Friday 18 December 2015

A major update to the poetry blog list

Having recently posted a highly subjective summary of the best U.K. poetry blogs of 2015 (see here), Rogue Strands has now also got round to sprucing up its blog list (to the right of this text). The intention is to provide constantly updating links to the most recent posts from these excellent blogs, all to facilitate your poetry blog reading and enjoyment.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Naomi Jaffa on the end of an era at Aldeburgh

As the former long-time Director of the Poetry Trust, Naomi Jaffa is in a unique position to evaluate the situation at Aldeburgh, where it seems this year's festival might be the last of its kind. Her guest post on the subject over at Anthony Wilson's blog is consequently required reading. I very much recommend you read it in whole: her habitual generosity is on show once more, highlighting the work of poets rather than her own huge amount of graft. Perhaps the following quote from her article is key to how we might view recent events:

"...If it’s true what they say about all good things – and how can it not be, given our finite reserves of time and energy – then sometimes I can’t help wishing we’d strive to be less greedy (people always seem to want and feel the right to expect more) and more grateful. It’s been a marvellous thing, Aldeburgh, and no one can take away the preciousness of all those shared live readings and the evidence of the archive recordings. Enough should be enough..."

Let's celebrate what Aldeburgh has given us. Moreover, it's been a point of reference and departure for so many new festivals that have sprung up around the country over the past few years. Every time we attend such a festival in the future, we'll be accompanied by the legacy of Aldeburgh.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

The teaching of metrics

Can an ear be taught…? Can a voice be taught…? Can creativity be taught…? These are all key questions that face any teacher or student of creative writing. They also provoke endless argument and debate.

Can metrics be taught? Of course they can. No argument, no debate. Whether we like them or loathe them, metrics are the nuts and bolts of poetry, the mechanics that lie behind all the verse we write, a set of rules can be broken to greater conscious effect once they are understood.

Just as most top abstract artists are also exceptional realist painters, so a fundamental knowledge of metrics lies behind the writing of the majority of high-quality free verse. I’m fully aware there are examples of intuitive creative exceptions, but that is exactly what they remain: exceptions.

In the light of the above, why do so many poetry writing courses (again, I know there are certain exceptions) either ignore metrics or devote a few paltry sessions to them? Instead, metrics should be a point of departure, stimulating creativity, not stunting it.

Another option is simply to teach yourself, in which case I strongly recommend a frail book: Rhyme’s Reason by John Hollander.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

The Best U.K. Poetry Blogs of 2015

As the year comes to a close, it's time for Rogue Strands to deliver a selection of The Best U.K. Poetry Blogs of 2015. Like always, this list is hugely subjective and partial, and also getting longer, which indicates the terrific state of health of the poetry blogging scene in the U.K.. Of course, a few blogs have faded away since last year, but many others have come roaring through:

- John Field’s Poor Rude Lines. Field is first up because he remains a benchmark for all other bloggers. His work is rigorous and entertaining, while also encouraging readers to broaden their tastes. Of course, his posts involve so much work that they can’t appear on a weekly basis. This doesn’t lessen their impact.

- Jo Bell’s The Bell Jar encapsulates her energy, enthusiasm and community spirit. She’s a driving force in U.K. poetry, a supporter to all around her.

- Dave Coates’ Dave Poems. Forthright and uncompromising, Dave Coates provides us with excellent reviews on his blog. He might not court controversy, but he doesn’t shirk it either.

- Anthony Wilson’s blog gently, implicitly educates us with every post. He is outstanding at exploring the intricacies of the relationship between poetry and life. Wilson doesn’t achieve this by lecturing. Instead, he works with illustrations from his own experiences.

- Fiona Moore’s Displacement displays the same lightness of touch as her poetry. Her reviews provide unexpected perspectives, her anecdotes make you imagine you’re at her side and her analysis of poetic trends is always intriguing.

- George Szirtes’ blog is irreverent and highly relevant. There are squibs, stories and snapshots of a poet’s life, all written in a delicious prose that carries the reader along.

- Tim Love’s litrefs provides us with three strands rolled into one: there’s the main blog and then litrefs reviews and litrefs articles alongside. He always makes me doubt my own views. That’s an exceptional quality.

- Martyn Crucefix’s blog is unblinking and packed with high quality material, especially his razor-sharp reviews and ruminations on the judging process. His unexpected perspectives on big names are well worth a read.

- Ben Wilkinson’s Deconstructive Wasteland. Poetic vigour hums through this blog. There are numerous reviews by Wilkinson that were first published in major journals, top-notch original verse by the man himself and a decent dose of well-argued opinion.

- Roy Marshall’s blog is generous in so many ways. It gives us moral support and a point of comparison with our own poetic experiences, all doused in humility and talent.

- Katy Evans-Bush’s Baroque in Hackney lives up to its name. Accessible erudition runs though every post, as does her scrupulous prose style. Wide-ranging and forever inquisitive, it’s a treasure trove.

- Kim Moore’s blog posts flow and surge like her poems. They lift you up in their story and carry you off. What’s more, her Sunday poem feature introduces countless new poets to her readers. She’s rightly a popular figure, and her blog always gives us a glorious read.

- Clarissa Aykroyd's The Stone and The Star constantly surprises with new discoveries and reminders of old favourites. The analysis of Keith Douglas' work is particularly perceptive.

- Robin Houghton’s blog. Frank and sincere, Robin Houghton is one of very few poets who are brave enough to chart rejections and failure in gory detail along acceptances and success. When reading her blog, we can’t fail to be encouraged and reminded that achievement-packed Facebook feeds are not always a true reflection of the state of play.

- Emma Lee’s blog will take you some time. This is simply because it’s so loaded down with excellent resources: there are reviews and debates galore, while her how-to features are especially good.

