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!