Thursday, 18 December 2014

Gestures of love, Rebecca Farmer's Not Really

The easy way out for this reviewer would be to declare that Rebecca Farmer's Not Really (Smith-Doorstep, 2014) is concerned with mortality. At first glance, death seems a dominating theme in her pamphlet.

Of course, that would be to ignore a couple of obvious truths. Someone cannot die without a preceding life. Other people continue to live after a death. A reminder of these two facts enables us to get to grips with Farmer's verse.

Before homing in on the nitty-gritty of the poetry, one additional caveat is required: the poems in Not Really are so charged and moving that the reviewer ends up in even greater danger than usual of blending the poet with the verse. Such emotion is evoked and invoked that the distance between the two is compressed. However, this separation should never be ignored and is key to any assessment of Farmer's poetic qualities.

Let's start with the first of those afore-mentioned truths, that someone cannot die without a preceding life. In this respect, Not Really is terrific at the treasuring of moments and the depiction of gestures of love amid suffering, as in the following extract from the collection's title poem:

"...They ask him if he's in pain; not really, he says.
You curl beside him and he strokes your feet.

Farmer is also especially good at capturing the essence of experiences, making the reader live through them too, in a new and pesonal way. In "The Diagnosis", for example, she creates a disembodied music and syntactic structure that reflect the semantics:

"...Your name is called.
The doctor hasn't read his script,
he doesn't say this is what it is,

but you look pale.
He looks at me.
Does he look pale to you?

Pale? Pale as what -
pale as this December 10 O'Clock?
Yes, he looks pale, I say."

And now for the second truth, that other people continue to live after a death. One of Farmer's favoured devices is the role of ghosts. They crop up in several poems. They are characters. They take on human traits. As such, their haunting qualities are exacerbated. In "The Fridges of Ghosts", we (i.e. those who have been left behind) are watching...

" the ghosts freeze old memories in cubes
and to keep themselves amused

photograph each other on their phones..."

I hope these snippets from Not Really, together with their related analysis, are sufficient to demonstrate that Rebecca Farmer's verse shouldn't be pigeon-holed as confesssional. I can't claim it's an easy read, but that's not because of the presence of death itself. Instead, it's due to her talent for involving the reader. Farmer aims to unsettle us so as to make us consider our own lives afresh, and she succeeds throughout her pamphlet. Read it if you dare!

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Best U.K. Poetry Blogs of 2014

2014 has offered further proof, if any were still needed, that poetry blogs are here to stay amid the maelstrom of social media. The quality of blogging has continued to improve, and the U.K. scene has developed organically. In other words, some blogs have tailed off, others have grown, while several newcomers are also worthy of note.

So, with the same proviso as last year that this is a subjective and partial selection, here are The Best U.K. Poetry Blogs of 2014 according to Rogue Strands.

Let's start with blogs that focus on reviews. In this respect, John Field's efforts at Poor Rude Lines remain a benchmark. His posts can't be continual, simply because so much work goes into them, but they're well worth the wait. Meanwhile, as mentioned a few weeks ago, Dave Coates over at Dave Poems has undoubtedly grown and developed as a reviewer without losing any of the thrust that makes him different. As for newcomers, Elsewhere has been an excellent addition. Run by Rob MacKenzie, it features regular reviews by guest critics. I've discovered a number of books via its posts.

And now on to poets' personal blogs, with the main criteria that they should go beyond mere self-promotion. The following tend to provide a mixture of reviews, interviews, news, features and comment on the poetry scene. My personal choices this year include several old favourites that I read regularly:

- Matt Merritt at Polyolbion (excellent clarity of prose)
- George Szirtes' blog (what a literary life)
- Ben Wilkinson at Deconstructive Wasteland (great reviews)
- Katy Evans-Bush at Baroque in Hackney (fun, erudite yet caustic if necessary)
- Fiona Moore at Displacement (spot-on analysis)
- Maria Taylor at Commonplace (real insights into a poetic life)
- Tim Love at Lit Refs (also check out his Lit Refs Reviews blog)
- Helen Mort at Poetry on the Brain (a unique spin-off from her PhD work)
- Kim Moore's blog (her Sunday Poem feature is a must-read in this household)
- Roy Marshall's blog (good on the process of writing and submitting)
- Robin Houghton at UK Poet Gal (bucketfuls of honesty)

There are also other blogs that have either developed or emerged in 2014. Anthony Wilson's project has long been on my reading list, but his work as Guest Blogger at the Aldeburgh Festival has been exemplary. It's taken his blog in a new direction and is highly recommended. From the U.S. via northern England, meanwhile, comes Edward Ferrari's Republic of Yorkshire. It's every bit as intriguing as it sounds! And last but not least, I've recently become a follower of Josephine Corcoran's poetry blog.

The above brings me on to a slight shift that's taken place. Josephine also used to run And Other Poems, which was a showcase of guest poets' work, as was Michelle McGrane's Peony Moon. Both have suspended operations this year, leaving very few blogs of their type on the U.K. scene apart from Abegail Morley's Poetry Shed. However, there has been a huge increase in the number of blogzines. I'm not going to detail them here, purely because I don't really see them as blogs. They're online poetry magazines with rolling content instead of numbered periodical issues.

On to my final section: publishers' blogs. Again, my aim is to dodge mere marketing tools and concentrate on content with insight into the graft that goes on in the background. I especially enjoy the following:

- Helena Nelson at HappenStance (I always learn something new from her weekly post)
- Charles Boyle at Sonofabook (CB Editions' new magaine is one of the most interesting ventures of 2015)
- Todd Swift at Eyewear (always good for a spicy opinion)

And that's it for another year! Apologies to anyone who feels left out in this very personal selection. All in all, it's been a superb year for poetry blogging. Never mind finding time to post on Rogue Strands, I'm struggling to keep up with reading all the excellent content that other U.K. poetry bloggers are producing. The standard is rising, year on year. Here's to an even better 2015!

Friday, 28 November 2014

Poems from the Road podcast

Back in the summer I received an e-mail from Robin Vaughan-Williams, a fellow HappenStance poet, asking me to record a reading of my poem "Dad on the M25 After Midnight" (from Inventing Truth).

I'm delighted to report that my recording is now to form part of Robin's Poems from the Road podcast. Poems from the Road is a poetic journey down Britain's A-roads and motorways, exploring the abstraction, violence, landscapes, and migrations that characterise our experience of the road.

Robin's podcast also features verse from many other poets such as Helena Nelson and Clare Best. It will be broadcast on Hive Radio every Thursday in December, 5-6 p.m., as part of the Apples and Snakes Home Cooking series. I'm very much looking forward to hearing it myself!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The ripple of moments, Liz Lefroy's Mending The Ordinary

The poems in Liz Lefroy's Mending The Ordinary (Fair Acre Press, 2014) ripple out from pivotal moments. They begin with "Years on I return...", "Son, you don't know this, but last night..." or "Two weeks away, and when I return it's dark...".

This pamphlet is rooted in the specifics of time and place, of episodes that might initially seem everyday but are then charged with ramifications. One such example is "The School Concert, in which a mother's pride at watching her son's performance opens out to an understanding of what has come before:

"I shut my eyes, controlled my breathing
as at your birth.
                           It was as useless
as it was then and my life burst out of me..."

Lefroy often makes use of a linguistic change of gear at a key point in the poem. In "Grace", for instance, she shifts from mundane turns of phrase to highly charged imagery as she reaches for meaning, starting with...

"Today we played Frisbee on the beach.
You weren't there. I skimmed it to you anyway..."

This same poems ends as follows:

"...a sudden lift of wind,
an unexpected flight."

Lefroy is never unambitious. Mending The Ordinary takes experiences, launches them and explores those afore-mentioned ripples. What's more, abstracts are melded to concrete details in her exploration.

