a little-known wine and a famous product results in a challenge to expectations via surprising conclusions. Moreover, it often underlines my view that while there might be a lot of very well made wines out there, very few of them are different enough. In other words, I can't spot most wines blind, only the ones I love or hate!

Much the same is true of poetry: amid the huge homogeneous mass of well-produced verse out there, it's incredibly difficult to guess the identity behind a new poem in a blind reading unless there's a real idiosyncrasy at work. Nevertheless, a PPCE is sometimes a useful tool so long as it's undertaken with a huge pinch of salt.. That's not an Oxford degree, just a Poetry Palate Calibration Exercise. And then I go around claiming I loathe acronyms...

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Five poems in The Poetry Shed

I'm very grateful to Abegail Morley for featuring five of my poems in The Poetry Shed today (see here). All of them are from The Knives of Villalejo, my forthcoming first full collection. My pieces at And Other Poems last week revolved around the theme of home, while these five in The Poetry Shed focus on loss.