Monday, 6 July 2020

Fame in the poetry world (again!)

I've blogged previously about the ephemeral nature of fame in the poetry world, mentioning the lists of Gregory Award winners that you can find on the internet, tracking their different destinies. And then, of course, I've also mentioned how the spotlight seems to flash past even more quickly in the current climate of Twitter feeds, etc.

However, I was drawn to an article last week that reminded me this problem's been bubbling away for decades (and is probably eternal!). Over at Wild Court, Mark Valentine has an excellent feature on an annual pamphlet series from the 1960s, titled Universities' Poetry, which published poems by the latest flavours of the month. In his piece, Valentine focuses on Issue 7, encountering all sorts of outcomes for the contributors.

There are luminaries who made it big in the following years but whose names now ring only a vague bell, alongside consolidated big hitters who ended up making their names in prose, topped off by (yes, you've guessed it!) another Gregory winner who vanished off the face of the publishing earth.

You can read the essay for yourself in full on Wild Court (see here). It's a thought-provoking read, inviting implicit comparisons and contrasts with our contemporary scene.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

A tribute to Richard Hoyes

I was already scribbling pastiches of Larkin in verse and D.H. Lawrence in prose when I arrived at Farnham College in 1989 and Mr Hoyes started teaching me A Level English, though I soon realised things were going to be slightly different from classes at the local Comp, as he set about dismantling our preconceptions and encouraging all of us to get writing.

Mr Hoyes was no ordinary English teacher. He’d already had an extremely youthful Matthew Sweeney as his Poet in Residence at the College for a year, while numerous workshops with Ian McMillan were still in the future. I suppose I fell between those two stools, but I didn’t have an inkling of that at the time. Instead, all I knew was homework turned into writing stuff of my own accord, turned into staying behind after class to show it to him, turned into him gifting me copies of literary magazines such as Iron, where Peter Mortimer had published his short stories.

This sharing of his own work, treating me as an equal, was just one example of Mr Hoyes’ generosity, as was his gentle prodding of me in new creative directions. His support meant that I suddenly stopped feeling alone and different from everyone else. As such, he was crucial in my becoming the poet I am today.

However, things developed even further once I left for university. On my first trip back, I visited all my old teachers at the college and showed him some of my more recent poetry. He suggested looking at it together over a pint at the Hop Blossom the following Friday. Thus, Mr Hoyes became Richard, and our friendship began, involving London Prides over more than two decades, all combined with swapping our latest work. He’d bring short stories, articles he’d written for the TES and extracts from his regular column in the local paper, and I’d contribute my drafts of poems.

Once my parents moved down to Chichester, it became more difficult for me to visit him during my trips over from Spain, though we still kept in touch, exchanging intermittent e-mails. I wrote to tell him of Matthew Sweeney’s announcement that he had Motor Neurone Disease, and was shocked to get an e-mail back from him to the effect that he’d had a terminal diagnosis himself. Richard was one of those people who’d never seemed to age. He'd barely gone grey and had maintained an almost child-like spark and curiosity. I couldn’t imagine him not being around, and can only imagine how tough it must have been for those closest to him.

I met Richard for one final time last summer. Along with my son, David, I visited his wife, Lizzie, and him at their home in Farnham. He was still on brilliant form, wearing his erudition as lightly as ever, telling tales about “Dear Examiner” scripts (that’s another story!) and taking the trouble to engage with David throughout. I wish I could have seen him again before his death on 29th May, but the pandemic put paid to that idea.

Richard Hoyes made a huge difference to my life, and I know from friends that he made his mark with countless students over the years. He had a unique ability to remove the mystery from exceptional works of literature without ever dumbing them down, capable of joking his way through a class while maintaining everyone’s total respect. And on a personal level, he was a friend, always generous with his time, thoughts and words. I’ll miss him hugely.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

A poem by Robert Selby to mark the launch of his first full collection

I'm delighted to be featuring a poem by Robert Selby today to mark the launch of his first full collection, The Coming-Down Time (Shoestring Press, 2020). I'll be reviewing Selby's book on Rogue Strands in due course, but for the moment a delicious sample is in order.