The closing lines of the pamphlet's final piece, "The Square Root of Paradise", offer us an excellent example of her poetic method. In this case, a context is not being provided for a moment as much as for all the poems that have come before, casting a new light on the collection's title:

" syrup twisted onto a spoon, lifted up high,
tipped to a skeining - a long stitch of sweetness
mending the ordinary."

There's a freshness to Liz Lefroy's verse that very much does lift it out of the ordinary. The reader is unexpectedly moved by every poem. That's a considerable achievement.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Dave Poems

Just as I'm committed to publishing positive reviews of the new books of verse that I most enjoy here on Rogue Strands, all with the aim of helping them find a wider readership, so I'm also aware that poetry blogging and reviewing can adopt many different but equally valid approaches. One such example is Dave Poems, run by Dave Coates.

I've been reading his blog since 2011, initially intrigued by his use of a disclaimer at the beginning of each review, in which he states any prejudices or connections with the poet in question. I've always found the posts a maelstrom, especially the earliest ones. They were daring, provocative, forthright, sometimes a car crash and sometimes extremely perceptive. Above all, they were the work of someone who was wrestling with his own views of poetry.

To write and offer up such reviews for public consumption takes a lot of guts. Moreover, as time has gone by and Coates' work has evolved, he hasn't hastily removed those first articles. Instead, he's done an excellent job of placing them into a personal and general context, recently publishing a remarkable retrospective post on his first fifty reviews.

In the afore-mentioned piece, Coates encourages “the understanding that negative criticism is not a personal attack, and that personal attacks are not good criticism.” In other words, he might now be choosing his words with greater awareness of their consequences and the potential for personal hurt, but that won't stop him criticising or praising poetry as he sees fit.

Dave Poems is already a terrific blog. The coming months and years, however, promise even more. I know Coates' views are going to challenge my preconceptions, and that's invariably a good thing!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The rootlessness of professional poets...?

In his recent blog post about the relationship between his verse and his day job, Tim Love remarks on how many young U.K. poets are forced to chase residencies and short-term contracts from place to place. He highlights their consequent sense of disconnection.

I would argue that many professional poets do actually feel a sense of community, via their colleagues and social media, etc. However, I'm not at all sure whether such physical or virtual surroundings are entirely beneficial to their verse. I can think of several examples of such poets whose early work I enjoyed far more than later books. I admired them when their poetry was anchored in experiences and a feeling of belonging that necessarily lie beyond academia.

Let's take a successful young poet with poems in top-notch mags and a well-received first collection. What's the next step? This is not just a question of careers: the course of a whole life depends on such choices.

Is poetry a vocation or a job? Will an alternative career take over or leave time to write? Will creativity be boosted or stunted by the constant company of other poets? Will an unusual approach end up being over-rounded and homogenised or will it be honed and perfected?

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Playful humanity, Declan Ryan's Faber New Poets 12

If the Faber New Poets series is meant to be a series of snapshots into the future of how a Bright Young Thing might develop, Declan Ryan's pamphlet (nº12) is a miserable failure. That's because the future is already here. Ryan's poetry is fully formed, original and waiting to strut its stuff.

The chapbook may only contain ten poems, but each of them offers up a perfectly layered narrative. Dramas reveal themselves, line on line. One such example is the opening to "Girl in Bed":

"He brought the painting to be valued,
knowing something of the price
of this tantalising neck..."

Of course, as readers, we too now know something and are being tantalised ourselves by these very lines. Empathy is immediately established. There is warmth.

And this warmth is key to an understanding of Ryan's verse. While his is a poetry of cultural and geographical baggage, shot through with such connotations, it never loses its keen humanity. Joe Louis, Trinity Hospital, John Coltrane, The Hague, The Washington Post and Kilmainham take on the significance of characters in this collection, yet we encounter them alongside intimate turns of phrase such as the following stanza from "Transmission":

"I suppose that was a sort of dance
on the platform, afterwards:
our feet shuffling towards one another's,
your palm on my chest,
exactly the right size for my heart."

Deft handling of linguistic expectations is in evidence here. The poet is only too aware of the overdone image of a heart lying in someone's hand. He thus subverts it, recharging its possibilities.

Declan Ryan's Faber New Poets 12 is buoyed by the delicious challenge of portraying individual emotion within society. His meshing of sociocultural allusions, linguistic playfulness and authentic feeling creates a poetry that stands out in contemporary verse. Get hold of this book and see what I mean!

Thursday, 30 October 2014

An example of my writing process

This morning I sat down in front of my computer to transfer "a first final draft" of a six-line poem from my A4 notebook to a Word file. This was after a dozen pages of handwritten drafts since an initial idea arrived in July.

These records are crucial to my writing process. If I'd typed directly on to a screen, I would have lost all the blind alleys and red herrings that I often later pillage for other lines in the poem, juggling the components until they fall into place. The physical act of marking a blank page, meanwhile, is also significant. There's no delete key in my notebook!

And so 59 words are now typed out and placed in a folder, yet that's far from the end of the process. I'll read the poem a few more times over the next few days, but then I'll force myself to put it away and slowly fall out of love with it.

Once a couple of months have gone by, I'll look through the poem once more. That's when previously unnoticed faults tend to show up. I'll try to sort them out back in my notebook, often referring again to those records of my first set of notes, before typing up "a second final draft" and stashing it for a further period. And so on and so forth. This process continues until there comes a point where I go back to the poem and feel no more changes are necessary. On a few occasions, this occurs quickly, but it usually takes at least a year from start to finish.

And then there are the poems that simply refuse to click, poems that keep dodging attempts to make them work even though I'm dead sure there's decent verse in there somewhere. How to deal with them...? Well, that's what friends are for...

Monday, 27 October 2014

Not a negative review in sight

There's certainly a place for negative reviews, so long as they are constructive in their criticism and not just a drawing of battlelines. No poet enjoys taking a hit, but reflection follows the initial surge of hurt if a decent discussion is to be had.

However, you won't find a single negative review on Rogue Strands. That's not because of any sycophantic attitude. Instead, my aim is for this blog to be a celebration of the new verse that I enjoy. My intention is to help readers discover poets and books, each review attempting to provide a flavour of the collection under scrutiny. I've written critical pieces for magazines and journals on several occasions, but Rogue Strands will continue to share terrific verse and encourage people to read it!

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Overlapping margins, Lydia Fulleylove's Estuary

Estuary (Two Ravens Press, 2014) is Lydia Fulleylove's first full collection. It displays many of the virtues of Notes on Land and Sea, her 2011 HappenStance Press pamphlet, but the longer format provides her with more room to build and develop connections and tensions, not just within poems but between pieces and even genres.

This last point is especially significant in the case of Estuary, as the book intermingles verse with diary extracts and prose monologues, while also featuring artwork by Colin Riches. The aim is not simply to evoke a place. Instead, a dialogue is established between self and place, together with a gradually evolving attempt to map inner as well as outer landscapes.

In this context, a consideration of Fulleylove's perspective is pivotal. Points of comparison and contrast might be found in Hilary Menos' collection, Red Devon. Both poets have much to say about modern farming methods and their effects on traditional life and nature. However, Menos writes from within, as a farmer in Devon. Fulleylove, meanwhile, is an outsider, always keenly aware that she only has one year to capture the Yar estuary on the Isle of Wight. As a poet in residence there, as a guest, she's invited on to the land and along to events, and many such margins are at play throughout this collection.

The estuary is on the border between land and sea, each impinging on the other. For instance, Fulleylove's work in a prison and her father's illness inform her visits to the estuary, while this illness and work are then informed in turn by the estuary. Different worlds overlap. As a consequence, the poet's use of diary extracts alongside poems is very successful: the diary contributes to the verse and vice versa.