- Clare Best’s Self-Portrait Without Breasts is the chronicle of one of the most interesting personal journeys in U.K. poetry. It offers us the chance to chart the evolution of her non-stop creativity.

- Gareth Prior’s blog has changed slightly in focus over the past year, shifting to more intermittent posts that explore their subject – individual poems, collections or critical issues – in great depth, enabling us to get to grips with issues rather than encountering a superficial sweep.

- Matt Merritt’s Polyolbion might be a veteran of the U.K. poetry blogging scene, but that doesn’t mean its merits are solely in its archive. This year has seen Merritt offer piercing perspectives on poetic issues of the day, alongside numerous introductions to excellent articles elsewhere.

- Sheenagh Pugh’s blog combines opinion, interviews and reviews. It’s also an extremely dangerous place to browse. She’s excellent at capturing the essence of a book and encouraging you to make a purchase.

- John Foggin’s cobweb seethes with passion and enthusiasm for poetry. His blog is a wonderful pick-me-up whenever you doubt the positive effect that the poetry world can have on those who populate it. Moreover, John Foggin writes beautifully about his own fusion of personal experience and verse.

- Maria Taylor’s Commonplace might be a lovely poetic journal, but it’s also far more. There’s a sense of her forming part of a wider poetry community that then transmits through to her writing.

- Jayne Stanton’s blog is especially interesting for the way it charts her development over the past few years from early magazine appearances to her first pamphlet. It provides real encouragement for others who are starting out on a similar journey.

- David Clarke’s A Thing for Poetry provides links to his perceptive reviews elsewhere, all along with his own news and thought-provoking views on wider poetic issues.

- Abegail Morley’s Poetry Shed has long provided a space for poets to showcase their work, but it also includes calls for submissions, info on prizes and themed projects. It remains a key point of reference in the U.K. poetry blogging scene.

- Josephine Corcoran runs two significant poetry blogs. On the one hand, there’s her personal journal. On the other, there’s And Other Poems, which is perhaps turning into a webzine more than just a blog as such. In any case, it’s home to a huge number of carefully selected, fabulous poems.

- Todd Swift’s Eyewear blog is connected to the publishing house of the same name and throws in reviews, news and a few controversial opinions.

- Helena Nelson’s Happenstance blog also unsurprisingly forms part of HappenStance Press. It remains a unique insight into an editor’s job and is required reading for any poet who might be thinking about submitting a manuscript to anyone, anywhere.

- Charles Boyle’s Sonofabook not only possesses a terrific title, but that same wit and intelligence is evident in every post. It draws on Boyle’s vast experience n the U.K. poetry scene, while also reflecting his current project at CB Editions.

- Jane Commane at Nine Arches Press maintains a blog that showcases new collections on a regular basis. They give an excellent flavour of the book to come, and they’ve drawn me in on many occasions.

Deep breath...exhale…that’s all for this year! Apologies for anyone I’ve missed out: I know only too well that horrible feeling of reading through a list,  reaching the end and realising you’re not there. My blog reading is incomplete and anarchic, so any undeserved absence is 100% my fault.

Oh, and thank you for reading through one of the longest posts ever published on Rogue Strands!!

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Chrissy Williams' new poetry blog

Chrissy Williams is an excellent poet and the director of the Poetry Book Fair. Such a point of departure would already make her new poetry blog worth a look. However, if we add in the fact that her writing is fun to read while also thought-provoking, the blog's becoming extremely interesting. Moreover, if we top this off with a terrific post comparing her work at comics conventions (as an editor) with her experience of the afore-mentioned Poetry Book Fair, then it's fast turning into a necessity. Here a quote to give you a flavour of what I mean:

"While I love the idea of secret caves filled with poetry gold, more people need to know about them if they're going to survive. I don't want to live in a cave. I want a better map."

You can read her fascinating post in full here.

Monday 23 November 2015


I was delighted to read the other day that Sphinx poetry pamphlet reviews are open for business again (see here). What's more, they're explicitly seeking "OPOI" pieces: i.e. "One Point Of Interest".

This format is especially interesting in the context of short, blog-length reviews. Instead of a whistle-stop, sometimes superficial tour round a collection, the reader finds an in-depth focus on a specific point. Furthermore, true to the Sphinx tradition of juxtaposing different reviews of one pamphlet, the hope is that some chapbooks will attract multiple viewpoints, each picking up on a single aspect, as if engaging in an implicit conversation.

I'll be following developments with interest. For the moment, I'd recommend reading the review by Helena Nelson of Clare Best's remarkable new pamphlet, Cell.

Monday 16 November 2015

Company or solitude, Andrew Waterman's Living Room

There are times when happenstance isn’t limited to the publisher of that name…

…back in the summer, I ordered a second-hand copy of Jonathan Davidson’s The Living Room over the internet. A few days later, a padded envelope turned up. It contained an invoice and delivery note for Davidson’s book, alongside a 1974 first edition of Andrew Waterman’s Living Room, his first collection from The Marvell Press, decked out in their characteristic livery that always reminds me of The Less Deceived.

I was already an admirer of Waterman’s work in anthologies, but this was a chance to get to grips with it as the poet had originally intended. Living Room is a terrific book. Just like Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street, which was published five years earlier, it shows Larkin’s influence in many poems. However, Waterman goes further than Dunn and manages to establish an implicit dialogue with Larkin. One such example is “Calling”, in which the speaker takes on the Mr Bleaney role, giving it a new twist:

“…And I was led up past landing kitchenettes,
And round and up to a slope-roofed room, low bed,
Bed-table, titling wardrobe, cheap bowl fire.

