Wednesday 28 December 2016

Annual update to the poetry blog list

Following my extremely subjective summary of the best U.K. poetry blogs of 2016, I've now dodged the festivities for long enough to spruce up the poetry blog list on Rogue Strands (to the right of this text). My intention is to provide constantly updating links to the most recent posts from these excellent bloggers, all to facilitate your poetry blog reading and enjoyment in 2017.

Saturday 17 December 2016

The scaffolding of a poem

I've blogged previously about my admiration for Maggie O'Farrell's verse back in the 1990s, long before she became famous as a novelist. As a consequence, I was drawn to her piece in The Guardian today, titled My Writing Day.

I find that ideas and sparks for poems actually come from being kept from the act of writing by other obligations, so it's very interesting to see that her experiences chime in with mine in that respect. Moreover, she also explains that her current prose writing is still influenced by poetry classes taught by Michael Donaghy some twenty years ago. One key point stands out

" will need scaffolding to build your writing inside but must remember to take it down at the end."

That quote has stuck in my mind. I'll be recalling it from now on whenever I rework a draft.

Thursday 8 December 2016

Two contrasting views of Alice Oswald's poetry

I'm grateful to Stephen Payne on Facebook for pointing me towards an excellent discussion of the relative merits of Alice Oswald's poetry on the Poetry Foundation website (see here). Stephen's initial link was then accompanied by top-notch debate, but that's now unfortunately being lost in the mists of social media timelines.

There's no doubting Alice Oswald's standing in contemporary U.K. poetry, but it's also clear that her work elicits contrasting responses. As a result, I was especially drawn to the Poetry Foundation's "Curious Specimens" format, which juxtaposes two differing perspectives on her verse as explained in the introduction to the discussion:

"Editors’ note: “Curious Specimens” is the second of a series of exchanges in which we are bringing poets together to discuss new books. The format is as follows: each poet chooses a book he or she can wholeheartedly support and writes an eight-hundred-word review of it; the exchanges follow the completed reviews."

Moreover, the two critics in question - Cate Marvin and Joshua Mehigan - tackle Oswald's verse from an American viewpoint, which is extremely interesting, as they thus approach her poetry with very different baggage from that of U.K.-based reviewers.

My personal opinion tends to coincide with Joshua Mehigan's take on Alice Oswald's poetry. That might well in part be due to the fact that I have long admired his verse and aesthetic. Nevertheless, Marvin's stance is also thought-provoking. Perhaps the best consequence is that their discussion has taken me back to Oswalds work once more...

Thursday 1 December 2016

The Best U.K. Poetry Blogs of 2016

There's no point beating about the bush or glossing things over: 2016 hasn’t been a vintage year for U.K. poetry blogs. A number of significant bloggers have either given up completely or posted far less than in previous years. Moreover, several potentially interesting newcomers have petered out within a few months of having started.

Why is this the case? Well, it’s not down to the irrelevance of blogging. As mentioned previously on Rogue Strands, users of social media link to blogs on a regular basis and take them as a point of departure for discussion, while stats for this blog (and others) are growing.

I’d venture to suggest that the issue is bloggers themselves: rather than taking/wasting the extra time to draft and longer blog posts, they’re interacting directly and with more immediacy on social media. This might provide them with a quicker buzz and direct feedback, but so much interesting stuff is consequently lost. For instance, some of the most popular posts this month on Rogue Strands are pieces that I wrote back in 2009. If I’d only posted them on social media, no search engine could direct new readers to them now.

In other words, I’m a firm believer in the longevity and continued relevance of poetry blogs. Despite this year’s casualties, they still provide more stimulating material than my working week allows me to view! Here’s the rundown for this year, Rogue Strands’ subjective selection of The Best U.K. Poetry Blogs of 2016:

- Richie McCaffery’s The Cat Flap is an exciting newcomer. It combines honesty, insight, a hint of self-deprecation and scalpel-like prose.

- Helen Mort’s new blog, Freefall, oozes class. Her posts are surprising, thought-provoking, personal yet objective, and always delicious to read. It’s another of this year’s best newcomers.

- Tim Love’s litrefs continues to be just that: a point of reference for U.K. poetry blogging. There are three sections: the main blog, litrefs articles and litrefsreviews. Tim speaks his mind with clarity and without fear. I respect his views hugely.

- Martyn Crucefix’s blog goes from strength to strength. Just a couple of weeks ago, I featured his recent series of posts on metrics, while his annual take on the Forward shortlists is always required reading.

- Ben Wilkinson, whose long-awaited first full collection is to be published by Seren in 2018, is increasingly using his blog to repost articles and poems that were first published elsewhere, often in print journals. In other words, he provides his readers with a second (online) chance to read his terrific verse and scrupulous criticism. For example, his review of Sarah Howe’s collection, available on the blog, is a real triumph:  brave and balanced, he pulls off the best review around of the book in question.

- Kim Moore’s Sunday Poem feature is a bit like Marks and Spencer’s Dine in for Two deal: imitated by countless competitors but never matched. What’s more, its timing is perfect: a lovely read at the dog-end of the weekend.

- There might be numerous poetry-publisher blogs out there, but none can match Helena Nelson’s weekly effort for HappenStance Press. Every post is an enjoyable education. Of course, I’m not biased at all, am I?

- Again, no bias whatsoever when listing Todd Swift’s Eyewear blog! Todd’s project is pretty much unique in U.K. poetry, as his blog, which is packed with news, opinions and reviews, predated his publishing house of the same name.

- Whether discussing politics, publishing or verse itself, Charles Boyle is always enjoyable to read over at Sonofabook. Apart from possessing by far the best title in this list.

- Abegail Morley’s Poetry Shed might be a veteran of the poetry blogging scene, but she shows no signs of flagging. In fact, 2016 has been a top-notch vintage for her: poetry news, reviews, original work and interviews have all come together on an excellent site.

- Josephine Corcoran runs And Other Poems, which is one of the best e-zines on the U.K. poetry scene, but she’s also a prolific blogger, chronicling her personal journey through verse.

- John Foggin’s not only a rising star in U.K. poetry in his retirement from teaching, he’s also an excellent and regular blogger over at his cobweb. His enthusiasm is a mid-winter pick-me-up for any doubting poet.