For example, here's a snippet from a diary extract:

"Sun floods through wintry trees and then a scud of rain. Yesterday my sister collected my father who has been staying with us and today he's an emergency admission to the hospital's psychiatric wing. I walk on steadily, Causeway Cottage ahead. What would it be like to live there by a tidal river? You could watch the continual uncovering. You would begin to know the river by heart."

The above prose is then followed by a poem titled "The call of the water rail":

"What you do when he's been admitted
is go to work as usual, the group waiting for you
in the café, coffees already frothing, words buzzing.

What you do is explain the plan of action,
advise warm coats, gloves, woolly caps,
lead them out towards the marsh

where if you sit still for long enough
you may hear the call of the water rail,
though this shy bird is seldon seem..."

Lydia Fulleylove's Estuary is not yet another collection of nature poems that revolve around the sea. It's a profound meditation on the enriching internal and external tussles that take place when we spend time both in such landscapes and in contemporary society. This book invites us to reflect on how we are leading our lives. It really is poetry for our times.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Next Review

I'm now back in deepest Extremadura, having met some terrific people in Shrewbury and Oxford. Over thirty of my pamphlets flew into the hands of new readers, but their weight in my rucksack was replaced by numerous books and mags to be devoured over the coming weeks.

Chief among my new possessions is my contributor's copy of The Next Review Vol.2/No.1:

The Next Review (see website here) is a relatively new print-based magazine. This issue features a wide range of poetry and reviews, but I'd especially highlight Richie McCaffery's verse and an interview with Don Paterson.

There certainly seems to be something of a nod towards Ian Hamilton's The New Review in that title and in much of the contents. I'll be following its development with great interest.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Poetry reading in Oxford

The second and final stop on my Autumn reading tour will be in Oxford. I'm delighted to report that I'll be appearing at the Jericho Tavern on Walton Street on Sunday 5th October (doors open 6.30 for a 7p.m. start, £5/4 concessions) alongside Gareth Prior, Sasha Dugdale, Claire Trevien, Andrea Brady and Sarah Howe. That's an excellent line-up in anyone's money.

This event is especially important to me for several reasons, not least of which is the fact I lived on Walton Street many moons ago and used to cycle past the Jericho Tavern on a regular basis, most often in a sweat at being late and undercooked for a tutorial. I might even squeeze in some supper at Pepper's Burgers for nostalgia's sake!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Poetry reading in Shrewsbury

The first stop on my two-leg Autumn reading tour will be in Shrewsbury on Thursday 2nd October. That means I'll finally be involved with National Poetry Day after years of observing events from Spain!

I'll be reading as part of Shrewsbury Poetry @ Eat Up alongside Michael Thomas, Pauline Attenborough, Paul Francis and Ian Lakin, while there will also be music from Martin Thomas of Grey Wolf.

The event is due to start at 7.30p.m. and the venue is Shearmans Hall, Milk Street SY1 1SZ. I do hope to see any readers of Rogue Strands who might be able to make it along!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Precise leaps of imagination, Joshua Mehigan's Accepting the Disaster

Having enjoyed Joshua Mehigan's first collection, The Optimist, which was published in 2004, I was looking forward to getting my hands on his second book, Accepting the Disaster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). It didn't disappoint.

Mehigan is a brave poet in several ways. There's great pressure from peers, editors, academia and social media to keep yourself in the spotlight once a first book has been well received, so it takes courage to hold back on bringing out a follow-up. In this case, Mehigan's patience in waiting a whole decade has brought handsome rewards, as Accepting the Disaster is packed with honed verse.

Secondly, Mehigan is unafraid of dragging traditional form into a present-day context and cadence. When doing so, his craft succeeds in making the afore-mentioned form pass unnoticed. Metre and rhyme come into play, yet they are never intrusive. One such example is "Down in the Valley", a murder story in nine lines that's reminiscent of a Carver narrative due to its deadpan, laconic delivery. It dodges explicit gore so as to ramp up horrific imagination:

"...Nature is just. There's nothing left to fear.
The worst thing that can happen happened here."

Just as in The Optimist, there are again glances towards Philip Larkin through a contemporary American lens. "The Professor", for instance, reminds this reader of "A Study of Reading Habits" when it states:

"...These days I never read, but no one does,
and, anyhow, I proved how smart I was.
Everything I know is from a book."

I wouldn't want these references to other writers to give the mistaken impression that Mehigan's work is in some way derivative. In fact, the reverse is true. What's more, this second book demonstrates that he has found his idiom. The everyday, as expressed via taut turns of phrase, is woven with delicately controlled, precise leaps of imagination, as in the opening two stanzas of "The Smokestack":

"The town had a smokestack.
It had a church spire.
The church was prettier,
but the smokestack was higher.

It was a lone ruined column,
a single snuffed taper,
a field gun fired at heaven,
a tube making vapor..."

Regarding his subject matter, meanwhile, Mehigan deals with mental illness head-on in sections of Accepting the Disaster, rather than implicitly invoking it, as was more often the case in The Optimist. Nevertheless, confession is never the aim. Instead, powerful stories are compressed and distilled into verse.

Accepting the Disaster is a fine collection in its own right. However, when viewed alongside The Optimist, it marks the definitive emergence of Joshua Mehigan as a major voice not just in American verse but in English-language poetry as a whole. I thoroughly recommend it.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Anthony Wilson's Lifesaving Poems are to become a book

I've previously mentioned my admiration for Anthony Wilson's Lifesaving Poems - a series of blog posts in which he selects and discusses poems that have deeply affected him during his struggle with life-threatening illness - and so I was delighted to read the news that Bloodaxe are to publish them in book form.

Far too many thematic anthologies lack a personal thread running through them, a narrative that drives them forward. Lifesaving Poems will provide these qualities in spades. What's more, Wilson's deft touch in his commentaries won't just illuminate verse for non-poetry-reading people who have bought the book on a wave of emotion. It will also capture long-term readers for the genre.  I look forward to getting hold of a copy myself.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Free chocolate!

That's simultaneously a terrific offer and a call for the stuff to be liberated from its maker!

In other words, HappenStance Press are launching their new anthology, titled Blame Montezuma, in a cocoa-fuelled splurge that entails giving away chocolate fish with the first 25 orders to be received for the book via their website (see link here). You'll even be able to try the chocolate in situ if you manage to make it along to the launch at Free Verse 2014: The Poetry Book Fair in London (at the Conway Hall) on 6th September.

I very much recommend this second option, as there are also numerous other events going on as part of the fair, while the HappenStance slot will include an additional launch alongside the chocolate: D.A. Prince will be reading from Common Ground, her second full collection, which is packed with excellent poems that creep up and then never leave you.

As for Blame Montezuma itself, it's a lovely book, and not just in terms of the cover:

There's a wide variety of poetic takes on chocolate inside. I'm delighted to have a piece included among offerings from the likes of Hilary Menos, Alison Brackenbury, Stephen Payne, Clare Best, Roy Marshall, etc, etc.

I think a few Christmas-gift quandaries might just have been resolved...

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The concave mirrors of dreams, Ben Wilkinson's For Real

For Real (Smith/Doorstep, 2014) is Ben Wilkinson's second pamphlet. As such, it's useful to view it in the light of his first one, The Sparks, which was published by tall lighthouse in 2008. The Sparks was an excellent chapbook. I reviewed it very positively on Rogue Strands at the time, but Wlkinson's made further strides since then. Six years ago, the blurb on the back cover mentioned "neat and clever poems", which they were. However, they were also slightly guarded, dancing round an inner core that never quite dared to reveal itself. The verse in For Real, meanwhile, is braver and hugely authentic.

One such example is "Hound", a poem that surges with the passion that's required to fight cyclical depression:

"its come-and-go presence,
air of self-satisfied deception,
just as the future bursts in on
the present, its big I am, and that
sulking hound goes to ground again."

