Sunday, 21 October 2018

Opening the floodgates, S.A. Leavesley's How to Grow Matches

When reviewing, it’s usually wise to avoid invoking a metaphor or an image that might draw attention away from the poet and towards the critic. Any such flashiness invites accusations of selfishness and flashiness, because a review should be about the book in question, not about the reviewer.

However, there are a few cases where an exception is justified, where a metaphor can enlighten and illustrate. S.A. Leavesley’s pamphlet, How to Grow Matches (Against the Grain Poetry Press, 2018), is a good example: each piece finds her opening the floodgates at a precise moment, her delicately controlled releases of anger bringing about effects many miles downstream.

One such instance occurs in the closing stanza to Her Cumuli Collector:

“…The day he left, not a single wisp of white
or grey against the bright blue sky.
But it rained non-stop inside her: heavy,
pounding – the rain of dark angels.”

These lines demonstrate Leavesley’s knowledge of language’s nuts and bolts, of how to subvert them to effect, as she removes the main verb from her first sentence, thus unsettling the reader, before homing in on her clashing, conflicting final image. Moreover, her line break between “heavy” and “pounding” exacerbates that very sensation.

How to Grow Matches uses the challenging of linguistic convention to ramp up its implicit conflicts, as in the final lines of Bowl of oranges: a still life

“…She pinches her mouth closed,
tightens her heart muscle to a fist,
hands her husband a fresh orange.”

The pivotal word here is “closed”. It’s unexpected and casts a new, more powerful light on the verb that precedes it.

Anger often implies and involves the loss of control, but S.A. Leavesley shows that its impact is actually far greater when used with a deft touch. How to Grow Matches is an excellent pamphlet from a new press that deserves to find a spot at the top table of U.K. poetry pamphlet publishing. I’ll be keeping a close eye on its development.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Tickets for Poetry in Aldeburgh

With little more than three weeks to go, tickets for Poetry in Aldeburgh are selling fast. A quick look at their website (see here) tells you that several of the workshops have already sold out, although seats are still available for all the readings.

As for my own event, it's titled "Poetry of Food and Cooking", and will take place in the Peter Pears Gallery on Sunday 4th November at 1 p.m.. Helena Nelson will be introducing Alison Brackenbury, Rosie Sheppard and myself, and there's also sure to be a drop of free Spanish wine on show, maybe even from deepest Extremadura.

The build-up to the festival is an exciting time: I've already got tickets for several events apart from mine, and I'm now weighing up whether to fill up my timetable even more or leave some gaps to relish the people and place as well as the poetry itself...

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Clare Best's The Missing List

Rogue Strands rarely ventures beyond poetry, but today’s an exception due to Clare Best’s prose memoir, The Missing List (Linen Press, 2018). This post isn’t a review as such, just a few reflections on her book.

Clare Best is perhaps best known for her fine poetry, so it’s worth making a general point that also applies to this text in particular: many reviewers lapse into erroneous critical shorthand when excellent poets lend their hand to prose, invoking terms such as “lyrical” or “poetic”. In fact, the signs of a successful shift of genre are far more subtle.

For example, an assured poet knows how to capture a scene via a layering effect, building up seemingly insignificant details until they explode into meaning. Clare Best manages just such an effect in many scenes throughout The Missing List. Moreover, a poet is also an expert in telling their narrative via a collage of perspectives and moments, having learnt how to place trust in their reader, allowing connections to be made organically. Clare Best shows her mastery of the technique in The Missing List.

The subject matter of this book is childhood sexual abuse, which again lends itself to more critical shorthand such as “harrowing” or “moving”. However, the author’s achievement lies in involving the reader in her story to such an extent that she lifts her memoir into the wider realm of implicit questioning of how societies operate and how humans relationships develop.

Clare Best will be reading from The Missing List at an event at the University of Sussex of 17th October, followed by a triple book launch with Jeremy Page and Kay Syrad in Lewes on 24th October. I only wish I could make it along!

Friday, 21 September 2018

It's time for a "Big Announcement"

I'm delighted to announce the inaugural Rogue Strands Poetry Reading, co-organised by Mat Riches and myself, with a mouth-watering line-up...

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

ISSNs for poetry magazines

The ISSN is an international code that's used to identify the title of serial publications (see here the British Library's explanation of the system). It's free to obtain and most poetry magazines have traditionally worn one.

An ISSN isn't related to legal deposit, but it does facilitate the presence of a magazine in libraries, which use it as a fundamental identifier. Moreover, an ISSN enables poets to register their publications in magazines with ALCS. This means that poets might well end up getting money indirectly for their poem even if the journal in question can't afford to pay its contributors directly.

All of the above brings me on to the crux of my post: several excellent new print-based poetry magazines have appeared in the past few years in the U.K. with a worrying trend of not displaying an ISSN. Is there some reason for this that goes over my head?

