Thursday, 2 April 2020

Elizabeth Rimmer's BurnedThumb poetry blog

Through my recent dealings with the excellent Red Squirrel Press (my endorsement for David J Costello's collection, etc), my attention was drawn to Elizabeth Rimmer's poetry blog, BurnedThumb.

Apart from being a fine poet, Elizabeth also does some editing for Red Squirrel and is a lively presence on the poetry scene both via the web and in the flesh (when this virus permits!). Her BurnedThumb blog reflects her infectious enthusiasm and acquired knowledge, ranging from virtual launches with top.notch original poems to reviews of festivals and events. All in all, it's well worth a read and a follow!

Monday, 30 March 2020

David J. Costello's Heft

This is a tough, tough time for all of us. In that context, it's important to empathise with others such as publishers who've seen their distributors close down, festivals/readings cancel (where poetry is most often sold) and new books lose the impetus of launches. Of course, it also goes without saying that the poets in question are suffering too. They might well have been working away on a manuscript for years, only to find that publication turns into a damp squib.

One of those cases is David J. Costello and his first full collection, Heft, which has just been published by Red Squirrel Press. David had a whole host of launches and readings lined up, but he's seen all of them gradually disappear for the foreseeable future. I was fortunate enough to read a proof of his book prior to going to press, and here's the endorsement that I provided:

‘David Costello’s poetry is especially adept at evoking the passing of time. Throughout this collection, he portrays the ambiguities and ambivalences of relationships between the individual and the collective, the human and the natural, the historical and the present, moving his readers in every poem.’

Moreover, you can read three poems from Heft over at Elizabeth Rimmer's blog, BurnedThumb, where she generously held a virtual launch for the collection. If that then encourages you to get hold of a copy for yourself, you can do so via the Red Squirrel Press website here.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Dreich Magazine

The emergence of a new print-based poetry journal is always excellent news, so I was delighted to discover Dreich Magazine a couple of months ago, and I'm now even happier because they've just published three of my poems in Issue Two alongside several fine poets!

What's more, I've spotted that they're now open for subs to Issue Six if you fancy chancing your arm. You can find their website here, but further details about those submissions are on their Twitter feed here.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Singular and plural, Michael Brown's Where Grown Men Go


Michael Brown’s poetry is deft and skilled in its portrayal of male identity, specialising in vignettes that capture and transform moments and experiences. Even so, repeated readings of his first full collection, Where Grown Men Go (Salt Publishing, 2019), were required before I finally got to grips with the subtleties of his craft.

One striking example of this afore-mentioned craft is Brown’s use of pronouns. Several poems are written in the second person and others in the first-person plural. In fact, very few poets use the first-person plural as much as Brown. However, my favourite pieces from this collection are those that combine pronouns, play them off against each other and let them interact, often to powerful effect. Here are the opening and closing stanzas to two poems. Let’s start with The Social and Economic Consequences:

I found the place easily enough.
It was a Sunday and I was here to drink.
They were already six sheets in the wind…

…and we had not come to think of love
as any more or less than this: a space
where grown men go to find they’re lost.

And then let’s compare it with Minor Operation:

When I was four I nearly died.
My temperature sky-rocketed
fahrenheit degrees: 108,109…

…I don’t believe in fate, how routines of days
and weeks are fixed at birth. We all pretend
we don’t balance on that edge.

Of course, these extracts don’t do justice to the poems in question, as they miss out the central cores. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to quote them in this way so as to illustrate how the two pieces employ a similar technique, shifting from the first-person singular to the first-person plural, but in slightly different ways. The first one invokes a specific first person plural, referring to the people in this place, while the second expands that plural far more widely to include the reader.

A common purpose links Brown’s varied use of singular and plural pronouns in this collection. His intention is to take something specific and expand it out into the universal, inviting us in to his anecdotes, encouraging us to invest in them emotionally. Moreover, he’s posing constant questions as to the role of the individual and the collective both in the family (such as fathers and offspring) and in wider social contexts. As such his use of pronouns is pivotal to a deeper understanding of his work.