This is poetry that bares its heart, not for the sake of confession or self-gratification, but for transforming qualities that are capable of moving its reader.

And what about that title? Well, it works in criss-crossing ways. Of course, Wilkinson uses concrete settings and events as a point of departure, but the everyday is then bounced off the concave mirrors of dreams and nightmares. They are invoked in four poems, implicitly wondering just what is For Real and inviting us to ask that very same question.

What's more, dreams enable Wilkinson to make leaps. He jumps back and forth between realities until the poems reach their final effect, as in "The River Don". Physical and emotional floodwaters lap around the poem's words in both sleep and waking hours until...

"...the house
sat safe and sound - floors dry, photo frames still
something else edging closer, the way water will."

Reading back through this review, I realise I might have given the mistaken impression that For Real is tough going. Well, it's far from that. In fact, sorrow and struggle are laced with passion and optimism, as is perfectly illustrated by its gorgeous closing lines. I'll end with them too...

"Let's say it was. Let's say all we felt
stood there, all we've held off. Let's walk
through that door, love, and never look back."

Oh, and just to add that you can purchase a copy of For Real by following the link here.

Thursday, 14 August 2014


Last month's launch of Ambit 217 was a lovely evening: lots of wine and terrific poetry in a welcoming atmosphere. I can only agree with Katy Evans-Bush when she stated on the night that it was "the most physically beautiful thing I've ever been in". Just to underline what she means, here's an image of the cover:

What's more, the contents are on a par with the exceptional production values. You can get hold of a copy here.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Villalejo on display

Here are two photos of Villalejo on display at the National Library of Scotland. Many thanks to Kate Hendry for sending them through!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

A chronicle of survival, Jeremy Page's Closing Time

In Closing Time, his recent full collection from Pindrop Press, Jeremy Page shows us how to survive terrible emotional suffering with our humanity intact. This is not confessional poetry. It's a book that charts self-reconciliation, stirring empathy on every page.

Page's verse is understated yet highly charged. One such example is "Another Elephant". This poem engages with the reader via the use of reportage and the layering of narrative detail, as is demonstrated by its opening stanza:

"In winter, when the trees are bare,
I can stand here at my window
with that wooden Ganesh on the sill,
and look back to the old house
where it all goes on as it always did
except that I'm not there -
not sweeping the garden path
nor making another pot of tea,
not reading Peace at Last at bedtime
nor cleaning out the rodents' cage..."

An accumulation of specifics is what draws us in and involves us. This enables Page to step up a gear in the second stanza, where he's not afraid to tackle big abstract nouns:

"...And everything that brought me here -
the words, the silences, the pain,
the changing of so many locks -
is the other elephant in the room."

Closing Time is a precise book. It showcases a linguist's knowledge of how to use words to create a ripple. Moreover, the collection is meticulously constructed. The juxtaposition of certain poems has implicit ramifications that are significant. For instance, a hypothetical disappearance/possible suicide note titled "To Whom It May Concern" precedes "Shaving My Father", which is a celebration of love in all its transience:

"...Tomorrow he may not know
who I am or who I was,
but today he does, and is grateful
for the care I take
as I soap his face
with the badger hair brush..."

In other words, Page is questioning the effect of one poem by allowing us to compare and contrast it with the opposite page. He' helping the reader to undergo a similar process to himself, fighting back from the brink via love.

In this collection, the poet reconciles memory with the present, the past with the future. He interlocks and interweaves departures and arrivals, so it's also apt (and no accident) that he should bring the book to an end with the following lines:

"...and I see time future
contained in time past, and understand at last
why home is where we start from."

Closing Time might illustrate great pain, but it's packed with life and is written by a poet who never falls back on facile devices to move us. I feel privileged to have had the chance to review it.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Ambit Launch 217

The launch of Ambit 217 will take place next Tuesday (22nd July) at The Sun & Thirteen Canons pub in Soho, London, starting at 7p.m.. I'll be attending and reading my three poems from this issue alongside excellent poets such as Katy Evans-Bush and Marianne Burton. It should be a terrific evening!

Friday, 11 July 2014

National Library of Scotland poetry competition

I'm chuffed to report that my poem Villalejo has won the National Library of Scotland's "From Home to Beyond" poetry competition.

Villalejo will consequently form part of the Library's summer treasures display, "Voices from the Commonwealth", until the end of August. Now that's a lovely prize!

Friday, 4 July 2014

Butcher's Dog poetry magazine

In this age of e-zines, the emergence of a new print-based poetry journal is always gratifying. As a consequence, I'm delighted to have the chance to showcase Butcher's Dog today on Rogue Strands.

How are poetry magazines born? On a whim or via an organic process? Well, the latter is certainly true in the case of Butcher's Dog, as is demonstrated by the Editors' Note at the start of Issue One:

"Each of the poets featured in this publication received a Northern Writers' Award in 2010 or 2011. In Autumn 2011, the group met under the tutorship of Clare Pollard. Butcher's Dog arose out of conversations in these meetings."

In other words, that first issue was something of a showcase for the seven poets in question (Luke Allen, Sophie F Baker, Jake Campbell, Wendy Heath, Amy Mackelden, Andrew Sclater and Degna Stone). However, it then grew and opened to submissions from Issue Two onwards, always under a rotating editorship.

Butcher's Dog is a beautiful magazine. There's real care in the individual design of each cover, in the choice of paper and in the typesetting. What's more, the editors manage to strike an excellent balance in the contents between well-known poets such as Pippa Little and W.N. Herbert and many new names. For example, a personal favourite comes from Issue Three. The poem, titled "Sea Change", is apparently Karen Lloyd's first published poem. Nevertheless, her control of language, cadence and line-breaks is clear from the start:

"That winter after she'd gone, you sat
in your leather chair, the one that didn't fit
anyone else, and called down the snow..."

This sort of discovery is one of the greatest pleasures to be found when reading a poetry magazine.

Two years on from its first appearance, Butcher's Dog is going from strength to strength, holding launch events in different parts of the country. Moreover, it's currently seeking submissions by 10th August for Issue Four. Why not visit the website and take out a subscription while you're there?!

Monday, 30 June 2014

Poets and friendship

Poetry has contributed many things to my life, but one of the most important of them is friendship. It's enabled me to meet (both in person and over the internet) some incredible people with whom I've got a lot in common. Of course, this is especially important for me, given my own personal set of circumstances: living and working in Spain means that my poetry friends are a lifeline.

All of the above means that I was captivated when Pippa Little (thanks, Pippa!) posted a link to the following article from the Poetry Foundation on Facebook. It's terrific, a wrenching yet energising story: For the Both of Us by David Trinidad.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The tales and truths of artefacts, Richie McCaffery's Cairn

When I reviewed Richie McCaffery's excellent HappenStance pamphlet, Spinning Plates, on Rogue Strands in 2012, I ended my piece by stating that I'd be following his progress with great interest. I'm thus delighted to have got hold of his first full collection, titled Cairn, recently published by Nine Arches Press as part of their Debut New Poets series.

First off, the book is a gorgeous object in itself. Nine Arches work with very high production values and a limpid font. This latter quality is key when reading McCaffery's poetry, as his compressed verse unfolds beautifully in conjunction with the white spaces around it.

Cairn possesses all the positive traits from the chapbook (it includes seventeen poems from the manuscript of Spinning Plates), but also showcases McCaffery's continued development. He is a specialist in extracting tales and truths from artefacts. One such example is "Last Lot of the Day". He begins by setting the scene, using lovely turns of phrase to portray an object:

"A mother-of-pearl inlaid, walnut-veneered
writing slop with a scabby purple velvet
surface for dip-pen, paper and blotter..."

He continues by casting fresh light on the object by connecting it to human feelings via the use of the term "mourning":

"...a bundle of black envelopes
with black edges as if mourning has no-one

particular in mind, and no clear address..."

