Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Turning nouns into verbs

Further to my post about the changing use of tenses in English, I've recently noticed another trend of turning nouns into verbs, often with a tweaked meaning.

One well known example is "to ghost somebody", which now seems widespread, and I only had to notice a headline on the BBC website the other day to realise I was about to learn another. The afore-mentioned headline read as follows, "How to tell if you're being breadcrumbed at work", and a quick spot of googling (a proper noun that's become a verb in itself!) soon explained the origin of the term.

The obvious question, of course, is just what exactly "to poetry somebody" might end up meaning....

Monday, 12 August 2019

Failing our readers

Over at the HappenStance Press blog, Helena Nelson has just published her twice-yearly summary of current trends in poetic tics. In my view, the last one on her list is perhaps the most important...

The single most common problem: unintended obscurity. The poem is behaving as though it's obvious what's going on but the reader is mystified. This is quite different from deliberate obscurity, which can be compelling.

It's the most important because it means the poet in question has failed their readers at a specific point, thus losing them for the rest of the poem. Moreover, we're all prone to it. There are inevitable occasions in everyday life when we're convinced we've been clear and unambiguous, only for everyone to tell us they haven't got a clue what we're on about or to misinterpret our words with grim or hilarious consequences.

Exactly the same is true of our poems. Except that nobody's around when we write them and fall in love with them. Nobody's present to disentangle our unintentional semantic and syntactic knots. And that's where friends kick in, the best kind of friends, the friends we take into our confidence with dodgy first drafts, the friends who let us know us when we're making one of the biggest poetic mistakes around, that of failing our readers.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

An unflinching celebration, Sheenagh Pugh's Afternoons Go Nowhere

I suppose cliché might suggest the invocation of terms such as “veteran” or “prolific” when approaching Sheenagh Pugh’s new book, Afternoons Go Nowhere (Seren Books, 2019) in the light of her nine previous collections and two Selecteds,  but that would do her poetry a grave disservice. In fact, her recent work displays a freshness and curiosity that reach far beyond the scope of many far younger poets.

First off, Pugh’s use of language is well worth highlighting. Her sentence construction possesses a lucid fluidity that’s outstanding, as in the first three stanzas of The View:

For as long as he could remember, the view
from his window had led across a street
to some house the mirror of his own,

and what he could hear through the double-glazing
mainly traffic, heels clacking  on asphalt,
late at night, a little drunken happiness.

Now he looks out on a bay, cuts his hedge
hard back, ruthless with the white roses
that would come between him and the ocean…

The layering of these lines is seemingly effortless, as is the natural flow. Of course, the poet’s ear, craft and skill all underpin their gorgeous clarity.

Moreover, the above-mentioned poem reflects one of Pugh’s main thematic concerns: the relationship between people and the natural world. At pivotal moments in her work, humans and nature rub against each other, sometimes chafing, sometimes caressing, sometimes managing to do both simultaneously.

Meanwhile, this same deft touch is also apparent in the poems that deal with history. Pugh’s achievement lies in the way she turns historical figures into individuals by homing in on specific personal and emotional moments within a wider context, thus creating empathy for them as people. The Glass King of France provides one such example in its opening lines:

When he looks in the glass, he sees
himself: every organ, every vein.
His most inward thoughts shine
through his crystal skin; the secrets
of his heart parade the streets…

Whether portraying a king or a neighbour, Sheenagh Pugh is acutely aware of the transience of life. Afternoons Go Nowhere is an unflinching celebration of the human condition, written in lucid language that reveals aching complexities. I very much recommend it.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Just, already and yet

I've always used the present perfect tense with "just", "already" and "yet", as in "I've just arrived...he's already finished....we haven't eaten yet". What's more, when teaching English as a Foreign Language, I noticed that all textbooks for learners of British English not only encouraged but demanded the use of the present perfect in such expressions.

However, over the past few years, I've encountered more and more Brits using the simple past, as in "I just arrived" or "he already finished", etc, etc. For me, this is American usage. In my book, "I just had lunch" means that I only had lunch  (i.e. I did nothing else). It's got nothing to do with communicating that I've recently finished my meal.

I suppose this is another example of generational change, of how language evolves and leaves older (gulp!) users behind. Even so, I still can't bring myself to use the simple past with "just", "already" and "yet". Does this mean I'm becoming anachronistic myself? What tense do you choose in this type of context?

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

A poem by Oliver Comins

Neglected...underrated...overlooked... all three terms might be clichés, but they could justifiably be applied to Oliver Comins' poetry in general and in particular to his first full collection, Oak Fish Island, which I reviewed on Rogue Strands a few months ago (see here). 

As a consequence, I'm making an exception today and posting (with Oliver's permission) one of my favourite poems from his book. This piece was first published in the London Magazine when it was under the stewardship of Alan Ross, one of the most renowned magazine editors around in the second half of the twentieth century, though the poem still resonates today. Football fans might well notice its relevance to current events at Coventry City, but its delicate observations, surefooted music and layered juxtapositions reach far beyond sport and should appeal to many readers...

Geese above Highfield Road

One of those moments when the stadium
falls inexplicably quiet – you hear
the crowd, as one, breathe in and wait
for someone else’s voice to prompt
the noise.  Geese flying overhead
disrupt the spell and players call
the roaring back – an amphitheatre
filled with sound, cauldron of light
beneath a darkened autumn sky.