Friday, 14 September 2018

Fizzing alchemy, Raine Geoghegan's Apple Water:Povel Panni

Raine Geoghegan’s first pamphlet, Apple Water:Povel Panni, also happens to be the first collection to be published by The Hedgehog Press, so it’s worth mentioning from the outset that there are some very good production values on show here from the quality of paper through to the cover design and typesetting. All in all, it’s an excellent point of departure for both poet and publisher.

Moving on to the poetry itself, Apple Water:Povel Panni is remarkable in both conception and execution. The poems explore Romani history, employing conventional and contemporary English alongside Romani words, stirring in snippets of prose anecdotes and period photographs.

They could so easily have fallen into the trap of simulating a pastiche of some dialect or patois that once supposedly existed, but their success hinges on the poet’s conscious decision to break with the conventions of so-called authenticity. By doing so, she actually manages to make her poems far more authentic.

In other words, Geoghegan encounters a fresh perspective on Romani culture by creating a daring blend of cadences, meanings and sounds that implicitly represents her search for an expression of her own mixed identity. One such example is the poem Hotchiwitchi/Hedgehog, which begins as follows:

“to bake an ‘otchiwitchi,
roll it in the clay,
drop it in the embers of yer yog.

go and sing a song,
chase a sushi down the dron,
do a little jig, jog, jog.

when you open up the clay,
the spines will come away…”

Raine Geoghegan is unashamedly modern in her portrayal of the past. The blend of Romani and English could have seemed an insurmountable problem. Instead, it lends her work a fizzing alchemy that lifts it out of the ordinary. I very much look forward to seeing where she takes her poetry next.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

My reading at Poetry in Aldeburgh

Sixteen years after my first visit to the festival as a member of the audience, I can't quite believe that I'll be giving a reading myself at Poetry in Aldeburgh 2018.

I'll be appearing alongside Helena Nelson, Alison Brackenbury and Rosie Shepperd on Sunday 4th November at 1 p.m. in the Peter Pears Gallery in a slot titled "Poetry of Food and Cooking". Suffice to say, wine might also play a part at some point!

I'm very grateful to Paul Stephenson, The Poetry School and Poetry in Aldeburgh for this opportunity, and I'm also looking forward to attending lots of other top-notch readings during the festival. You can view the programme in full on the festival website here.

Monday, 3 September 2018

British Life in Poetry

British Life in Poetry is an exciting new project run by Matt Barnard, aiming to promote poetry in Britain by posting a weekly poem by a contemporary author writing in English. I'm delighted to report that my poem Sooner or Later from The Knives of Villalejo is being featured there this week. Matt Barnard introduces it as follows:

"A poem with the concentrated precision of a haiku and one which reminds us of the shadow that hovers in the background even on the sunniest of days..."

You can read my poem at British Life in Poetry by following this link. Why not browse the archive, which is already excellent, while you're there? 

Monday, 20 August 2018

Keith Hutson's Troupers

My OPOI review of Keith Hutson's pamphlet Troupers (Smith-Doorstep, 2018) is now up at Sphinx. Here's a snippet from its opening lines...

"There’s an argument (often touted by this reviewer) that the most universal texts are rooted in specifics, that they engage and involve us in a specific context to such an extent that we easily transpose their connotations, suggestions and conclusions to a whole host of elsewheres..."

...but you can read it in full here.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Jack Little reviews The Knives of Villalejo for Riggwelter Press

I'm delighted to report that Jack Little has written a lovely review of The Knives of Villalejo for Riggwelter Press. His excellent insights are reinforced by the facets of our lives that we share - both with an English childhood and upbringing, followed by adult lives in Hispanic surroundings - and he has some very interesting points to make, such as the following:

"...The reader feels as if he or she is on a journey with the poet, through the backstreets of his childhood to the present day as he navigates his sense of being the other in both of his home countries..." 

You can read the review in full over at Riggwelter Press by following this link.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

OPOI review of Miriam Gordis' Vinyl

My OPOI review of Miriam Gordis' pamphlet Vinyl (Eyewear Publishing, 2018) is now up at Sphinx and you can read it by following this link.

OPOI stands for "One Point Of Interest" and asks the reviewer to respond to a single aspect of the collection in question that especially interests them. It's an excellent concept, yet another Helena Nelson project to help pamphlets gain exposure. To get a fuller flavour of what I mean, why not browse the extensive OPOI archive while you're over at Sphinx?

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Richie McCaffery's Passport

As mentioned in a recent post, I don’t feel it’s ethical for me to review books which wear my endorsement on their back cover or which include me in their list of acknowledgements and thanks. The latter is true in the case of Richie McCaffery’s second full collection, Passport (Nine Arches Press, 2018), as I had the privilege of reading many of these poems in draft form. I choose the word “privilege” because I feel fortunate to have witnessed the clear development that these delicious new poems represent for one of my favourite poets.

