Sunday 20 December 2009

Lists, lists and more lists

Over the past few days I've been tempted to post about several end-of-year lists that national papers have published, mainly rewritten versions of publicists' blurbs, but why rework an old gripe?

In fact, I think there's far more interest to be found in Michelle McGrane's intriguing idea over at the Peony Moon blog: she's managed to get a whole host of poets to offer up their lists of favourite collections for 2009. On looking through them, what most strikes me is that a number of lesser-known writers appear repeatedly. Are they "Poets' Poets" or discoveries waiting to be made by the wider world? What's more, is there such a thing as a "Poets' Poet"?

This second question leads us back towards the current and potential readership for poetry - is it confined to other poets or is it far broader? I believe in the latter idea.

Finally, I suppose I should finish off by mentioning my own view of the best of 2009. My favourite collection (read thus far) was undoubtedly Siân Hughes' "The Missing". It barely surfaced in Michelle's vast lists, garnering just two mentions, but I thought it was terrific.

Friday 11 December 2009


Most of the time I write in a vacuum. What do I mean by this? Well, there's always an idea of potential publication and a possible readership at the back of my mind, but both seem desperately distant when I sit at my desk in Almendralejo.

These last couple of weeks, however, I've found myself working with a focus that goes beyond previous experience, all due to the specifics of Happenstance's forthcoming publication of my pamphlet. This immediate goal has set my mind alight.

What's more, I'm keenly aware that what might be an excellent stand-alone poem may not fit into the collection. Or vice-versa. In other words, one or two of my least favoured pieces could earn their place because of the way they ricochet off other poems.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable and intense process!

Thursday 3 December 2009

Excellent news from Happenstance

A couple of days ago I received some excellent news from Happenstance Press - they've agreed to publish my pamphlet! Publication dates are still slightly sketchy, but it should see the light of day in 2010 or 2011.

I'm really looking forward to working with Helena Nelson, a poet and editor I've admired for many years, on honing the manuscript and getting it ready to come into the world. What's more, I feel privileged to be joining a stable with such an excellent pedigree: for example, terrific poets such as Matt Merritt, Rob Mackenzie and Andrew Philip all started out with Happenstance.

Heady days indeed!

Tuesday 1 December 2009


Today sees us back at The Guardian website once more, simply because there's a fascinating blog up by Jonathan Jones, titled "Why I never became a poet". His post explains how he was discouraged by a teenage encounter with a poetry editor, but the real interest is in the readers' comments. They cover a huge range and lead us towards questions...

...what makes some people persevere with writing poetry beyond an adolescent rush, while others give it up...?

...when offering our poetry for publication instead of keeping it private, are we being thick-skinned/narcissistic/generous/brave/artistic/arrogant (delete as appropriate)...?

Going back to the original post, I think the key point revolves around the idea of seeing onself as "A Poet". Fifteen years after I started writing verse with intent, I still feel intensely uncomfortable describing myself as such - it's a terrific conversation-stopper!

Saturday 28 November 2009

The Guardian's Christmas books

The Guardian have today published their standard late-November feature: a selection of literary luminaries have offered their Christmas picks from a whole raft of genres.

My interest was immediately centred on their poetry books. Many don't bother with verse, being producers and consumers of prose. However, Don Paterson's Rain is a popular choice if they do. This is an excellent book, so I'm sure it's not the only poetry collection they've read this year on the back of its winning the Forward Prize (while also consequently being a safe bet to recommend).

One or two writers do select something less obvious, but I again feel this is yet another missed chance to bring exciting and accessible new U.K. poetry to a wider audience.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Antonio Gamoneda and British readers

Antonio Gamoneda is renowned is Spain as one of the country's best living poets. Now an elderly man, he worked for many years as a bank clerk, writing without recognition. This was until the publication of his selected poems, Edad, which won the National Poetry Prize. Later collections, such as Libro del Frío, were extremely well received by critics. Gamoneda's found awards raining down on him over the last few years, topped off by the Premio Cervantes, a Hispanic version of the Nobel Prize.

In other words, we're dealing with a key figure here. So why isn't his work available to U.K. readers? Well, I recall attending a reading with him a few years ago in Zafra, when I also had the chance to enjoy a few tapas with the man himself afterwards. It was a wonderful reading and a great night. Gamoneda took the audience by the scruff of its neck and entranced everyone. One of my main memories of the event is the shine in so many of my Spanish friends' eyes as they listened. I too was captivated, but perhaps never more aware of the gulf between U.K. and Spanish poetic aesthetics. I sat there thinking how terrific Gamoneda was and how absurd he would sound to most of my British friends.

In a recent thread over a Poets On Fire, Tony Frazer (the excellent editor at Shearsman) specifically remarked how disappointed he'd been by Gamoneda when at a reading a oouple of years ago. Here's a link to Gamoneda on You Tube for you to see what we mean!

I've had numerous discussions recently about the difficulties that are inherently involved in translating Spanish poetry for U.K. readers, and I feel Gamoneda is one of the best examples of the problem. Superb in Spanish, he's slightly ridiculous in U.K. English.

Tuesday 17 November 2009


For better or for worse, one of the main features of my poetry is its brevity. I enjoy the challenge of evoking a context, telling a story and generating an emotional charge in as few words as possible. However, this means I walk a poetic tightrope. In such a compressed format, one wrong word is enough to tip the balance out of kilter. It's a risk I love to run!

Tuesday 10 November 2009

The toad work

I've been snowed under at work these last couple of weeks, what with visits from American importers and blending this year's Tempranillo, which mainly involves trying to predict how it will taste in 2010. A bit like falling in love with a poem you've just written yet at the same time wondering whether that feeling will last when you pick it up again six months later.

This hectic schedule has meant I've barely had time to read a poem, never mind write one. The toad work plays a key role in my life, but does it help me as a poet? Well, the answer might superficially be a resounding NO in the light of my previous remarks, but I feel that it does on the whole. I've nothing whatsoever against creative writing tutors who find their classes fuel the creative process, but I'm certainly sure that teaching poetry would drum the slippery substance out of me forever!

Reading and writing poetry is an outlet, an escape valve for me, a time that's mine and mine alone. As such, it takes on a precious and untainted status in my life. If I had longer to write, I don't think my focus and concentration would reach the levels they reach within my current constraints.