“That’s it, and there’s the meter.” Then,
“You’re young,” he added, “where is your home?”
“Home?” I replied. “Home’s where I find myself…””

There’s a tension throughout Living Room between the need for company and solitude. In this respect, the afore-mentioned poem bears comparison and contrast with another poem, “Betrayal”. In recent years I’ve read a number of successful poems about sharing a bed (Armitage, Duddy and Davidson among them), but “Betrayal” again contributes a fresh, jolting perspective:

“”…Again? To try again again?” he shrank.
And so, apart, both slept.

And wake to find their bodies are entwined
familiarly in warmth and disengage
retreating to the bed’s cold edges,
embarrassed that unwilled flesh should betray
the separation of true minds.”

Waterman’s exploration of his conflicting view on company and solitude also homes in on the accumulation of emotional and physical clutter, the urge to acquire it, then loathe it, then shed it. The collection’s title poem plays a key role, as in the following extract:

“Freedom to thrust like that
through all I’ve dumped into
a bare life since first bareness
seemed failure forfeited
by each act that furnished it,
I dwell here claimed by what
I’ve chosen: living room
that by the more it holds
feels less my home.”

By playing off “more” and “less”, Waterman again achieves an effect that’s reminiscent of Larkin, but the emotional drive is all his own.

Andrew Waterman’s Living Room is a collection that’s held up exceptionally well over the past thirty years. Unlike many of its contemporaries, neither its attitudes nor its poetics seem dated. I feel extremely fortunate to have discovered it, and I’ll be rereading these poems for a long time to come.

Monday 9 November 2015

All-pervading absence, Fiona Moore's Night Letter

Fiona Moore’s second pamphlet, Night Letter (HappenStance Press, 2015), is very much a sequel to her first one, The Only Reason for Time (HappenStance Press, 2013).

If the earlier chapbook dealt with Moore’s grief and bereavement in the aftermath of her partner’s death, this new collection looks at what comes next. What lies beyond the immediacy of grief when the person in question has been so pivotal to you? Their absence is so all-pervading that it consumes the rest of your life. How are you to face the yawning years ahead?

In Night Letter, Moore meets these issues head-on with the same detached yet committed poetics as she displayed in her first pamphlet. Her focus is on the night-time, when nothing can interrupt the maelstrom of emotions. They veer to and fro throughout the book, expressed with exquisite linguistic skill via devices such as the use of double negatives and self-contradiction:

“…I can’t not imagine you…”

“…both nearer and further away…”

Her poem “The Embrace”, meanwhile, portrays an encounter with her dead partner in a dream. It provides us with a passage that’s key to a greater understanding of this collection:

“…We hugged and
life began to run again through my veins and bones
heart and head…”

Those afore-mentioned contradictions are brought to the fore here, implicit and intense. An embrace brings the speaker back to life, yet the other party is dead. She’s coming alive within a dream, yet the dream is condemned to end imminently and leave her in a living death. Moreover, emotional and physical life and death merge and separate and merge again. The reader is invited to compare and contrast this dream-like state of the night with the terrifying shell of the day that awaits.

Back in 2013, The Only Reason for Time seemed an immense achievement in itself, a remarkable stand-alone project. If anything, the only doubt was as to how Fiona Moore might progress from there in poetic terms. Well, Night Letter provides a conclusive answer. She’s built on her earlier book and explored new territory beyond it. This is poetry that will last.

Wednesday 4 November 2015


There are certain books that inhabit my desk. I love to have them close at hand, to pick them up and encounter old friends: poems that accompany me.

One such example is Matt Merritt's Making The Most Of The Light. Back in 2005, it was one of the first ever pamphlets to be published by HappenStance Press and is long out of print. Of course, Merritt's verse has developed since then, and I also very much enjoy his later books, but the poems from that early pamphlet are special to me. Moreover, he didn't include any of them in his full collections, so there's a certain rarity value involved.

Perhaps my personal favourite is "Comeback". I'm grateful to Matt Merritt himself for permission to reprint the poem in full here:


And to finish I'll double
- no, treble - the black.
Corner pocket, after getting
just enough screwback
on the final red.

This one's for all the times
we played for safety
when we could have played
for so much more.

For all the times we worried
about keeping
one foot on the floor.

I requested the afore-mentioned permission because short quotes wouldn't have done the piece justice. It's only on reading the whole poem that its emotional power, expressed with elegant simplicity, becomes clear.

"Comeback" begins with apparent liberation: an extravagant shot to finish a frame. From there on, Merritt qualifies the act. Syntax marries perfectly with semantics, as linguisitic and emotional restraint come together. By the final stanza, the reader has realised that the shot on the black is far from a liberation: in fact, it's an expression of anger at not having achieved any liberation at all.

As a consequence, the reader is sent scampering back to the start as soon as they reach the end: a terrific quality for any poem to possess. Limpid language doesn't have to be facile. In Merritt's hands, it's textured and layered. That's why I love his verse.

Thursday 29 October 2015

Tasting Notes has now sold out

Tasting Notes, my second HappenStance pamphlet, has just sold out, although I've kept back a few copies for sale at forthcoming readings. This means that almost the entire print runs of both my chapbooks - 350 copies of Tasting Notes and 250 copies of Inventing Truth - have found a home. Now it's time to get back to work on polishing my first full collection manuscript...

Friday 23 October 2015

Depth and coherence, Jonathan Davidson's Early Train

Perhaps my greatest thrill as a reader is the discovery of a new poet, that moment when I open a collection, start gulping down the poems and immediately realise they’re going to be with me for the long haul. Of course, such moments become rarer as time goes by, but that only serves to render them even more significant.

It’s for this reason that I’m featuring Jonathan Davidson’s 2011 Smith-Doorstep collection, Early Train. He might not be a new poet, but he has been to me this year. I’ve gradually got hold of all his books, and they’re now fixtures on my desk. However, my favourite is Early Train.