And he finishes the poem by opening out beyond the object, encouraging the reader to seek further ramifications:

"...You might think of the dead that never died
to leave this surplus, as if they were saved."

In similar yet very different ways, McCaffery draws out stories from a police whistle, a bookmark and even a tarnished silver spoon in this collection. The spoon in question is described as follows:

"A deserter from a service, left pearl black
after years of clammy hands..."

The object's "truth", and by extension an implicit questioning of the nature of "truth" as a term, is then invoked:

"...The thought of which truth someone was forced
to swallow, to need so fine a spoon as that."

Nevertheless, my focus on these tales and truths of artefacts shouldn't lead to mistaken conclusions that McCaffery's work is limited or formulaic in any way. Quite the opposite is true, as is shown by longer pieces such as "The Professional" and "Spinning Plates", in which he allows stories to reveal themselves more gradually, removing layer after layer until he reaches their core.

Richie McCaffery is one of a number of significant emerging poets in the U.K. who recognise that "accessible" need not be a synonym of "facile", that Hamilton and Larkin can be tenderised, warped and twisted in a contemporary idiom without even a smidgen of fear. I recommend you purchase a copy of Cairn yourself. You'll soon see what I mean!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

La feria del libro de Madrid

Most town and cities in Spain hold some kind of book fair, but in Madrid it's a very special annual open-air event that attracts visitors from all over the country. What's more, the venue is terrific: the Retiro park, a gorgeous focal point in the centre of the city.

All along the wide avenues of the park, Spain's publishers - both indie and mainstream - set up their stalls. Every genre imaginable seems to have a niche, and kids are a key focus. Moreover, the fair has a dual role - there's a significant trade element, but direct sales to the general public are its driving force. Publishers reach out to readers: dozens of authors can be seen signing books and giving readings on a daily basis, all alongside classical music concerts and children's shows, etc.

And what about our own visit last Sunday? First of all, it was extremely hot! However, that didn't stop the crowds: thousands of people, especially families, had headed for the fair. There was a terrific atmosphere and my son had a great time choosing his books. He was so excited he even devoured one alongside his calamari at lunch. That's a great example of how this type of event can hook new readers. As for myself, I was lucky enough to meet Luis García Montero for the first time and even manage a brief chat!

Could we develop a similar event in the U.K.? Huge commitment would be required from the publishing world, but a legacy would be guaranteed. It was incredible to see so many people simply enjoying books last Sunday!

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Forward shortlist

And so the Forward shortlist has been published. Or has it? The news seems to have been buried beneath provocative soundbites from celebrities, replies from famous poets and the dubious quoting of diminishing sales figures for poetry, using stats that don't include readings, small publishers' websites or festivals, where many books of contemporary verse change hands.

The media annually whip up a supposedly new crisis in the popularity of poetry, asking whether the genre is just written for an elite. In fact, it plays a key role in the lives of millions of people all over the U.K.. We use it to mark the major milestones in our lives: I've never been to a funeral without poetry. Meanwhile, if pressed, even my geekiest friends will admit to heartbroken teenage scrawlings. Whenever emotion stretches language, we reach for verse.

As present-day poets, our responsibility is to build on those existing foundations, to show that poems can accompany people on a daily basis. This issue brings me back to the Forward shortlist, because an anthology will be published in due course and soon become one of the best-selling poetry books of the year. Will it be a valid portrayal of recent developments in the U.K. scene? Will the contents manage to grab new readers by the heart? Has yet another opportunity been missed or finally been taken...?

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Precarious and disarming, Richard Osmond's Shill

There's an argument that a superiority complex is an alternative manifestation of its opposite number (i.e. an inferiority complex). In other words, many young, hugely talented poets feel the desperate need to show off with syntactic gymnastics so as to assert themselves, all in the fear that they might otherwise be judged to have fallen short in some way.

In Shill (HappenStance Press, 2014), Richard Osmond demonstrates throughout the pamphlet that he doesn't require such flashiness to shore up his verse. Instead, he reins in his language in order to ramp up its power. One such example comes in Hobby, which seems set to become one of Osmond's signature pieces. The chill of distance is used to emphasise (inversely) the heat that emanates from certain subjects, abstract nouns of observation running through the poem: "...conclusion...disposition...benefit...". Even when writing in the first person, Osmond is portraying someone from afar, thus underlining the precarious nature of the lyrical voice.

This above-mentioned precariousness is key to an understanding of Osmond's poetry. What's more, it leads me on to a fundamental poem in the chapbook: Road Kill. I imagine Osmond with a slight, crooked grin on his face as his wrote the following:

"...If this were a poem,
we'd hit the biggest stag tonight,
and pull over to learn ineffable truths
about chance and being animals..."

This is brave stuff. It's taking on John Burnside's poetics via allusions to the renowned poet's piece of the same name, at the same time as it cheekily winks at Libertad and especially Penitence, all three from Burnside's collection A Normal Skin. Osmond gently yet surgically dismantles his predecessor's approach.

Nevertheless, there's a lack of pomposity throughout this highly ambitious work. Moreover, Osmond doesn't just undermine Burnside, he even undermines and questions himself, as per the first line of the quote above and in the poem's ending:

"..and the automatic wiper mistakes
our small epiphanies for rain."

This is an implicit, tongue-in-cheek declaration of poetic technique, extremely surefooted, never having to shout.

Shill shows us that Richard Osmond is a disarming poet. He disarms the reader, the canon and himself. He invites us in and then challenges us to think. In my book, that's the hallmark of a terrific poet.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Whitsun Weddings: an invented history

The media recently featured a commemorative train journey from Hull to London to mark the 50th anniversary of publication of Philip Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings. Part of the Guardian article reads as follows:

"The half-century anniversary of the poem will be celebrated on 6 June – a week late for the Whitsun bank holiday, but otherwise just as Larkin described: "All down the line / Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round; The last confetti and advice were thrown." At several stops along the way actors in period dress will board the train, and fill the time until the next station by telling stories of marriages glad and sad.

The poem was believed to be based on an actual journey Larkin took in 1955, but scholars have since argued about the date: the Whitsun weekend that year was hit by a truly British bank holiday event, a rail strike."

In fact, the above story of the poem's genesis has been "photoshopped" by the poet and swallowed by generations of readers and critics. This can be shown via a comparison between extracts from The Whitsun Weddings and Larkin's second novel, A Girl in Winter.

The Whitsun Weddings reads...

"I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat."

When A Girl in Winter describes Katharine's first train journey in England (from Dover to London), she observes that...

 " brick houses were brilliantly shadowed in the sun."

Katharine's journey then continues, moving away from London, this time by car:

"Occasionally she saw white figures standing at a game of cricket. These were the important things."

The Whitsun Weddings, meanwhile, brings us

 "someone running up to bowl".

In both examples (prose and poetry), Larkin lists objects in order to give the impression of places flashing past the window. A Girl in Winter describes

"...a row of houses, a church on rising ground, the slant of a field..."

And The Whitsun Weddings tells us...

"...a hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
and rose..."

In other words, Larkin is spinning us a line when he evokes a single clearcut experience as the origin for The Whitsun Weddings. The common ground between poem and novel goes way beyond a mere bibliographical coincidence. There's a clear indication that Larkin is using the accumulation of experiences and journeys to create fictions: he's inventing histories from Hull to London, from Dover to London and beyond.

Many people seem to love the illusion that verse is somehow truer than a novel. In fact, top-notch poetry feeds off fiction, as Larkin knew full well. Maybe Jorge Luis Borges did have competition when leading his readers a merry dance! After all, both of them were librarians and lovers of Chesterton. Now isn't that a strange coincidence too...?!