The power of this poem resides in its use of pronouns. I'm convinced deft manipulation of the blighters is a sign of a good poet, but this piece reaches beyond normal expectations to create an emotional charge that gradually creeps up on the reader. The third person undermines the second, before both of them overwhelm the first, though I'm not going to reveal any more details at this stage. I simply suggest you read it for yourself to discover what I mean about its subtle impact.

N.B. I'm inserting the poem below as a jpeg image because its line lengths don't lend themselves to the format of a blog and I don't want them to be mangled by the limited boundaries of a screen...

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Persona Poems: a useful term or a red herring?

I came across this term for the first time the other day and immediately understood what it meant. In other words, it must be a useful label for teachers and tutors as shorthand to refer to poems deliberately written in a voice that’s separate from the poet’s own identity.

However, on reflection, I found myself picking the term apart. All poems, whether their creators like it or not, are persona poems to a greater or lesser extent. In supposedly autobiographical pieces, how much of a persona is projected, either intentionally or unintentionally? And in explicit persona poems, how much or how little of the poet is implicated and involved in their character?

In fact, I’d go as far as stating that a considerable chunk of the genre’s interest lies in the tension that this above-mentioned ambiguity generates. The so-called lyric “I” can be deliciously undermined to great effect…!

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Essay on Rory Waterman's poetry at Wild Court

My essay on Rory Waterman's poetry is now up at Wild Court. In a longer format than my normal blog posts, this piece enables me to spread my wings and get to grips with all three of Waterman's collections, looking at them as a body of work but with a special focus on his latest book, Sweet Nothings. You can read it for yourself by following this link.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Point and counterpoint, Charlotte Gann's The Girl Who Cried

I very much enjoyed Charlotte Gann’s first full collection, Noir (HappenStance Press, 2016) and wrote positively about it last year (see here). It was an excellent book, exemplified by its slanted treatment of emotion, relating its characters’ experiences without any explicit evocation of feeling, drawing on a cinematographic approach to do so.

However, this first collection’s value is now further magnified by the publication of her second, which is also excellent, titled The Girl Who Cried (HappenStance Press, 2020), and by the poet’s provision of a counterpoint to her previous book in terms of aesthetic technique. In her new work, Gann comes at the same subjects of human relationships face-on rather than from an angle, thus initiating an implicit dialogue between the two manuscripts.

The Girl Who Cried throws off the masks and filters of the cast that was portrayed in Noir. Instead, it’s packed with intimate psychodramas that barely invoke outside elements. The poems are without titles, flowing or bumping into one another, offering us yet more points and counterpoints. They play off against each other. They inform each other. And this is why the absence of individual titles works so well.

One striking aspect of Gann’s shift in method is her move from an extensive cast of character in Noir, which included many poems in the third person, to a predominance of poems that revolve around first and second-person pronouns in The Girl Who Cried. In her new collection, the pronouns’ pivotal role is their fluidity from one poem to another, leading to reader to question identities and potential narrative threads. Moreover, they even undermine themselves on purpose within specific poems, such as in the following instance:

…And I see me. Bleak, brittle,
almost ridiculous,
and mauve with loneliness.

These subjective, supercharged adjectives and the use of the emotionally significant abstract noun are both examples of Gann’s change in approach, while the disconcerting deployment of both the subject and object first-person pronouns within a single sentence issues a challenge to any accusations of a confessional approach. Her technique implies that there’s an observer in the background throughout these poems, dipping in and out of events, as in this extract…

Being on the phone with you

is like skating on ice –
or rather, watching an ice skater…

In the above lines, Gann’s first-person narrator switches from protagonist to observer, highlighting the shape-shifting nature of experience, invoking the dislocation and alienation that can be caused by extreme emotion.