There’s no doubt that this collection was unjustly neglected on release. The manner of Davidson’s poetry is unassuming, as is his profile as a poet, yet his work is packed with rewarding punches. As his verse has developed, Davidson’s poems have acquired a quiet depth and immense aesthetic coherence that resonate far more than the work of other more famous contemporaries whose main concerns are their haircuts, best camera angles and poetic posturing.

Early Train offers us page after page of poems that provide the jolt of recognition. In other words, they provoke a sudden self-awareness in the reader that sets us off on our own imaginative journey. One such piece is “The Flowers”, which uses understated syntax to powerful semantic effect, as in the poem’s final quatrain:

“…They are often seen on bridges
spanning motorways, the stems
wilting but unable to collapse,
traffic moving freely beneath.”

Davidson is implicitly inviting us to recall moments when we have seen such flowers ourselves, asking us how we were affected. Moreover, his use of apparently everyday language enables him to load certain specific words with additional connotations, creating a tension via juxtaposition: ”..wilting...unable…collapse…freely…” all qualify each other and all build on each other’s power.

The everyday is present throughout Davidson’s poetry, but this is never kitchen-sink verse. Instead, he plays concrete acts and details off with an intense imaginative world. One such instance can be found in a comparison between the opening and closing lines of “Tony”:

“I’m reconciling a bank account, thinking of you.
A thousand little contracts keep me in the black…

…I find you in the charnel darkness, in the chaos
and disorder, the lost stuff. I am un-reconciled.”

And Early Train is full of poems of such quality. It’s a collection of maturity by an outstanding poet. I’m hugely saddened by its lack of impact on publication but also encouraged that its slow-burning reputation is growing among discerning readers of poetry. I know that many of my friends are already keen fans and I hope this feature will contribute in some small way to the process.

Monday 12 October 2015

Needlewriters in Lewes this Thursday

Just a gentle reminder that I'll be reading as a guest poet at Needlewriters in Lewes this Thursday (7 p.m. for 7.45 p.m.). I've been looking forward to this event for a long time, so it's difficult to believe the day has almost arrived! Here are a few more details:

Needlewriters is a co-operative of poets and prose writers who present a reading each quarter at the Needlemakers Café in Lewes, showcasing writers in a lovely venue. Food and drink are available throughout the evening from the café.

On this occasion, I'll be reading alongside Ros Barber (who'll be featuring her prose) and poet Caroline Clark. I'll be bringing along copies of both my HappenStance pamphlets for sale, but this will be one of the last chances to get hold of a copy, as Inventing Truth is already officially sold out and Tasting Notes is well on the way.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Payment for poetry readings?

Over the past five years I've given readings as a guest poet in Oxford, Shrewsbury, Leicester, Portsmouth, Coventry, Edinburgh, London (three times), St Andrews, Nottingham and Cheltenham, while Lewes and Bradford on Avon are coming up. In doing so, I've met a lot of lovely people, many of whom have become friends, while also introducing my work to terrific audiences.

On certain occasions I've read to no more than a dozen people, on others to packed halls. Sometimes I've been paid well, but just as often I've received no fee whatsoever. In those cases, I was delighted just to have the chance to present my poetry and maybe sell a few pamphlets to cover costs. What's more, I'll continue to read at such events when I get the chance.

However, another issue presented itself a few months ago during a conversation with a well regarded organiser of poetry readings. I was told that they only offered a fee if the poet in question made a living from their verse (even if indirectly via Creative Writing courses, etc), regardless of the quality of the poetry or the pulling power of their name. If a poet had other sources of income that weren't connected to verse, the organiser preferred to save any available funds for someone who was financially dedicated to the art.

I disagree entirely with such a position. The standard of verse, the quality of a reading and the potential audience should be the fundamental criteria, not the way poets earn a crust. What do you think?

Friday 2 October 2015

Clarity and mystery, Wayne Price's Fossil Record

Wayne Price’s Fossil Record (Smith-Doorstep, 2015) might be his first poetry pamphlet, but he’s far from being a novice in literary terms. Price has previously published a short story collection and a novel, and this experience shows in the coherence of his poetics.

One of the outstanding poems in the collection is “Loyalties”, as it encapsulates many of Price’s qualities and techniques. For example, it opens with a generic statement before clarifying, illustrating, yet also casting doubt and qualifying via the use of specifics.

Throughout the poem, there’s a dexterous managing of pronouns that brings about an interplay between “I”, “you” and “we” in syntactic and semantic terms, both aspects working in harmony, showing a deep understanding of the nuts and bolts of narrative. However, this doesn’t mean that Price is indulging in chopped-up prose: the music, the pacing, the cadences and the line breaks are all proof of his ear for verse, as in the poem’s closing stanza:

“…He didn’t have to come between us in the end.
when I left to rent a single room
I couldn’t take him. And you
were out at work all day:
He’d have chewed the house down.
Twenty-five years. Ah, God.
Wouldn’t we let him sleep in peace
anywhere he wanted now?”

As can be seen in this extract, Price offers the reader his piercing clarity with just a hint of mystery to respect our imagination.

Fossil Record, meanwhile, refers to a tension between human interaction and nature. The title poem, for instance, invokes the elements, manmade structures and cycles of human life all within its opening two lines:

“Wind was stammering at the windows all night.
If I slept at all it was a half-sleep…”

This poem steps back from the everyday to explore that afore-mentioned tension, while it’s juxtaposed on the page with another piece that homes in on such details: “Suburban Gardens at Night”…

“…are a country of their own,
belonging to no-one. Evening after evening
they repossess themselves at the moment
the kitchen light snaps on
and blinds us to everything
beyond itself…”

Via such meticulous ordering and layout, the poet establishes an implicit dialogue between the two pieces.