Michael Brown’s poetry might initially seem straightforward. Certain critics might dismiss it as facile or simplistic. In reality, the opposite is true, as Where Grown Men Go demands close attention before its layers begin to reveal themselves. I only hope potential readers give this collection the chance it so richly deserves.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

The individual and the collective, James W. Wood's Building a Kingdom


James W. Wood’s New and Selected Poems 1989-2019, titled Building a Kingdom (The High Window Press, 2019), is shot through with hard-earned awareness, as befits a book that’s been thirty years in the making.

This awareness is first expressed through Wood’s technical knowledge. It’s never flaunted but is always present in his formal rigour, in his control of line and stanza and his sure-footed musicality.

Moreover, the same awareness is a key, unifying, implicit theme throughout Building a Kingdom. It’s explored in several ways such as the changing role of the individual in family relationships. The following extract from The Parting portrays one such generational shift with aplomb:

…Looking down at the cobbled road
where I walk, do you see
what I saw when my father
rushed off to work thirty years ago?
You’ve learned to wave a wobbly hand

so I return the gesture just as
my father, past working, waved to me,
framed stern and proud in my window.
Later that same day, we walk together
up and down our carpeted corridor. You falter

and my arms fly out: have I caught you
the way I caught your grandfather
falling in the final days
before his death…?

These lines are remarkable in many ways, from the gorgeous stanza break of You falter/and my arms fly out to the unexpected but then inevitable leap that places a grandfather in the same role as a grandson.

And then there’s Wood’s capacity for placing the individual in a wider family history that consequently reaches out beyond the specific family in question. The opening lines to Dropping provide us with an excellent example:

I spark up my saw, pull down the mask. My people
been felling timber since 1860, every man
never living much past forty, when most

passed on to our Lord from disease…

This poem places the individual not only within the context of their people (sic) but also in the passing of time via a nod towards new technology in the face of traditions.

All of the above combines in Building a Kingdom with pieces that focus on other characters, again homing in on the role of the individual, playing it off against the collective, as in the closing lines of Self-Help…

…Then those last few hours every Sunday –
some more wine, a book, and her sat quietly
listening to the motorway’s distant song
that echoed through her, something lost and wronged.

In this extract, Wood invites the reader to contrast the individual protagonist’s isolation with the collective noise of cars from the motorway. At first glance, Self-Help might seem light years away from Dropping and The Parting in its thematic concerns. However, as indicated above, the opposite is true.

Building a Kingdom brings us a poet in full maturity with a coherent world view that he expresses in varied ways but always with artistic craft. Get hold of a copy and this book will provide you with many hours of reading pleasure and reflection: never has our personal role in society been so important.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Three poems on Wild Court

I feel privileged today to have three new poems on Wild Court. It is, in my subjective opinion, one of the best poetry journals on the internet. Moreover, I'm especially pleased because the editor, Rob Selby, has chosen to feature pieces that are representative of how my recent work is developing. You can read them by following this link.

Monday, 9 March 2020

A bridge between worlds

If I were flippant, I'd be suggesting that magazine editors should be bracing themselves for colossal numbers of virus-related poems heading for their inboxes over the next few months. The only advantage of this, of course, is that such an influx might at least make a change from the typical themes that follow a British winter: floods, storms, deluges and everything water-related.

However, if I were serious, I'd be mulling over the cancellation of Prowein, the major wine fair in Düsseldorf, thinking about my customers' fears for their businesses and their health when I visited them last week, worrying myself about the vulnerability of people who are close to me.

Either way, poetry is a constant, reassuring companion, a counterpoint to rolling newsfeeds and social media, a bridge between our outer and inner worlds, emotional sustenance in these disturbing times...

Friday, 14 February 2020

The sort of review that dreams are made of...