- Talking of pick-me-ups for doubting poets, Robin Houghton’s blog is wonderful medicine. She’s not afraid to tell her story of poetry failures alongside her many successes (such as her forthcoming inclusion in Eyewear’s Best New Poets anthology), thus providing a healthy antidote to the relentless, terrifying positivity of a poet’s Facebook newsfeed.

- Clarissa Aykroyd’s The Stone and the Star is fast becoming a stalwart of the U.K. poetry blogging scene. She blends a personal poetic journal with reflections on the current scene and features on out-of-copyright poems. This enables her to post the pieces in question alongside her views.

- While “wearing one’s erudition lightly” might be a cliché, it’s fundamentally true of Fiona Moore’s blog, Displacement. Her accessible posts regularly challenge her readers’ preconceptions.

- On the other head, Dave Coates at Dave Poems has erudition running through his writing in the explicit and implicit invocation of current critical theory as applied to contemporary verse. Academic articles in a blog format, all with their pulse on the latest developments.

- Moving on to Katy Evans Bush with Baroque in Hackney, I’ve mentioned her down-to-earth erudition in the past, and it continues to be extremely relevant. Her views on the ever-evolving U.K. poetry scene are a key barometer and I’m always on the look-out for them.

- Anthony Wilson continues to educate and entertain over at his blog. My favourite posts are perhaps his staged dialogues between the poem and the poet. They delight and reflect my own experiences at many turns.

- Roy Marshall’s blog, meanwhile, continues its journey and broadens its horizons, year on year. It started out as something of a personal journal, but he’s now packing it with interviews, features and how-to articles.

- And talking of how-to articles, perhaps the specialist is Emma Lee over at her long-running blog. There are also regular reviews, often of lesser-known poets. It’s well worth a visit.

- Sheenagh Pugh’s blogging is disciplined, regular and always stimulating. There are reviews, interviews and views, all stamped with her keen intelligence.

- Projects, trips, stories, all intertwined with verse. That’s George Szirtes’ blog, the unique product of a unique mind in U.K. poetry.

- Clare Best’s Self-Portrait Without Breasts is the ongoing story of a fierce, relentless creativity that the reader can only admire. Thoroughly recommended.

- David Clarke’s A Thing for Poetry has evolved still further this year. It’s gradually moving beyond the role of a personal journal and his posts are acquiring an ever-growing relevance for the wider poetry scene, all backed by sharp insight.

- Peter Raynard’s Proletarian Poetry has a clear political and social standpoint that resonates throughout the site. This blog offers poetry and criticism with oompf.

- Matt Merritt’s Polyolbion is another veteran of the scene. He confessed his doubts over its continuity a couple of months ago, but he’s carried on. U.K. poetry is a better place for the likes of Matt Merritt and his blog is an integral part of his presence.

- As for personal journeys, Caroline Gill’s blog is an excellent read. She has the ability to make her readers identify with her experience of poetry itself and all it accoutrements.

- In this respect, Jayne Stanton’s blog is also more than worth a read. Moreover, it charts her poetic development as she moves ever forward, enabling her readers to share in her success: this year, Eyewear’s Best New Poets anthology beckons for her too!

- Oh John, how we miss you. John who? John Field, of course, over at his Poor Rude Lines blog. It’s been dormant for a fair few months now, and I long to savour a new post…

- And ditto for Gareth Prior, an excellent blogger, whose site has a terrific archive. What’s to come…?

- And then there’s Maria Taylor over at Commonplace. Her posts are great reading. Fingers crossed they don’t peter out…

- And finally, a mention for a couple of bloggers who started off so brightly not so long ago. ChrissyWilliams and David Foster-Morgan, your posts were terrific. Any chance of a comeback…?!

And that’s all for another year, folks! Apologies to anyone I’ve missed out. Like always, a reminder that I do know that horrible feeling of reading through a list, reaching the end and finding you’re not there.

Here’s hoping 2017 brings fresh vigour to poetry blogging and the chance for me to champion new bloggers who complement social media, lending depth to the U.K. poetry scene and a point of reference for debate. And thank you, once more, for reading Rogue Strands!

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Out-of-body experiences, Maria Taylor's Instructions for making me

If I liked Maria Taylor’s first full collection, Melanchrini (Nine Arches Press, 2012), I love her new pamphlet, Instructions for making me (HappenStance Press, 2016). She has somehow made the almost impossible leap from being a very good poet to being an outstanding one. The question is how.

At first sight, Maria Taylor’s verse can seem disconcertingly heterogeneous. In fact, even the blurb on the back cover to this pamphlet states “There’s no telling what she’ll do from one poem to the next, which is one of the things that makes reading her such a pleasure”. Of course, the potential drawback is we might also consequently struggle to come to identify Taylor’s work. Even in the space of the seventeen poems that make up the chapbook, she employs numerous different forms and deals with all sorts of thematic concerns. And yet, somehow, it all hangs together. These days, I immediately recognise a Maria Taylor poem when I encounter one in a journal, long before spotting her name at the bottom.

So what is the specific aspect that Taylor has most developed since Melanchrini? What element makes her poetry different? Well, it was already present and discernible in certain poems from her full collection, but it’s becoming her defining quality and shines throughout this pamphlet: I’m referring to her knack for out-of-body experiences. It’s now more surefooted and powerful than in the past, as in the following example from “Hypothetical”:

“A friend of mine asks if I’d sleep with Daniel Craig.
Before I have time to answer, I’m in bed with Daniel Craig…”

... and from “The Invisible Man”…

“My daughter pushes
The invisible man on a swing
under the apple tree.

I’ve know him for years.
I recognise him by the dust motes.
I ask him out. He stood me up…”

and from “My Stranger”…

…He’s the only stranger I can afford,
a middle-aged man in a plaid shirt
smiling for an artist. Nothing to me,
but I still hang him in the hallway
and call him “Dad”…”

Taylor’s primary underlying technique and concern is the nature of self, the blending of identities, the interweaving of voices, the merging of fact and fiction through ever-shifting perspectives, never allowing the reader to rest on solid ground. The result is verse that’s laden with highly specific intensity and insight, all this in language that flows naturally and never seems forced. Sentences, expressions and line-ending are inevitable yet surprising.

