Monday, 27 January 2014


n. 1 the act or an instance of restraining or being restrained. 2 a stoppage; a check; a controlling agency or influence. 3 a self-control, avoidance of excess or exaggeration. b austerity of literary expression...

A cliché, a pigeonholing or a stereotype isn't suddenly born. It starts off with a meaning that is then subverted, as in the case of restraint. I was happy, for example, to have it in the blurb on the back cover of Inventing Truth. Nevertheless, it's now joining the realms of those terms that Sphinx reviewers were instructed to ignore, such as unflinching, edgy, nuanced, promising, emerging, risk-taking, deceptive, brave, etc, etc..

In other words, restraint is in the process of becoming lazy critical shorthand. People think they can classify a poet as soon as they see it. As mentioned in my post on Rory Waterman's Tonight the Summer's Over, reviewers are investing the word with negative connotations of constriction and repression, both in terms of form and content, as if the poet in question were inhibited.

If we go back to the original definition at the top of this post, restraint refers to "austerity of literary expression". I understand this definition as the technique of emotion being distilled and compressed instead of being daubed all over the page, all as one of the many viable renderings of intense feeling.

The question at this stage is whether restraint can be recovered as a positive description of a poem or whether it's now destined to be consigned to that grim list of words to be dodged by any reviewer worth their salt...

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Three poems accepted by Ambit

This afternoon brought the lovely news that I've had three poems accepted by Ambit, a journal that I've long admired. One of them is an elegy for my father, which makes things even more special. Publication is scheduled for probably the summer issue. More details in due course...

Monday, 20 January 2014

Belonging and estrangement, Rory Waterman's Tonight the Summer's Over

Right, cards on the table from the off: Rory Waterman’s Tonight the Summer’s Over (Carcanet, 2013) is the best first full collection I’ve read in the past couple of years. This review will do its best to explain just why.

Certain critics have referred to a supposed limiting “restraint” when discussing Waterman’s work. I’m afraid I couldn’t disagree more with their use of the term. In this case, it’s misused critical shorthand to highlight the technique of emotion being distilled and compressed instead of being splashed and daubed all over the page. In my book, that’s the opposite of so-called “restraint”. It’s the ambitious, highly charged and passionate search for the verbal expression of intense feeling.

Let’s look at an example of Waterman’s use of the above-mentioned technique in his poem “An Email from Your Mother”:

...Home will never, quite, be waiting
the way it was; your childhood is receding
too far. Is growing older, then, forced unclenching?
Does my arm curl round you like weed?”

In the space of four lines Waterman arrows in on the specifics of “your” childhood, before moving out to a broader question and then swooping back in again. The universality of the question demonstrates an ambition that reaches far beyond mere anecdote. This compression, perhaps best represented by the poetic power of the term “forced unclenching”, is packed with emotional intensity. Waterman thus achieves empathy on the part of the reader, enabling us to draw parallels with our own lives.

The above extract, meanwhile, also leads us on to the key theme of the collection: “Home”, that massively charged word. At this stage I’d like to drop in an important caveat. Back in my university days, lecturers would bang on about intrinsic and extrinsic approaches to criticism. In other words, they would ask whether we should view a piece with or without reference to the writer’s life and other work. I’ve always thought that was a ridiculously arbitrary division. Obsession with outside influences can lead us to focus more on them than the work itself. However, it would be absurd to ignore such influences. In Waterman’s case, there are two crucial external factors to bear in mind when discussing his treatment of “Home” in Tonight the Summer’s Over.

First of all, there’s Waterman’s own critical writing, especially his recent book, titled Belonging and Estrangement in the Poetry of Philip Larkin, R.S. Thomas and Charles Causley. In terms of influences, all three poets lurk in Tonight the Summer’s Over. For example, Larkin is present in the use of a viewpoint zooming in, out and in, as in the extract above, while another poem is titled “For R.S. Thomas.” As for thematic concerns, Waterman’s focus on “Home” clearly resonates with the title of his critical volume.