Richie has previously gained a deserved reputation for being among the best in the business at writing poems that take objects as their point of departure, and this new collection won’t disappoint his fans. However, Passport also sees him taking his work in new directions. As a consequence (and in the light of not feeling able to write a review as such), I’m delighted to report that his publisher, the top-notch Nine Arches Press, have granted me permission to post the following poem from his book on Rogue Strands today:

Present Tense

I drift around the village pubs
like a soldier on leave from himself.

I’m fighting with the present tense –
I’ve never felt as ease in it.

I see sparrow fledglings on a wall
flapping their little tambour wings

as if they’re trying to shake off
the life they’ve been shackled with.

I’ve selected this poem because it combines many of Richie’s known virtues as a poet with a display of his freshly extended range. First off, there are examples of successful poetic leaps via his uses of “like” and “as if”. This is a typical McCaffery trait. He invokes a comparison that starts off by seeming incongruous before becoming enlightening and inevitable as in “like a soldier on leave from himself”.

For this reader, however, the poet’s innovation in “Present Tense” is represented by the way he interweaves the concrete and the abstract. McCaffery employs an immediacy and directness of language in a colloquial tone - contracted verbs and a prepositions at the end of a sentence – to reach out towards ambitious concepts. He begins by using a concept as the title and axis of the poem, before anchoring it to the specifics of sparrow fledglings and then finishing off by invoking “life” itself. That’s the ambition of a poet who’s grown rightly confident in the effects he can achieve in his writing.

Oh, and just one final point about the metrics of “Present Tense”. Most of the lines in this poem hover between eight and nine syllables, but the final line suddenly shifts to seven as McCaffery abruptly comes to the core of his inspiration. This is a top-notch example of how form can marry content, the whole thus greater than the sum of its parts.

In other words and in conclusion, this thoroughly biased blogger very much recommends Passport. It deserves to make several shortlists this year, though I wouldn’t put money on that happening even if I were a betting man. To get hold of a copy and see what I mean, why not follow this link to the Nine Arches website?

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Poetry Rules...

...or at least it does in this household!

On a serious note, however, following social media reaction to Helena Nelson’s blog post with a list of Thirty Poem Snags (see here) that she encountered in her recent submissions window at HappenStance Press, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of rules for poets.

By my invocation of rules as a term, I don’t mean the slavish following of norms. Instead, I’m referring to the idea that the rejection of metrics/punctuation/standard grammar/ conventional line endings, etc, tends to my mind to be more successful if the poet first gets to grips with them before jettisoning them to specific effect.

In other words, I’m not usually convinced by poets who simply eschew the learning and understanding of rules and decide to plough their own furrow from the start. In those cases (to this reader’s eye and ear), the poems often don’t manage to argue their rule-breaking case sufficiently.

Of course, there are always exceptions to that rule too… 

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Jennie Farley's Hex

There are times when I don't think it would be ethical of me to review a book on Rogue Strands, times when I've either been involved in helping with drafts or have provided an endorsement for the collection. One example of the latter is Jennie Farley's Hex (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2018). Here's the text that I wrote for its back cover:

"Jennie Farley's poems take the familiar as a point of departure, mixing the real with the surreal, the everyday with the imaginary. In Hex Farley encounters new truths by seeking out fresh perspectives. This is a thought-provoking and engaging collection that invites the reader to accompany the poet on her journey."

As a complement to the above text, I'm delighted to feature a poem from Hex that very much illustrates what I mean about Jennie Farley's work (with thanks to the poet for her permission to post it here):

Vanilla Slices

I wouldn't say no to a vanilla slice
says my mother in a plaintive voice.
She is only a ghost so I leave her
sitting on the sofa by the fire,
put on my coat, and go up to the Co-Op.
Returning, I put my shopping on the table,
two vanilla slices, and a bottle of vermouth.
Whoopee! cries Mum, waving
her legs in the air. She's turned
into a flapper with newly bobbed hair.
I sit down beside her, flipping
my georgette skirt, raise my
glass in a toast to us both.
Tomorrow we'll go shopping!

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Limpid and clear, Neil Elder's The Space Between Us

In his first full collection, The Space Between Us (Cinnamon Press, 2018), Neil Elder has produced poems that are limpid and clear in tone and content. Many readers, poets and critics underestimate the inherent difficulties and risks involved in writing work of such apparent simplicity: any slip and the poet is exposed without any paraphernalia to protect themselves.

As a consequence, there are inevitably a few failures in this book, but they are far outweighed by its many achievements. One of the latter is “Like My Daughter Says”:

“If, like my daughter says,
you are now a million particles
orbiting in space,
may you keep on spinning.
Or else as I look out tonight,
I hope you fall like snow
and settle for a while.”