Pamphlets between collections are often under-reviewed and under-read. Maria Taylor’s Instructions for making me deserves an opposite fate. It’s a pivotal landmark in her development, our chance to encounter a set of poems that have her unique stamp running through them. They show us a poet who’s hitting her stride and reaching maturity. Her second full collection will be a mouth-watering prospect, but in the meantime we have these delicious morsels to relish. 

Friday 11 November 2016

Martyn Crucefix on metrics

So many emerging poets (and even a few workshop leaders) seem to think that metrics are an irrelevance when creating verse, as if we can break every single rule before learning any of them, as if almost all top-notch abstract artists weren't first excellent draughtsmen. As a consequence, it's been a real pleasure to read Martyn Crucefix's blog over the past week or so.

Crucefix has been doing some teaching for the Poetry School, concentrating on metrics, and has then written two terrific posts on the back of his sessions. You can read them here. Apart from being entertaining and accessible, they are backed up by a formal rigour and knowledge that can only help any poet to understand the nuts and bolts of how verse is constructed. Wholeheartedly recommended!

Friday 4 November 2016

The missing poets

On encountering a list of Eric Gregory Award winners the other day (see here), my wonky thought processes didn't view it as a roll call of those who were summoned to poetic fame. Instead, I homed in on the missing poets, the names who vanished overnight or gradually disappeared. Have they given up on verse or has it given up on them? Or do they still write and hoard their poems only for themselves?

Their names are a reminder that poetry hasn't been enough for certain people, as if verse has in some way failed them. The missing poets scare me: I can't imagine life without writing poetry.

Saturday 29 October 2016

Twitter and Facebook for poetry blogs

Now that Rogue Strands has reached the figure of 2,000 followers on Twitter (click here to join the happy throng!), it's a good time to reflect on how Twitter and Facebook interact with poetry blogs in general and specifically with this one.

First things first: I don't see social media in isolation. Instead, I make use of them as a means by which my posts on Rogue Strands might reach the greatest number of potential interested parties and readers. In other words, Twitter and Facebook help to spread the word.

Of course, transience is inevitable these days. Twitter is certainly faster-moving than Facebook, which lends it extra dynamism but also means that more stuff slips under the radar and disappears into the flow of information. Facebook, meanwhile, seems to have greater scope for discussion. On the other hand, one growing problem is that any debate of a blog post now often takes place via a comments thread on Facebook. The afore-mentioned thread then rapidly loses any connection with the post in question if and when readers go back to it a few months later.

Nevertheless, Rogue Strands' constant growth is in no doubt partly down to interaction with social media, viewing them as a beneficial tool rather than a threat or even an alternative. A quick glance at my blog stats shows that clicks through from Twitter and Facebook have trebled over the past couple of years. The latter is inevitably more slow-burning after a post is published, while the former is more immediate. All this is proof that poetry blogs are far from obsolete. They simply need to adapt to the ever-shifting virtual world around them.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

I'm in the Poetry Spotlight!

I'm delighted to report that Poetry Spotlight is featuring an interview with me today, along with one of the poems from my forthcoming full collection. You can read it by following this link.

While you're there, why not trawl the treasure trove that's gradually accumulating on the site? Paul Clyne is curating excellent pieces on a wide range of poets such as Fiona Sampson, Alison Brackenbury, Richie McCaffery, Fiona Moore and Sheenagh Pugh, to name but a few.

Sunday 16 October 2016

Electric coherence, Katrina Naomi's The Way the Crocodile Taught Me

Katrina Naomi’s second full collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me (Seren, 2016), uses scrupulously portrayed character studies as a fulcrum for a compelling narrative drive.

This is especially true of the book’s first section, which revolves around two men and two women; a father and a stepfather, a mother and a grandmother. The two men are implicitly contrasted in separate poems, the initial focus moving from the father’s absence to the stepfather’s arrival, while comparisons between the women often take place within a single poem. In the latter case, “Gin and Ice Cream”, from the sequence “Poems after my Nan”, portrays one of the hardest human experiences: that of an older generation witnessing the demise of their offspring:

“Even after all the gins, all morning,
you still can’t say the c-word.

Over a weekend, I try to discuss your daughter/
my mum, but your soft blue eyes fill…”

The pivotal slash/line break here is, of course, where “your daughter” leads on to “my mum”.

The invocation of multiple roles in family relationships is pivotal to this book’s story and can also be applied to male characters, as in the following extract from “Letter to my Mother”:

“You lie beneath him,
a measure of mud between you.

This was our final argument – his and mine –
your husband/my step-father…”

A key tension clearly lies in the juxtaposition of your husband/my step-father. A statement of fact is charged with tremendous feeling.

The second part of the collection, while packed with well executed set pieces, inevitably cannot match the electric coherence and cohesion of the first part, although it is complemented by an excellent final long poem, titled “Mantra”, that takes reader and poet back to the first part of the book, literary, temporal and geographical journey meshed together, doubt and belief intertwined. The final lines linger long after their reading:

“…Mum stayed,
repeating her mantra to the mountains, for six months, maybe a year,
before the cord unravelled, and then she’d be free.”

Katrina Naomi’s The Way the Crocodile Taught Me shows that she is a compelling poetic storyteller, capable of creating intimacy via distance, layering characters, bringing them alive and generating emotional resonance.

Saturday 24 September 2016

The best poems...?

I'm grateful to Richard Skinner for having reminded me the other day on Twitter of the following quote from Ian Hamilton:

"The best poems are a strange combination of intense personal experience and icily controlled craftsmanship".

Of course, this typically assertive and implicitly provocative statement by Hamilton is as much a declaration of personal method as a blueprint for others. Its hinge lies in the use of "strange". Predictability can kill a poem.

There's also an intriguing dual interpretation of the word "icily". While consciously advocating dispassionate craft when writing poetry, Hamilton is also unconsciously revealing one of the few stumbling blocks that I encounter when reading his otherwise terrific verse: a lack of warmth and engagement. I hugely admire his work, but struggle to empathise.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

An excellent introduction to Keith Douglas in the L.A. Review of Books

Steven L. Isenberg published an excellent piece on Keith Douglas in the L.A. Review of Books the other day (see here). His article provides an introduction to Douglas for American readers and does a great job of meshing biography, prose snippets and extracts from poems, all in a limited word count. Keith Douglas' work isn't widely known on the other side of the pond, but Isenberg's feature contributes to rectifying that anomaly and bringing his verse to the attention of a transatlantic readership.