In Fossil Record, Wayne Price demonstrates a control of his narrative material and a gift for verse that mean it must surely be just a question of time before he brings out a full collection. I’ll be buying it, but for the moment this pamphlet provides us with an excellent introduction to his poetry. 

Thursday 24 September 2015

Needlewriters in Lewes

I'll be reading as a guest poet at Needlewriters in Lewes on Thursday 15th October (7 p.m. for 7.45 p.m.).

Needlewriters is a co-operative of poets and prose writers who present a reading each quarter at the Needlemakers Café in Lewes, showcasing writers in a lovely venue. Food and drink are available throughout the evening from the café.

On this occasion, I'll be reading alongside Ros Barber (who'll be featuring her prose) and poet Caroline Clark. I'm looking forward to hearing both of them for the first time and also meeting old friends. I'll be bringing along copies of both my HappenStance pamphlets for sale, but this will be one of the last chances to get hold of a copy, as Inventing Truth is already officially sold out and Tasting Notes is well on the way. You can find more details about the event on the Needlewriters website here.

Thursday 17 September 2015

Tough but tender, Rosie Miles' Cuts

A certain adjective has to be addressed from the outset when getting to grips with Rosie Miles’ first pamphlet, titled Cuts (HappenStance Press, 2015), and that’s “quirky”.

It features on the back cover blurb, and does so for a good reason. In the context of a blurb, there’s a need to give a flavour of the book in about fifty words, and “quirky” is thus an excellent point of departure for a reader of Miles’ poetry.

However, for a reviewer “quirky” is one of those dangerous words that lends itself to critical shorthand and stereotypical assumptions. It’s such a generic term that its use requires clarification of the specifics. In the case of Rosie Miles’ verse, it refers to her idiosyncratic playing-off of counterpoints, as in the following extract from the pamphlet’s title poem:

“…In time the money saved from the entire population
undertaking major procedures on each other in the kitchen

(with only a negligible rise in mortality rates)
will be used to commission a state-of-the-art laser can opener

connected to a computer the size of just one tin of baked beans
which nonetheless will have parts with such precision

your lover will be able to put you to sleep
and open up the serrated edges of your heart.”

Miles is drawing on tensions between the objective and the subjective, the distant and the intimate, the exterior and the interior, sarcasm and sincerity. Her so-called quirkiness lies in her ability to surprise us by making unusual connections that then seem inevitable, offering up a tough but tender vision of life.

Another instance of the same technique can be found in “Cluedo”:

“...Was it Father Tomkins, in the chapel
with the poisoned communion cup?

Head Gardener Judd, in the shed
with the mud-spattered hoe?

Or even his good wife Mary
with the fish knife, in the kitchen?

It was me. In the bedroom.
With my heart of gilt and an iron rose."

Nevertheless, Miles doesn’t just rely on this one device. She’s also excellent in shorter pieces, where she goes straight for the emotional guts of the poem, such as in “Strathallan Dew”. Perhaps my own favourite is “The door has been open for some time”:

“but I would rather stay here
with my candle and my husk of bread

keeping watch over the setting silt,
counting how many layers of stone
are needed to make a wall.

Who knows what the light is like out there
or whether they have bakers.”

Yet again, this poem finds Miles making glorious connections that set off thoughts and emotions.

Cuts at first might seem a disparate collection. In fact, it’s held together by a hard-earned understanding and harnessing by the poet of her own imagination. Rosie Miles' generosity delivers those insights to the reader, enriching us as it does so.

Monday 14 September 2015

The Compass poetry magazine

New poetry e-zines seem to be springing up on a daily basis these days, just as others fall dormant after an initial burst of enthusiasm. This phenomenon reflects an unsettling and scary speeding-up of time. Verse appears and is then submerged far too quickly after having been crafted for months or years.

In such a context, it’s significant to encounter an e-zine that announces its first issue with the following declaration of editorial intent:

“..Last autumn the editors were chatting about poetry and the internet and it struck us that there didn’t appear to be a strong issue-based poetry magazine coming out of the UK, the web’s equivalent of some of the wonderful print magazines which we all enjoy. We very much hope that this site you are browsing fills that gap...” 

I’m referring to The Compass. A key point here is not only this ambitious statement but the fact that the people behind it (Lindsey Holland, Andrew Forster and Kim Moore) are significant figures in the U.K. poetry scene. Moreover, their work on Issue One of the magazine backs up their words.

The afore-mentioned issue is packed with excellent poems. Personal favourites include new pieces by Maria Taylor, Charlotte Gann and Jonathan Edwards, but there’s plenty more original, top-notch verse to explore. The reviews section, meanwhile, also opens up avenues for future reading with in-depth explorations of several intriguing collections.

In summary, The Compass is already a major addition to the U.K. poetry scene and looks like being around for a long time to come. I’ll certainly be reading every issue!

Friday 11 September 2015

And the answer is...Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell is one of my Spanish partner's favourite novelists, but she's also an exceptional poet. I'm using the present tense here for her verse, as there's no evidence to the contrary.

I first mentioned Maggie O'Farrell's poems on Rogue Strands back in 2009, praising them as follows:

"...they're visually explosive, musical and carry a strong narrative drive. Most of all, their voice is distinctive..."

O'Farrell hasn't published any new verse for well over a decade and has never brought out a collection. Her work appeared in journals and won prizes such as the Tabla 1996 competition with "My grandmother accepts", which I quoted a couple of days ago.  That poem, for example, seems even better in the context of its having been written before her twenty-fifth birthday. 