The Girl Who Cried is an excellent collection in its own right. Nevertheless, its significance grows further when placed alongside Noir. The two books not only provide us with two contrasting yet complementary perspectives on a similar subject, but they also enable the poet to burrow more deeply into her inspiration, developing new angles via those previously mentioned points and counterpoints. 

Furthermore, Gann invites us to reflect on the validity and coherence of choosing different poetic methods to deal with similar themes, showing us that her doing so can actually enrich our reading, contributing greater nuance and understanding. The process of handing ourselves over to her work allows us to reflect on the nature of human experience and on poetry’s wide-ranging potential to express it. Why not find out what I mean for yourself…?

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Poetry Salzburg Review

I'm very pleased to report that I've got two new poems in issue 35 of Poetry Salzburg Review alongside work by the likes of Hilary Davies, John Greening and Richie McCaffery, etc, etc. You can find out more at the Poetry Salzburg website (see here).

Sunday, 31 May 2020

i.m. Paul Shrubb

Over the past few months, I've been working on a sequence of poems titled Starting Eleven. It revolves around Aldershot F.C. footballers of the 1980s and around what it meant to be a fan of a Division Four team at that time.

One of the players to feature is Paul Shrubb, who passed away this last week from Motor Neurone Disease. As a consequence, I'm breaking the habit of a lifetime today to post an unpublished poem here in his memory...

2 Paul Shrubb

Neat, precise and unassuming
in his haircut, passes and gait,
he times his tackles perfectly,

patrolling our flank as he's done
for years. If the fans cherish him,
it's because we can picture him

in a warehouse, office or shop
on a Monday soon, one of us.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Absence that disorientates, Abegail Morley's The Unmapped Woman

Some poets evolve by venturing into new subjects, new narratives, new locations. Others, meanwhile, burrow further and further into their core concerns, casting different perspectives on similar themes, grappling with them in fresh ways, layering them, building their nuances and ramifications.

Abegail Morley’s recent development, from her previous collection, The Skin Diary (Nine Arches Press, 2016) to her new book, The Unmapped Woman (Nine Arches Press, 2020), shows that she clearly belongs to the latter group. Her focus on loss, already a pivotal element, has now expanded its reach, its depth and its power to move the reader.

One clear example occurs in the opening pages to The Unmapped Woman, in the first lines of a poem titled Gravid. They can, of course, be read as the portrayal of a moment, of an incident. However, they can also be read as a declaration of poetic intent for the collection as a whole. They announce an exploration of the relationship between language and loss:

Not until after the front door slams shut
and absence sucks air from its cheeks,
do the words in her head, packed tight
as if on postcards, unhook their ink…

Moreover, when comparing The Skin Diary to The Unmapped Woman, one clear evolution is the scope of Morley’s ambition, her juxtaposition of varying losses, her demonstration that they’re united by key aspects such as dislocation via the disappearance of a sense of belonging. People anchor us. Their absence disorientates us and leaves us wondering who we are. This is clearly represented by the title to the new collection, as expressed in the closing lines of Where you used to be:

…When I go, I’ll unmap myself from this world,
tug pins like stitches, watch them stretch and snap.

The Unmapped Woman unfurls via a growing tension between the past and the present. This tension demands to be faced prior to any potential reconciliation between the two, and the consequent struggle is beautifully evoked in On having enough messages from the dead:

Your name is paperweighted to my tongue.
Each time I try to lift it, it bangs to the floor
of my mouth, bulky as a sandbag,
or an iron girder from that old advert…

The above extract also provides the reader with an excellent example of Morley’s technical virtues: her natural rhythms, delicate control of line endings and supercharging of specific, unusual verbs.

As The Unmapped Woman draws to a close, it gradually turns into an implicit revindication of the role of language in dealing with loss and absence, poetry becoming a means of overcoming emotional dislocation. Abegail Morley’s work reminds us that we can deal with the present and the future thanks to the verbal and artistic expression of the past. These are poems that not only embrace life but encourage us to do so too.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Workshops with a Whizz

In normal circumstances, not only would you have to travel to a festival such as Poetry in Aldeburgh or StAnza if you wished to attend a workshop run by the whizz that's Helena Nelson, but you'd also have to get in quickly once booking went live, as her sessions are invariably among the first to sell out.