Sunday 18 September 2016

Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair is a huge success story

I remember vividly the first time I visited Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair. That was back in 2012, the fair's second year, and I launched Tasting Notes there together with a wine tasting and tapas of Ibérico ham.

Since then, the event has gone from strength to strength. In 2012 there were about fifty exhibitors. This weekend, at the 2016 Fair, over eighty publishers were present, with even an evening at a nearby pub tagged on for good measure!

What makes Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair so special and such a huge success story is that it provides pretty much the only physical proof of the existence of a national poetry community. Moreover, its organic growth is based on the graft of a team of volunteers. Nowhere else do so many U.K. presses, editors, poets and readers come together on an annual basis to celebrate the vitality of our poetry scene. Long may it continue!

Sunday 11 September 2016

Chronicles of loss, Abegail Morley's The Skin Diary

Imagine and imaginary are key words in The Skin Diary (Nine Arches Press, 2016), Abegail Morley’s new collection, and provide a hint to her poetics. However, far from being a flight of fancy, this book is rooted in human experience, as the imaginary turns real and the real imaginary.

Morley writes of an imaginary sister, an imaginary friend, an imaginary photo, all in an attempt to express what cannot be expressed and understand what cannot be understood. Here’s an example of her method from “Childhood”:

“…Her life is stored in a house of ruins
she’s rebuilding brick by brick. If you visit tomorrow
she’ll feed you fairy cakes on white china plates,
pour tea from an imagined pot.”

Imagination is here seen as a technique for dealing with everyday experience, while its inherent risks and dangers are never far away, as in “The Blame”:

“…Tonight I hear you stumble up steps,
four years after. Short shadows on brickwork thicken –
if I was prone to fancy, I would imagine you here.”

As both these pieces indicate, loss and how we wrestle with loss are pivotal themes that resonate throughout this collection, reaching their culmination in its closing poems. The collection reaches its crescendo when Morley homes in on a specific narrative that raises the tension even higher than on previous pages. One of her fundamental poems is “Package”:

“…I didn’t know something so small could change

My day, so opened the gift without ceremony, didn’t expect
his dried-out soused diary to unhug itself from the envelope.
No letter from the coroner, just river-rippled A5 pages.”

Of course, these lines turn on Morley’s use of “unhug”, implicitly leading us towards the speaker’s solitude and afore-mentioned loss.

The Skin Diary moves the reader on every page, but its final poems will cling to the mind forever. They are a chronicle of survival amid excruciating mental and emotional pain. Never depressing but always life-affirming, Abegail Morley’s thematic courage works in tandem with her poetic craft to bring us a memorable collection.  Her diary flows into ours and we emerge enriched.

Monday 5 September 2016

Monolingual translators...?!

There has been a recent (and very welcome) surge in the popularity of translated verse. This is excellent in terms of finding Anglo-Saxon readers for non-Anglo-Saxon verse. However, it's not without its pitfalls.

Certain creative writing specialists seem to believe in the figure of the monolingual translator, which might be fine as a classroom exercise but is now finding its way into published translations, even prize-winning ones. This leads to multiple complications, ranging from heightened dangers of accusations of plagiarism, as monolingual translators work from previous translations instead of the original text, while a form of the game Chinese Whispers is also played out at times, with the result that the final translation edges ever further from the original.

Moreover, my own argument is that translations of poetry for publication should only be undertaken by people who have an intimate knowledge of both languages. That probably sounds exclusive, but I've seen far too many aberrations to believe otherwise.

One instance of top-notch translating is Anna Crowe's work with the likes of Pedro Serrano. Now there's someone who gets to grips with the original, syllable by syllable, and who chips away until creating a piece of art that's new yet faithful to its point of departure.

Thursday 25 August 2016

Helena Nelson, poet

Many casual observers of the U.K. poetry scene will have heard of Helena Nelson. They’ll know that she’s the editor of HappenStance Press. They might even know of her limericks and performance pieces. What’s unfortunately fading into the background is that she’s a significant, major-award-winning “serious” poet.

I’d been wanting to write the above paragraph for several years. Why didn’t I? Because I didn’t want my views to be coloured by my readers’ knowledge that she was the publisher of my pamphlets. Now that Eyewear Books are bringing out my first full collection next year, it’s time for Rogue Strands to celebrate Helena Nelson’s terrific verse.

Today’s post will concentrate on Nelson’s first full collection, Starlight on Water (The Rialto, 2003), which was a joint winner of the Aldeburgh Jerwood Prize. Let’s start with an extract from section IV of its pivotal sequence “From Interrogating the silence”:

“Your letters matter more than you will know.
You write; I keep them, one by one, as snug
as acorns in their shell. I go to them
if all else fails. When the north-east wind blows
and tugs at the curtains, when my heart has dug
a hole for itself, when nothing can stem
obliteration – no place else to go –
I open them...”

There’s no need to explain these lines, yet their clarity doesn’t impede their emotional impact. Quite the opposite is true. This isn’t so-called restraint. Only rare talents have so light a touch as to be capable of transmitting such depth and authenticity of feeling via apparently simple words. Nelson is keenly aware her challenge is not in expressing something that is true to her but in making it true for the reader.

And yet she’s also at ease in several different registers. Among the performance pieces and biting satire, there are sudden changes of gear like in the following extract from “When my daughter goes down in the dark”:

“…Her eyes deepen. She puts on pearls,
dresses herself in darkest blue.
Shadows soften her mouth and chin,
new frost sparkles beneath her skin."

Anorexia is never explicitly invoked, but its menace is all-pervading in this poem. Language becomes sensuously dangerous in Nelson’s hands. Yet again, another tone, yet again a coherent idiosyncratic eye holding her broad poetic vision together.

And there are more examples to come. The Philipott poems, for instance, deserve a post to themselves. The collection’s closing sequence, they dissect an entire society via a single couple’s relationship.