Friday, 9 May 2014

Slippery yet gripping, Lydia Macpherson's Love Me Do

Lydia Macpherson's Love Me Do (Salt Publishing, 2014) might be a first collection - in fact, it won the Crashaw Prize - but it's unusual for a début in that it presents a consolidated voice, the fruit of decades rather than a couple of years.

Macpherson's verse strikes authentic and personal notes, but that doesn't mean it's confessional. Instead, she delves into people, turning them into believable characters and conjuring a poem around them. Perhaps Macpherson's skill is best explained via her use of the first person singular. She displays a crucial awareness of the slippery nature of "I", playing with lyrical expectations.

One such example is the poem Twelve Bore, an excellently compressed poetic tale in which the narrator heads for suicide via their ex-lover's shotgun. The ending is satisfyingly unexpected because the reader has been lulled into supposing the "I" is Macpherson herself.

The poet's control of narrative is a key feature of this collection. A personal favourite is Ossuary, in which the story unfolds via the homing in on mundane details, thus implicitly highlighting their emotional ramifications. All this is combined with revelatory turns of phrase, as in the extract below:

"...Then, to test it on his thumb pad,
drawing the finest wire of blood... "

Of course, it's impossible to discuss this book without mentioning the melancholy of such a beautifully presented artifact being one of Salt's final individual poetry collections. As in the past, production values are still very high in spite of a couple of typos (e.g. "everyday" for "every day") and a few aesthetic tweaks (I'm not a fan of poem titles in italics!).

However, I refuse to end the review on such an ambivalent note. Macpherson's work doesn't deserve such doubts. Love Me Do is rich in narratives, scenes and characters that grip the reader. They interweave to create a coherent poetic transfiguring of life. I very much hope this collection finds wider recognition.

Monday, 5 May 2014


"Seminal" is an overused word, but it really is valid when referring to Julio Cortázar's 1963 novel, Rayuela (Hopscotch). A possible translation of part of the author's own introduction to the book might read as follows:

"In its own way, this book is many books. However, above all, it's two books. The reader is invited to choose one of the following two options:

The first book can be read in the normal way and ends at Chapter 56...The second book can be read by starting at Chapter 73 and then following the order that's indicated at the bottom of each chapter...73, 1, 2, 116, 3, 84..."

In other words, Cortázar is inviting his readers to play hopscotch (thus the title of the novel). Likewise, we can either plough through a poetry collection from start to finish or we too can play hopscotch, jumping from page to page, flicking back and forth, dipping in and out, inventing our own connections. I far prefer the latter option. What about you?

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

What makes for a great poetry magazine?

This is the question I was pondering while reading the latest issue of New Walk (Nº8) last night.

First off, there's the role of the editor (Rory Waterman, Nick Everett and Libby Peake in this case). A decent analogy is with a commercial agent. Mediocre ones just offer loads of decent products to the buyer/reader, hoping that one or two might hit the mark. Good ones, meanwhile, help the buyer/reader to focus by following clear personal criteria and making an excellent, subjective pre-selection. This filtering doesn't mean that choice or taste are limited, rather that surprises are positive.

Secondly, I love encountering the combination of fresh work by poets I recognise alongside verse from names I've never seen before. Again, those commercial agents/editors are enabling the buyer/reader to make discoveries. Poetry magazines should feel sparklingly new, an exciting snapshot of the moment, never a two-year-old backlog.

In New Walk 8 there were pieces from Dan Wyke and Fiona Moore. I've previously enjoyed books by both these poets, so it was intriguing to get a hint of where they are heading at the moment.

At the same time, a new name caught my eye, just like Hannah Lowe's verse in The Rialto a few years ago or Stephen Payne's work in an early issue of New Walk. On this occasion, I loved James Davey's two poems. They were packed with textured yet restrained language that was cleverly yoked to its content and narrative drive. I'll be looking out for more of his writing from now on. Now that's what makes for a great poetry magazine!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Richie McCaffery's forthcoming first full collection

June will see the publication of Richie McCaffery's first full collection, titled Cairn (Nine Arches Press). I've been looking forward to this book all year!

McCaffery's work first came to my attention via his first pamphlet, Spinning Plates (HappenStance Press, 2012), and my initial excellent impression has been reinforced by the poetry he's published in numerous journals since then. This is verse that's not afraid to take the chewy morsels of Ian Hamilton's influence and tenderise them in a contemporary idiom that's all McCaffery's own.

I'll be reviewing Cairn on Rogue Strands in due course. However, I recommend you visit the Nine Arches blog for the moment, where there are currently selected poems from the collection to whet your appetite.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Spreading the word

Last night's HappenStance reading at the Torriano was a lovely event: the chance to read and listen to terrific poetry in a supportive atmosphere, surrounded by other poets who were on a similar wavelength.

However, the last few weeks, involving trade fairs and tastings, have also been at least as rewarding in poetic terms. Every time a customer, a wine merchant or a sommelier carried off a copy of Tasting Notes to read at home, there was the feeling that my pamphlet was succeeding in one of its key aims: to get non-poetry readers to enjoy contemporary verse.

Just as Clare Best managed with her 2009 HappenStance pamphlet, Treasure Ground, which made its way round farmers' markets, we must find ways to attract new readers to poetry. And that doesn't entail dumbing anything down!

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Torriano on Sunday

This coming Sunday will see a night of HappenStance at the Torriano Meeting House, in Kentish Town in London. Starting at 7.30p.m., 25 poets will track the publisher's chronology via snippets from their HappenStance books.

I didn't think I'd manage to make it along, but circumstances and family commitments have unexpectedly worked out to enable me to join the ranks of the readers. I hope to see you there!

Saturday, 29 March 2014

A lurch of the heart, Tom Duddy's The Years

When approaching a book that's been published posthumously, the reviewer must confront inherent difficulties such as how to criticise the dead and how the book might have been different had the writer lived.

In the case of Tom Duddy, the first issue is easily resolved. I admire his work for numerous reasons that I will explain below. What's more, I'm convinced the next few years will demonstrate that he is a major poet. Dead writers are a hard sell - they can't do readings or push their work via social media - yet The Years (HappenStance, 2014) should prove a slow-burning success as word of its quality spreads.

As for the second point, this book has provided me with the umpteenth reminder that death stops all of us in our creative tracks at one point or another. There will always be a lingering doubt as to where someone's writing might have taken them, but that shouldn't stop our savouring what has been achieved.

And Tom Duddy's The Years is an achievement. Some poets arrest the reader with striking rhythms and dazzling turns of phrase, but Duddy's verse is far more understated and nuanced. His work might even seem loose on a first reading. In fact, the opposite is true. His apparent ease and linguistic simplicity lull the reader with a false sense of banality before a sudden acceleration brings us to the core of his inspiration. At this point we're forced to go back immediately to the beginning of the poem, reassessing the poet's choice of words, realising their impact and recognising that every single one of them pays its way.

The afore-mentioned technique means that it's exceptionally difficult to quote from Duddy's work, as the slow build-up of effect is lost when a few lines stand alone. However, I'll try to illustrate something of what I mean with an example from Story Time. The poem begins with snippets of typical fairy tale plots and ends with the following:

        "...Life's not like that,
you think, until one day you hear
hushed word of someone you sat
beside in High Infants, and there
is the same lurch of the heart."

Of course, our reaction is intensified by the knowledge that this time Duddy's classmates are feeling that "same lurch" when hearing of his death.

Even though much of this collection was written after a diagnosis of cancer, mortality is seldom an explicit theme in The Years. It tends to lurk in implicit comparisons with Duddy's intense expressions of his wonder at living and his affection for those around him.

In other words, this is a joyous book. For instance, I defy you to come to the end of Nights Out without wanting to grab someone you love and give them a massive hug. And no, I'm not going to quote from it. It's far too good in its entirety. Buy this book and read the poem, but make sure that the someone in question is nearby when you do so.

