Tuesday 31 July 2018

Poetry Rules...

...or at least it does in this household!

On a serious note, however, following social media reaction to Helena Nelson’s blog post with a list of Thirty Poem Snags (see here) that she encountered in her recent submissions window at HappenStance Press, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of rules for poets.

By my invocation of rules as a term, I don’t mean the slavish following of norms. Instead, I’m referring to the idea that the rejection of metrics/punctuation/standard grammar/ conventional line endings, etc, tends to my mind to be more successful if the poet first gets to grips with them before jettisoning them to specific effect.

In other words, I’m not usually convinced by poets who simply eschew the learning and understanding of rules and decide to plough their own furrow from the start. In those cases (to this reader’s eye and ear), the poems often don’t manage to argue their rule-breaking case sufficiently.

Of course, there are always exceptions to that rule too… 

Saturday 28 July 2018

Jennie Farley's Hex

There are times when I don't think it would be ethical of me to review a book on Rogue Strands, times when I've either been involved in helping with drafts or have provided an endorsement for the collection. One example of the latter is Jennie Farley's Hex (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2018). Here's the text that I wrote for its back cover:

"Jennie Farley's poems take the familiar as a point of departure, mixing the real with the surreal, the everyday with the imaginary. In Hex Farley encounters new truths by seeking out fresh perspectives. This is a thought-provoking and engaging collection that invites the reader to accompany the poet on her journey."

As a complement to the above text, I'm delighted to feature a poem from Hex that very much illustrates what I mean about Jennie Farley's work (with thanks to the poet for her permission to post it here):

Vanilla Slices

I wouldn't say no to a vanilla slice
says my mother in a plaintive voice.
She is only a ghost so I leave her
sitting on the sofa by the fire,
put on my coat, and go up to the Co-Op.
Returning, I put my shopping on the table,
two vanilla slices, and a bottle of vermouth.
Whoopee! cries Mum, waving
her legs in the air. She's turned
into a flapper with newly bobbed hair.
I sit down beside her, flipping
my georgette skirt, raise my
glass in a toast to us both.
Tomorrow we'll go shopping!

Sunday 15 July 2018

Limpid and clear, Neil Elder's The Space Between Us

In his first full collection, The Space Between Us (Cinnamon Press, 2018), Neil Elder has produced poems that are limpid and clear in tone and content. Many readers, poets and critics underestimate the inherent difficulties and risks involved in writing work of such apparent simplicity: any slip and the poet is exposed without any paraphernalia to protect themselves.

As a consequence, there are inevitably a few failures in this book, but they are far outweighed by its many achievements. One of the latter is “Like My Daughter Says”:

“If, like my daughter says,
you are now a million particles
orbiting in space,
may you keep on spinning.
Or else as I look out tonight,
I hope you fall like snow
and settle for a while.”

Elder’s language is unassuming in this poem, and therein lies its strength. There’s no need for him to over-reach himself in his choice of simile (“like snow”), as he therefore encourages the reader to focus on the following line, where “for a while”, seemingly so slight and insubstantial, suddenly charges the whole poem with temporal significance. A less surefooted poet might have attempted an unexpected, jolting comparison so as to obtain their effect, instead of allowing their language to grow organically as in this case.

The most successful poems in The Space Between Us possess an ease and natural ear for sentence structure. They belie the hard work that must have been required to chip away until their choice of words felt inevitable and necessary. Another such example is “In Our Path”:

“There wasn’t anything more we could do –
the kitten noosed by orange wire lay dead
against the works where a team had fixed a leaking pipe.

Before we lay it beneath leaves
in a peaty shallow, you held the body
with the same care you had cradled Daniel
on that morning when everything changed.”

In this instance, Elder deftly layers insignificant details until they take on new meaning, while also holding back certain background information in the last line so as to let the poem open out beyond its ending.

All in all, The Space Between Us represents a strong statement of intent from a poet who’s brave enough to take on simplicity. Neil Elder’s verse offers us an excellent counterpoint to the commonplace usage of linguistic fireworks, and I very much look forward to seeing where he takes it from here.

Thursday 12 July 2018

Review in Under the Radar

Having long been an admirer of Jane Commane's project at Nine Arches Press, having read at the launch of Issue One of its magazine, Under the Radar, and having witnessed its steady growth into excellent full collections since then, I'm especially pleased to report that a lovely review of The Knives of Villalejo has just been published in the latest issue of the afore-mentioned mag.

I'm grateful to Jane Commane, to Maria Taylor (the reviews editor at Under the Radar) and, of course, to the reviewer herself, Deborah Tyler-Bennett, for these generous words about my first full collection:

"...Matthew Stewart's...poems were, for me, moving, sensual and poignant with a rare poetic outcome, at least for this reader - they made me want to go and cook..."