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.