Friday, 28 March 2014

This hectic life

This week Düsseldorf, next week Barcelona, the following week Chichester, and so this hectic life goes on...

Other poets have asked me whether so many commitments hinder my writing. Well, there's obvious frustration on certain days at not being able to pick up a book or a pen. However, that frustration somehow builds and builds to a point where pent-up poetry really does surge when I finally get the chance. It's not forced out by hours of staring at a blank page.

In other words, my life feeds my verse. I need constant activity beyond poetry. Without it, without events that tumble one after another, my creativity is stunted.

I can't envy people who make their living from poetry. That's not a criticism of others, just the knowledge that I'd be finished as a poet if I were surrounded by the genre every day.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

In The Scotsman...

The Scotsman have published a glowing review of StAnza 2014, which was held in St Andrews last week. You can read the article in full here, but suffice to say I'm delighted that they should have given Poem in a Bottle such a prominent mention.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Poetry loops at StAnza

As mentioned in my post a few weeks ago, poems from Tasting Notes will be present at StAnza with Poem in a Bottle. At the same time, the film version of Tasting Notes has also been included in Poetry Loops. Extra background information about the short poetry films that are to be shown is now up at the StAnza blog here. Apart from my work, there will be excellent pieces from the likes of Alastair Cook, Edward O'Donnelly and Alessandro Tedde.

Poetry Loops will be showing in the Conference Room at the Byre Theatre from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Thursday 6th March to Sunday 9th March. It's all free and no ticket is required, so you can just drop in and watch a film or two whenever you like, recharging your batteries for the StAnza experience!.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

From pamphlet to full collection

There are many pitfalls involved in the transition from a pamphlet to a full collection, haste being prime among them. I discuss these dangers and their implications in an article that's just been published over at Sphinx. You can read it in full here.

Friday, 14 February 2014


So I pour somebody a glass, wait as they taste and then ask them what they think. At this point, the trouble starts. People feel awkward and embarrassed. They wish they'd never got roped in to coming along to the flash wine tasting and inwardly swear never to return. Replies are immediately qualified, as in "Well, of course, I don't know anything about wine, but... "

As a consequence of the above, I'm forever explaining that the important thing (the fun thing, in fact) is the exploration as you work out what you like and what you don't, the journey towards changing tastes as your knowledge grows thanks to those around you. I also tend to hold a deep-seated grudge against the many sommeliers and wine experts who play on people's insecurities and lack of experience to cultivate a snobbish sense of superiority.

We could easily replace that glass of wine with a poem, that sommelier with a swanky poet, and the snobbishness would still remain. By this, I don't mean I'm an advocate of superficiality. Instead, I'm convinced that we have to encourage the development of taste and knowledge rather than relishing a false sense of belonging to an elite just because we've  been lucky enough to have the chance to acquire the veneer of literary or vinous experience.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The journeys of secondhand books

I've written about the lives of secondhand books on several occasions on Rogue Strands. They never cease to bring surprises.

The latest case was a beat-up Penguin copy of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. I purchased it at St Wilfred's Hospice Shop in Chichester and brought it back out to Spain. On opening the book last week, I noticed a sheet of glossy paper slipping out and falling to the floor: it was an advert for a bullfight in Mijas back in the 1980s.

How many hands have held this book? How many lives has it touched? How many journeys has it made? Will it ever make another one...?

Monday, 3 February 2014

Poem in a Bottle at StAnza

StAnza, Scotland's international poetry festival, will be taking place in St Andrews from 5th to 9th March. I'm delighted to report that my work will be present at the festival in two ways.

Firstly, there's Poem in a Bottle - Poet and winemaker Matthew Stewart's poems uncorked, whereby individual poems from Tasting Notes will be available for the taking throughout the festival, straight from otherwise empty wine bottles, in various locations around The Byre Theatre.

Secondly, the film version of Tasting Notes will also be showing as part of Poetry Loops in the Conference Room at The Byre Theatre, along with other short poetry films.

Why not have a look at the full programme here? StAnza 2014 promises to be a terrific poetry festival!

Monday, 27 January 2014


n. 1 the act or an instance of restraining or being restrained. 2 a stoppage; a check; a controlling agency or influence. 3 a self-control, avoidance of excess or exaggeration. b austerity of literary expression...

A cliché, a pigeonholing or a stereotype isn't suddenly born. It starts off with a meaning that is then subverted, as in the case of restraint. I was happy, for example, to have it in the blurb on the back cover of Inventing Truth. Nevertheless, it's now joining the realms of those terms that Sphinx reviewers were instructed to ignore, such as unflinching, edgy, nuanced, promising, emerging, risk-taking, deceptive, brave, etc, etc..

In other words, restraint is in the process of becoming lazy critical shorthand. People think they can classify a poet as soon as they see it. As mentioned in my post on Rory Waterman's Tonight the Summer's Over, reviewers are investing the word with negative connotations of constriction and repression, both in terms of form and content, as if the poet in question were inhibited.

If we go back to the original definition at the top of this post, restraint refers to "austerity of literary expression". I understand this definition as the technique of emotion being distilled and compressed instead of being daubed all over the page, all as one of the many viable renderings of intense feeling.

The question at this stage is whether restraint can be recovered as a positive description of a poem or whether it's now destined to be consigned to that grim list of words to be dodged by any reviewer worth their salt...

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Three poems accepted by Ambit

This afternoon brought the lovely news that I've had three poems accepted by Ambit, a journal that I've long admired. One of them is an elegy for my father, which makes things even more special. Publication is scheduled for probably the summer issue. More details in due course...

Monday, 20 January 2014

Belonging and estrangement, Rory Waterman's Tonight the Summer's Over

Right, cards on the table from the off: Rory Waterman’s Tonight the Summer’s Over (Carcanet, 2013) is the best first full collection I’ve read in the past couple of years. This review will do its best to explain just why.

Certain critics have referred to a supposed limiting “restraint” when discussing Waterman’s work. I’m afraid I couldn’t disagree more with their use of the term. In this case, it’s misused critical shorthand to highlight the technique of emotion being distilled and compressed instead of being splashed and daubed all over the page. In my book, that’s the opposite of so-called “restraint”. It’s the ambitious, highly charged and passionate search for the verbal expression of intense feeling.

Let’s look at an example of Waterman’s use of the above-mentioned technique in his poem “An Email from Your Mother”:

...Home will never, quite, be waiting
the way it was; your childhood is receding
too far. Is growing older, then, forced unclenching?
Does my arm curl round you like weed?”

In the space of four lines Waterman arrows in on the specifics of “your” childhood, before moving out to a broader question and then swooping back in again. The universality of the question demonstrates an ambition that reaches far beyond mere anecdote. This compression, perhaps best represented by the poetic power of the term “forced unclenching”, is packed with emotional intensity. Waterman thus achieves empathy on the part of the reader, enabling us to draw parallels with our own lives.

The above extract, meanwhile, also leads us on to the key theme of the collection: “Home”, that massively charged word. At this stage I’d like to drop in an important caveat. Back in my university days, lecturers would bang on about intrinsic and extrinsic approaches to criticism. In other words, they would ask whether we should view a piece with or without reference to the writer’s life and other work. I’ve always thought that was a ridiculously arbitrary division. Obsession with outside influences can lead us to focus more on them than the work itself. However, it would be absurd to ignore such influences. In Waterman’s case, there are two crucial external factors to bear in mind when discussing his treatment of “Home” in Tonight the Summer’s Over.

First of all, there’s Waterman’s own critical writing, especially his recent book, titled Belonging and Estrangement in the Poetry of Philip Larkin, R.S. Thomas and Charles Causley. In terms of influences, all three poets lurk in Tonight the Summer’s Over. For example, Larkin is present in the use of a viewpoint zooming in, out and in, as in the extract above, while another poem is titled “For R.S. Thomas.” As for thematic concerns, Waterman’s focus on “Home” clearly resonates with the title of his critical volume.