Alison Brackenbury has been the latest guest poet over at the Poets On Fire Forum these last few days, and she makes a number of interesting remarks on just this subject, prompted by an astute question from Matt Merritt. It's worth comparing and contrasting her views, noting how a writer's needs and motivations change along with their circumstances. Maybe my own feelings on the matter will alter in the coming years!

Sunday 1 November 2009

Factions, Groups and Schools

First of all today, here's a quote from Tom Chivers' guidelines for authors on his excellent new Penned in the Margins website:

"Factions, groups and schools are for the history books"

In the meantime, however, over at Poets on Fire I encountered a link to the following article, titled "The New British School (from an American perspective)" I have to say I very much agree with Tom on this: factions, groups and schools are only useful for literary historians. Even then, they can lead to crass pigeonholing. So why are they still invoked on such a regular basis among contemporary poets and critics?

These terms are befriended by poets and critics, often with a academic background, who feel the need to structure their views on their own poetry and other people's work within the same kind of framework they've always been encouraged to use in their studies. Nevertheless, I'm convinced that the writing of poetry should build its foundations on reading, not on study.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Ángel Campos Pámpano

Ángel Campos Pámpano, who died almost a year ago, was best known on the international literary stage as an excellent translator of Portuguese poets into Spanish, especially of Pessoa, but his own poetry is also extremely interesting in its own right.

I remember meeting Ángel on many occasions over the years at readings both in Zafra and Badajoz. He loved the cut and thrust of poetic debate, and I'll always remember the look of exhilaration on his face as we left a reading by José Ángel Valente, one of his favourite poets.

Just before his death from cancer at the age of fifty-one, Ángel Campos Pámpano had the chance to see a copy of his collected poems, La vida de otro modo (Calambur, 2008), and it's a book that I've been enjoying ever since. There are poetic echoes of Jorge Guillén and César Vallejo, both infused with the emotional landscape of Lisbon and Extremadura, but I feel his poems about his mother stand out. They seem to me to be in constant dialogue with Antonio Gamoneda. The latter had always shared many aspects of his poetic aesthetics with Ángel, but in certain poems this key maternal theme coincides and resonates:

"sabrás que lo que queda
es tan solo una ausencia compartida..."

"you'll know that what remains
is only a shared absence.."

These words could also be applied to the many friends and colleagues who still mourn him. A poet who's still with us through his work, Ángel organised numerous readings in Badajoz. Thanks to his efforts, many of us had the chance to see some of Spain's top talents down here in deepest Extremadura. Now it's our turn to keep his talent alive.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Hugo Williams Interview

There's currently a superb interview with Hugo Williams up at Horizon Review. As an admirer, I've chased down numerous interviews with him, but I firmly believe this stands out above the rest. Phil Brown did his homework, then managed to draw far more out of Williams than is usually the case.

Perhaps the key quote I'd like to highlight is the one that Brown astutely chose to give the interview its title:

"I’m referring to the rich adjectives and the exciting similes that ‘only poets could think of’...people like a few fireworks. I prefer the fireworks to be invisible."

This is obviously something of a posture, bearing in mind that Williams himself even drops a couple of metaphors into the interview, never mind his own poetry. However, I do feel this statement is valid as a challenge of many accepted ways of thinking in contemporary U.K. poetry. It's useful as a point of comparison with many of the poems that Horizon features. By this remark, I don't mean to knock other excellent poets, rather to provoke debate just as Williams does.

I believe he isn't taken seriously enough as a figure at the centre of the U.K. poetry world. Too often dismissed as a posh one-off or as an anecdotal poet of the superficial, his poetry and prose are pushed to the periphery. In fact, Hugo Williams is crucial to our understanding of where we've come from and are heading in poetic terms.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Mixed Emotions

On the one hand I have to admit I'm disappointed with the results of the Forward Prizes. This post isn't meant to knock Don Paterson and Emma Jones, both of whom are excellent poets, but I don't feel either of them are particularly accessible (and by this I don't mean facile) to general readers of serious prose who might decide to buy a poetry collection on the back of reading this news. In other words, it's my belief that these Forward Prizes have missed their opportunity to widen the U.K. readership for contemporary poetry.

On the other hand I'm pleased that both Sian Hughes and Andrew Philip have been shortlisted for the Aldeburgh First Collection Award. This must be especially gratifying for the latter, after having missed out on the Forward Shortlist.

Monday 5 October 2009

Review: Scattering Ashes, by Dan Wyke

Following my post about Dan Wyke a few weeks ago, I’ve now managed to get hold of a copy of his pamphlet, titled Scattering Ashes (Waterloo Press, 2004). After poring over it these last few days, I can report that it’s excellent. This is the kind of poetry I love reading and seldom find, poetry that is attuned to the everyday so as to transcend it. What do I mean? Well, here’s an example from “Deer”:

"…the joint
basking in its juices, warm wine,
a film unspooling silently as we slept;
the pleasurable domestic things
that keep a relationship simmering
just below fulfillment…"

Dan Wyke wrote most of these poems while still in his twenties, but the pamphlet shows us a fully formed, individual voice in control of its material. The following stanza from “In The Dark” illustrates this point:

“The light-bulb’s life ends with a chink –
a teaspoon clipping the rim of a cup –
and the dark, previously disguised, shows itself.”

We want to discover ourselves in an image, see something familiar in a new light, and Wyke’s delicate use of “previously disguised” serves just this purpose, transforming the words around it into something special, forcing us to reassess the stanza.

As for minor quibbles, I do feel Wyke overstrains for effect once or twice, when writing of this quality doesn’t need to do so. A few images also seem slightly facile and unenlightening, such as “Your round face glowing like a moon”. Nevertheless, these small uneven patches don’t spoil the overall achievement of the pamphlet.

Dan Wyke’s poems deserve a far wider readership. This is the sort of work that would be ensured popularity among those who feel that poetry can and should be a comprehensible yet challenging art. I understand a full collection, titled “Another Life”, may well be forthcoming in the near future, but for the moment “Scattering Ashes” is a terrific book in its own right and is still available from Waterloo Press. In the meantime, I’d like to finish this review by letting his poetry speak for itself:


While we’ve been reconciling,
the rain has adorned the garden: our spruce
bowing under the glistening freight
of beaded water.
We stand back, watchful.
We know something so exquisitely poised
cannot last.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

José Agustín Goytisolo

The Goytisolo brothers have been key figures on the Spanish literary scene these last fifty years. Luis and Juan are best known as novelists, while José Agustín mainly concentrated on poetry (he died in 1999 after falling from the balcony of his flat).