Has she carried on writing verse in between her ecellent novels? If so, she could still emerge as a major poet.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

A mystery quote

Here's a mystery quote from one of my favourite poets:

"...She sat silent in her father's house,
learning Swahili from a book with pages fragile as onion skins
and making her trousseau in scandalous coral-coloured silk...

...The day we buried her the sky drooped
with a cloud, low and soft as a goose belly.
In each clod of earth that fell on her coffin
I could hear the popping stab
of a needle pushing into silk
held taut between determined fingers."

I'll be back later on this week to reveal their identity. In the meantime, any guesses...?!

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Driven repetition, Kim Moore's The Art of Falling

Take a long, deep breath when reaching for Kim Moore’s first full collection,  The Art of Falling (Seren 2015), because you’ll be tumbling with her from the first page onwards through her intoxicating verse.

Moore’s signature poetic technique is repetition. Her work is riven with it and driven by it. There are certain poems that even make explicit, conscious nods towards its use, such as “A Psalm for the Scaffolders”:

“…a psalm for the scaffolders
who fall with a harness on,
who have ten minutes to be rescued,
a psalm for the scaffolder who fell
into a clear area, a tube giving way,
that long. slow fall, a psalm for him,
who fell thirty feet and survived,
a psalm for the scaffolder
who saw him fall…”

Moore’s strengths in her employment of repetition are various. She repeats phrases with slight variations such as in the tense of a verb (“fall” and “fell”), which invites the reader to home in on those small changes. Meanwhile, the repeating of whole structures such as the poem’s title empowers the piece as an invocation. And then there’s the building of clauses in the continual use of “who”, generating a pace that combines with the afore-mentioned invocation to lend this poem a religious charge. In other words, form and content fuse superbly.

Poem after poem, repetition crops up:

“..a fall from grace, a fall from God,
to fall in love or to fall through the gap…”

“And if it be a horse…
…And if it be a swan…
…And if it be a tick…”

“A curse on the children…
…a curse on the boy…
…a curse on the class teacher…”

“And if you saw her…
…and if she set fire…
…and if she threw…”

“…as if one person can’t carry this with them
and be unchanged, as if I could speak seagull…”

And I could quote umpteen more. However, it’s important to underline that Moore is far from being a one-trick pony. There is variation in tone, of course, alongside a deft narrative touch, a gift for delicious turns of phrase and a fabulous ear, as befits a music teacher. Nevertheless, repetition rules for much of the book, creating the sensation of a relentless emotional thrust, charging onwards, seeking an authentic core.

In The Art of Falling, that core is to be found in “How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping”, a sequence about  “a relationship marked by coercion and violence”. This sequence lies at the heart of the collection. I could highlight any one of several pieces for their power, for their capacity to move and affect, but a personal favourite is “His Name”. Here are the first four lines:

“Because they tried to make me say your name,
the shame and blame and frame of it,
the dirty little game of it, the dark and distant
heart of it, the cannot be a part of it…”

And there’s that repetition again, in Moore’s gorgeous use of the definite article. Of course, it’s even better in the context of the poem as a whole, but you’ll have to get hold of a copy of The Art of Falling to see what I mean. Just keep in mind that piece of advice I gave earlier: don’t forget to take a long, deep breath when snapping the spine.

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Sheenagh Pugh's blog

I've been a regular reader of Sheenagh Pugh's blog for several years (it's been going even longer than Rogue Strands!). However, when enjoying her thought-provoking interview with Steve Ely last week, I realised that not only was it missing from my blog list but I've never featured it here. Time to put that right on both counts!

Of course, Sheenagh Pugh is a well-known poet and critic, so the blog acts as a complement to her other work. It's also an excellent place to encounter new verse, be intrigued and go out to buy books. This is because Sheenagh works tirelessly to review, discuss and interview, all drawing on her huge pool of knowledge.

I very much recommend a lengthy trawl through its archive, but I would start with her review of Paul Henry's most recent collection (see here). We share an immense admiration for his poetry.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Poets on Facebook: the nightmare of the news feed

I know it's my own fault virtually all my "friends" on Facebook should be poets, but that doesn't change the terrifying nature of my news feed at times, especially when I'm feeling vulnerable about the value of my own verse.

People are variously delighted to have work included in an anthology, so pleased to be publishing two poems in a magazine, reading at an event next week, bringing out a new collection in 2016, finishing off a new poem, celebrating having been shortlisted, linking to their new title on Amazon...

...what's wrong with you, Stewart?! Just look at what everyone else has achieved while you've been redrafting that poxy line for the fourth time. And deep down, you know it still isn't right even though you're urging yourself to fall in love with it enough to send the thing off this afternoon. If you read any more of that stuff on Facebook, you probably will.

Saturday 1 August 2015

Ian Abbot's Finishing the Picture

The Jul./Aug. issue of The Next Review is now out, featuring my extensive review of Ian Abbot's Finishing the Picture. In it, I address questions such as the following:

"...Does Ian Abbot’s poetry stand up to scrutiny? Does it match the power of his life story? Is he, in the light of Finishing the Picture, a major poet about to be rediscovered and valued at last...?"

To find out more, you can get hold of a copy via this link. There's also an interview with Clive James, plus original work by Eve Lacey, Paul Howarth and others. Here's a shot of the cover:

Monday 27 July 2015

The fit of a poem

Further to my previous post, it's also worth bearing in mind that rejection/acceptance isn't as black and white as it may seem. Magazine editors will often choose a poem because it fits in well with others that have already been selected for a certain issue. On the other hand, of course, a poem might miss out because it doesn't work alongside previously chosen pieces.

This question of fit is also relevant in terms of the transition from magazine to collection. There are occasions when a poem that appeared in a top journal just doesn't pay its way in the context of a full-length manuscript. In an opposing sense, meanwhile, certain pieces are destined never to be accepted for stand-alone publication but turn out to be crucial to the flow of a book. They bounce off and enrich the poems around them.

