Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Declan Ryan's poem at Wild Court

Over at Wild Court, Robert Selby's keen editorial eye continues to find excellent new work for his readers on a regular basis. The latest example is a poem by Declan Ryan (see here), which is ostensibly just about boxing but also reaches out beyond the sport in question to tackle wider human issues.

I've long admired Ryan's work and reviewed his previous pamphlet on Rogue Strands, so I'm especially pleased to see this piece by him, along with the news that his latest pamphlet, titled Fighters, Losers, is about to be published by Rory Waterman et al at New Walk Editions. I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy and reporting back...

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Fame in the poetry world

Fame in the poetry world has always been ephemeral. However, this shifting of trends has accelerated even more over the last few years, due to the internet in general and social media in particular. The flavour of the month has shifted to a week, day, hour and minute.

Here’s an example: back in the 1990s, Steven Blyth was a major figure in the poetry world. He was a Gregory Award winner with poems in all the top journals and a terrific first full collection, titled Baddy, which I still drop back into on a regular basis and will feature on Rogue Strands in the near future. Moreover, he also ran one of the best poetry mags around – Prop – where I discovered that there really were people writing in a similar aesthetic to myself.

Prop eventually ran out of steam, as did Blyth’s publisher, Peterloo Press. He’s since published with Shoestring and Smokestack, and continues to bring out high quality collections every few years, but he’s certainly not in fashion. Just try searching for him on Twitter, for instance.

When we’re feeling the online pressure of our peers’ relentless announcements of success after momentary success, Steven Blyth’s story is worth bearing in mind, not as an example of why it isn’t worth bothering with publication, but because he encapsulates a key reason why the opposite is true…

…thanks to his earlier books, Blyth has accumulated readers such as myself, readers who’ll keep his work alive and bring it to a new audience. If a poet garners a small band of appreciative followers, they’ve achieved something special, something they can treasure for the long haul. As is the internet’s wont, fame can do one, sharpish.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Writing poetry in silence?

I have to admit I'm always surprised when other poets tell me they write with music playing in the background. I find music imposes its own sounds, and doesn't allow the rhythm, cadence and melody of words to form in my head and then fall on to the page. In other words, I need silence to write poetry. What about you...?

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

A poem in Finished Creatures magazine

The last few years has seen the welcome emergence of a handful of print-based poetry magazines in the U.K., and now there's an additional name to add to that list: Finished Creatures.

Finished Creatures is one of the most startling new arrivals. Seldom have I seen such a stellar line-up for the first issue of a journal, which makes me even more pleased to have a poem in it myself. Moving on to the production values, meanwhile, they're top-notch, as is the typesetting and design. All in all, Jan Heritage, the editor, has done an amazing job, and I'll be keeping a close eye on the development of this exciting project over the coming months and years.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

And this morning...

And this morning I sit and savour Tom Duddy's poems yet again, their quiet resonance, their unassuming ability to reveal human truths, their delicate merging of cadence and meaning, and I yearn yet again for new poems by him that can never come, and I celebrate yet again the book in my hands that means I can still sit and savour Tom Duddy's poems...

Monday, 22 April 2019

A poem in Coming and Going

I'm delighted to report that one of my poems, Dad on the M25 after midnight, has been included in the new HappenStance anthology, Coming and Going. There'll be a more detailed post forthcoming once I get my hands on the copy that's anxiously waiting for me...

Monday, 15 April 2019

Mark Antony Owen's Subruria

Self-publication has long been a thing. Even the likes of Walt Whitman did it. However, the advent of the internet has facilitated the process even more, and a trickle has become a deluge, a deluge that often feels more therapeutic than artistic.

In the context of the above, I was especially surprised to discover Mark Antony Owen's poetry. His work displays a surefooted sense of cadence, hard-acquired technical knowledge of metre and a deft knack for narrative layering, accessibility combining with depth. It's also self-published.

Owen's made a conscious decision not to submit to journals or publishers. Instead, he's developed his own online project, titled Subruria, and it's well worth a browse.

A key issue is whether this choice is liberating, whether it enables him to fly on his own terms, finding a new audience via the freedom of the internet, or whether it's denying him editorial input, critical approval and access to readers who find their poets through more traditional means. Either way, his poetry's excellent, and I'll be following the development of Subruria with a keen eye.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

A slanted journey, Charlotte Gann's Noir

There’s a poetry that doesn’t tackle difficult subjects head-on, preferring instead to seek out angles that might lend new perspectives. It’s not cowardly for doing so. In fact, its risk-taking is greater, as it doesn’t pulse out obvious messages. Instead, it prefers a far more subtle, more powerful and longer-lasting approach to its awkward themes, while also having to accept consequent critical misinterpretation will be rife.