José Agustín Goytisolo cut an unusual figure on the Spanish literary scene. A Catalan who wrote in Spanish, his poetry unashamedly sits on the boundary betweeen popular and populist. Politically aware, often veering from irony to lyricism, before stopping off at sarcasm and ending up at love, his poems still achieve a unity of voice that shows just how unique he was.

I once attended one of his readings in Zafra. His schedule involved a workshop in the morning with local schoolchildren, followed by a reading for adults in the evening. The problem was the extremely liquid lunch that took place in between both events. Suffice to say, he put on quite a show that night!

Continuing with my theme of the close relationship between poetry and music that so many people sniff at in the U.K., here's one of the most famous examples of this fusion, a renowned version (in Spain, at least) by Paco Ibañez of one of Goytisolo's most famous poems, Palabras Para Julia, dedicated to his daughter but with a nod towards his mother, who died in a Francoist bombing raid during the Civil War:

One of the best qualities of this track is its wonderful intrinsic value as a piece of music. At the same time, however, Ibañez manages to capture and reinterpret the original poem, giving the verse a new life.

Sunday 20 September 2009

Luis Garcia Montero, traditions that converge

Luis Garcia Montero is a terrific poet and a real force in contemporary Spanish poetry.

One of the most accessible poets to be writing in Spain, his work fuses the Generacion del 27, e.g. Salinas, Lorca, Cernuda, with the influence of Jaime Gil de Biedma. This means his realist poetry is also unafraid of the lyric and the esoteric. Politics, meanwhile, play a key role in his work: Garcia Montero forms part of a generation who lived through Spain's intense transition to democracy while they were students.

The above-mentioned combination brings about a poetry that captivates, drawing the reader in, working at umpteen levels. Gacria Montero might have brought together something of a group around him in Granada (poets such as Javier Egea and Alvaro Salvador), but there isn't a school as such - his voice is inimitable. I do enjoy his erotic work and political pieces, but perhaps he's at his best when writing about his daughter, Irene, as in the following snippet:

cobran todas las cosas
un impreciso afan por empezar de nuevo"

"with you
everything takes on
an imprecise urge to begin again"

Garcia Montero is unusual among the current crop of Spanish poets. I do feel he deserves further exposure to a U.K. readership, although the translation would have to be extremely nuanced so as to preserve the converging of traditions that textures his work.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Constructive Rejection

I've had a few grim rejections in my time. One gem was a rambling 400-word monologue from a publisher who managed a dozen crass spelling mistakes in telling me I wasn't joining their club (which brought Groucho Marx straight to my mind).

However, I did receive an exceptionally positive rejection last January: the editor had taken the time to go through my poems one by one, explaining what they liked and didn't like, giving their reasons on each occasion and suggesting alternative routes. They demanded that I reassess my poetics. The initial pain of rejection meant that I knew I had to put the manuscript in a drawer for a few months and then go back to it without prejudice, so that's what I did.

I've spent the last two months chiselling away at those poems, using the editor's remarks as a point of departure, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, but always reacting to the challenge that was so generously set. I'm determined not to lose my identity as a writer in the desire to be published, but this is a great chance to develop further.

I would have loved an acceptance last January, but I'm convinced I'm now a better poet for having received such a constructive rejection. This improvement, deep down, is my goal.

Wednesday 9 September 2009


During a recent discussion over at Poets On Fire, some posters expressed doubts as to whether English-language poetry written in syllabics possesses a music of its own. I'd argue it certainly does. I've been writing in syllabics for over a decade - the form gives me room to play within a musical structure that I can follow, challenge and mould as need be.

The key point for me after so long using syllabics is that I now find an additional syllable jars just as much as a misplaced stress would in metrical verse. The use of syllabics doesn't consist of number-crunching. These days I can't imagine having to count syllables to work out whether a line fits into the form - my ear's been trained to tell me.

I've no time for pointless arguments about the supposed superiority of metrics, syllabics or free verse, but I am convinced all three offer us their own music.

Monday 7 September 2009

Lyrics as poetry and poetry as lyrics

Many U.K. poets seem to take it as read that lyrics aren't poems and poems aren't lyrics. They dig their heels in over this distinction.

Such an argument would appear ridiculous in Spain, where songwriters publish collections of poetry and set many poems to music. A simple search of major Spanish poets on YouTube offers up many gems (especially Lorca and Alberti, etc), but perhaps my favourite is this one:

Luis Garcia Montero's poem led to Quique Gonzalez's song. Here are both of them, feeding off each other, lyrics as poetry and poetry as lyrics.

I feel decent singer-songwriters are marginalised in the U.K., while mainstream lyrics do tend to be trite, factors which lead to a belief that the two genres are somehow separate. In fact, the tools of both trades are shared: for example, Lennon and McCartney knew and used their metrics well, as do many contemporary writers for major groups. The main problem is the colossal dumbing down of popular music in Britain, blinding so many poets to the terrific collaborative possibilites that exist.

Friday 4 September 2009

Guardian First Book Award

Readers of this blog will be aware that I really enjoyed Siân Hughes' The Missing when I read it earlier this year. Well, having already been nominated for the Forward Prize (First Collection), it's now the only poetry collection to have made the Guardian First Book Award longlist. Great news!

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Dan Wyke

Some poets explode onto the scene, others just disappear.

Dan Wyke was a poet whose work I encountered in many small mags back in the mid-1990s. I identified with much of what he was trying to do and was thus delighted when he won a Gregory in 1999. Wyke's work might have been uneven, but it displayed a real spark. He was the featured poet for Staple 59 and brought out a pamphlet with Waterloo in 2004. Extracts from it can be found here. Further poems, meanwhile, are up at the Poetry Library site.

I've tried to get hold of a copy of his pamphlet from Waterloo, but they haven't yet replied to my repeated e-mails (sigh!). In his intro to the Staple selection Wyke mentioned that Waterloo also hoped to publish his first full collection, but nothing seems to have appeared.