Elder’s language is unassuming in this poem, and therein lies its strength. There’s no need for him to over-reach himself in his choice of simile (“like snow”), as he therefore encourages the reader to focus on the following line, where “for a while”, seemingly so slight and insubstantial, suddenly charges the whole poem with temporal significance. A less surefooted poet might have attempted an unexpected, jolting comparison so as to obtain their effect, instead of allowing their language to grow organically as in this case.

The most successful poems in The Space Between Us possess an ease and natural ear for sentence structure. They belie the hard work that must have been required to chip away until their choice of words felt inevitable and necessary. Another such example is “In Our Path”:

“There wasn’t anything more we could do –
the kitten noosed by orange wire lay dead
against the works where a team had fixed a leaking pipe.

Before we lay it beneath leaves
in a peaty shallow, you held the body
with the same care you had cradled Daniel
on that morning when everything changed.”

In this instance, Elder deftly layers insignificant details until they take on new meaning, while also holding back certain background information in the last line so as to let the poem open out beyond its ending.

All in all, The Space Between Us represents a strong statement of intent from a poet who’s brave enough to take on simplicity. Neil Elder’s verse offers us an excellent counterpoint to the commonplace usage of linguistic fireworks, and I very much look forward to seeing where he takes it from here.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Review in Under the Radar

Having long been an admirer of Jane Commane's project at Nine Arches Press, having read at the launch of Issue One of its magazine, Under the Radar, and having witnessed its steady growth into excellent full collections since then, I'm especially pleased to report that a lovely review of The Knives of Villalejo has just been published in the latest issue of the afore-mentioned mag.

I'm grateful to Jane Commane, to Maria Taylor (the reviews editor at Under the Radar) and, of course, to the reviewer herself, Deborah Tyler-Bennett, for these generous words about my first full collection:

"...Matthew Stewart's...poems were, for me, moving, sensual and poignant with a rare poetic outcome, at least for this reader - they made me want to go and cook..."

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Richie McCaffery's poetry blog

Richie McCaffery has shut up shop at The Cat Flap, which formed part of his Copy Cats project, and has started a new poetry blog that holds great promise if his previous record is anything to go by. This new venture coincides with Richie's return to the U.K. from Belgium, and you can read his post about that process here.

His second full collection, titled Passport, is due out from Nine Arches Press on 27th July, and is one of the most anticipated books of 2018 in this household. More on Passport once I get hold of a copy...

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


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" 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...

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Richie McCaffery reviews The Knives of Villalejo

Over at his Copy Cats blog, Richie McCaffery has posted a beautifully written and insightful review of The Knives of Villalejo. Richie produces lovely prose and "gets" my poetry in every way, so I'm delighted to read his words and learn more about my own work in the process. I'm not going to quote from his review here, simply because that wouldn't do its carefully crafted structure sufficient justice. Instead, I suggest you read it in full here.

Moreover, one of the most significant poetry events in 2018 will be the publication of Richie's second full collection, Passport, which is due out from Nine Arches Press in July. I'm not saying that as a consequence of his having been complimentary about my own book, but because the poems he's published recently in journals represent a step up from was was already a terrific standard. Passport will be a collection to savour and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Wood Bee Poet

2018 is already proving to be a bumper year for the emergence of interesting poetry blogs. The latest to have caught my eye is Wood Bee Poet. Run by Chris Edgoose, it features a blend of original verse and critical articles, while it's also not scared of tackling awkward issues: for example, one intriguing recent post featured an analysis of the fall-out in the media and blogosphere from the RebeccaWatts-Hollie McNish affair. I'll be keeping a close eye on its development over the coming months.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Lawrence Schimel on The Knives of Villalejo

Lawrence Schimel has had some very generous things to say about The Knives of Villalejo over on Twitter (see here), highlighting especially my poem "Sooner or Later", describing it as a "real heartstopper."

I first met Lawrence at The Poetry Book Fair in London back in 2012 when I was launching Tasting Notes, my second HappenStance pamphlet, and I've admired his work ever since. Moreover, the fact he lives in Madrid means he has a keen understanding of my own life between countries and cultures. I'm delighted that he should be enjoying my collection.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018


Once a mainstay in my poems, it gradually became an occasional prop. These days, it's a warning sign that my narrative isn't strong enough to indicate a series of events without outside help.

As a consequence, it's one of the first words to be taken out of any draft. Its removal is an implicit challenge to the rest of the piece to avoid a similar fate. Of course, there will always be a certain poem that demands an inevitable exception to the rule...

Monday, 23 April 2018

A poem for St George's Day

The 23rd

in memory of George Stewart

It casually loiters in the fourth line
of April, pretending not to stalk me,
the expiry date on David's passport
and the start of a trade fair in Brussels.
It knows full well you chose your namesake's day
to die, as if you were somehow afraid
I might forget. As if I ever could.

from The Knives of Villalejo (Eyewear Publishing, 2017)

Saturday, 21 April 2018

A killer ending

Just for the hell of it, for the sheer relish of its rightness, I'd like to share with you the killer ending to Helena Nelson's "Ultimatum" from her terrific collection, Starlight on Water:

"...Come to bed, I said
shivering, now. Time later
when sad love's fed
to talk ultimata."