Of course, all the above is easy in theory and difficult to judge on a case-by-case basis. I think many poets can recall having agonised over a poem's possible worth!

Wednesday 22 July 2015

The usefulness of rejection

Rejection can be immensely useful. Apart from teaching us anger management and giving us an excuse to redecorate that spot where the coffee mug somehow smashed, it's a filter and a warning, dropping a hint that our work might not be ready, indicating which poems might not be on the money, encouraging us to graft once more. Those mights, of course, are due to the vagaries of taste, as mentioned elsewhere on this blog!

In fact, I feel that renowned poets run the risk of never having this chance. Certain editors are keen to have a famous name adorning their mag, so they are liable to take work even if it's not 100% convincing.

In this context, I was interested the other day to read an interview with American poet, Matthew Siegel, in which he discussed his prize-winning collection, Blood Work, which had previously been a runner-up elsewhere in a different form. Here's his view on that process:

“I thank my lucky stars that they didn’t take that book,” he said. “I mean, it’s a great prize — I would have been thrilled to win it — but the book wasn’t ready. And it’s so much better now."

Siegel is also very interesting on his countless magazine rejections. You can read the full piece here.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Roy Marshall and The Sun Bathers

I met Roy Marshall for the first time at a HappenStance reading back in 2011. Maria Taylor introduced me to him and mentioned he was one of the winners of the Crystal Clear Creators pamphlet competition. We shared a couple of beers that night and I was immediately struck by his terrific passion for poetry. At that stage, he'd just started a blog and had also got a few initial acceptances from small magazines.

Roy Marshall published the pamphlet, titled Gopagilla, not long afterwards, and I gave it an excellent review here on Rogue Strands, mentioning that "Gopagilla is a satisfying and poetically coherent first pamphlet. It delivers a lot and promises even more. I very much look forward to reading more of Roy Marshall's poetry in the future."  However, he didn't stop there. Let's fast-forward four years. Not only has he won several prizes for individual poems and had acceptances from many of the U.K.'s leading magazines, but he's also published a full-length collection, titled The Sun Bathers, with Shoestring Press.

And then this last week came the best part: The Sun Bathers has been shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize alongside books from major players such as Bloodaxe. This is terrific news, not just for Marshall but for other late starters, for those that have taken alternative routes, for small publishers who believe in a poet and back their work to the hilt.

In short, congratulations, Roy! Oh, and while I'm about it, I very much recommend a visit to that afore-mentioned blog. It's packed with poetic tales, interviews and original verse. What's more, I've suddenly realised it's somehow still not on my Blog List to the right of this poet. Time to put that right...

Monday 13 July 2015

Writer and poet

When I first joined Twitter at the beginning of this year, I was immediately struck by the way people try to describe themselves in a few words. One term that crops up on a regular basis is "writer and poet". Well, I'm sorry, but this just sounds wrong! A poet is a writer. The latter is the generic term in which we'd include the former. Of course, I'm being slightly pedantic: I know full well that users mean they write prose as well as poetry, but my question is why they phrase their description in such a way.

One possibility is that I'm over-interpreting things, and the explanation is simply that Twitter lends itself to abbreviation. On the other hand, I do have the feeling that people sometimes view verse as a separate entity to be kept apart from all other writing. As Twitter shows, even poets themselves can end up falling into this trap.

Monday 6 July 2015

D.A. Prince wins the East Midlands Book Award

I was delighted to learn last week that D.A. Prince had won the East Midland Book Award for Common Ground (HappenStance, 2014).

My delight was down to a number of factors: the book is excellent (you might recall I gave it a very positive review on Rogue Strands a few months ago), and the win is also a boost for HappenStance. However, perhaps the key point for me is that this collection is perhaps the type of work that should find wide recognition and doesn't tend to be given as much as it deserves. As discussed in my above-mentioned review, D.A. Prince writes a poetry of the almost-unnoticed accumulation of emotional impact, building imperceptibly towards unexpected ramifications.

In other words,  the winning text in this case wasn't packed with flashy fireworks and showy posturing, nor was the collection a debut written by a bright young thing who's been mentored by a famous name. In this case, the winner simply wrote a terrific book of verse. Congratulations, Davina!

Monday 29 June 2015

John Foggin's poetry blog

Despite announcements of its imminent demise in the face of other media, the poetry blogging scene in the U.K. continues to boast excellent health. What's more, high-quality blogs emerge on a regular basis.

One such relative newcomer is John Foggin, an excellent poet who lives in West Yorkshire. I've been following his blog since he started it last year, and have been meaning to add him to my list on the sidebar for some time. He put up an incredibly moving post yesterday. You can read it here.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

The establishment?

6 a (the establishment) n. the group in a society exercising authority or influence, and seen as resisting change. b any influential or controlling group (the literary establishment).

It seems easy to argue that the University of Oxford represents the establishment, but what about the election of Simon Armitage as its Professor of Poetry? Do the voters themselves necessarily form part of the establishment by virtue of having studied in Oxford in the past? Why did they choose Armitage?

And then there's the poetry establishment. If such a phenomenon exists, is it represented more by Armitage or by Geoffrey Hill, his predecessor in the role?

Tuesday 16 June 2015

A growing obsession: the prizewinning culture of U.K. poetry

Most of us love the thrill of winning an award, and I’m no exception. I’ve even been known to enter a poetry competition or two. Over the past few years, however, I’ve become more and more concerned about the constant growth of a prizewinning culture in U.K. poetry. It’s turned into a dangerous obsession.

The recent shortlist for the Forward prizes is a useful point of departure for discussion. There are many excellent books on that list, and the judges have clearly done a conscientious job within their remit: to find what they feel are the best books to have been presented to the prize.