What's happened since? All I know is that I've ceased to find Dan Wyke's poetry in the magazines I read. Has he given up on poetry? Has poetry given up on him? Is a terrific first full collection on its way? I'd love to find out!

Monday 31 August 2009

Spanish poetry in translation

Over at the Poets on Fire forum, there's currently an unusual thread about the difficulties that are involved in translating Spanish poetry for a U.K. readership.

My own view of translating poetry is perhaps best summed up by my last post on the subject.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Julio Cortázar, what a voice!

Some poets' voices don't seem to fit their work, others' don't meet our own expectations, but Julio Cortázar added hugely to his poems when reading them aloud.

Not theatrical, just completely and uniquely Cortázar, his Argentinian accent formed a partnership with the words that lifts them off the page. Here's a link to an original recording that shows what I mean:

A suitable soundtrack to another glorious British summer!

Sunday 26 July 2009

The Forward Shortlist - just one more question

Back from a fortnight with my in-laws in Ubeda, I've seen the Forward Shortlist has come out. Others have already written excellently about it and very much along the lines of my own thoughts - Rob Mackenzie and Matt Merritt among them - but I'd like to ask just one more question.

How many print runs have there been of each of the shortlisted first collections?

Most of them probably haven't got beyond their first printing, unlike Andrew Philip's sadly ignored "The Ambulance Box", which is currently on its third run and still counting. This prize seems more and more disconnected from the pulse of U.K. poetry, just like the big publishers whose miniscule lists it tends to champion.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Review: The Missing, by Siân Hughes

For once, a collection outdoes its blurb - as mentioned in a previous post, "The Missing" is an exceptional book in the context of contemporary U.K. poetry.

Siân Hughes' subject matters in "The Missing" are signposted from the start. Her lost third child and the end of a relationship are themes that run though the book. "The Send-Off", for example, is a superb poem and a winner of the Arvon Prize. Its value lies in peeling layer after layer off a story, telling it through details, encouraging us to explore and identify ourselves with it. This last point is a key success - Siân Hughes engages us incredibly well.

What's more, by "us" I mean the general reader. "The Missing" is accessible but also innovative in its treatment of issues that are relevant to all our lives. It doesn't dumb anything down, yet its appeal is wide.

In general, Siân Hughes uses idiomatic patterns excellently, as in "Fidelity". Everyday language is followed by everyday language, lulling us and thus increasing the impact of the ending. Achieving such an effect is a dangerous tightrope for the poet, far more difficult to handle than linguistic fireworks, so there are inevitably a few slips. I do feel, for instance, that "What If", a list poem, is just too inevitable from the outset. Nevertheless, the collection contains many gems, acutely observed poems that build up line after line. For this reason, I can't bring myself to quote any of them here. Just a turn of phrase or couplet would never do them justice. Not a head-turning poet, Siân Hughes grafts meticulously to get our attention, thus keeping it and keeping it.

I'm not going to rehash the question of why Siân Hughes wasn't signed up by one of the big guns in U.K. publishing, given her accessibility and obvious marketing potential, but I can't resist making one last point: the PBS Choice must be jawdroppingly good if The Missing is only a Recommendation. For me at least, "The Missing" is my Choice for 2009 so far, not just my Recommendation.

Sunday 28 June 2009

Suburbia's poetic connotations

This article from Friday's Guardian might be slightly frothy and slanted towards fiction, but it does hint at an issue that's significant to me: the attitude contemporary U.K. poetry holds towards suburbia.

Bearing in mind that millions of us have been brought up in or live in such surroundings, why do so few British poets now write about them or set their work in them? I'm convinced suburbia is dodged through fear of negative connotations and labelling such as "banal", "unimaginative" or "Larkinesque".

Suburbia forms a key part of my poetic imagination, just as it has throughout my life. I try to unravel its intricacies and the way it's evolving. Here's to playing with those connotations and challenging them!

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Sian Hughes - a question

Sian Hughes' first collection, The Missing, is exceptionally good. I'll review it in the near future. Sian won the Arvon prize with her poem, The Send-Off, which is included in the book. Both in terms of the award and the subject matter, that's an excellent marketing hook. Her use of language is innovative yet accessible, her subject matter hugely relevant to our lives. Etc, etc...

My post asks the following question: why wasn't she picked up by one of the big guns of the publishing world?

Let's get one point clear - Salt are great; in fact, this is one key example of how important they are in contemporary U.K. poetry publishing, because I wouldn't be sat here enjoying The Missing if it weren't for them. No, my amazement is at encountering a superb poet with wide appeal who can't have slipped under the radar in the context of her Arvon win yet wasn't picked up by one of the top outfits. Incomprehensible.

Sunday 21 June 2009

The U.K. magazine scene and book publishers

It seems incongruous to be writing this post in 40ºC heat down here in deepest Extremadura, but I read a remark recently from a U.K. publisher to the effect that he believes the U.K. magazine scene feels tired at the moment, mags not being the mark of quality they should be or think that they are. He went on to indicate that an impressive track record in such publications often puts him off rather than encourages him when looking at new poets.

Is he right? I do think certain mags follow a style I don't enjoy, but then a good few book publishers' lists also leave me cold. Some publishers may argue that the U.K. magazine scene is encouraging a generic, limited style. However, the same could be said of mentoring, workshopping and Creative Writing courses.

In fact, I'm convinced that the last few years have seen the emergence of exciting journals for poetry in the U.K., both online and in print, although there does seem to be something of a divorce between magazine and book publishers. This can't be a positive phenomenon.

These new outlets (and some of the evolving older mags) are providing a showcase for talent beyond the "scene". They become a springboard for the poets they publish - finding our niche via a wide range of magazines refines our individuality rather than dulling it. I firmly believe mags can and should regain their role as the main source for book publishers' lists.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Under The Radar Issue Three

The third issue of Under The Radar arrived last week and I was pleased to see one of my poems had been included.

The flagship magazine for Nine Arches Press, Under The Radar specialises in poetry. Its cover is always arresting, with Jane Commane's excellent photos featuring heavily. As for the poems themselves, there's something of a transatlantic feel to this issue, although my personal favourites came from closer to home: Marilyn Ricci's three pieces stand out, especially "The Sound Of My Voice", in which an extreme situation is portrayed and intensified via the accumulation of detail.