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Sue Ibrahim's My Natural World

To finish off my trio of posts about blogs that have caught my eye recently, I'd like to highlight Sue Ibrahim's My Natural World today. It charts her personal exploration of contemporary poetry, while also providing enlightening posts on the relationship between poetry, nature and other literary genres. All in all, it's well worth a regular read, as I'm finding out myself.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Rob Moore's poetry blog

I love exploring the internet and encountering interesting new poetry blogs out there, so I was delighted to find Rob Moore's DRB poems the other day. He labels his reviews with a "Learning to read" hash tag, but they're far better written than that. One of his recent features is on the latest issue of Strix, and it's well worth a look (see here). Of course, I'm bound to be biased, as he's chosen to quote from my poem in the article!

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Angela Topping's poetry blog

Today's featured poetry blog is by Angela Topping. Apart from being an excellent poet, Angela is also a well-known critic and experienced blogger whose posts offer their readers a perfect blend of anecdote, views and content with a wider reach and interest.

One excellent example is her recent piece about her visit to Stanza. Not only does it give a personal insight into her experience in St Andrews, but it captures much of what this terrific festival is all about. I recommend a leisurely read (see here), followed by intense planning for a visit yourself next year!

Angela's blog wasn't on my blogroll along the right-hand side of Rogue Strands, but I'll be sorting that out right now...

Sunday, 8 April 2018

A couple of stats

Rogue Strands has recently passed two major milestones: we're now motoring well beyond 200,000 page views and have over 3,000 followers on Twitter. These are figures I could never have envisaged when I started the blog back in 2009. I'm very grateful to everyone who's visited Rogue Strands and read my posts, especially bearing in mind that its monthly reach is growing all the time.

There's more to come, of course: several exciting volumes are already lined up for review later on this year and a spot of original poetry is on the way, all alongside features on poetry blogs that have caught my eye. I hope you'll accompany me once more...

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Beyond the booze, Ramona Herdman's Bottle

Having worked in the wine trade for nearly twenty years, I’ve witnessed both the short-term and long-term consequences of alcohol on people’s lives. Moreover, I’ve read and heard a whole litany of opposing sayings and expressions as to whether or not we reflect our true selves when consuming booze.

My own conclusion is that alcohol doesn’t actually cause us to tell or find truths or lies. Instead, it warps our visions and interpretations like a concave mirror. As such, it distorts reality, which brings me to the subject of this review: Ramona Herdman’s Bottle (HappenStance Press, 2017).

A facile interpretation of Bottle would be to conclude that its theme is the demon drink. In fact, this pamphlet uses alcohol as a point of departure and reference, exploring the effects of that afore-mentioned concave mirror on Herdman's life and on the lives of those around her.

One initial problem when approaching a pamphlet with such thematic drive and unity is that the poet’s technique risks being left in the background. In Herdman’s case, that would be a great pity, as she has many strengths. For instance, there’s her terrific ear, as in the following line from “In Vino”:

“…snigger and whimper and spite…”

The repetition of “er” is obvious, but Herdman’s real skill emerges in the way she uses the “sp” of the third noun, “spite”, to bring together the “s” of “snigger” and the ”p” of whimper”, followed by the bite of the “t”.  

This musical strength combines terrifically with subject matter in one of the most representative poems from the pamphlet, “Drinking Partner”, which is addressed to a father figure and ends as follows:

“…You are the person I’d most like to drink with.
I leave a glass of Bells out at night – like kids,
I hope, still do for Father Christmas. It makes
the morning smell of you.”

The break between the second and third line of this quatrain provides us with a gorgeous undermining of the poem’s narrator – “…like kids/I hope…”, while “do” in the third line plays off against “you” in the fourth, encouraging us to stress that final word of the poem against potential assumptions, thus magnifying its significance. Of course, the last line is also foreshortened, as Herdman accelerates through to the core of her poem.

These brief snippets from Bottle are intended to serve as a taster of its rich layers, of the delicate craft and art that lie just beneath its surface, of the contradictions that are inherent in our relationship with alcohol. Like all top-notch poetry, it leads us back to a fresh reflection on our own experiences.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Rishi Dastidar on The Knives of Villalejo

Rishi Dastidar has posted some very generous words about The Knives of Villalejo on Twitter, mentioning its "delicate, clear, potent poems on loss, exile, food, wine - the stuff that matters." You can find and follow Rishi on Twitter via this link.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Podcast with Rory Waterman

If anyone needed any reminder or confirmation that Rory Waterman is one of the most significant poets and editors around on the U.K. scene, his recent podcast for the Scottish Poetry Library should do the trick pretty well. I strongly recommend a leisurely listen or two, as Waterman's a terrific reader of his own work. Moreover, his honesty and insight shine through when discussing wider issues. You can find the podcast by following this link.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

My other life

As well as being a poet, I also have another life as the export manager and blender for a Spanish winery called Viñaoliva. Here's a photo of me on our stand at the Prowein fair in Düsseldorf last weekend...