However, lockdown, or partial lockdown, or the dismembering of lockdown by a caring father, does bring certain advantages, and one of them consists of Helena Nelson's forthcoming double-header of online workshops. The first (with the help of Annie Fisher) is titled Writing about Fear, and will surely develop fresh slants and approaches to our latent feelings about the current situation and beyond, while the second (with Charlotte Gann's assistance) uniquely concentrates on the art of writing reviews.

It's my firm belief that writing reviews is one of the best ways for a poet to improve. By doing so, we're forced to get to grips with our thoughts about other people's writing, implicitly reassessing our own work at the same time. Moreover, the juggling of prose to formulate opinion and argument can only help our use of language, prose feeding back into poetry. Of course, writing reviews is an intimidating task, which is why this workshop is such an excellent opportunity to throw off any nerves and take the plunge under the guidance of one of the best editors around.

Here are the details of these exciting workshops, including all the information you need to sign up for them while there are still places available...

Unlocked: Writing about Fear
Helena Nelson & Annie Fisher
Monday, 1 June: 10.30 am – 12.30 pm
Thursday, 4 June: 10.30 am – 12.30 pm
Duration: approximately two hours, with some optional follow up.
Cost: £25.00 (one place available free to those on low incomes)
Number of participants: 9 (this excludes the two presenters)

If you'd like to reserve a place, please email, with your preferred date. She will send you more information and explain how to pay.


OPOI REVIEWS: for new or low-confidence reviewers
Helena Nelson & Charlotte Gann
Wednesday, 10 June: 10.30 am – 12.30 pm
Duration: approximately 2 hours.
Cost: Free
Number of participants: 6 (this excludes presenters)
This is a fully participative workshop, in which we will

  • read and talk about poetry pamphlets and how an OPOI review is developed 
  • clarify the house style and principles of the OPOI reviews
  • share some experience of the editing process
  • encourage participants to write their own OPOI
Email for more information and/or to reserve your place.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Ama Bolton's poetry blog

Today brings another lovely discovery that I've made during lockdown: Ama Bolton's long-running and unique poetry blog, titled barleybooks, pages from an unbound book. It might be new to me in spite of having been started way back in 2012, but that simply means there's now even more enjoyment to be mined from its archive!

Ama's blog gives particular pleasure thanks to its exploration of the creative process (both as an individual and as part of a group), often linking visual elements to poems and vice versa. Somehow, as a reader in partial lockdown, I feel comforted and reassured by these displays of imagination at work. All in all, thoroughly recommended!

Monday, 11 May 2020

Another excellent offer

Back in 2015, when reviewing D.A. Prince's award-winning collection from HappenStance Press, Common Ground (click here to read the post in full), I stated that...

D.A. Prince is a specialist in the almost-unnoticed accumulation of emotional impact. Her work builds imperceptibly, detail on detail, gathering momentum line after line.

In other words, her poetry provides the reader with the chance to draw breath and have a proper think. As such, Common Ground is an ideal purchase for these strange times, especially now it's been discounted from 12 to 9 quid at the HappenStance webshop. What's more, while you're there, you could also browse exciting new pamphlets from the likes of Nancy Campbell and Annie Fisher.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Julie Mellor's poetry blog

It's always a joy to discover an excellent poetry blog, and all the more so during lockdown. That's why I was delighted to encounter Julie Mellor's site the other day.

I found it via her lovely review (see here) of Matthew Paul's top-notch collection, The Evening Entertainment, at which point I realised just how much other content there was to savour as well. I'd long known that Julie Mellor was a fine poet, but her blog had somehow slipped under my radar. It's time to put that right...!

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Our first walk

Over here in Spain, we've been in lockdown, or confinamiento, as we term it, since 15th March. The rules have been that nobody is allowed to leave their house unless it's to work, shop for essentials or go to the doctor. In other words, no exercise has been permitted outside the home.