One such example is Charlotte Gann’s Noir (HappenStance Press, 2016). The poet’s technique throughout this collection is to invite her readers to compare and contrast, and to use these reflections as a point of departure.

First off, there’s the title itself. It evokes and invokes a niche of writing and of cinema in which what’s left unsaid is often more significant than what is actually uttered. That niche, meanwhile, just like these poems, plays on our own fears, phobias and hang-ups via other peoples’ narratives.

The above, of course, are comparisons. Nevertheless, Gann’s technique really changes gear once we home in on the contrasts. Those afore-mentioned films and books are predominately written from a male perspective. Her collection, however, often portrays events from a female point of view, as in Love Poem:

…He buried this one years ago, churchyard
down the lane. Thick ankled and drunk she was.
Now she’s back, pupils huge in the moonlight.

He licks dry lips, lamp at the window.
Stabs his nib deep in the inkwell. His  new
young wife starts, cheeks paling, eyes watering.

Pauses at her stitch, but does not speak.
He’s taught her about interrupting.

This poem seems at first to describe a typical Film Noir scene, but its exploration of the dark is actually an exploration of gender roles. This man and woman are characters in an abusive relationship. Gann subverts her readers’ expectations, bringing the piece to a close with a shocking focus on the new young wife.

Throughout her collection, Charlotte Gann never leads us down a specific empathetic path that’s clearly marked. She doesn’t put emotions on display, while always ensuring she doesn't tell us what or how to feel. Her characters are allowed to act out their own stories because the poet trusts us to pick up the baton at that point. One such example is the ending to Corners:

...It's only after his late train pulls out,
and a passing friend, concerned, touches her
back gently, that she bends double on
the pavement outside the station, and cries out. 

Noir is not a one-dimensioned homage to cinema, nor is it a relentless series of similar scenes. It’s a textured, multi-layered, slanted journey through the depths of human relationships, never savouring the dark but fearing its connotations and consequences, seeking out a chink of light. If you don’t have a copy, get one. If you have a copy, why not read it again and see whether you agree with me…?

Friday, 29 March 2019

Poem in the Glasgow Review of Books

I'm grateful to Sam Tongue, the poetry editor at the Glasgow Review of Books, for having chosen one of my most recent poems to be published today. You can read it here alongside new work by Mat Riches and Ralph Monday. I'd especially recommend Mat Riches' piece - apart from being a good friend, he also writes excellent poetry!

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Elizabeth Bartlett's poetry

I’ve been putting off this post for months, all because I’m acutely aware that the format of a blog post means I can’t do the subject matter sufficient justice. As a consequence, I’ve decided to provide something of a point of departure for my readers in the hope that you’ll then pick up the baton.

Let’s cut to the chase: in the view of this blogger, Elizabeth Bartlett is one of the most remarkable poets to have emerged in the U.K. in the second half of the twentieth century.  

Why is she so little-known? Why is my copy of her new and selected poems, Two Women Dancing (Bloodaxe Books, 1995) a never-opened review copy with a little yellowed slip from the publisher still inside, plaintively stating “We would appreciate a copy of any review or mention you might give this book”? Why has there barely been any mention of her on Google since her death in 2008?

Numerous arguments can be put forward, some of them overlapping, none of them conclusive. First off is the old chestnut of her work not quite fitting into any group or school. It does contain elements of the aesthetic of the Movement, but her thematic scope and forthright attitude to emotion, alongside her acute approach to form (metrics hovering over every line like a ghost), mean that such comparisons fall short.

Several attempts, meanwhile, to shoehorn her poetry into labels of “working-class feminist” or “amateur poet” sell her writing short on every count. Firstly, her lightly-worn erudition underpins all her work. Secondly, her focus on female characters is her personal expression of the human and social condition rather than a political stance. What is true, however, is that Elizabeth Bartlett’s poetry would probably be far better known if she’d been a man.

At this point, having made a theoretical case, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty. What are the main themes in Bartlett’s poetry? Well, they range from taking the Mickey out of the (mainly male) poetry establishment to monologues in the voices of the social underclass via Bartlett’s professional experiences as an employee of the NHS, while also stopping off to pare back assigned roles in tortured love affairs.