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Sheenagh Pugh reviews The Knives of Villalejo

I've long admired Sheenagh Pugh's work as a poet and critic, so I'm very pleased to report that she's posted an excellent, insightful review of The Knives of Villalejo on her blog, where she gets to grips with the nuts and bolts of several poems, and enables me to see my own writing in a new light. You can read Sheenagh's post in full by following this link, but in the meantime here's a brief extract to give you a flavour of her views:

" "Making Paella with David", we have a child growing up and a parent attempting to let him, without interfering out of pardonable anxiety:

...Bell peppers
are staining the blade of his knife.
It's time to let ingredients 
become a dish. He taps my arm.
Together we spark the gas.

That middle sentence, "It's time to let ingredients/become a dish" is so succinct, and so perfect..."

Wednesday, 7 March 2018


The emergence of a high-quality, print-based journal is a cause for celebration in these internet-dominated times, so I was delighted to encounter Strix last year, a magazine from Leeds that specialises in poetry and short fiction. Edited by Ian Harker and Andrew Lambeth, it's now reached Issue Three, which also happens to include one of my poems. Again, that's definitely a cause for celebration down here in deepest Extremadura!

You can read more about Strix on their website, and copies of Issue Three will soon be available. I'd love to attend the launch at Hyde Park Book Club in Leeds on 19th March, but work commitments mean I'll be at the Prowein trade fair in Düsseldorf on that day.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

StAnza Festival 2018

If there's ever a chance to revive your belief in poetry, to remind you that spoken word and poems on the page can not only co-exist but feed off each other, to bring you back to old favourites and introduce you to exciting new names, it's StAnza.

The 2018 festival runs from 7th to 11th March, filling St Andrews with all things poetical. It's scheduled events, for example, that focus on the subject of "Borderlines", while "Going Dutch" concentrates on poets from the Netherlands and Flanders, all this alongside numerous other readings by poets from all over the world.

However, year after year, the overriding theme of StAnza is its inclusiveness, exploring and celebrating the whole range and spectrum of poetry today. You can find the catalogue of events, screenings and exhibitions at the festival website here.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Reconciled with contradictions, Tania Hershman's Terms and Conditions

The poetry in Tania Hershman’s first full collection, Terms and Conditions (Nine Arches Press, 2017), is riddled with strong storylines. This is perhaps to be expected, bearing in mind her background as an acclaimed short story writer. So what makes her verse different from her prose?

Well, first off, there’s her control and manipulation of line length and ending, as in the following extract from “Getting away with it”:

“…I want you
to hold my hand
for slightly longer
than is necessary…"

The statement “I want you” seems clear and strong when given a line of its own, as in this case. Of course, it’s immediately undercut and weakened by the next line. This is one of many indications that Hershman understands the nuts and bolts of poetry.

Moreover, the above extract leads us into a pivotal thematic, semantic and syntactic element of Terms and Conditions: tension. Those line endings ramp up tension, the qualifying of apparent absolutes ramps up tensions, while the development of opposites – in this case weak and strong – also ramps up tension.

To what end all this tension? This next quote is enlightening on that front. It’s from “The uncertainty principle”, in which the speaker waits for wanted/unwanted post to come through the door. The poem’s title is significant. This piece homes in on human emotions yet it references a scientific principle, striking up yet another tension between the two. Hershamn raises doubts as to science’s ability to provide insight while simultaneously seeking refuge in its resources:  

“…I could seal

the hole
with tape,

brown paper,
string. But I prefer

to make friends
with uncertainty,

keep breathing,
let it all in.”

Once more, line endings are key to an understanding of this poem. “To make friends” seems straightforward until it’s nuanced by the following line: “with uncertainty”, as the speaker becomes reconciled with apparent contradictions

In conclusion, Tania Hershman’s first full collection is characterised by the deft way she works through her relationship with life, always implicating and involving the reader in that process. By acknowledging that life is packed with tensions and opposites, by accepting and embracing their juxtaposition and coexistence, she’s able to renegotiate her own terms and conditions.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Guest poet on John Foggin's blog

I'm very grateful to John Foggin for featuring me as the guest poet today on his blog (otherwise known as The Great Fogginzo's Cobweb).

Foggin's prose style is easygoing but precise. He chats to the reader, but his words pack a punch. On this occasion, not only does he feature four poems from The Knives of Villalejo and say nice things about my poetry, but he also makes relevant and thought-provoking remarks about short poems in general. You can read his post for yourself here.