The shorter pieces, meanwhile, are simply exquisite. I’m delighted to have Nell’s permission to quote one of my favourites in full here:

Completing the outfit

I used to wish you’d put your hands just so
about my waist, spanning me here and here,
encircling me in love and trust, although
you never knew I cherished the idea.
A small thing. Doesn’t matter. Time is gone.
Your hands, so square and kind, don’t speak to me.
My waist has come to terms with life alone.
My breathing’s calm. My heart goes quietly.
I find these days I like to wear a belt.
I bear it like your touch around the core.
It keeps me safe. Quite recently I felt
I had to tighten it. I think it’s more
than reassurance in well-seasoned leather:
it may be all that’s holding me together.

This poem’s strength lies in its ability to undermine itself (and its narrator) throughout. The reader only realizes its perfection when reaching the end and immediately heading back to the start.

Helena Nelson’s poetry must be read. For that reason, I’m making a unique exception on Rogue Strands. You can find Starlight on Water’s product page at The Rialto here and at the HappenStance website here.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

For the sake of the ritual

I spend a lot of time in Chichester - my parents retired there, so it's still my bolthole from an Extremaduran summer that's pushing 42ºC this week - and the cathedral could end up seeming something of a backdrop to life, a spire that can be spotted when approaching the city from almost any angle. However, I can never bring myself just to walk past.

I have to go in to the cathedral every time and find An Arundel Tomb. Larkin's poem is hung in a frame alongside. By now, there's no need to look at the text, as its words fall through my lips of their own accord, but I still do, line by line, for the sake of the ritual. I take David, my son, whenever he's with me, and we read it together. He learns how poetry can make such a shiver-inducing lump come alive...

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Delicious adverbs, Mel Pryor's Small Nuclear Family

Received wisdom tends to indicate that poets should avoid adverbs whenever possible. This is patently absurd: we need every linguistic tool available. Of course, adverbs can provoke a calamitous fall, but they can also lift a poem when in the hands of an expert like Mel Pryor, as she demonstrates on several occasions in her first full collection, Small Nuclear Family (Eyewear Publishing, 2015).

One such example occurs in her poem “Hokusai”, which portrays a pocket of emotion, as in the following extract:

“Since he upped and left her and their son
for the printmaker in Tokyo,

I’ve noticed how she curves forward slightly
like a tall Japanese wave breaching

the moment between rise and fall…”

Mel Pryor takes her character and scene, and then homes in on a resonant detail, that afore-mentioned pocket of emotion. In this case, it’s the way her character curves forward slightly.  Implicit restraint, via the adverb, is placed in juxtaposition to the latent power of the wave.

Here is a further instance of Pryor’s deft use of adverbs, from “Your girlfriend’s red leather jacket”:

“…my elbow pushing out the hollow shaped by hers,
and under the top left pocket with her lipstick in
the beat of my heart fitting precisely the beat of hers.”

The use of precisely once again lends an extra charge to the verb, while the final line’s gorgeous cadence mirrors that of a heartbeat, music married to sense.

And now for a third example, this time from “Housework”:

“…How glorious, to be held like that,
his little paunch in the small of her back,

her hands pulling his hands against the rolls of her belly,
the warmth of his cheek pressing through her hair,

and below them laid out messily
in the drawer, the knives, forks and spoons.”

Pryor celebrates physical imperfection before underlining her point with messily, revelling  in the counterpoint of an unexpected partnership between verb and adverb. Via her skilled portrayal of this specific detail, the poem comes alive.

Mel Pryor’s Small Nuclear Family builds its emotional impact via an idiosyncratic, delightful blend of approaches that surprises the reader, poem after poem. I’ll be coming back to it for a long time to come.

Monday 25 July 2016

Jamie Baxter

I've blogged previously about the fundamental role that top-notch poetry journals can play in drawing our attention to new names and keeping us up with more established writers' recent work. Perhaps one of the most consistent over-achievers in this respect is The Next Review, and its latest issue is no exception.

On finally finding time to sit down and read through it, five poems by Jamie Baxter leapt off the page. They were keenly observed, measured, restrained yet packed with emotional charge. I googled him, of course, and encountered further excellent examples of his verse at The Literateur (see link here).  Another poet to follow and another reminder of why I value my magazine subscriptions so much!

Saturday 16 July 2016

Inspiring and depressing

Kate Clanchy's recent feature in The Guardian, titled The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group, was both inspiring and depressing.

The inspiring aspect was the way Clanchy described how she used poetry to help her disadvantaged pupils, demonstrating once more just how powerful verse can be as a positive influence on traumatised children. The depressing aspect was her point of comparison with a very different group that she had taught some years before:

"I had judged the Foyle and run the course back in 2006, and seven years on, the Foyle young poets group I had taught were scything through Oxbridge, publishing poetry pamphlets with Faber, writing for the national press, and all the time networking frantically. By mixing together this group of exceptionally talented youngsters – many of them privileged but a few definitely not – that course had forcefully changed most of their lives. I wanted some of that for our students: not just the poetry, but the sense of entitlement, and, yes, the networking too."

I have absolutely nothing against the Foyle Young Poets scheme, quite the opposite in fact, while I understand and share Clanchy's well-meaning argument. My concern is with the portrayal of that first group's achievements, with the implicit definition of success and the conception of poetry as a career that revolves around "networking frantically". Verse is a vocation, never a career.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

The ache of possibility, Alan Buckley's The Long Haul

Alan Buckley’s new pamphlet, The Long Haul (HappenStance Press, 2016), sets out its stall from the title onwards.

The afore-mentioned title works on two levels. On the one hand, it’s the closing words to a delicious poem called “Stalactites”. On the other, it’s an implicit reference to Buckley’s poetic journey. Following a well-received pamphlet back in 2009, this is only his second publication. He represents the antithesis of a careerist bright young thing.

Hard-earned, slow-burning skill runs throughout The Long Haul. The pacing of lines is so measured and precise that the craft and ear involved go almost unnoticed. One specific example of Buckley’s deft pacing is his use of qualifiers, as in the following extract from “Loch Ness”:

“…Better, surely, to have
the doubt, the ache of possibility.”