Here are a couple of quotes as examples of the above. To start with, a startling opening to a startling poem, titled This Room

Since you took me by the hand
and led me to my mother’s unmade bed,
I have never got it right with men.
I remember the pale sun lighting up
the flowered wallpaper, the counterpane…

And here, in Stretch Marks, she’s brilliant on those male poets…

…Mostly they teach, and some must be
fathers, but they have no stretch marks
on their smooth stomachs to prove it.
At least we know our children
are our own. They can never really
tell, but poems they can be sure of.

And in Quite a Day, she takes on the voice of a young mother who’s being visited by a social worker:

You didn’t say you liked my house.
You just sat down, asking questions,
legs crossed at the ankles, removing
the toddler’s hands from your clip-board.
I had washed the coloured crayon marks
off the walls for you, and scrubbed
the rush matting so it smelled as sweet
as summertime in far away Norfolk,
and herded the cats into the garden
so they shouldn’t tear your tights…

Elizabeth Bartlett deserves a full-blown feature in a major journal, she deserves critical attention, she deserves wider recognition. I can’t manage any of that with this blog post. However, she also deserves readers and maybe, just maybe, I can gain her one or two. If you want to try, I thoroughly recommend that you start with Two Women Dancing. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Two poems at Wild Court

While in the midst of enjoying StAnza, I discovered the additional good news that two of my most recent poems had been published by Wild Court (you can read them here). This news was especially good because I've been following Wild Court since it launched and have long regarded it as one of the best web-based poetry journals in the U.K..

Rob Selby, the editor at Wild Court, has done an excellent job. He's curated a terrific collection of original work, essays and features, and I'd especially recommend a read of Liz Berry's recent poem, Highbury Park, which was published there a few days before my work appeared.

Monday, 11 March 2019

A postscript to StAnza

I could and should praise StAnza for its superb array of poets, its beautiful venues and its excellent organisation, but what I'll treasure most from the past few days is its ability to remind us that we're not alone in our love of the genre. StAnza brings the poetry community together before sending us home with an incredible glow that lingers long, demanding that we read and write poetry, poetry, poetry...

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

StAnza: my reading with Diana Hendry

StAnza is coming and so am I! I'm setting off on Thursday morning, driving 300 miles up to Madrid and taking a flight to Edinburgh before making my way to St Andrews.

I'll be reading at a Border Crossings event alongside Diana Hendry on Saturday 9th March, starting at 11.30 a.m. (here's a link to my reading on the festival website), while I'm also looking forward to meeting old and new friends, attending other readings and buying as many books as I can fit in my hand luggage...

Friday, 1 March 2019

Martyn Crucefix - Works and Days of Division

Over at his excellent blog, Martyn Crucefix has just embarked on an ambitious project. Titled Works and Days of Division, it's made up of 29 original poems by Crucefix himself that will be published on a daily basis from today (see here) to 29th March.

Of course, we're all only too aware that 29/3 is Brexit day, and these poems will portray and address the current divided state of the U.K., both directly and indirectly. Bearing in mind that I've long admired Martyn's work, the chance to follow the publication of 29 new pieces - all inviting the reader to engage with painful current affairs - seems to me a top-notch example of politically aware poetry at its best. Here's hoping that over the coming weeks this exciting project receives the recognition it so richly deserves...

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Mat Riches' poetry blog

Mat Riches' poetry blog, Wear The Fox Hat, is a relative newcomer to the scene but is already one of my favourites.

His professional background in television marketing and advertising provides us with an excellent and timely reminder of how work can illuminate poetry, as in his excellent recent feature on the subject (see here), while his honesty and self-deprecating humour also lend a journal-like quality to his weekly posts. He generously shares his journey through attempts, successes and failures in writing and publishing poems, reminding and reassuring other poets that they're not alone.

Wear The Fox Hat is an excellent addition to the world of poetry blogging, and I've added it to the blog roll that runs down the right-hand side of this page.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Writing simply

Helena Nelson's blog posts after her reading windows are always fascinating, and the latest one is no exception (see here). Of particular interest is her remark that she wrote the following on many poems this time: Writing simply is the hardest thing.

I'm personally drawn to this statement, as it very much mirrors my own poetic approach and method. Helena Nelson suggests that one reason why poets are afraid to write plainly is because they're worried the result wouldn't be a poem at all. I'd agree with her, but argue that writing simply also carries huge risks. There are no accoutrements, no verbal fireworks, no make-up to hide any flaws, and the consequence is that any mistakes become glaring.

Countless poets, editors and critics appear to equate simple with easy or facile. However, the reverse is true, as many readers recognise. This last point seems to me a good thing. We all want readers, don't we...?