Monday, 12 February 2018

South Downs Poetry Festival 2018

On the back of two terrific events in Newcastle and Huddersfield last week, both packed with poetry lovers, book buyers and old and new friends, I'm delighted to report that my next scheduled reading from The Knives of Villalejo will take place at the South Downs Poetry Festival in Chichester on 30th May, when I'll be the guest poet at the New Park Centre.

Part of the 2018 programme is already up on the festival website (see here, even though it still mentions 2017 at the top). Suffice to say, I'm absolutely chuffed to have the chance to read in the city where I'm based when in the U.K..

Friday, 2 February 2018

Readings in Newcastle and Huddersfield

I've got two readings coming up next week: Newcastle on Wednesday 7th February and Huddersfield the following evening. Here are the details!

Red Squirrel Press organise an annual fundraiser in aid of the Lit & Phil in Newcastle. This year, it'll be taking place on Wednesday 7th February at the Literary and Philiosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, entry 3 pounds, starting at 7 p.m. I'm very grateful to Sheila Wakefield for the invitation to read as the guest poet at this event alongside Red Squirrel poets/authors Tom Kelly, Ellen Phethean and Colin Will.

On Thursday 8th February, meanwhile, I'll be reading at Albert Poets in Huddersfield with Stephanie Bowgett, who kindly invited me, Anthony Costello  and Mandy Sutter. This reading will take place at The Albert in Victoria Lane from 8 p.m. onwards. On this occasion, entry is free.

I'm looking forward to exploring interesting places, as well as seeing lovely people I've only ever met over the internet. What's more, I'm relishing the chance to read at two iconic venues that are packed with poetry history in very different ways...!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Pivotal details, Roy Marshall's The Great Animator

I’ve been a fan of Roy Marshall’s poetry ever since I read and reviewed (see here) his first pamphlet, Gopagilla, which Crystal Clear Creators published back in 2012. He’s now on his second full collection, The Great Animator (Shoestring Press, 2017), and his development has been startling.

The Great Animator brings us a poet in full maturity. First off, there’s Marshall’s talent for producing endings that provide satisfaction but then unsettle and open out beyond the text. One such instance can be found in the final lines of “Expresso”:

“…His heart, once as easily excited by this dark syrup
as by a lover’s touch, has grown steady, accustomed.”

This extract also provides us with a fine example of Marshall’s mastery of cadence. He has a keen sense of the weight of every syllable, together with a delicate control over the ebb and flow of language.

The collection is packed with terrific narratives. Moreover, Marshall has learnt to home in on the pivotal details that make a story come alive, as in “Thaw”, in which the first stanza sees a grandson waiting outside “by a patch of snow/that’s losing its grip on gravel. The final stanza, meanwhile, invokes a mother’s offer of “a little ice-cream” to an ill grandmother, leading through to another excellent ending:

“…She nods, though both of you know
it’ll melt untouched while she sleeps.”

In this poem, Marshall is inviting the reader to compare and contrast two different thaws, all tied with the drip-drip of three generations. The invitation, of course, is implicit.

Perhaps the most striking poems in The Great Animator are those that portray Marshall’s work as a Coronary Care Nurse. Their strongest quality is their invocation of empathy, as they enable us to connect with the person that lies behind the health professional, casting new light on the patient-doctor/nurse relationship. One such poem is “Carrying the Arrest Bleep”. Again, its final lines are terrific:

“…and when the registrar asks
if we agree to stop, I meet
his eye, and nod.”

The above extract offers us yet another of Marshall’s “pivotal details”: the human meeting of eyes, as the people behind the jobs are revealed.

In The Great Animator, Roy Marshall demonstrates the technical and thematic skills of a mature poet. He’s come to trust not just himself but his readers. The least we can do is get hold of a copy and be thankful for the generosity of his poems.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Artificial battle lines

And so yet again the poetry world is spoiling for an internal fight, aiming for civil war instead of forming a common front to take on the fact that millions of people ignore the genre’s existence.

Everything is kicking off on the back of an article titled The Cult of the Noble Amateur in PN Review. Written by Rebecca Watts, it dissects the poetry of Holly McNish and has provoked umpteen discussions on social media.

Artificial battle lines are being drawn (on this occasion spoken word vs written verse, accessibility vs elitism) rather than opportunities being taken. A huge new audience/readership for poetry has developed and is growing, day after day, thanks to the emergence of new ways of reaching people. This can only be positive for all poets, whatever their tastes. Moreover, major publishing houses are encountering new income streams and prominence on bookshop shelves for verse that will inevitably feed back in to all the poets on their list, whatever their aesthetic stance and method.