Nine Arches Press are working on a number of interesting projects. Under The Radar, pamphlets and full collections are all on their agenda for the coming months and years. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on their development.

Saturday 6 June 2009

Travel and inspiration

There's an interesting thread going on at the moment over at the Poets on Fire Forum, discussing "Travel and Inspiration". Most participants seem to be concentrating on the writing that arises directly from a trip, while my angle is more that travel gives us a counterpoint to home, especially if we immerse ourselves in a new society. In other words a trip often leads us to write with a different perspective about where we've set out from.

Tobias Hill might have written well about his time in Japan, but I would argue that his travels more than anything strengthened his vision of London, as has been shown by his later collections. Going back to myself, I do write about Spain, but home is still the U.K.. My view of British society has certainly been sharpened by my time on the Iberian peninsula and by visits to many other countries such as Japan, South Korea, Russia and the U.S. on work (in another life I'm the export manager for an Extremaduran winery), especially those occasions when I've become involved in local life rather than just attending a trade fair.

On this same theme, I'm off back to the U.K. myself for a few days next week. Once more, travel and inspiration...?

Monday 1 June 2009


Any U.K. poetry fan already knows what I'm on about and that's quite an achievement in itself - not many other book titles are as renowned on the contemporary scene. For once, this was a collection that surpassed its publisher's blurb.

My intention here is not so much to go over the old ground of Simon Armitage's inventive use of language, catchy rhythms and universal to specific to universal treatment of his subject matter. Nor is it to focus on how Zoom! influenced me in my early twenties. Instead, the point of this post is simply that I have never so been hooked by anything else Armitage has subsequently written. By this, I don't mean that I haven't admired his later work and seen advances in erudition and wizardry, but that Zoom! is special.

I wonder whether Armitage's unique value as a poet was his youthful freshness, vigour, immediacy and rough edges. I thus also wonder whether Zoom! is always going to be his stand-out collection, no matter what he writes in the future. If so, he's still made an incredible contribution to U.K. poetry.

Maybe, just maybe, Armitage shares something with a number of popular musicians - they can never recapture the spirit of their first album. That record eventually takes on emblematic status; Zoom! is also on its way to doing so.

Friday 22 May 2009

Antonio Vega, poems set to music

Antonio Vega has died at the age of fifty-one.

An exceptional songwriter, Vega managed to dodge cliché with intensely personal lyrics that became renowned all over Spain. He started out as the lead singer with Nacha Pop, later going solo. Here are two of his songs. This first clip is of El Sitio De Mi Recreo, an example of his later work:

The next song is La Chica De Ayer, an emblem for a whole generation of Spaniards. On rereading my previous sentence, I'm aware I seem to lapse into hyperbole, but virtually no one of my age from out here in Iberia could fail to identify the song after the first few bars. Enrique Iglesias recently ripped its heart out with a sickly cover version, but this clip is of the original, from Nacha Pop's first ever T.V. appearance:

Antonio Vega often stated his songs were "poems set to music". He was right.

Monday 18 May 2009

Mario Benedetti

The main headline in today's online version of El País (perhaps Spain's number one paper) is the news of Mario Benedetti's death at the age of eighty-eight.

In spite of having published numerous novels and essays, this Uruguayan is perhaps best-known for his poetry. Exile and love are his main themes, the former forced on him by political repression. Benedetti is capable of remarkable turns of phrase, of sustained narrative strength within a poem and of achieving the heady mix of politics, metaphysics and reflections on daily life.

Leafing once more through my copy of his collected poems, Los Espejos Las Sombras, his brilliance makes it difficult to pick out just one quote, but here goes...

"...cantamos porque el grito no es bastante..."
"...we sing because shouting is not enough..."

Lyricism and commitment in a single line. Benedetti might have died, but his poetry remains to mark both the anguish and hope of a whole generation who suffered terribly under Latin American dictatorships.

Saturday 16 May 2009

Jordi Virallonga, exceptional in every sense

Jordi Virallonga is from Catalunya and lives there, yet writes much of his work in Spanish. In the current socio-linguistic climate, this is exceptional in itself. However, Virallonga is also exceptional for the poetry he writes.

The Spanish poetry scene often seems to get tied up in knots about whether poetry should approach life in order to understand it or take an esoteric step away. Nevertheless, the most outstanding Spanish poets of recent years have risen above this navel-gazing, tending not to fit into the "Generations" and "Schools" that are so beloved of their contemporaries. Jordi Virallonga is one such poet.

Of all his collections, my favourite by far is Crónicas de Usura, published in 1999. It's an elegaic book, not a sequence but a series of interweaving poems that also work excellently as stand-alone pieces. Urban surroundings, metaphysics, everyday events and brilliant lists all work together as Virallonga seeks to express what none of us can. Many Spanish poets and critics would classify and separate each of these features as belonging to one "School" or another. In this case, the poet is brave enough to juxtapose them, using them as and when he needs them as poetic resources. Self-limitation is not for Virallonga.

What's more, he's not shy of brilliant turns of phrase. Not flashy, just providing a new way of viewing something familiar:

"una historia doblada como un avión de papel"..."a story folded like a paper plane"

Jordi Virallonga is exceptional in 21st century Spanish poetry - few other current Spanish poets have shaken off the critical shackles that their contemporaries seem to use as security blankets. I thoroughly recommend his work, above all Crónicas de Usura, an outstanding blend of transatlantic and Spanish influences that fuses into an original voice.

Saturday 2 May 2009

Matt Merritt, a strikingly subtle voice

Matt Merritt has published two books of poetry, a pamphlet titled Making the Most of the Light (Happenstance) in 2005, followed by Troy Town (Arrowhead) in 2008, his debut full collection. Accessible yet complex, Merritt is one of the few poets on the U.K. scene to carry off this juggling act. His poems invite the reader in, before generating layers of nuance.

Making the Most of the Light goes way beyond most first pamphlets. Not just a “Best Of…”, it develops a number of themes, often via the use of subtle juxtaposition, as in the collection’s positive title alongside its dedication (For Rebecca Merritt 1968-2004). At the same time, Merritt also shows himself to be adept at great set pieces (Sweet Nothings), excellently executed extended metaphors (Comeback) and the undervalued English art of self-deprecation (Familiar). This pamphlet shows a poet in exciting evolution, capable of striking chords without resorting to facile gestures.