The problem begins when marketing departments, journalists and the general public use the Forward shortlist and its resultant anthology as a summary/snapshot of what’s going on in U.K. poetry. As such, it’s inevitably limiting.

Let’s be clear: in no way am I belittling the quality of the Forward shortlist or the work of the judges. The issue is that the frenzied parading of the Forward Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Roehampton Prize, the Aldeburgh Prize, the Seamus Heaney Prize, etc, etc, has become a negative phenomenon. These prizes and their shortlists are providing us with a narrow definition of success and failure, inclusion and exclusion.

The immediacy of newsfeeds has encouraged the public to accept the ease of such interpretations. People are invited to recognise their own lack of knowledge like novice wine drinkers who are bombarded with medal-adorned bottles, all approved by panels of famous critics. It’s time to admit the negative consequences of our growing obsession with prizes in U.K. poetry, to trust ourselves to explore independently once more.

Thursday 11 June 2015

Editorial taste

When celebrating an acceptance or wallowing in self-doubt after a rejection, I always try to remember that the poetry world is packed with the ironies of differing editorial tastes. For example, there are many tales of prize-winning poems that had previously failed to find a home despite numerous attempts to place them.

My own favourite experience was a terrific review of my pamphlet, Inventing Truth, in an extremely well-regarded journal. The piece praised and highlighted a poem that had been rejected by that very magazine a year earlier. Now, which of those views of my work do I prefer to think was right...?!

Friday 5 June 2015

A harnessed relish for language, Paul Stephenson's Those People

Paul Stephenson is a linguist, and this background shines through in his first pamphlet, Those People (Smith-Doorstep, 2015). Stephenson’s awareness of the nuts and bolts of language has been heightened both by having learnt a foreign language and by having lived abroad among non-native speakers of English.

Let’s start with an example from the opening lines of “Wake Up And”:

“smell the coffee
smell the coughing
the cacophony
the cafard
the cavern…”

Stephenson is taking a cliché, playing with it and twisting our syntactic and semantic connotations, jumping from one register to another, while relishing the way words work round our tongues. Every single word is under the poet’s control.

Other poems, meanwhile, find him returning to the language of the environment of his youth and reassessing it for the reader’s benefit, as in “Cab”:

“My mother tells me to ask
for a reliable driver.
She says apparently
this is what to mention
because Jill told her
over a pensioner’s lunch…

…My mother says when you ring,
especially at night,
to emphasise the reliable
and they’ll understand
right away on the other end
what you’re on about.”

This piece demonstrates that Stephenson not only understands the way a certain generation of English middle-class ladies can take a single word and load it with immense connotations, but he is capable of transmitting and transforming his observations on the page.

There are also several list poems in the book, in which Stephenson riffs on a subject. These sometimes seem slightly like ingenious note-taking, and I tend to find myself waiting for a launching-out beyond that doesn’t happen. However, this is probably more a reflection of my expectations as a reader rather than Stephenson’s achievements, and those achievements are many. I’m now going to focus on another of them.

The verse in Those People is magpie-like in its collecting of influences (an ability that linguists have to acquire!), yet there’s an idiosyncratic core that holds it together. Stephenson homes in on specifics and trusts the reader to carry them off elsewhere, as in the chapbook’s closing poem, “Capacity”, which depicts the narrator’s wait to be picked up to start an Interrail trip:

“Seventy litres: in theory more than plenty
for three t-shirts, two shorts, the pair of jeans
you’re wearing. Then the question of the tent…

…wallet with Velcro strap, wrapped tight around
the waist. Typical Monday. Your father at work.
Your mother out somewhere. Your lift here soon.”

This poem is packed with the details of a scene. Of course, it especially resonates with myself, as I’m of the same generation as Stephenson, a generation that embraced Interrail experiences before the advent of budget airlines and gap years in Oz.

However, the main virtue of the piece (and much of Stephenson’s verse) lies in a capacity to appeal to readers of different backgrounds. It’s a portrayal of a key moment in the process of leaving home. Moreover, matter-of-fact language has been charged with tremendous nuance. For instance, the reader is left wondering why the mother is out, and so the poet strikes the spark of our imagination.

By now, you’ve probably realised that I enjoyed Paul Stephenson’s Those People. There’s a coherent, ambitious poetic method at work here. Get hold of a copy and see what I mean for yourself!

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Four poems in The Next Review

I'm delighted to report that I've got four poems in the May/June 2015 (Vol 2, Nº5) issue of The Next Review. What's more, it seems I've even made the cover!

If you like the look of it, you can click here to get hold of a copy.

Thursday 21 May 2015

How do we read a poetry collection?

This is a key question that I find myself pondering as I work on the order of poems in the mansucript for my first full collection. Do we read from cover to cover or do we dip in where the book just happens to open?

Well, my own feeling is that people read in both ways. As for myself, I tend to move through a collection from start to finish on a first reading. This is to try to get a grip on how it ebbs and flows. Afterwards, however, I'll return to the book at random, flicking back and forth, digging more deeply into individual pieces.

As a consequence, I'm breaking my poems down into pairs that engage in dialogues with each other, all within the framework of how I want the collection to read as a whole. Furthermore, I'm continually bearing in mind Matt Merritt's remarks to me in a conversation a few years ago: as a journalist in his day job, he felt we often read poetry books much as we read newspapers, in that the right-hand page attracts more of our attention.

After every revision I print up and provisionally bind the collection, ensuring that the left-hand, right-hand ordering is respected throughout. I then go back over it, viewing it as a whole, viewing it in pairs. All those revisions will click into place one day, just like when I chip away at an individual poem, and I'll suddenly know the manuscript is ready!