Meanwhile, in another poem, titled “His Failure”, Buckley takes those qualifiers a step further into altered repetition:

“… I felt
Like a god. No – scrub the indefinite article –
like God. My hangover, though, was two days of hell…”

Only an extremely talented and experienced poet can pull off this device and make it necessary to the poem in hand. Moreover, Buckley qualifies his statements not to undermine them but to layer them and grant them depth.

Aesthetic texturing works hand in hand with pivotal thematic concerns. Buckley portrays the long-learnt absence of absolutes in language and life. The kid, the student, the young lover are all gone and are all still there in the older man. He dares to feel, again and again, as in “Flame”:

“…And lovers know too
how even a single
flame might raise
a scar that time can’t heal.

So come, stand next to me;
let’s flip this little box.
Strike softly away from the body.
See how it urges us.”

Of course, the key here is the sudden rush of “urges” after two weak syllables, cadence melded to meaning.

This is an unusual pamphlet by an unusual poet, one who quietly grafts and grafts away, before presenting us with sure-footed piece after sure-footed piece. A first full collection by Alan Buckley would be a book to behold. For the moment and for a fair old time to come, we’ll have to savour these nineteen chiselled poems. After all, he’s in it for The Long Haul.

Friday 8 July 2016

The cat flap

As part of the website for his new proofreading and copy editing venture, Copy Cats, Richie McCaffery has launched a poetry-oriented blog, titled The Cat Flap, alongside the business side of things.

There are already several intriguing and thought-provoking posts on subjects such as the value or otherwise of poetry reviews (see here) and the possible reasons why certain poets are forgotten while others are fêted (see here). The Cat Flap is an extremely welcome addition to the poetry blogging scene and I'll be following its progress with relish!

Sunday 3 July 2016

The unexpected

No matter how much craft and how many drafts I devote to certain poems, they never seem to come alive. However, their trail remains in my notebook. When I move on to a new one, I trawl back through its predecessor and start on the first page with a list of those clumsy pieces, with the challenge of previous failures.

When flicking through the pages of the full notebook, I spot that those drawn-out efforts are interspersed with sudden new poems in unexpected bursts. And that penultimate word becomes key. The unexpected is where verse is born, where the subconscious springs a surprise and I realise it's been brewing a new poem for weeks or months, or a fresh tangent turns stale stanzas on their head and one of the old drafts springs to life at last.

Sunday 26 June 2016

Four poems in The Next Review

I'm delighted to report that one of my favourite literary journals, The Next Review, have published four of my poems in their latest issue (Vol.3/No.5). You can get hold of a copy by following this link to their website.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

The stretching of wings, Suzanna Fitzpatrick's Fledglings

Suzanna Fitzpatrick's pamphlet collection, Fledglings (Red Squirrel Press, 2016) is first of all a gorgeous object, with limpid, expert typesetting from Gerry Cambridge and high production values that make it delicious to the touch.

What of the poetry itself? Well, Fitzpatrick mines a rich seam of pregnancy, motherhood and the raising of infants that has also provided an excellent source of material in recent times for the likes of Kate Clanchy and Kate Bingham. However, it would be unfair to pigeonhole her work, as its appeal reaches beyond the immediate subject matter.

It’s often said that elegies allow and even demand the poet to hunt for meaning and grope for words that might reflect an experience out of reach of language. Well, Suzanna Fitzpatrick shows that the process of birth, its build-up and aftermath, ranks alongside. Her images that make us look afresh at the universal events she portrays, as in “Quake”:

“…My pelvis groans

at the speed, an iceberg calving…”

And also in “Blazon”.

we are separate
I can touch you

the ballbearings
of your joints…”

This same knack for finding a resonant, satisfying yet somehow renewed image runs through the book, but nowhere more so than in its title poem, which begins as follows:

“I stroke the tiny kites
of your shoulder blades,
Imagine wings. Gingerly

I stretch my own.
It’s been so long
since I trusted them...”

This poem shows Fitzpatrick at her best, never seeming to strain or force her way towards something artificial. Instead, her verse is fresh but clear in its thrust, hinting at depths instead of shouting them from the rooftops. For example, the title poem might focus on her specific reaction to a shift in mother/child roles, but her expression of this experience invites her reader to a far wider reflection of the way dynamics change in families as years go by and generations are followed by generations.

Fledglings is a lovely introduction to a poet who’s already in control of her material and is capable of affecting her reader. Suzanna Fitzpatrick’s verse is deceptively broad in scope and I look forward to seeing her stretch her poetic wings in due course in the format of a full collection.

Monday 13 June 2016

My first full collection

How strange it seems to have written the title to this post. Since starting to place my poems in magazines almost twenty years ago, I've been working towards this moment. Here goes...

...I'm delighted beyond words to announce that Eyewear Publishing will be bringing out my first full collection in 2017.

Wednesday 8 June 2016

The story of a poem

Looking back through my files, I find the first typewritten draft torn from the secondhand dot matrix printer I bought not long after arriving in Almendralejo. A creature of habit, I've only ever dated poems once they move from notebook to screen, so here it is: January 1998. The title is different, of course, as is the layout of the stanzas, but the poem has been born.

I must have gone back to it in a couple of months later, as there are handwritten corrections all over the sheet and a note: "Rev' March '98". Of course, I'm sure to have thought it was finished at that point. How wrong I was.

A few weeks afterwards, I returned to the poem. There's another typewritten draft, which indicates more extensive revisions back in my notebook prior to a second visit to the dot matrix. However, frustration must have set in: "UNF" for unfinished is scrawled across the bottom.

Later on that month - April '98 - I had another go at polishing off this awkward, obstreperous bunch of lines. I must have been reasonably happy with the result, as I sent it, with a shiny new title, as part of a submission to Evangeline Paterson (a fabulous, understated poet and editor, much missed) at Other Poetry. She published it that autumn.

At this point there's a pause, although I recall having posted it that year to a dear friend who died in a mountaineering accident not long afterwards. It was hidden among many failures. She chose it as her favourite.

Come 2009, I was preparing my submission to HappenStance Press for what would become Inventing Truth, my first pamphlet. I picked this poem up again, reread it and realised I could improve it, change the flow of the stanzas, tweak the title. Helena Nelson, my editor, wasn't fully convinced. She sidelined it to a list of possibles in early 2010, so I went at it again. Still she put up cogent arguments against its inclusion. It correctly lost out a couple of months before publication.