Troy Town displays a number of key differences. Unlike many other poets, Merritt didn’t draw on poems from the previous pamphlet when drawing up his debut full collection. Instead, the reader is offered a clean slate and a book that’s symphonic. In other words, this is a collection which compresses and reflects a couple of years in the poet’s life. Pieces bounce off each other, depend on their neighbours and are strengthened by their strategic positioning in the book. Less immediate than Making the Most of the Light, Troy Town does still invite the reader in, but Merritt’s capacity for creating nuance is building: we have to work just a little more to suss out where we are, what’s going on and what might hit us on the next line. Of course, his skill is always teasing away in the background, less blatant than before, but reminding us that our efforts will be rewarded.

Matt Merritt is a poet to watch over the coming years. His voice, already striking, will surely mature even further. I just hope it reaches the wider readership that it deserves.

Monday 27 April 2009

Poetry with an anchor

The poetry I love tends to have an anchor - a physical set of surroundings and a social environment.

An obvious example might be Peter Sansom, whose work is mainly set in Yorkshire. Such a setting lends a specific sense to his work that opens outwards.

However, my interpetation of an anchor goes much further; Tobias Hill comes to mind at this point. Hill may set a poem in an exotic location, but London is always lurking in the background. Its social strands and physical layout provide an implicit counterpoint for all Hill's poetic wanderings. The reader is aware of London acting as an anchor throughout Hill's work - we know where he's from and we watch him exploring the developments in his relationship with his origins via his encounters with elsewheres.

Everyone has just such origins to affect how they view new experiences. All writers reflect this fact in their work, but Hill seems to do so more consciously than others, using it as part of the inner drive to his poetry. I aspire to something similar in my work, reflecting on an anchor that's inherently part of me. It permeates my poetry, not necessarily having to be openly invoked in every piece. Even when writing about Spain, I do so in the light of where I'm from, who I've been and what social anchors I've dropped.

Monday 20 April 2009

Poetic Failures

From time to time I have a trawl through my folders of old failed work on the off chance that some piece or extract might be worth reworking or set off a new spark.

Doing so this weekend, I realised how key themes, techniques and tones have developed in my work. Only now can I spot my first clumsy gropings towards them a few years ago.

Larkin was keen to insist on his disavowal of a poet's obligation to develop, but he also admitted that his percentage of failures didn't drop with time, in itself a recognition that we mustn't stagnate or repeat ourselves if we're going to be creative. I use this argument when wrestling with my current poetic messes: the encouraging aspect of the process is that maybe, just maybe, they are staging posts on the way to somewhere new and as yet unknown.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Songwriters and poets

Songwriters who are poets, poets who are songwriters...

...beyond the debate as to whether lyrics are poems or poems are lyrics, comes another issue: many countries boast prominent songwriters who are also well-known as poets, but not the U.K..

Several examples spring to mind in the U.S., while Spain has a long tradition of writers working in both genres. Among the most famous current crop is Joaquín Sabina - he publishes poetry which has been admired by figures such as Angel González, while also selling out concerts. Apart from the fact he's from my wife's lovely home town of Ubeda, I also feel an affinity with his deft word-play, social commentary and narrative drive, as in the song below:

Does U.K. poetry look down on songwriters? Do we force a distinction on artists (i.e. you're either a poet or a songwriter)? I'm convinced not only that both are compatible, but that they can feed off each other and enrich both the writer and reader/listener.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

The invented truth

There are a few gorgeous moments as a reader when an author helps you make that final jump. Cortázar gave me just such a shove when I first read this...

"Supe que no llegaría a la verdad me convencía de que país nuevo era vida nueva..."

"I knew I wouldn't reach the invented truth...if I convinced myself that a new country was a new life..."

As a point of reference for a writer who lives abroad (whether through choice or due to political repression), this phrase is extremely relevant. It's been key to me, converting an intangible, semi-conscious feeling into a crystalised, clear thought.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Erudition as a tool

Keith Douglas was one of the first poets to captivate me – his music was intoxicating for this teenage reader, while I also connected with the concrete imagination that he filtered through his wartime experiences.

Even now, I can’t resist playing the same game once more – speculating as to how his work and life might have evolved if he’d survived. As they develop, many poets step further and further back from life in order to understand it from fresh perspectives; for reasons mentioned above, Douglas took the opposite route.

I’m convinced that Douglas is a major poet, that his overall reputation is still hindered by the tag of “war poet”. The afore-mentioned astutely concrete imagination seems unique to me among his contemporaries. Not shying from his erudition, he learnt to use it as a tool, not a badge.

Back to the initial question - would the breadth of his poetic ambition have turned him into an exile from post-war Britain or would it have found young Movement poets and ignited something special…?

I do still love this game!

Monday 16 March 2009

The garden of forking paths

I gave myself a straight choice at the age of twenty-two – either I headed for the smoke in search of a mentor a la Lumsden, Donaghy, etc, or I left for the poorest, most remote part of Spain (as described on my travel website at Extremadura Guide), which I knew and loved from my year abroad. I was aware that I’d go for several months at a time without speaking English except a weekly phone call home, living in a dusty town where I’d be the only foreigner. Bear in mind this was when the internet was in its infancy.

I obviously chose the latter route. It might not have helped me in terms of climbing ladders or having someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me where I was going wrong, but this isolation enabled me to develop a distinctive poetic tone. What’s more, I had no choice other than to write if I wanted to express something in English.

Have you ever imagined how your writing might have developed if you’d taken such a route? Exile sharpens understanding of your home, as it provides an incomparable counterpoint, while immersing yourself for years in a foreign language sheds new light on your original tongue. However, many critics would argue that you lose touch after so long away, that your views lose validity as a result of such a decision. The garden of forking paths, as Borges would have it.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Radio Futura

There's a pretty coherent case to be put that Pop/Rock Music doesn't lend itself to being performed in Spanish unless the songwriter subverts it with non-Anglo-Saxon nuances, just as iambs and anapests, etc, sound ridiculous inside Spanish speech patterns.

