Thursday 26 March 2015

The Needlewriters anthology launch

Tonight sees the launch of the online anthology The Needlewriters Companion and its sister publication, in print, The Needlewriters (Frogmore Press) at The Needlewriters Café in Lewes. Entry is free and there'll be short readings by several of the featured poets such as Liz Bahs, Clare Best, Charlotte Gann, Robin Houghton, Judith Kazantzis, Alice Owens, Jeremy Page, Janet Sutherland, Kay Syrad and Irving Weinman. You can find more details about the event here.

The print version will be available to buy at the reading. After the reading it will be available (post free) from The Frogmore Press (21 Mildmay Road, Lewes BN7 1PJ) and from Skylark Bookshop, The Needlemakers, Lewes at £10. The online version is on The Needlewriters website here.

I wish I could make it along, but at least I have the consolation of having work in both versions of the anthology and the prospect of giving a reading myself at The Needlwriters this coming October. I'm already looking forward to it!

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Two new poetry pamphlet publishers

I was delighted to discover not one but two new poetry pamphlet publishers this week!

First off, Sphinx featured an excellent interview with Mike Barlow from Wayleave Press, and you can also visit their website here to get a flavour of what they're producing.

The Next Review, meanwhile, have been one of the most recent exciting additions to the print-based magazine scene in the U.K., and they've just announced the publication of their first batch of chapbooks from Gareth Jones, Don Russ and Jo Robinson, all decked out in their inimitable house style.

I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on pamphlets from both these new ventures.

Thursday 19 March 2015

An endless struggle with the years, Paul Henry's Boy Running

Some poets seem to shed identities with every publication, but Paul Henry’s individual books lend themselves to being seen as a part of a whole. Each of them engages in a dialogue with its predecessors. In that respect, this review will focus on his new collection, Boy Running (Seren, 2015), while also contextualising his recent work in the light of what has come before. In fact, Henry implicitly asks his reader to do so. The notes at the back of Boy Running state that Usk, its opening poem, answers “Sold”, the last poem in Ingrid’s Husband  (Seren, 2007), his previous collection.

Let’s look at how the relationship between these two pieces unfolds, starting with “Sold”. Cards on the table: I’m in love with this poem and have carried it in my head since first reading it several years ago. I’ve long been interested in the dynamic of how a house becomes a home and vice versa, a process which Henry captures exquisitely as his family prepares to move. He ends with questions:

“Shall we stay or leave then, love?
It’s only the years moving inside us
and everything hurts in autumn.
Where shall we put them,
the years, in our new house?
the years we are moving out of?”

“Usk” starts by providing unexpected answers to those questions with a brusque lyricism:

“So we’ve moved out of the years.
I am finally back upstream
and, but for their holiday dreams
on every bookcase, the boys
were never born, it was a dream.
Here is where my past begins…”

As a stand-alone piece, “Usk” is already moving. However, in the context of Henry’s earlier poetry, it’s an emotional earthquake. I’m not just referring to the afore-mentioned link with “Sold”, but with his entire body of work: I know of few poets who are as capable of treasuring and portraying fatherhood as well as Henry, such as in the outstanding poem “The Breath of Sleeping Boys” from Captive Audience (Seren, 1996), yet here we find him stating “the boys were never born”. Furthermore, the sudden shift from first person plural to singular is packed with ramifications that reach out through Boy Running.

The first section in the collection, “Studio Flat”, is explicit in these concerns. Of special interest is Henry’s changing use of the term “the years”. In previous books, it was charged with ambivalence. Now, it’s a torturous reminder of what has been lost, as in the opening verse of “The Bright Room”:

“Every night you turned away,
your back a door closing on me,
untouchable, over and over
on the hinges of four seasons,
your dark door closing on the years…”

The book’s second section, meanwhile, is titled “Kicking the Stone”.  Again, it goes over familiar ground for Henry aficionados with a fresh twist. The Welsh suburbia of Henry’s childhood is beautifully evoked, and we revisit several characters who cropped up in Captive Audience, such as Catrin Sands and Brown Helen, although the poet’s perspective of them is once more shifting from ambivalence to something darker. Yet again, ”The years have/slipped their mooring” and there is the presence of “your teenage ghost.” Henry is finding himself reflected in these very characters who seemed so different from him back in the 1990s.