I feel very fortunate to have received some excellent reviews for The Knives of Villalejo, my first full collection, over the past two years, but Christopher James' recent piece takes the biscuit: it's the sort of review that dreams are made of.

Not only does he display a profound understanding of how my poems go about their business, but he also enables me to learn more about my own work, which is always a sign of an excellent reviewer. However, perhaps the most important point from a personal point of view is his highlighting of the layers and depths that can be found in my poems.

I can't quite bring myself to extract quotes from his extremely generous post, though you can read it for yourself by following this link to his blog...

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Special offers from a special press

HappenStance Press are one of my favourite poetry publishers. In fact, my shelves are full of their brilliant books, which is why I'd like to draw your attention to their current set of special offers.

As mentioned previously on this blog, I'm a firm believer that Tom Duddy deserves to be recognised as one of the best poets to have emerged since the turn of the century. If you haven't yet discovered his incredibly moving poetry, an excellent point of departure would be The Years, the posthumous collection that HappenStance brought out in 2014 and I reviewed on Rogue Strands at the time (see here). The Years is now on promotion at the HappenStance website, down from 12 to 9 pounds. Get your copy by following this link.

And then there's J.O. Morgan's In Casting Off. Morgan is a unique figure in contemporary verse in many respects, but perhaps most of all due to his breadth of ambition and his control of book-length narratives. In Casting Off is a rare achievement and is also available at 9 pounds instead of 12 at the HappenStance shop (click here!).

These are collections to savour, to go back to again and again, as my well-thumbed copies can testify. But there's an extra bonus to purchasing them now: by doing so, you'll be helping to fund HappenStance's next publications, ensuring we'll enjoy their new books for years to come!

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Grappling with love, Clare Best's Each Other


Titles sometimes fall flat or don’t quite represent the book that follows. However, the title of Clare Best second full collection, Each Other (Waterloo Press, 2019), certainly does so, as the poems are riven with duality.

First of all, the book is divided into two sections. Moon House evokes the dynamics in relationships between two people: wife and husband, daughter and mother, mother and son, son and father, grandson and grandfather, and in doing so it seems explicitly autobiographical. Each Other, however, appears far more fictionalised, portraying the evolution of an imagined couple.

Secondly, while the two sections might initially give the impression of being separate entities, the crux of this collection lies in their implicit dialogue. In order to get to grips with the terms of that conversation, it’s worth comparing their technical qualities.

Let’s start with Moon House. In this section, Clare Best captures and treasures moments. She’s explicitly personal, as in the ending to My father-in-law embraces my son:

…The love between you overwhelms the dream.
You both bristle with light,
I’ve never seen love as bright as this.

I must wake up and find my son, tell him
how much his grandfather loves him.
The love, the love. I will hurry now.

Love isn’t just invoked in these lines. Instead, it becomes a chant, being defined and redefined.

There are many instances throughout Moon House where Best, far from fearing this abstract noun, meets it head-on and wrestles with its potential connotations. As a consequence, Each Other (the collection’s second section) then comes as a shock.

In Each Other, most of the poems are driven by anecdote and observation. One excellent example can be found in the opening lines of What they depend on…

She believes in miracles, education, cotton sheets.
            He prefers wool socks, a tidy desk, blue cheese.
She swears by scent, candles, unexpected sex.
            He likes promises, weekends, knowing what’s next…

The casual reader might well be disconcerted by the juxtaposition of these two approaches in a single volume. Nevertheless, further inspection of the collection gradually reveals its cohesive nature. In fact, the poet’s skill is such that she is convincingly able to employ contrasting techniques and then let them play off each other (sic).

To explain this concluding statement, let’s go back to that afore-mentioned implicit dialogue between the two sections. Similarity and difference, definition and description, the abstract and the concrete, are all harnessed, inviting us to join Clare Best in her grappling with one specific term that also just happens to be this excellent book’s final word: love.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

A mouthwatering week for new collections

Looking back over my Twitter feed for this week, I'm struck by how much good news I've been able to share from poets that I admire, all revolving around their new collections. Just like buses, three of them are heading our way in near unison now that we've got the festive period out of the way.