One of the best exponents of Spanish popular music over the last couple of decades has been and is Juan Perro, the alter ego of Santiago Auseron, the lead singer of Radio Futura. This group erupted onto the scene during the Movida Madrileña - a boom time for liberal movements in Madrid during the transition to democracy. Spain was undergoing a vast number of social changes in a short period of time; the artists involved in the Movida expressed these, none more so than Radio Futura.

Here's a clip of one of their emblematic pieces. Auseron forever casts doubt on his own songwriting gifts, but he's actually an excellent storyteller with an original turn of phrase. What's more, the marriage between the words and the music is terrific - a great example of twisting its genre.


Friday 6 March 2009

Maggie O'Farrell, poet

I possess a copy of Tabla’s 1997 anthology, including poems from its 1996 competition. The winner was one Maggie O’Farrell, now renowned as a novelist.

My copy is now pretty battered, thanks in the main to O’Farrell’s poems. They’re visually explosive, musical and carry a strong narrative drive. Most of all, their voice is distinctive. I thought and think she could become a key figure in contemporary British poetry. Her novels are a great read, have been very successful and made her a fair deal of money, but I still hope we’ll hear more of Maggie O’Farrell as a poet, a genre in which I personally believe she already excelled over a decade ago. Does anyone know whether she’s kept her poetry up?

Friday 27 February 2009

Julio Cortázar

This Argentinian writer is famous for his intricately schemed short stories and renowned novel “Rayuela” (Hopscotch). The idea behind the latter is gorgeous in itself, the execution even better. Part of Cortázar’s own introduction reads as follows :

“A su manera este libro es muchos libros, pero sobre todo es dos libros. El primer libro se deja leer en la forma corriente, y termina en el capítulo 56…el segundo libro se deja leer empezando por el capitulo 73 y siguiendo el orden que se indica al pie de cada capítulo…71, 1, 2, 116, etc”.

“In its own way this book is many books. However, above all, it’s two books. The first one can be read like normal and finishes at the end of Chapter 56…the second one can be read by starting with Chapter 73 and following the order that’s indicated at the foot of each chapter…71, 1, 2, 116, etc”.

The game of hopscotch isn’t just technical virtuosity for its own sake – Cortázar’s challenging of our expectations goes much further. I can’t recommend this novel enough.

Nevertheless, my favourite Cortázar book isn’t a novel or a collection of short stories. It’s his collected poems (Salvo El Crepúsculo), tough to find even in Spain. He’s virtually unknown as a poet, but his skill is immense. Cortázar’s poetry is scattered with terrific turns of phrase, but is also held together by an original vision that juxtaposes everyday and abstract elements:

“…esa comida recalentada, la memoria…”

“…el pozo herido
de una sola cabeza en una almohada…”

And here’s my betrayal of his original versión:

“…memory, that reheated dish…”

“…the wounded well
of a single head on a pillow…”

Wonderful stuff - this is poetry that accompanies me all the time.

Monday 16 February 2009

"Traduttore, tradittore" or “Translator, traitor”

This Italian saying might sound provocative until we undress the ramifications.

In spite of my background as a linguist, I’ve never enjoyed translating as a literary pursuit. It’s an excellent exercise in understanding how languages work, interact and misunderstand each other, but the impossibility of success frustrates my creativity rather than igniting it. For example, the cadences and connotations of English cannot exist in Spanish (and vice versa).

I’m far keener on using the original as a point of departure for my tangents, but then this is also what I do when reading poetry in English. On second thoughts, perhaps I too am a translator and traitor at once, but in my own language, from one poem to another, from reader to writer and on to further readers, just as all poets are.

Thursday 5 February 2009

The Last Place On Earth

Having previously mentioned poets whose attraction has faded for me, I should also mention that the opposite can also happen, as in the case of Peter Sansom.

I had always admired aspects of his earlier work, but with reservations. None remain since the 2006 publication of The Last Place On Earth. Words work harder to earn their place, while this sense of tightening also applies to the poems’ musicality. Humdrum events can sing and develop ramifications; Peter Sansom has mastered the art of getting them to do so, as in the opening lines of Ironing:

“I like it best when there’s time to see myself
though the drizzle of a weekday morning…”

Simple, mundane, yet already hinting at far more beyond as the poem advances.

I get the impression that Sansom is no longer bothered about nodding towards one poetic reference point or another. Techniques now don’t get in the way – they’ve been fully absorbed into his unified yet varied voice. The Last Place On Earth is an excellent example of how the portrayal of everyday events need not lack ambition. In fact, few poets are capable of rising to the challenge of meeting life head-on and then leaping beyond it without sounded trite or forced.

Peter’s Sansom’s achievement is thus considerable and undervalued. I’m convinced that The Last Place On Earth is a key book in contemporary British poetry. Get hold of a copy if you can!

Thursday 29 January 2009

And as for Paul...

Following on from my previous post about the development in Douglas Dunn’s work and the difficulties thus posed for me as a reader, I’ve been wondering about other poets who also seem to have taken a similar journey. By this I mean that their work has evolved towards greater mastery and density of technique, more poems within poems, an ever-increasing enjoyment of erudition and a waning appeal to my personal tastes.

I thought and think that Paul Farley’s The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You is one of the most outstanding first collections I’ve read. I love its distinctive set of voices, colloquial verbal gymnastics and playful connection with the reader. A vast majority of its poems have stayed with me since 1998, which is always an excellent sign.

I bought Farley’s next book, The Ice Age, as soon as it came out, read and reread it over the following few weeks. Without knowing quite why at first, I realised the poems just weren’t hitting home. Right now, off the cuff, I can’t dredge up any of its pieces without opening the book and refreshing my memory.

The same goes for Tramp in Flames, Farley’s third collection. I admire both later books in technical terms, perhaps even more so than Farley’s debut, but I’ve stopped enjoying them as much and connect with fewer and fewer poems. Something of a blow, bearing in mind that this is why I read!

It’s easy to speculate about what’s happened. As therapists would have it, both of us must probably share our guilt! The fact is that the three collections have grown in length – from 48 to 54 to 72 pages - as has their density. Since The Boy From The Chemist Is Her To See You, Farley’s life has grown further away from Art College and Liverpool, moving more into the world of workshops, academia and readings, etc.

