Thursday, 18 December 2014

Gestures of love, Rebecca Farmer's Not Really

The easy way out for this reviewer would be to declare that Rebecca Farmer's Not Really (Smith-Doorstep, 2014) is concerned with mortality. At first glance, death seems a dominating theme in her pamphlet.

Of course, that would be to ignore a couple of obvious truths. Someone cannot die without a preceding life. Other people continue to live after a death. A reminder of these two facts enables us to get to grips with Farmer's verse.

Before homing in on the nitty-gritty of the poetry, one additional caveat is required: the poems in Not Really are so charged and moving that the reviewer ends up in even greater danger than usual of blending the poet with the verse. Such emotion is evoked and invoked that the distance between the two is compressed. However, this separation should never be ignored and is key to any assessment of Farmer's poetic qualities.

Let's start with the first of those afore-mentioned truths, that someone cannot die without a preceding life. In this respect, Not Really is terrific at the treasuring of moments and the depiction of gestures of love amid suffering, as in the following extract from the collection's title poem:

"...They ask him if he's in pain; not really, he says.
You curl beside him and he strokes your feet.

Farmer is also especially good at capturing the essence of experiences, making the reader live through them too, in a new and pesonal way. In "The Diagnosis", for example, she creates a disembodied music and syntactic structure that reflect the semantics:

"...Your name is called.
The doctor hasn't read his script,
he doesn't say this is what it is,

but you look pale.
He looks at me.
Does he look pale to you?

Pale? Pale as what -
pale as this December 10 O'Clock?
Yes, he looks pale, I say."

And now for the second truth, that other people continue to live after a death. One of Farmer's favoured devices is the role of ghosts. They crop up in several poems. They are characters. They take on human traits. As such, their haunting qualities are exacerbated. In "The Fridges of Ghosts", we (i.e. those who have been left behind) are watching...

"...as the ghosts freeze old memories in cubes
and to keep themselves amused

photograph each other on their phones..."

I hope these snippets from Not Really, together with their related analysis, are sufficient to demonstrate that Rebecca Farmer's verse shouldn't be pigeon-holed as confesssional. I can't claim it's an easy read, but that's not because of the presence of death itself. Instead, it's due to her talent for involving the reader. Farmer aims to unsettle us so as to make us consider our own lives afresh, and she succeeds throughout her pamphlet. Read it if you dare!

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Best U.K. Poetry Blogs of 2014

2014 has offered further proof, if any were still needed, that poetry blogs are here to stay amid the maelstrom of social media. The quality of blogging has continued to improve, and the U.K. scene has developed organically. In other words, some blogs have tailed off, others have grown, while several newcomers are also worthy of note.

So, with the same proviso as last year that this is a subjective and partial selection, here are The Best U.K. Poetry Blogs of 2014 according to Rogue Strands.

Let's start with blogs that focus on reviews. In this respect, John Field's efforts at Poor Rude Lines remain a benchmark. His posts can't be continual, simply because so much work goes into them, but they're well worth the wait. Meanwhile, as mentioned a few weeks ago, Dave Coates over at Dave Poems has undoubtedly grown and developed as a reviewer without losing any of the thrust that makes him different. As for newcomers, Elsewhere has been an excellent addition. Run by Rob MacKenzie, it features regular reviews by guest critics. I've discovered a number of books via its posts.

And now on to poets' personal blogs, with the main criteria that they should go beyond mere self-promotion. The following tend to provide a mixture of reviews, interviews, news, features and comment on the poetry scene. My personal choices this year include several old favourites that I read regularly:

- Matt Merritt at Polyolbion (excellent clarity of prose)
- George Szirtes' blog (what a literary life)
- Ben Wilkinson at Deconstructive Wasteland (great reviews)
- Katy Evans-Bush at Baroque in Hackney (fun, erudite yet caustic if necessary)
- Fiona Moore at Displacement (spot-on analysis)
- Maria Taylor at Commonplace (real insights into a poetic life)
- Tim Love at Lit Refs (also check out his Lit Refs Reviews blog)
- Helen Mort at Poetry on the Brain (a unique spin-off from her PhD work)
- Kim Moore's blog (her Sunday Poem feature is a must-read in this household)
- Roy Marshall's blog (good on the process of writing and submitting)
- Robin Houghton at UK Poet Gal (bucketfuls of honesty)

There are also other blogs that have either developed or emerged in 2014. Anthony Wilson's project has long been on my reading list, but his work as Guest Blogger at the Aldeburgh Festival has been exemplary. It's taken his blog in a new direction and is highly recommended. From the U.S. via northern England, meanwhile, comes Edward Ferrari's Republic of Yorkshire. It's every bit as intriguing as it sounds! And last but not least, I've recently become a follower of Josephine Corcoran's poetry blog.

The above brings me on to a slight shift that's taken place. Josephine also used to run And Other Poems, which was a showcase of guest poets' work, as was Michelle McGrane's Peony Moon. Both have suspended operations this year, leaving very few blogs of their type on the U.K. scene apart from Abegail Morley's Poetry Shed. However, there has been a huge increase in the number of blogzines. I'm not going to detail them here, purely because I don't really see them as blogs. They're online poetry magazines with rolling content instead of numbered periodical issues.

On to my final section: publishers' blogs. Again, my aim is to dodge mere marketing tools and concentrate on content with insight into the graft that goes on in the background. I especially enjoy the following:

- Helena Nelson at HappenStance (I always learn something new from her weekly post)
- Charles Boyle at Sonofabook (CB Editions' new magaine is one of the most interesting ventures of 2015)
- Todd Swift at Eyewear (always good for a spicy opinion)

And that's it for another year! Apologies to anyone who feels left out in this very personal selection. All in all, it's been a superb year for poetry blogging. Never mind finding time to post on Rogue Strands, I'm struggling to keep up with reading all the excellent content that other U.K. poetry bloggers are producing. The standard is rising, year on year. Here's to an even better 2015!


Friday, 28 November 2014

Poems from the Road podcast

Back in the summer I received an e-mail from Robin Vaughan-Williams, a fellow HappenStance poet, asking me to record a reading of my poem "Dad on the M25 After Midnight" (from Inventing Truth).

I'm delighted to report that my recording is now to form part of Robin's Poems from the Road podcast. Poems from the Road is a poetic journey down Britain's A-roads and motorways, exploring the abstraction, violence, landscapes, and migrations that characterise our experience of the road.

Robin's podcast also features verse from many other poets such as Helena Nelson and Clare Best. It will be broadcast on Hive Radio every Thursday in December, 5-6 p.m., as part of the Apples and Snakes Home Cooking series. I'm very much looking forward to hearing it myself!

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!