The books in question are Robert Selby's first full collection, The Coming-Down Time, which is due this spring from Shoestring, Rory Waterman's third collection, Sweet Nothings, on its way soon from Carcanet, and Samuel Tongue's first full collection, Sacrifice Zones, launching in February from Red Squirrel. I very much look forward to featuring them on Rogue Strands in due course...!

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Making it big in poetry

Countless poets imagine on a daily or nightly basis (or both!) just what it would be like to make it big in poetry. They're convinced that they only need one major win or acceptance for their path to be cleared to stardom, for their arrival at some hidden inner sanctum to be declared.

In this context, let's imagine winning the Bridport, followed by the National Poetry Competition. How would it feel? How would life change? Would things be utterly transformed forever?

These aren't just questions to be thrown into a vacuum. They're issues that were faced head-on by Christopher James in an excellent post on his blog a couple of years ago (thanks to Mat Riches via Neil Elder for pointing me in its direction). You can read it here.

James has gone through the process of winning and has come out the other side. He tells his story beautifully, with self-awareness in spades and zero narcissism. Making it big in poetry is a fantasy that blurs our focus on the most important things: the reading and writing process itself, followed by a search for readers. Even if we just find one, we've discovered real success.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Turning tactile, Ramona Herdman's A warm and snouting thing


For my money, Ramona Herdman is one of the best poets on the U.K. scene at reading her own work. I was lucky enough to see her read from her most recent pamphlet, A Warm and Snouting Thing (Emma Press, 2019) in London recently, and I was most struck by how she paced each line, each word to perfection, accelerating and then slowing down, as in the ending to No Better Than She Should Be Red…

…the garden tapestried
with shock-sweet little nippled sherbet candies
slug-beloved

vigorous  sprawling  decadent  shameless.

When seeing these lines on the page, I can physically feel Herdman lingering over those last four words, relishing the physical shape of their consonants and vowels, turning her poetry tactile.

Moreover, the above-mentioned poem is representative of much of the pamphlet in thematic terms. A Warm and Snouting Thing confronts and subverts traditional roles, especially when dealing with gender and sex, sometimes explicitly, as in Comeuppance…

…And I remember the sudden novelty
of making adult men feel something.

Of stealing some of their power. Making a ripple
in the world…

Moreover, this extract provides an excellent example of Herdman’s harnessing of sentence structure so as to play further with pace, with surprise and expectation. In this example, she allows a sentence to flow according to convention before slamming the brakes on, challenging both linguistic and social conventions.

At other times, meanwhile, Herdman’s technique is more implicit. She is adept at layering descriptions. In the following extract from Nudes, she juxtaposes them, allowing them to play off each other, inviting comparison and contrast:

…Summer-comfortable just in skin,
butter baby, unselfconscious, playing
in the stained glass shadows on the parquet…

Taken in the context of her previous (also excellent) pamphlet, Bottle (HappenStance Press, 2018) it’s clear that Ramona Herdman is building an outstanding body of work. Her challenge now would seem to be the development and publication of a new full collection that would enable her to reach a wider readership and surely gain the extra recognition that her poetry so richly deserves.

However, for the moment, let’s relish her most recent offering: A Warm and Snouting Thing invites you in, challenges your pre-conceptions and takes you on a sensorial journey in the space of thirty pages. What more do you want…?!

Friday, 3 January 2020

Don't live to write, write to live

Every now and then, when overdosing on momentary angst about a poem that I'm gestating, I find it's worth reminding myself of my own version of an old Spanish saying that we often repeat while at the office: no vivas para trabajar, trabaja para vivir...don't live to work, work to live.

From my perspective, a similar attitude to the blank page is extremely useful. Writing poetry makes me feel more alive and awake to experiences and feelings. In other words, as the title of this post indicates, my attitude is clear: don't live to write, write to live.