I knew that poem was important, not just because of its journey, but because it highlighted a specific facet of my verse. Nevertheless, I also knew it wasn't quite over the line. Every few months, I continued to chip away at it: November 2013, August 2014, May 2015. My first full collection was the aim.

Until today. It's still in my manuscript, holding on for dear life. This time, in adulthood, over eighteen years after its birth, it's going to make the cut. When might the book appear? More news on that in due course...

Monday 6 June 2016

From Farnham to Villalejo on The Stare's Nest

My poem From Farnham to Villalejo is now up at The Stare's Nest as part of their Poems for Europe feature. You can read it here.

Thursday 2 June 2016

Richie McCaffery in The Poetry Shed

Abegail Morley is the curator of a veritable treasure trove of verse over at The Poetry Shed. Today she's featuring two excellent pieces by Richie McCaffery (see here). A warning: once read, they'll defy any attempt to banish them from your mind for a long time to come.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Poems for Europe on The Stare's Nest

In the run-up to the E.U. referendum, Judi Sutherland has launched a Poems for Europe feature on The Stare's Nest. From now till 15th June, a daily poem will be posted to celebrate all the good reasons for staying European. I'm pleased to report that my work is scheduled to appear next week (more news about that in due course) alongside excellent pieces such as today's poem from Martyn Crucefix.

Thursday 26 May 2016

Pen vs. pencil

Anthony Wilson's recent blog post about the virtues of the pencil reminded me of Larkin's fondness for a 2B, as Anthony himself mentioned, while also chiming with my own tastes. Both pens and pencils are far superior to a keyboard in my mind, especially for poetry. Like Anthony, I love the tactile experience of writing. However, my choice is a pen instead of a pencil.

I do understand that only a pencil allows you to make notes in the margin of a page without defacing it forever, but then I've never been keen on physically altering books. Their magic really does take me over with reverence for the object, no matter how pompous that may sound. In other words, this potential benefit of a pencil over a pen doesn't do it for me.

However, the key benefit for me of a pen is that the destruction of a draft is far more difficult than via the delete key or a rubber. In a moment of frustration or rage, a keyboard or a pencil would enable me to get rid of text forever far too easily, thus cutting me off from a way back. Without the evidence that's left behind by the ink of a pen, how could I retrace my steps through the creation of a poem and salvage a turn of phrase or realise where I'd taken a wrong turn? I often even return to drafts of a second or third attempt while tussling with the sixth or seventh version of a poem.

In summary, a pen always wins out over a pencil when I'm writing poetry. A keyboard, meanwhile, comes a very distant third. What about you?

Tuesday 17 May 2016

How Spain improved my English

The title for this post is a direct allusion to Tim Parks' recent article for The New York Review of Books, titled How Italy improved my English. In his article, Parks asks the following question:

"..what about those writers who move to another country and do not change language, who continue to write in their mother tongue many years after it has ceased to be the language of daily conversation?"

For me, this was what drove me into poetry's arms. I dabbled in verse at college and university, but wrote more drama than any other genre, as my first love was the spoken word. Of course, once I left the U.K. and moved to a non-English-speaking environment, my feel for dialogue soon became weaker. Moreover, there was no one to whom I could voice my thoughts in my native tongue. Poems became my outlet.

As the above-mentioned feature develops, Parks discusses the advantages and drawbacks of such a life of linguistic, social and cultural immersion in another country, mentioning the examples of others and recounting his own experiences. Having lived through a decade of only speaking proper English once a week in an expensive telephone call home, I understand how he feels, while I also learnt an awful lot about English by comparing its mechanics to those of Spanish.

Furthermore, I''ve also found my life turned upside down, and for the better, by the technological changes that he describes in the extract below

"All in all, I feel immensely lucky to have gone to Italy when I did and experienced for a decade or so the relative linguistic isolation that made me focus so intensely on language, writing, and translation. But equally lucky to be able to send this piece to New York by email, and to be part of that now global community that shares its thoughts, on literature and other matters, online, regardless of where we live."

E-mail, Skype and the internet transformed my poetic life and ended my isolation just at the right time for me to reconnect, save my native language from any deterioration and feel part of an English-speaking community once more. I too am incredibly fortunate to have lived through a unique period that has enabled me to experience both old-fashioned and new-style expatriation and immersion. It's fashioned me as a poet.

Thursday 12 May 2016

Three poems in New Walk

I'm delighted to report that I've got three poems in Issue 12 of New Walk, which is out today. I'm especially pleased because New Walk is one of my favourite U.K. print journals. My work is in the excellent company of Carrie Etter, Josephine Corcoran, Helen Mort, Rebecca Goss, Alan Baker, David Wheatley and many more. You can get hold of a copy here.

Monday 9 May 2016

A one-off, Nigel Pantling's Kingdom Power Glory

If you’re only going to read one first full collection this year, make it Nigel Pantling’s Kingdom Power Glory (Smith-Doorstep, 2016). It's a one-off. It's subtly experimental. It's a unique personal commentary on the recent social, political and economic history of the U.K..

This book is packed with so many achievements. Among them is the capacity to take supposedly non-poetic language and turn it into poetry. Pantling never writes chopped-up prose. Instead, he draws out and heightens the cadences of work, of money, of the establishment, of institutionalised violence, as in the final stanza of “In the Interrogation Room”:

“…The ceiling lights pin three shadows
to the ripples of the concrete floor.
Sweat glitters on our faces.
The only noise, our breathing.”

The above poem is from “Kingdom”, the first of three sections in the collection. They chart a journey from the army to the civil service and on to merchant banking in verse that reduces the distance between poet and man to a minimum.

The book’s second section, “Power”, is especially strong in its character sketches. Reaching far beyond mere descriptions of people, they implicitly illustrate how institutions shape people and vice versa, as in the following ending to “Speaking Truth: Gregory”:

“…Faced with a question of principle, Gregory asks
“Minister, what do you want the answer to be?”
and then works backward to a justification.
You guess he might go in to politics himself one day.”

Quotes from two poems so far. Both possess hugely powerful endings. Suffice to say, such endings are a speciality that runs throughout Pantling’s verse.