Up there a flock of geese is set
on inland lakes, days of food and warmth.
Down here goals are barely threatened
by midfield stalemate: we dream
of wingers making for a corner
then cutting back to cross behind
a scattering defence – too much
to hope for now.  Disappearing geese,
I saw them flying in for winter.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Mat Riches at The Poetry Shed

Over at The Poetry Shed, Abegail Morley's astute editorial eye has selected a terrific poem by Mat Riches for publication today. You can read it by following this link.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Poets' Cafe in Reading on Friday

Just a quick reminder that I'll be the guest poet at Poets' Café in Reading this Friday (12th July) at the South Street Arts Centre, starting at 8 p.m.. Entry costs £5, £4 for concessions, and there's also an open mic. I'll be reading from my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, blending the poetry of wine from Extremadura with suburban Surrey. A number of people have already confirmed their attendance, and I'd love to see you there too...!

Monday, 24 June 2019

The Knives of Villalejo is two years old

I've no idea whether the correct term is birthday or anniversary, but The Knives of Villalejo has just turned two. To celebrate, here's the opening poem. The first section of it was originally published as a stand-alone piece in The Rialto.



An ochre dusk through the window,
stewed apples sighing from the hob
and slippers squeaking back and forth
on the lino - Mum’s become Gran,
Son now Dad, but a boy still plays
at the same Formica table.
This kitchen’s hub, its ersatz knots
are giving off a perfect shine,


The empty chair is staring hungrily
while I eat my pasta, each spoonful tracked
by the arching slats and tethered cushion,
by the almost eyes of the almost you,
by trees swaying through your almost torso
and clouds converging with your almost hair.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

A reading in Reading

Ok, ok, I admit the title to this post is childish, cheesy and unoriginal, but we all know that little things please little minds, and I've been looking forward to announcing this event for a while now.

The details are as follows: I'm pleased to report that I'll be the guest poet at Poets' Café in Reading on 12th July at the South Street Arts Centre. Many thanks to Claire Dyer for the invite! Doors open at 8 p.m. and the poetry kicks off half and hour later. Entry costs five pounds (four for concessions), and there's also an open mic. I'd be delighted to see you there...

Sunday, 9 June 2019

The International WrapperRhyme Challenge

Helena Nelson is first and foremost a poet. As such, she's just published a pamphlet with Red Squirrel Press. It's titled Branded and subtitled Some WrapperRhymes, and I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy..

However, she's also an editor at HappenStance Press. In that role, she's seeking submissions of WrapperRhymes from all over the world for a projected exhibition/installation at StAnza (Scotland's Poetry Festival) in 2020. You can find out more about WrapperRhymes in general and about this project in particular at the HappenStance website.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Stanley Cook's Form Photograph

If a lot of teachers are poets and a lot of poets are teachers, it's inevitable that there should be a considerable amount of poetry about education. However, of all such poems I've read, one volume stands out: Stanley Cook's Form Photograph (Phoenix/Peterloo, 1971).

Stanley Cook was from Yorkshire. He wrote clear, immediate and humane poetry, often from the perspective of a keen observer, both of society and of individuals, always homing in on the particular and specific. His subject matter was wide, ranging from townscapes to character portraits and the intermingling of people with natural landscapes, but my personal favourites are his poems about education.

Cook's set of thirty pieces about teaching colleagues, Staff Photograph, tells us perhaps more about society at the time than it does about the individuals in question. However, the outstanding Form Photograph, also comprising thirty poems, fleshes out its characters and benefits from the tantalising futures that lay ahead for the pupils in question. Here are three extracts.

From 5...

...He has his expression ready for being tripped up
In the dinner queue and having his gym shorts stolen
The period before a clothing inspection:
But one day his mind will dislocate itself
In his efforts to impersonate the normal."

From 23...

...From infant to junior to grammar school
To university to research he will keep his quiet,
Shedding increasingly the signs of life.

From 27...

An odd-job boy with a face like a boot repair,
His regulation grey school shirts are never crisp
And a right-angled tear is mended in his blazer...

I thoroughly recommend Stanley Cook's undervalued poetry in general. For certain critics, his best work is a long piece, Woods Beyond a Cornfield, which provides the reader with a beautifully layered interwoven series of human, rural and suburban cameos. For me though, the poems that really hit home are the ones about his pupils. Form Photograph is terrific.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Places of Poetry

Places of Poetry is an exceptional new project. It especially resonates with me because I aim to reflect a sense of place whenever I write, while as a reader I tend to enjoy poetry with an anchor in emotional, social and geographical terms. The concept behind Places of Poetry is perhaps best explained via the following quote from their website:

"Places of Poetry is open to all readers and writers. It aims to use creative writing to prompt reflection on national and cultural identities in England and Wales, celebrating the diversity, heritage and personalities of place.
The site is open for writers to pin their poems to places from 31st May to 4 October 2019. It will then be closed for new poems but will remain available for readers. We welcome writers of all ages and backgrounds. We want to gather as many perspectives on the places and histories of England and Wales."
I've posted three of my poems - two that are set in Farnham and one in Chichester. You can post yours by following this link. Just one word of warning: it's probably best not to choose anything that's unpublished, as doing so would count as publication and mean the poem in question couldn't then be submitted to any journal or magazine.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

A poem in Poetry & All That Jazz

I'm pleased to report that I have a poem in Poetry & All That Jazz for the second year running. Poetry & All That Jazz is an annual magazine that's edited by Barry Smith and published in association with the Festival of Chichester and the South Downs Poetry Festival. I'll be in terrific company once again, as this year's issue also includes work by the likes of Louis de Bernières, Matthew Sweeney and Frieda Hughes.

There's a launch reading scheduled for 9th June, starting at 4.30 p.m, at the John Harvey Tavern in Lewes, offering a blend of poetry and jazz. I won't be able to get there myself, but it's sure to be an excellent event for anyone who can make it along.

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.