And so to the third and final section of Boy Running. Titled “Davy Blackrock”, this is perhaps the most wide-reaching part of the book. Davy Blackrock is a modern day alter ego of Dafydd y Garreg Wen, both musicians who dream of a perfect song. Of course, there’s also an extra alter ego to layer in: that of Paul Henry himself.

“Davy Blackrock” interweaves the personal, the pastoral and the urban. Where Henry reduced the space between the poet and the page to a maximum in “Studio Flat”, here he’s stretching it out. One such example can be found in this extract from “Blackrock: the Bedsit Years”:

…”They slipped a silver ring
onto Blackrock’s finger. It shone
when he played to his children,
up and down the neck as he sang
with a black guitar on his knee.
But they hid in his dreams,
the years, biding their time,
the dust on the attic’s L.P’s.

The first child flew, the second.
Come back, carnival years!
If I should lose your love dear…
sings the fire to the wind.
And the lost years are calling,
the mousehole bedsits, the sex.
Inside a stairwell’s vortex
Blackrock is falling, falling…”

Once again, we encounter the guitar of Henry’s earlier books, the children, the ring that branded his finger in a gorgeous piece in “Studio Flat”, all filtered through another character in this instance. Boy Running might seem a disparate book at first reading, but its coherence is deep. Above all, however, Davy Blackrock, Dafydd y Garreg Wen and especially Paul Henry are in an endless struggle with “the years”.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I thoroughly enjoyed Boy Running. If anything, Henry’s lyricism has been distilled still further by his suffering, and has led to his most ambitious work to date. I very much recommend you get hold of a copy, but why not read The Brittle Sea, New and Selected Poems (Seren, 2010) first, and accompany him from the start of his journey?

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Poetry in Düsseldorf

I'll be off to Düsseldorf this weekend for the annual Prowein fair. Viñaoliva will have a stand there and we'll be showing the new vintages of our Zaleo wines. Of course, poetry will be accompanying us in the shape of Tasting Notes, my second HappenStance pamphlet. The aim is to reach a readership that would normally dodge verse at all costs.

Here's a reminder of Tasting Notes, via its film version. Please bear in mind that I'm reliably informed only a few copies are left in stock at HappenStance...

Tasting Notes - a poetry film by Matthew Stewart from Matthew Stewart on Vimeo.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Inviting yet challenging, David Tait's Self-Portrait with The Happiness

Most British poets run scared of abstract nouns such as “love” and “happiness”. David Tait, on the other hand, relishes getting to grips with them, as he demonstrates from the title onwards in his first full collection, Self-Portrait with The Happiness (Smith-Doorstep, 2014).

Novice poets often use “love” as an emotional shortcut, imagining that its meaning is clear. Of course, the innate problem with the word is that it is loaded with so many different meanings for different people in different contexts. This is one reason why it is often avoided in contemporary verse.

Tait, however, is far from being a novice. He is acutely aware of these pitfalls, but he doesn’t just take on the risks of abstract nouns. In fact, he uses them to his advantage, as in the following examples:

“…Love everywhere, and so much of it;
so much you can hardly see the strings.”

“…This happened to me once, love,
and I was in love with a man…”

“…then love love love
like the shunt of a truck…

“…as love gallops off
not once looking back.”

“…we’d had a fight and made up and had another fight
as the credits rolled and we tore off our clothes
and love spooled before us. And we were cameras.”

And I could have chosen instances from several more pieces.

Within the context of its poem, each quote seems at first to offer us a stand-alone meaning of “love”. Nevertheless, such an impression is subverted by the next occurrence of the term, often a few poems later, with a variation on that afore-mentioned meaning. As a consequence, every use of the word “love” has numerous counterpoints, thus highlighting the slippery nature of the word.

Moreover, this very slipperiness is compounded by Tait’s treatment of pronouns throughout the collection. Each of them might appear clear-cut and obvious in its individual, specific context, yet they mingle, merge and clash, refusing to tell a single, linear story. In other words, Tait is again undermining the reader’s expectations so as to enable us to question our own perspectives.

In Self-Portrait with the Happiness, David Tait deals in accessible, well-written lyrics, proving that “accessible” is not a synonym of “facile”. Physical and emotional aspects are drawn together with syntax and semantics in a highly skilled subversion of an abstract noun: love. Via Tait’s probing approach, we are encouraged to re-assess our own interpretations of the word. This is poetry that issues invitations and challenges.