Now for the second external point that informs this collection: the poetry of Andrew Waterman, Rory’s father. Rather than a question of literary influence, a dialogue is struck up between Rory’s verse and that of his father. Rory's Tonight the Summer’s Over casts fresh light on Andrew's A Father's Tale, just as the latter provides a fascinating counterpoint to the former. Andrew writes a poem “To my son”. Rory replies “To my father”.

The story of their separation after Rory moved with his mother from Ireland to Lincolnshire is personal, specific and universal. It’s also extremely moving.

Here’s Andrew:

“…I walk again this curve of strand,
a shine of wet on firm gold sand
blanked by 500 tides since you
knelt watching Daddy as I drew
a little boy, inscribed your name:
RORY WAS HERE. Here looks the same:
dunes, headlands, ocean charged with light
as then, rippling to its long white
ribbon of foam, where bubbles break
in millions for each breath I take...”

Here’s Rory:

“…At two I’d not grown used to anywhere.
By five the squat stone houses, leafy streets
of Dunston, rural Lincolnshire was where

My life was, if for better or worse.
The court heard our recording and agreed.
And Lincoln was a blessing and a curse,
Where Daddy lived each month, and lived with me.”

Andrew desperately want Rory to feel Irish, to feel he belongs in Ireland. Rory tries and fails. In another poem, “On Derry City Walls”, the father teaches Irish songs, but the son sings them in “pure Lincoln”.

At the same time, however, Rory doesn’t feel that he fully belongs in his adopted land. Just where is “Home”? Where does he belong? In these times of so much demographic movement and changing family structures, many people suffer similarly. Via the beautiful, condensed telling of his own story, Rory Waterman manages to touch such readers. His poem, “Growing Pains”, ends as follows:

“…I’d brag about that “other home”

and “other me” – not here, like them
the Irish me that never was,
the bronze-haired friends I never made,
the mansion where Dad never lived.
And mourned the loss of all these things
I’d never had and always had;
and grew, estranged from Lincolnshire
and desperate to get out of there.

A blessing and a curse, never and always, here and there, Lincolnshire and Ireland: each couple is juxtaposed and coexists throughout Tonight the Summer’s Over. They mirror each other, just like belonging and estrangement, probing at the meaning of “Home”

And now I’ll take the liberty of ending my review as I began. Tonight the Summer’s Over is the best first full collection I’ve read in the past couple of years. I just hope I’ve done enough to convince you to buy it.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Concentrating the mind

Many poets seem to think the genre is in decline due to the arrival of the digital age. Is this really the case?

The afore-mentioned writers argue that poetry requires a degree of concentration which is beyond readers who have been brought up in the digital age, whose attention is dissipated far too easily. Nevertheless, I'm not at all sure that concentration is dissipated as such. In fact, I'm convinced that we're forced to concentrate hugely these days so as to cope with the way information is transmitted to us.

The key change is that intensely flavoured morsels are being delivered to our screens on a regular basis. Their digestion required brief bursts of deep concentration but also entails ever-briefer attention spans.

I was attracted to poetry in my childhood precisely because I have a short attention span and can only concentrate for limited periods, albeit with great focus. I always found myself distracted when attempting to read long novels. However, with verse I was able to pick up a collection, open it at a page and gulp a poem down in five minutes - one of those intensely flavoured morsels that I discussed in the previous paragraph. Nowadays, teenagers could subsitute a screen for a page along similar lines.

In other words, my own argument is that the digital age could well actually lend itself to greater enjoyment of poetry ahead of novels, rather than having the opposite effect. All we've got to do is write verse that people want to read...!

Monday, 13 January 2014

Poetic fireworks

Ever since my years as an undergraduate, I've witnessed umpteen sterile arguments as to whether form should boss content or vice versa. In fact, I'm convinced that good poetry welds both together in the service of the finished verse.

