Monday, 6 July 2020

Fame in the poetry world (again!)

I've blogged previously about the ephemeral nature of fame in the poetry world, mentioning the lists of Gregory Award winners that you can find on the internet, tracking their different destinies. And then, of course, I've also mentioned how the spotlight seems to flash past even more quickly in the current climate of Twitter feeds, etc.

However, I was drawn to an article last week that reminded me this problem's been bubbling away for decades (and is probably eternal!). Over at Wild Court, Mark Valentine has an excellent feature on an annual pamphlet series from the 1960s, titled Universities' Poetry, which published poems by the latest flavours of the month. In his piece, Valentine focuses on Issue 7, encountering all sorts of outcomes for the contributors.

There are luminaries who made it big in the following years but whose names now ring only a vague bell, alongside consolidated big hitters who ended up making their names in prose, topped off by (yes, you've guessed it!) another Gregory winner who vanished off the face of the publishing earth.

You can read the essay for yourself in full on Wild Court (see here). It's a thought-provoking read, inviting implicit comparisons and contrasts with our contemporary scene.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

A tribute to Richard Hoyes



I was already scribbling pastiches of Larkin in verse and D.H. Lawrence in prose when I arrived at Farnham College in 1989 and Mr Hoyes started teaching me A Level English, though I soon realised things were going to be slightly different from classes at the local Comp, as he set about dismantling our preconceptions and encouraging all of us to get writing.

Mr Hoyes was no ordinary English teacher. He’d already had an extremely youthful Matthew Sweeney as his Poet in Residence at the College for a year, while numerous workshops with Ian McMillan were still in the future. I suppose I fell between those two stools, but I didn’t have an inkling of that at the time. Instead, all I knew was homework turned into writing stuff of my own accord, turned into staying behind after class to show it to him, turned into him gifting me copies of literary magazines such as Iron, where Peter Mortimer had published his short stories.

This sharing of his own work, treating me as an equal, was just one example of Mr Hoyes’ generosity, as was his gentle prodding of me in new creative directions. His support meant that I suddenly stopped feeling alone and different from everyone else. As such, he was crucial in my becoming the poet I am today.

However, things developed even further once I left for university. On my first trip back, I visited all my old teachers at the college and showed him some of my more recent poetry. He suggested looking at it together over a pint at the Hop Blossom the following Friday. Thus, Mr Hoyes became Richard, and our friendship began, involving London Prides over more than two decades, all combined with swapping our latest work. He’d bring short stories, articles he’d written for the TES and extracts from his regular column in the local paper, and I’d contribute my drafts of poems.

Once my parents moved down to Chichester, it became more difficult for me to visit him during my trips over from Spain, though we still kept in touch, exchanging intermittent e-mails. I wrote to tell him of Matthew Sweeney’s announcement that he had Motor Neurone Disease, and was shocked to get an e-mail back from him to the effect that he’d had a terminal diagnosis himself. Richard was one of those people who’d never seemed to age. He'd barely gone grey and had maintained an almost child-like spark and curiosity. I couldn’t imagine him not being around, and can only imagine how tough it must have been for those closest to him.

I met Richard for one final time last summer. Along with my son, David, I visited his wife, Lizzie, and him at their home in Farnham. He was still on brilliant form, wearing his erudition as lightly as ever, telling tales about “Dear Examiner” scripts (that’s another story!) and taking the trouble to engage with David throughout. I wish I could have seen him again before his death on 29th May, but the pandemic put paid to that idea.

Richard Hoyes made a huge difference to my life, and I know from friends that he made his mark with countless students over the years. He had a unique ability to remove the mystery from exceptional works of literature without ever dumbing them down, capable of joking his way through a class while maintaining everyone’s total respect. And on a personal level, he was a friend, always generous with his time, thoughts and words. I’ll miss him hugely.


Thursday, 25 June 2020

A poem by Robert Selby to mark the launch of his first full collection

I'm delighted to be featuring a poem by Robert Selby today to mark the launch of his first full collection, The Coming-Down Time (Shoestring Press, 2020). I'll be reviewing Selby's book on Rogue Strands in due course, but for the moment a delicious sample is in order.

The power of this poem resides in its use of pronouns. I'm convinced deft manipulation of the blighters is a sign of a good poet, but this piece reaches beyond normal expectations to create an emotional charge that gradually creeps up on the reader. The third person undermines the second, before both of them overwhelm the first, though I'm not going to reveal any more details at this stage. I simply suggest you read it for yourself to discover what I mean about its subtle impact.