Farley’s still young enough to surprise us with new directions. I’ll be straight out to purchase his next collection, because I still believe he’s one of the most idiosyncratic and inventive poets writing in the U.K. today. It’s just I’m not sure how much longer we’re going to last together…

Thursday 22 January 2009

Douglas and me

I dipped into my set of Douglas Dunn books once more yesterday and was reminded how much I admire a great deal of his poetry.

No matter how often I re-read him, Terry Street still stands out alongside Elegies, despite the occasional wobbles in voice that characterise so many first collections. My battered copy was printed before I was born and apparently cost more new (60p) than I paid for it second-hand, which lends it extra kudos. I particularly relish the tension involved in Dunn’s self-imposed ambivalent status as an outsider living on Terry Street. His detached observations are juxtaposed with sharp notes of personal engagement, as in “Incident in the Shop”:

“…I feel the draughts on her legs,
The nip of cheap detergent on her hands…”

Memorable lines, not Kitchen Sink, nor derivative Larkin.

Dunn’s later collections certainly contain excellent work, but his writing also seems to revel more and more in its own ever-improving standards, entering into a dialogue with itself. An exception is inevitably the outstanding Elegies, where the dialogue is of course with Dunn’s memories of Lesley. Immediacy is regained, now combined with consistently dazzling skill, studded with turns of phrase that have been with me ever since I first read them eight years ago…

“…these days of grief
before the grief..”

“…The clinic of “sympathy” and dinners…”

“…the muddle of lost tenses…”

Plus numerous others I could mention.

Since Elegies, I’ve tried and failed to engage with Dunn’s writing. I admire its excellence but cannot warm to it, as in this example from the collection Northlight…

"…Time lets its scientific minutes drop
On the Australian emptiness, a brown
Rugged geology where clocks are baked
In God’s kiln…"

Virtuosity that leaves me cold.

The aim of this post isn’t to bash the way Dunn has developed as a writer, rather to point out that the relationship between a poet and his reader can mirror that of a couple who grow apart as their tastes change. No matter what I may think of the latest work, I treasure Terry Street and Elegies, which says as much about me as it does about Douglas Dunn.

One final point – Dunn’s choice of work from Terry Street to be included in his Selected very much reflects his developing ideas. I thoroughly recommend the original collection and original running order.

Thursday 15 January 2009

English in Spanish, Spanish in English

After his excellent reading in Zafra few years ago, I was lucky enough to share a few tapas with Antonio Gamoneda, whose unique body of work I’ll describe in more detail in a later post.

We ended up discussing his collection, Blues Castellano, a remarkable attempt at using the tools of The Blues in Spanish verse. Our conversation then ended up at Borges’ door – I’ve always felt specifically English cadences, structures and devices permeated all Borges’ work, especially his prose. Bear in mind that his childhood reading included authors such as Chesteron, while he collaborated with his translator on the English-language versions of his work.

Gamoneda’s Blues Castellano is an intensely Spanish re-interpretation of the form, as he uses it to engage with personal and social melancholy brought about by the darkest period in Spain’s recent history; Borges, meanwhile, linguistically spooks me – at times I feel I’m reading Spanish in English or English in Spanish, both languages playfully enriching each other, such is his knowledge of the cultures and connotations involved.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

True Life Stories

Circumstances took me into W.H. Smiths the other week (my son’s urgent need for Thomas the Tank Engine books!). Glances along the shelves provided a brutal reminder that a poetry section doesn’t exist there (in the Chichester branch, at least), although “True Life Stories” seems to be growing at an alarming rate.

And there was me thinking poetry was also a genre that excels at bite-sized morsels of Faction.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Black Pudding and Angel Gonzalez

Contemporary Spanish poetry often appears to live very much in the shadow of its immediate predecessors in many senses, none more so than in the way critics and poets themselves constantly pigeonhole work in a “school” or “movement”. There seems to be some sort of belief than this is the only way to emulate the 98 Generation (1898) or 27 Generation (1927) in their originality.

The idiosyncrasy of Angel Gonzalez, a poet from Asturias in northern Spain, stands out even more in this context. His death last year drew a definitive line under my vain and vague hope that I might one day attend a reading by him. This hope had always been kept on hold by his exile in Alburquerque, New Mexico, where he’d taught and then retired, meaning that readings in Spain became few and far between.

Gonzalez fought against being pigeonholed throughout his poetic life, realising that the battle lines drawn up by others were in fact limits instead of marks of identity. His work varies greatly in metrics, aesthetics and semantics, from pithy pieces that provide tremendous poetic sound bites to lengthy humanistic landscapes. I have to admit that I fell in love with the former, as few other contemporary Spanish poets hit the spot as concisely as Angel Gonzalez. Here’s a renowned extract from Glosas a Heraclito, a great example of how to grab the beat-up old myth kitty by its short and curlies…

Nada es lo mismo, nada
la Historia y la morcilla de mi tierra:

se hacen las dos con sangre, se repiten.

An impossible translation might fail along these lines…

Nothing’s the same, nothing
History and my homeland’s black pudding:

both are made from blood, both repeat.

Great (and brave) stuff when you bear in mind that this poem was written in the context of the Civil War and its aftermath.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Evangeline Paterson

Despite never having met her, I’ll always remember Evangeline Paterson with gratitude – she gave me my first decent magazine credits as editor of Other Poetry several years ago, backing my work every time I sent her off a batch. That encouragement was crucial to me at the time.

I chased down a copy of her New and Selected, titled Lucifer, with Angels and published by Dedalus (1994), enjoyed her poetry and desperately hoped she saw something of herself in my own incipient voice.

Perhaps the dispiriting part of this story is that news of her death reached me as I was immersed in her book, wondering how such talent had been sidelined by the contemporary poetry scene. Evangeline wrote clearly, imparting music and life to specific examples of universal issues. She was an excellent storyteller, squeezing her tales into concise verse, an undervalued attribute. Her self-effacing wit stood out, as in the ending to “A Wish For My Children”:

“and may you grow strong
to break
all webs of my weaving.”

Any educated reader not used to poetry could engage with her work immediately, which is an acid test that I ask any poet to pass. Evangeline Paterson deserves a wider readership now, just as she did during her lifetime. If you can get hold of her poetry, I thoroughly recommend it.