Moving on to the final section, ”Glory”, this part of the collection depicts “human consequences” of big business from the inside. It’s never boastful, never hypocritical. Instead, the whole book is laced with self awareness, as in one of its best poems, “Photograph Album”, back in the first section. A daughter talks to her father:

“…She asks how that makes him feel.
He says that it was his job in those days
to find these men and lock them up.
“Yes, Dad, but how does that make you feel?””

Nigel Pantling is not some pensioner who’s playing about with poetry now that he’s got some free time. He’s taken an incredible life story and rendered it in verse so as to concentrate and intensify still further its emotional impact, stuffing it with extraordinary insights into inaccessible scenarios via accessible syntax.

Let’s not allow a culture of envy to colour critical judgement: this white, male member of the establishment, already highly successful in other fields, has written an exceptional book of poetry that reaches out to people who aren’t habitual fans of verse. Kingdom Power Glory deserves to win a major award. Most of all, it deserves to be read.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Charlotte Gann's poem in the York Literary Review

So there's a new journal on the block with carefully curated content and serious intent. It's the York Literary Review and you can find it here.

Moreover, the first issue features a highly unusual poem by Charlotte Gann, titled Wallpaper. It goes against received wisdom in terms of the use of adjectives, line endings and repetition, which is probably why it works so well. Gann's verse is an excellent example of the uselessness of creative prescription and proscription. I'm really looking forward to her full collection.

Friday 29 April 2016

Helena Nelson on Andrew Waterhouse

Over at Anthony Wilson's blog, Helena Nelson has written a guest post about Andrew Waterhouse.

She tells the story of how she discovered his poetry, how it affected her and stays with her even today. Moreover, she also gets to grips with the linguistic mechanics of why, and that's where her insight reveals new facets to his poems.

Her post is a lovely read for a bank holiday weekend. If it encourages readers to learn more about Andrew Waterhouse and seek out his startlingly original verse, so much the better!

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Time to write?

Yesterday I tasted the tank of Zaleo that we'll be bottling on Friday, scheduled the loading of our extra virgin olive oil for China, proofread the copy of a new back label, processed a couple of orders for Germany and Belgium, cooked lunch, made the bed, helped David with his maths homework, played tennis and wrote the first draft of a poem.

This space for poetry to be written couldn't have happened without all the rest. That's because the poem had been working through my head for weeks, waiting for the right moment to pop out, just when I'd been bombarded with enough stimulation and was ready to grab a hour on my own with a pen and notebook (never a screen!).

In other words, I fail to write anything when I've got otherwise empty days on my hands. I just lounge about, wasting time. And what about if poetry/creative writing were my day job? After going through students' work in tutorials, marking, sorting out funding applications, etc, etc, the last thing on my mind would be creating verse myself. Unless I ended up writing about that very world of poetry I inhabited. Which would be worse. I can only admire those poets who manage to produce excellent stuff in such circumstances and even seem to thrive.

Poetry is my escape valve, a counterpoint to obligations yet intrinsically and intimately linked to my everyday life. I treasure it.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Phil Brown on what Hugo Williams means to him

Back in 2009, Rogue Strands featured Phil Brown's excellent interview with Hugo Williams in the now-disappeared Horizon Review. Seven years on, Brown has published a feature in The Huffington Post in which he describes the curious context of the above-mentioned interview, together with other anecdotes about his experiences with Williams from 2007 to the present day.

Brown's article is a lovely example of how one poet can affect another. This is down to the generosity of its frank tone and revelatory content: we learn a lot about Hugo Williams, but just as much about Phil Brown himself.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Version or translation...?

Terminology gets complicated when a poem is rendered into another language.

Before dealing with the thorny issue of the difference between a version and a translation, it’s worth clarifying another term that gets far too much snotty treatment: literal translation. Its original meaning referred to a mistake that some translators make in their work by working word by word without forming language into semantic blocks and setting off from there. A consequence is that sense is often lost and an incomprehensible text results, such as in the case of certain dishwasher instruction manuals.

In the above context, the use of the term literal translation is clear and precise. However, it’s also thrown pejoratively at literary translators who do their utmost to stick close to the text, trying to stay in the background as much as possible. Its original meaning thus gives us the impression of a translator who’s leading us astray by lacking imagination or creativity. Instead, such an approach is hugely demanding on the translator and involves a rigorous method. Moreover, it’s no more and no less valid than the following term: interpretative translation.

In the interview with Michael Hofmann that I discussed last week, he provides an excellent description of how an interpretative translator approaches a text:

“One of his guiding principles for translating, he says, is to avoid the obvious word, even if it is the literal equivalent of the original. When the opening page of a Roth novel contained the word Baracke, he insisted on going with “tenement” rather than “barracks”. In the second paragraph of Hofmann’s version of Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa doesn’t ask “What happened to me?” (Was ist mit mir geschehen?), but “What’s the matter with me?”. He liked the phrase, he says, because it sounds like someone having trouble getting up after a heavy night.”

“Nobody will notice, but you have taken a step back from the original. You have given yourself a little bit of self-esteem, a little bit of originality, a little bit of boldness. Then the whole thing will appear automotive: look, it’s running on English rather than limping after the German.”

At this point, it’s useful to take Hofmann’s quote and compare it with statements from Don Paterson about how he worked on Antonio Machado’s verse, the key point being that Paterson eschewed the word translation and opted for version.

“…these poems are versions, not translations. A reader looking for an accurate translation of Antonio Machado‘s words, then, should stop here and go out and by another book…

”… literal translation can be useful in providing a snapshot of the original, but a version — however subjectively — seeks to restore a light and colour and perspective…”

Is Paterson thus using version as a synonym of figurative translation? Or is he simply allowing himself greater scope for individual creativity, using Machado’s verse as a point of departure. A close analysis of the Spanish and English texts shows that the latter is the case.

In other words, there’s an argument that a progressive line can be drawn, starting at the original: from literal translation to figurative translation and on to version. Of course, there’s an inevitable grey area in each case as to where one begins and another ends.

All these attempts to find answers lead us back to the start: maybe all translations are versions, maybe all translators are traitors. Once again, it’s a question of terminology.