Here’s an analogy with the wine trade: many young people here in Extremadura drink lager. They find oak-aged red wine a step too far from beer. Over the past few years, a number of wineries (mine included) have brought out fresh, low-alcohol white wines that are aimed at this market. These white wines have taken off and become incredibly successful.

Right now, not only have we managed to wean a whole host of beer drinkers on to wine, growing the market, but more and more of these consumers are also starting to move on to the reds they used to eschew, using those whites as a stepping stone. Of course, a newly acquired taste for those oak-aged red wines doesn’t mean they should turn their noses up at the fresh white wines they used to drink. There’s a moment, a place and a mood for both.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Review in The North

The new issue of The North (nº59) is now out and features an excellent review of The Knives of Villalejo. I'm very grateful to D.A. Prince for her extremely kind words. If you want to read it in full, alongside a host of other reviews and original poems, you can get hold of a copy over at The Poetry Business website. For the moment, here's a quote that I'll savour:

"...There is a richness and depth in this collection, far more than its relatively short length might suggest...Despite the vivid pictures of his own life Stewart’s concentration does not exclude the reader; instead, it opens up ways of examining what gives texture to all our days. Short poems, and a short collection but within The Knives of Villalejo there is a resonance beyond many longer, wordier volumes."

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Feminine muscularity, Naomi Jaffa's The Last Hour of Sleep

Naomi Jaffa is perhaps best known for her old job as Director of the Poetry Trust and driving force behind the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. However, she’s also a poet herself. I was dimly aware of this fact, but Anthony Wilson’s recommendation of her recent pamphlet, Driver, brought my interest into focus. Of course, being contrary, I decided to begin exploring her work by going back to the start and getting hold of her first chapbook, The Last Hour of Sleep, which was published by Five Leaves back in 2003.

It’s a remarkable book. A detailing of its qualities might theoretically provide insufficient insight, but there is a definite usefulness in listing them, as its surprising juxtapositions and delicately achieved combinations of theme and technique are key to any understanding of The Last Hour of Sleep. In Jaffa’s hands, the everyday becomes disturbing, the ordinary becomes startling, bold expressions of sexuality become matter-of-fact, clear-cut emotions become loaded with ambiguity, straightforward lines become complex.

The ending to “Weekend” provides one such example:

“…That winter, another weekend, holed-up beside a lake
in a log cabin in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, you opted out

of our fantasy with us and your best friend, Richard. I still wonder
what you felt looking down through the banisters,

why you risked leaving us in front of the fire, seeing
much too clearly what you were missing.”

Such long lines are notoriously difficult to pace and control, but Jaffa’s sense of cadence is surefooted here. Moreover, her juggling of pronouns and prepositions is so clear and precise that it almost goes unnoticed. And then there’s the incredibly skilled manipulation of “risked”. Jaffa turns the verb on its head, making the reader wonder just who was risking more, what they were risking, whether this piece itself is a fantasy or reality. The poem’s feminine muscularity is striking.

The Last Hour of Sleep is packed with such instances of verbs being invested with fresh meanings, as in the following extract from “Unrehearsed”:

“…When skin no longer breathes it yellows and grows cold,
one-sided conversation soon runs dry,
trousers stain and smell without embarrassment.
Everything and nothing is too late…”

Of course, breathing wouldn’t initially be associated with skin. However, Jaffa pulls off the achievement of jolting the reader with this surprise before making it feel natural and inevitable, thus reinvigorating and strengthening the verb’s power.

This extract also highlights Jaffa’s deft use of juxtapositions. Not only is an everyday detail followed by the invocation of abstracts but those two apparently opposing abstracts – nothing and everything - are conflated and given the same quality.

The Last Hour of Sleep is an exceptional pamphlet. It goes without saying that I’ll be seeking out Driver as soon as possible, while a full collection from Naomi Jaffa would be a thing of wonder.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Necessary poems

There's a school of thought that claims poems can only be any good if they "need" to be written. The argument goes that any poem arisen from a prompt, exercise, workshop, etc, is inherently flawed because there wasn't a necessity of expression at its source.

The opposing argument, however, would have it that many poems can become necessary. From this perspective, an inconsequential or artificial starting point is irrelevant to the degree of necessity that's expressed by the finished product. In this respect, I'd personally suggest that the dichotomy should be nuanced to reflect the difference between a writer's need to write a poem and a reader's need to read it.

However, my own conclusion goes further. I've seen rubbish that's been written out of so-called necessity, while I've seen exceptional poems that were written out of exercises. It all depends, like always, on the individual poet's capacity for taking a point of departure and taking it on a journey.

One such example can be found in Paul Stephenson's terrific recent pamphlet, Selfie with Waterlilies. He clearly states that many of those poems in the afore-mentioned chapbook were born out of workshops, yet that doesn't make them any less authentic or moving. The success of a piece still depends on the poet's capacity to make leaps and thus engage the reader, whatever the source. That's the key to writing a necessary poem.