Monday, 22 February 2016

Human and humane, Stephen Payne's Pattern beyond chance

There are a several poets who use science as a tool, who drop jargon or data into their verse as if lending it substance, who spiral away from their subjects in technical reverie,  but there are very few who are capable of harnessing science in their poetry like Stephen Payne in Pattern beyond chance (HappenStance Press, 2015).

Payne is a scientist with a keen interest in human behaviour and thought-processes. In his verse, human thus become humane. One such example occurs in the final lines of “Journey Home”:

“In company, the conversation changes pace.
Alone, the mind gives itself away,
clicking into calm, or else unease”.

There’s a deeply analytical approach at work in this poem. Observations pick up on mechanical changes (as in speed of dialogue) or employ verbs with technical connotations such as “click”, all within an underlying context of feelings like “calm” or “unease”. In other words, Payne is ensuring that science is at the service of deeply humane poetry.

The best poems in Pattern beyond chance focus on honed and heightened instants and incidents. These might be specific to Payne, but his deft touch engages us, provoking our own memories. Our childhood Christmas presents, our maths teachers at school, our choice of a PIN and our afore-mentioned routine journey home are all invoked in the process of inclusion.

And then we encounter Payne’s terrific “Given Name”, which portrays our name: our parents’ choice of it, their use of it, the ramifications it has throughout our life, the meaning we load onto it, as in the poem’s closing lines:

“…and hearing in it the voice of the young woman
who called me from my sleep those school-day mornings.”

Thanks to Stephen Payne’s poems in Pattern beyond chance, the reader is renewed and refreshed. In the midst of the grey days, weeks and months of winter, I can think of few greater compliments.

Monday, 15 February 2016

The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 (Eyewear Publishing)

Eyewear Publishing have just announced the fifty poets who are to be featured in their anthology The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016. You can read further details about this project and view the full list of poets here. I'm pleased to report that my name is among them.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

David Foster-Morgan's poetry blog

Rogue Strands is always on the look-out for interesting poetry blogs, so David Foster-Morgan's new venture most definitely caught the eye. Foster-Morgan is a fine poet with a striking first collection, titled Masculine Happiness, recently out from Seren, while his blog features well written reviews and ruminations. There are already several thought-provoking posts to explore, but perhaps my personal favourite so far is his piece on Stephen Payne's Pattern beyond chance (see here). I very much look forward to following developments over the coming months.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Poetic justice

Without wanting to trivialise the disgraceful treatment that Sarah Howe has received at the hands of certain sections of the media on the back of having won the T.S. Eliot Prize with her first collection, Loop of Jade, it’s worth pointing out that such articles end up providing terrific publicity, generating extra readers for her intriguing book and creating the opposite effect to what seems to have been intended by their authors. Poetic justice, in fact.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Literary and literal imprisonment, Clare Best's Cell

Clare Best is on one of the most interesting personal journeys in U.K. poetry. She’s constantly evolving, playing with different approaches to verse and blending it with other genres, all without losing her identifying touch.

Her latest production, Cell (Frogmore Press, 2015), is further evidence of her drive. I term it “production” because it’s not quite a pamphlet, rather a poetic artefact. It’s not concrete poetry as such, but it melds the written word to other forms: art and design, as the pages combine pictures by Michaela Ridgway, ingenious origami and Best's verse to create a cell in both literary and literal terms.

The afore-mentioned cell is explained by the poet in her introduction:

“In 1329, Christine Carpenter – a girl of fourteen – took a vow of solitary devotion and agreed to be enclosed in a cell built on to the wall of the chancel of St James’ Church, Shere, Surrey. She spent more than one thousand days in the cell before asking to be freed. When the Bishop learned of her release, he ordered her to be forcibly re-enclosed.”

So the story is full of narrative and emotional impact. That attracts the reader in itself. However, the main critical interest lies in Best’s linguistic approach to her material: the poems tend to speak in the first person singular from Christine’s perspective. Language is drawn from the 21st Century in every way. In other words, Best has consciously decided to offer us a highly contemporary take on a 14th Century tale. Here’s a short quote to give a flavour of what I mean:

“…Knees lock on the ice-flagged floor.
The priest’s voice distant, thick as fog.
Stones climb all around me –
only a slip of daylight now…”

What is Clare Best’s intention? It’s to suggest imaginative points of departure for her reader to draw comparisons between the two periods in time, to wonder how much or little has changed, to focus on inherent, eternal human issues: the nature of suffering, injustice, tyranny, sin and religion. She succeeds.

Moreover, there’s a pivotal reflection of female identity throughout Cell. Mother-daughter relationships (as Christine’s mother indirectly, implicitly suffers too), the subjugation to male authority and even the wielding of sexual power are all vital to any understanding of this poetic artefact. Here’s one such instance:

“Lucifer again…

He spins me off my feet,
       scatters fennel seeds
                     and clover for a bed –
       he spreads me,
enters like a fist.”

The portrayal of a traditional figure (Lucifer)  in contemporary sexualised terms is a clear example of Clare Best’s method. It shocks the reader into making fresh leaps and connections. This is why Cell represents such an achievement. 

Monday, 1 February 2016

Poems in two voices

Last week's Words & Ears event in Bradford on Avon was a lovely evening. I'm very grateful to Dawn Gorman for the invite. Carrie Etter's reading of her own new poems and of work by Linda Lamus was very enjoyable, while I was also delighted to have the chance to give Tasting Notes a full run-out (albeit without the wines themselves).

On this occasion, Stephen Payne was my partner in crime for Tasting Notes. He did the blurbs and I did the monologues. Suffice to say, he was excellent. As a consequence, the two voices began to interact, and I was struck by how such poems come alive at readings perhaps more than on the page. Texture and variety are enhanced via aural and oral contrast and comparison. Implicit dialogue becomes explicit.