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Subverted pronouns, Oliver Comins' Oak Fish Island

It’s relatively easy to identify certain very English qualities in Oliver Comins’ first full collection, Oak Fish Island (Templar Poetry, 2018), but there’s also a slippery something that makes his poetry stand out from the crowd and resist any attempts to pigeonhole him.

Twenty-five years in the writing, Oak Fish Island features restrained lyricism, quiet observation and subtle layering of detail, yet a list of these characteristics undoubtedly sells Comins’ work short. Here are snippets from four poems, all of which hint at the poet’s idiosyncratic traits:

…My heart – or was it yours? –
flying solo on the Jubilee line,
already gone for what was
beginning to seem like forever.
(from Day Trip to Brighton)

It wasn’t me, as such, kissing the organist
when you slipped through the church
looking for your poem…
(from All Saints)

…Someone is walking down a street
past this row of terraced cottages,
their gardens silent and still…
(from Old Cold)

When I send this to you
it is a boy writing to a girl
and I am sorry it has to be
like that – knowing the tide
of your want can change…
(from What Sort of a Man am I?)

These seemingly disparate poems are united by the doubt they cast on the reader’s assumptions, by the way roles are undermined, by the way pronouns stand on shaky ground.

One of Comins’ main achievements in Oak Fish Farm is the subversion of the English lyric tradition. At first sight, he seem to fit snugly into its check list, as mentioned at the beginning of this review, but that’s only until those pronouns start to unsettle us, bit by bit. We begin to wonder about the particulars of the poet’s or the speaker’s relationships, and our frustration grows as we find them difficult to discern, as if Comins were holding back on us, afraid to show his life or flesh out narratives and contexts.

Of course, as the collection progresses, it becomes clear that the exact opposite is true. Comins’ technique plays with our aesthetic and thematic expectations, enabling us to cast off facile suppositions. This approach is not an affectation, nor is it a mere device. Instead, it’s a poetic method.

Moreover, one potential problem with the reading of Oliver Comin’s work is that an individual poem, taken out of context, might appear unsatisfactory. Only in the context of his full collection can the magnitude and coherence of his vision be recognised and understood.

Oak Fish Island is not only a tremendously enjoyable book but also a terrific achievement. It reaches out beyond the specific to the universal, homing in on the key issues of life and poetry. As such, it’s one of the most significant collections I’ve encountered in recent years. I’ll be savouring Oliver Comins’ poems for a long time to come.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Ross Wilson's poems in The Dark Horse

The latest issue (nº40) of The Dark Horse is a corker. Many readers have already mentioned their own favourites via social media, highlighting above all Rob A. MacKenzie's thought-provoking essay on Fascism and Criticism, which I too very much enjoyed as a counterpoint to the Twitter storm that was whipped up by the Martínez de las Rivas controversy.

However, my personal preference in this issue is for the poems by Ross Wilson. Apart from stoking debates, a key part of any poetry magazine's role is to enable its readers to discover poets that are new to them, and Gerry Cambridge has done an excellent job here in selecting these pieces. Wilson's endings are especially well executed. Here are two of them from Shine and Fitwork:

...I catch what I can with my pen
so that when you read this poem
the light that graced you as a bairn
will shine in you again.

going on forty, I feel
clock hands speeding up
as my hands and feet slow down.

I'll now be seeking out Wilson's first full collection and reporting back here in due course.

Monday, 21 January 2019

A poem by M.R. Peacocke

Original poetry seldom features on Rogue Strands. Today is an exception.

I recently received a copy of M.R. Peacocke's pamphlet, Honeycomb (HappenStance Press, 2018), was hugely impressed and have since been hunting down this veteran poet's back catalogue. A review will be forthcoming here in due course, but I'd also like to contribute in some additional way to seeking out more readers for Peacocke's terrific poetry.

As a consequence, I feel privileged and honoured that Helena Nelson at HappenStance (and the poet herself) should have granted me permission to post one of my favourite poems from the collection. M.R. Peacocke's work is clear and vivid, yet also layered. She gives the lie to false assumptions that accessible poems must be facile. Instead, she makes every word graft its socks off, as this piece amply demonstrates:


Once there was running, a spurt of joy
in the feet, some unbidden riot
under the skin. Then there was running,
willed. Now the body's dull as lips
of animals mumbling frozen grass,
and if I say, Do you remember running?
it pauses, puzzled. It knows its tasks.
It can't recall.

M.R. Peacocke

The line endings in this poem are a joy, but my personal preference is L3 to L4. The whole piece lifts off from the moment that willed is held over from the end of L3 and dropped into the start of L4. The word shakes us. It makes us pause and reassess spurt of joy and unbidden riot in its light, before we move on to the rest of the poem with a sudden understanding of its ramifications. Only outstanding poets are capable of such adroit control of language.