Now for the second external point that informs this collection: the poetry of Andrew Waterman, Rory’s father. Rather than a question of literary influence, a dialogue is struck up between Rory’s verse and that of his father. Rory's Tonight the Summer’s Over casts fresh light on Andrew's A Father's Tale, just as the latter provides a fascinating counterpoint to the former. Andrew writes a poem “To my son”. Rory replies “To my father”.

The story of their separation after Rory moved with his mother from Ireland to Lincolnshire is personal, specific and universal. It’s also extremely moving.

Here’s Andrew:

“…I walk again this curve of strand,
a shine of wet on firm gold sand
blanked by 500 tides since you
knelt watching Daddy as I drew
a little boy, inscribed your name:
RORY WAS HERE. Here looks the same:
dunes, headlands, ocean charged with light
as then, rippling to its long white
ribbon of foam, where bubbles break
in millions for each breath I take...”

Here’s Rory:

“…At two I’d not grown used to anywhere.
By five the squat stone houses, leafy streets
of Dunston, rural Lincolnshire was where

My life was, if for better or worse.
The court heard our recording and agreed.
And Lincoln was a blessing and a curse,
Where Daddy lived each month, and lived with me.”

Andrew desperately want Rory to feel Irish, to feel he belongs in Ireland. Rory tries and fails. In another poem, “On Derry City Walls”, the father teaches Irish songs, but the son sings them in “pure Lincoln”.

At the same time, however, Rory doesn’t feel that he fully belongs in his adopted land. Just where is “Home”? Where does he belong? In these times of so much demographic movement and changing family structures, many people suffer similarly. Via the beautiful, condensed telling of his own story, Rory Waterman manages to touch such readers. His poem, “Growing Pains”, ends as follows:

“…I’d brag about that “other home”

and “other me” – not here, like them
the Irish me that never was,
the bronze-haired friends I never made,
the mansion where Dad never lived.
And mourned the loss of all these things
I’d never had and always had;
and grew, estranged from Lincolnshire
and desperate to get out of there.

A blessing and a curse, never and always, here and there, Lincolnshire and Ireland: each couple is juxtaposed and coexists throughout Tonight the Summer’s Over. They mirror each other, just like belonging and estrangement, probing at the meaning of “Home”

And now I’ll take the liberty of ending my review as I began. Tonight the Summer’s Over is the best first full collection I’ve read in the past couple of years. I just hope I’ve done enough to convince you to buy it.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Concentrating the mind

Many poets seem to think the genre is in decline due to the arrival of the digital age. Is this really the case?

The afore-mentioned writers argue that poetry requires a degree of concentration which is beyond readers who have been brought up in the digital age, whose attention is dissipated far too easily. Nevertheless, I'm not at all sure that concentration is dissipated as such. In fact, I'm convinced that we're forced to concentrate hugely these days so as to cope with the way information is transmitted to us.

The key change is that intensely flavoured morsels are being delivered to our screens on a regular basis. Their digestion required brief bursts of deep concentration but also entails ever-briefer attention spans.

I was attracted to poetry in my childhood precisely because I have a short attention span and can only concentrate for limited periods, albeit with great focus. I always found myself distracted when attempting to read long novels. However, with verse I was able to pick up a collection, open it at a page and gulp a poem down in five minutes - one of those intensely flavoured morsels that I discussed in the previous paragraph. Nowadays, teenagers could subsitute a screen for a page along similar lines.

In other words, my own argument is that the digital age could well actually lend itself to greater enjoyment of poetry ahead of novels, rather than having the opposite effect. All we've got to do is write verse that people want to read...!

Monday, 13 January 2014

Poetic fireworks

Ever since my years as an undergraduate, I've witnessed umpteen sterile arguments as to whether form should boss content or vice versa. In fact, I'm convinced that good poetry welds both together in the service of the finished verse.

Much the same is true of fireworks. By the use of the term fireworks, I'm referring to linguistic acrobatics. When a critic mentions that they feel those  fireworks are either missing or overdone in a poem, my interpretation is that they've encountered a lack of balance in the work - the degree to which linguistic acrobatics are employed shouldn't depend on minimalist dogma or the desire to show off verbal dexterity.

Instead, fireworks should be married to the verse. Successful poetry can be pared down to the bones or burst with exuberance. The art is in working out where to strike that balance in every poem we write.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Sphinx - a tribute

Over at Sphinx, the latest batch of pamphlet reviews is nearly complete. However, the main page carries the news that these are the last. Bearing in mind the important role that Sphinx has played in the rise of poetry chapbooks over the past few years, this is sad news, although it’s more than understandable. A quick summary of its feats soon tells us just how much time and work it must have taken up for Helena Nelson…
Sphinx started life as a paper-based publication back in 2006, a magazine dedicated to promoting poetry in pamphlet form. From 2010 onwards, it was solely published on the internet. At the beginning, it followed a typical route of one review per book. Nevertheless, its signature format of three pieces per pamphlet was adopted after Issue 10. The figures are huge: a total of 445 chapbooks have been dealt with via 864 reviews, most reviews getting 300-500 hits in the first couple of weeks alone.
I’ve been involved with the project on both sides on the fence. As a poet, I was delighted to receive critical coverage for my books from three different points of view, so Inventing Truth was reviewed by Richie McCaffery, Marcia Menter and Charlotte Gann.
As a reviewer, I really enjoyed the experience of encountering verse that I wouldn’t have read without Sphinx. There was a definite frisson every time a batch of chapbooks arrived.
I certainly learnt a lot: from the “Notes for reviewers” with its list of review clichés to be avoided (e.g. …a new voice…shows promise…deceptively simple…risk-taking…demotic…) to the editing process of each review, where any syntactic messes or semantic wobbles were sorted out. Moreover, the aim was always to strike a positive note: Criticism should be constructive. Please make it apparent this is a personal response, not Judgement Day.
One of my tenets is that a poet should also feel at home in prose, and doing reviews is a key part of that apprenticeship. In my own case, I needed to shake off academic essay writing. Sphinx helped tremendously!
There is at least still the solace that the reviews from Sphinx will remain online as a snapshot of UK poetry pamphlet publishing over the past eight years. What’s more, new features and articles will be added in the future. Already, there are historic interviews with Chris Hamilton-Emery (Salt), Num Stibbe (Sylph Editions) and Leona Carpenter (Mulfran), not to mention Peter Sansom on Twenty-Five Years of the Poetry Business. A new feature by Andrew Sclater on Stewed Rhubarb has also just been posted, so it may be that the demise of the reviews will make time and space for other kinds of writing.
For the moment, why not have a look at the archive? Be warned: you might well find yourself purchasing more chapbooks as a result!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Poets and their games

One could argue that poetry itself is a game. Many poems certainly play games with their readers, and poets often use games as a metaphor: Paul Farley's piece on Monopoly is a personal favourite. Other genres, meanwhile, also get involved: Julio Cortazar has a terrific novel called Rayuela (Hopscotch), which invites the reader to tackle it in one of two ways - as a linear progression from start to finish or by playing hopscotch, jumping from one chapter to another as per his instructions. The concept's brilliant, but the execution is better.

Very much in that tradition, Maria Taylor has an intriguing set of poetry bingo cards out from HappenStance Press. The website explains them as follows:

"These cards (essential apparatus for readings and festivals) will encourage completely the wrong sort of concentration, possibly even an inappropriate response (BINGO!).

The set of four different cards can also fulfil a useful slot in terms of entertaining postcards for poetry friends. A5 in size, they contain the key words on the back as well as plenty of space to scribble messages, poems or aphorisms.

In terms of extreme left-field writing, each card is a poem in itself."

I'd not only pay good money for the cards themselves (three quid, see the link here), but even better money to be in the audience while certain poets played with them!