N.B. I'm inserting the poem below as a jpeg image because its line lengths don't lend themselves to the format of a blog and I don't want them to be mangled by the limited boundaries of a screen...


Sunday, 21 June 2020

Persona Poems: a useful term or a red herring?

I came across this term for the first time the other day and immediately understood what it meant. In other words, it must be a useful label for teachers and tutors as shorthand to refer to poems deliberately written in a voice that’s separate from the poet’s own identity.

However, on reflection, I found myself picking the term apart. All poems, whether their creators like it or not, are persona poems to a greater or lesser extent. In supposedly autobiographical pieces, how much of a persona is projected, either intentionally or unintentionally? And in explicit persona poems, how much or how little of the poet is implicated and involved in their character?

In fact, I’d go as far as stating that a considerable chunk of the genre’s interest lies in the tension that this above-mentioned ambiguity generates. The so-called lyric “I” can be deliciously undermined to great effect…!

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Essay on Rory Waterman's poetry at Wild Court

My essay on Rory Waterman's poetry is now up at Wild Court. In a longer format than my normal blog posts, this piece enables me to spread my wings and get to grips with all three of Waterman's collections, looking at them as a body of work but with a special focus on his latest book, Sweet Nothings. You can read it for yourself by following this link.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Point and counterpoint, Charlotte Gann's The Girl Who Cried


I very much enjoyed Charlotte Gann’s first full collection, Noir (HappenStance Press, 2016) and wrote positively about it last year (see here). It was an excellent book, exemplified by its slanted treatment of emotion, relating its characters’ experiences without any explicit evocation of feeling, drawing on a cinematographic approach to do so.

However, this first collection’s value is now further magnified by the publication of her second, which is also excellent, titled The Girl Who Cried (HappenStance Press, 2020), and by the poet’s provision of a counterpoint to her previous book in terms of aesthetic technique. In her new work, Gann comes at the same subjects of human relationships face-on rather than from an angle, thus initiating an implicit dialogue between the two manuscripts.

The Girl Who Cried throws off the masks and filters of the cast that was portrayed in Noir. Instead, it’s packed with intimate psychodramas that barely invoke outside elements. The poems are without titles, flowing or bumping into one another, offering us yet more points and counterpoints. They play off against each other. They inform each other. And this is why the absence of individual titles works so well.

One striking aspect of Gann’s shift in method is her move from an extensive cast of character in Noir, which included many poems in the third person, to a predominance of poems that revolve around first and second-person pronouns in The Girl Who Cried. In her new collection, the pronouns’ pivotal role is their fluidity from one poem to another, leading to reader to question identities and potential narrative threads. Moreover, they even undermine themselves on purpose within specific poems, such as in the following instance:

…And I see me. Bleak, brittle,
almost ridiculous,
and mauve with loneliness.

These subjective, supercharged adjectives and the use of the emotionally significant abstract noun are both examples of Gann’s change in approach, while the disconcerting deployment of both the subject and object first-person pronouns within a single sentence issues a challenge to any accusations of a confessional approach. Her technique implies that there’s an observer in the background throughout these poems, dipping in and out of events, as in this extract…

Being on the phone with you

is like skating on ice –
or rather, watching an ice skater…

In the above lines, Gann’s first-person narrator switches from protagonist to observer, highlighting the shape-shifting nature of experience, invoking the dislocation and alienation that can be caused by extreme emotion.

The Girl Who Cried is an excellent collection in its own right. Nevertheless, its significance grows further when placed alongside Noir. The two books not only provide us with two contrasting yet complementary perspectives on a similar subject, but they also enable the poet to burrow more deeply into her inspiration, developing new angles via those previously mentioned points and counterpoints. 

Furthermore, Gann invites us to reflect on the validity and coherence of choosing different poetic methods to deal with similar themes, showing us that her doing so can actually enrich our reading, contributing greater nuance and understanding. The process of handing ourselves over to her work allows us to reflect on the nature of human experience and on poetry’s wide-ranging potential to express it. Why not find out what I mean for yourself…?

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Poetry Salzburg Review

I'm very pleased to report that I've got two new poems in issue 35 of Poetry Salzburg Review alongside work by the likes of Hilary Davies, John Greening and Richie McCaffery, etc, etc. You can find out more at the Poetry Salzburg website (see here).