I very much hope this post will encourage you to get hold of a copy of M.R. Peacocke's pamphlet, Honeycomb, for yourself. And that's why I'll now make a second exception to my usual rules by finishing with a shameless plug, mentioning that you can buy it at the HappenStance Press website here.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

The reinvention of tradition and myth, Anna Saunders' Ghosting for Beginners

In the title poem to her collection Ghosting for Beginners (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2018), Anna Saunders takes a traditional theme in literature through the ages – ghosts – and reinvents it in a contemporary context, as is reflected by the poem’s opening lines:

Having only the suggestion of fingers, ghosts
are unable to embrace the internet…

The pivotal juxtaposition here is that of ghosts and the internet, and it’s no coincidence that Saunders should have placed the two terms at the end of consecutive lines. This juxtaposition is intended to startle the reader, opening up possibilities and connections that cast renewed light on a classical element of the myth kitty, as in the following extract:

…Simply disappear from her Twitter feed,
become invisible on her wall,
leave vast gaps between texts…

In the above quote, the three verbs are key. The poem’s title has already turned ghosting into a verb, and these three now provide examples of just how that conversion manifests itself.  Syntax is thus being refreshed at the same time as semantics: the reader is reminded that language is continually evolving and that “to ghost somebody” involves generating a new meaning from an old verb.

The poem’s ending, meanwhile, brings the two strands of traditional and contemporary language and themes together beautifully:

…Oh ethereal fingers
unable to click in unfriend.

The penultimate line begins with a classical tone and device, following them up in the final line with one of the freshest verbs on the block.

As discussed above, the collection’s title poem, Ghosting for Beginners, epitomizes Anna Saunders’ capacity for subtle, implicit riffs on the comparisons and contrasts that can be made between the old and the new. Throughout the book, she explores ways in which tradition and myth can be subverted to cast different perspectives on highly contemporary issues. She’s changed my attitude to ghosts forever!

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Reading in Lewes on Thursday

Just a quick reminder that I'll be reading at Needlewriters in Lewes this coming Thursday, 17th January, at 7.45p.m.. The venue is upstairs at the John Harvey Tavern and tickets are five pounds. I'll be appearing alongside Ansy Boothroyd and Janet Sutherland, and I'm especially looking forward to hearing Janet read from her new collection, Home Farm.

Robin Houghton has kindly sent me this flyer for the event:

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Michael Laskey, a major poet in a minor key

Poets, like friends and lovers, must encounter us at just the right moment in our lives if we are fully to connect. One such example, in my case, is the poetry of Michael Laskey.

I first read Laskey’s work back in 1999, when his collection The Tightrope Wedding was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. I recall coming to a swift dismissal borne out of youth: his work seemed insubstantial. Nevertheless, this year at Poetry in Aldeburgh, while waiting to give my own reading, I flicked through the accumulated books for sale at the venue and encountered The Man Alone, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstep, 2007). On skimming through a couple of pieces, I was immediately hooked.

Michael Laskey’s poetry is deceptive. Its emotional power and depth creep up on you and take you by surprise. In terms of cadence, meanwhile, his matter-of-fact tone is underpinned by a delicate musicality. Its accumulative, layered effects are thus difficult to convey via short quotes, although the following extract from Patient Recordshould give a flavour of what I mean:

…I’m writing it down so I don’t forget it –
this year you’ve lived through
with what the oncologist called
fortitude, an unusual word.

The line endings here are exquisitely judged. One key word – fortitude – is held over and dropped into the following line like a laser-guided missile. As for the ending, that’s the type of Laskey touch that so frustrated me nineteen years ago and so delights me now. His knack for understatement means that what he holds back, what is left unsaid, is actually more resonant than what he explicitly articulates. As a consequence, the poem finishes by opening and echoing outwards rather than limiting itself to neat conclusions.

This technique is a sign of a poet who works in a minor key but with major ambitions and achievements. Of course, it’s only too easy to miss the impact of Michael Laskey’s work if we race through it in search of the fireworks or the punch line. Instead, his poems reward slow reading, which enables us to engage with his music and connect his life to ours.

I thoroughly recommend The Man Alone, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstep, 2007)  as an excellent introduction to his work, while his latest collection, Weighing the Present (Smith/Doorstep, 2014) is an exceptional book. Its limited critical reception is a travesty but also a reflection of current trends. Laskey’s poetry, however, is built to last, and it will resonate long into the future.