Much the same is true of fireworks. By the use of the term fireworks, I'm referring to linguistic acrobatics. When a critic mentions that they feel those  fireworks are either missing or overdone in a poem, my interpretation is that they've encountered a lack of balance in the work - the degree to which linguistic acrobatics are employed shouldn't depend on minimalist dogma or the desire to show off verbal dexterity.

Instead, fireworks should be married to the verse. Successful poetry can be pared down to the bones or burst with exuberance. The art is in working out where to strike that balance in every poem we write.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Sphinx - a tribute

Over at Sphinx, the latest batch of pamphlet reviews is nearly complete. However, the main page carries the news that these are the last. Bearing in mind the important role that Sphinx has played in the rise of poetry chapbooks over the past few years, this is sad news, although it’s more than understandable. A quick summary of its feats soon tells us just how much time and work it must have taken up for Helena Nelson…
Sphinx started life as a paper-based publication back in 2006, a magazine dedicated to promoting poetry in pamphlet form. From 2010 onwards, it was solely published on the internet. At the beginning, it followed a typical route of one review per book. Nevertheless, its signature format of three pieces per pamphlet was adopted after Issue 10. The figures are huge: a total of 445 chapbooks have been dealt with via 864 reviews, most reviews getting 300-500 hits in the first couple of weeks alone.
I’ve been involved with the project on both sides on the fence. As a poet, I was delighted to receive critical coverage for my books from three different points of view, so Inventing Truth was reviewed by Richie McCaffery, Marcia Menter and Charlotte Gann.
As a reviewer, I really enjoyed the experience of encountering verse that I wouldn’t have read without Sphinx. There was a definite frisson every time a batch of chapbooks arrived.
I certainly learnt a lot: from the “Notes for reviewers” with its list of review clichés to be avoided (e.g. …a new voice…shows promise…deceptively simple…risk-taking…demotic…) to the editing process of each review, where any syntactic messes or semantic wobbles were sorted out. Moreover, the aim was always to strike a positive note: Criticism should be constructive. Please make it apparent this is a personal response, not Judgement Day.
One of my tenets is that a poet should also feel at home in prose, and doing reviews is a key part of that apprenticeship. In my own case, I needed to shake off academic essay writing. Sphinx helped tremendously!
There is at least still the solace that the reviews from Sphinx will remain online as a snapshot of UK poetry pamphlet publishing over the past eight years. What’s more, new features and articles will be added in the future. Already, there are historic interviews with Chris Hamilton-Emery (Salt), Num Stibbe (Sylph Editions) and Leona Carpenter (Mulfran), not to mention Peter Sansom on Twenty-Five Years of the Poetry Business. A new feature by Andrew Sclater on Stewed Rhubarb has also just been posted, so it may be that the demise of the reviews will make time and space for other kinds of writing.
For the moment, why not have a look at the archive? Be warned: you might well find yourself purchasing more chapbooks as a result!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Poets and their games

One could argue that poetry itself is a game. Many poems certainly play games with their readers, and poets often use games as a metaphor: Paul Farley's piece on Monopoly is a personal favourite. Other genres, meanwhile, also get involved: Julio Cortazar has a terrific novel called Rayuela (Hopscotch), which invites the reader to tackle it in one of two ways - as a linear progression from start to finish or by playing hopscotch, jumping from one chapter to another as per his instructions. The concept's brilliant, but the execution is better.

Very much in that tradition, Maria Taylor has an intriguing set of poetry bingo cards out from HappenStance Press. The website explains them as follows:

"These cards (essential apparatus for readings and festivals) will encourage completely the wrong sort of concentration, possibly even an inappropriate response (BINGO!).

The set of four different cards can also fulfil a useful slot in terms of entertaining postcards for poetry friends. A5 in size, they contain the key words on the back as well as plenty of space to scribble messages, poems or aphorisms.

In terms of extreme left-field writing, each card is a poem in itself."

I'd not only pay good money for the cards themselves (three quid, see the link here), but even better money to be in the audience while certain poets played with them!