These rules have been widely accepted, especially as cases have dropped significantly since their implementation. The good news is that as a consequence today we were able to go out to exercise for the first time. Of course, the rules are still far stricter than in the U.K., as we're not allowed, for instance, to drive anywhere to have a walk. Moreover, we're also limited to a certain time slot by age group (ours was 6-10 a.m. or 8-11 p.m.).

We decided to have our first walk in the vineyards that begin about two hundred yards beyond our house. It was exciting to see how much the vines have grown over the past six weeks. As you can see in the first photo below, bunches of grapes are now starting to form, new life and fresh hopes taking shape in spite of everything. As for the views over the rolling hills, deep blue skies set against clay soil, they're as gorgeous as ever. The proof is in the second photo...

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

No News: 90 poets reflect on a unique BBC newscast

I'm please to report that I have a poem in an excellent new anthology from Recent Work Press. Titled No News: 90 poets reflect on a unique BBC newscast, it features my work alongside pieces by the likes of Maura Dooley, Ian Duhig, Philip Gross, Glyn Maxwell, Ian McMillan, Helen Mort and Robert Pinsky, etc, etc. A brief description of the project reads as follows...

On 18 April, 1930, at 8.45pm, the BBC announced: ‘There is no news.’ Piano music played for the rest of the 15-minute bulletin.  
90 poets from across the world reflect on a this marker of a time before the 24-hour news cycle, before the ubiquity of news and information that seems to haunt us through our daily lives. Through this anthology there are poems that capture that moment of nothing but piano music making up an evening news bulletin, poems that contrast this with today’s news, and personal stories grounded in the intervening years.
Moreover, the publishers asked me to record my poem for their YouTube channel. You can now watch the video here...!

Friday, 24 April 2020

Tastes in wine, tastes in poetry

Wine snobs and geeks are forever turning their noses up at easy-drinking wines that shift millions of units at supermarkets, but I've always argued against this stance. My view is that almost everyone (except the offspring of millionaires and landed gentry!) starts off drinking such wines, often at parties. My own memories of Bulgarian Rizling (sic) are vivid but also extremely hazy!.

Most of us don't progress beyond these wines of course. We're happy to keep consuming them for the rest of our lives, and that choice is completely valid. Other people, however, use entry-level, generic brands as a stepping stone. Maybe they'll move on to wines that are made by famous names or maybe they'll end up browsing the shelves at their local independent wine merchants, ready to take a voyage of discovery.

I'm convinced there's an analogy here that can be applied to verse. Supermarket wine could be compared to easily-digested, go-to poems that are immensely popular at christenings, weddings and funerals, thus playing a pivotal role in many people's lives without creating a need for further exploration of the genre.

However, many readers then progress to renowned names, both in terms of poets and publishers. What's more, for more curious readers, an independent bookshop has loads in common with privately-run wine merchants, especially in terms of the profile of stock that they often keep, attracting customers who want to seek out exciting products from beyond the mainstream.

In other words, my experience in these two fields tells me that it's important to recognise the value of stuff we ourselves might no longer want to consume. Popular wine and poetry provide people with pleasure and enjoyment, while also encouraging them to explore further if they so wish. I'm not going to turn my nose up at that!

Monday, 20 April 2020

Poems with lives of their own

I've previously mentioned that a poet ceases to have any control over a poem once they publish it. From that point onwards, the poem has a life of its own and (with a bit of luck!) initiates a relationship with its readers.

In this context, I'm especially drawn to pieces that weren't among their creators' favourites. Once such example is Philip Larkin's The Mower. It's been shared widely on social media in recent times (for instance, when the well-known American poet, Ada Limón, put it on Twitter the other day, it got over a thousand likes and 200-odd retweets) mainly because of its famous ending, which resonates in the current circumstances...

"......The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time."

However, the poet himself apparently didn't rate it. In his biography of Larkin, Andrew Motion wrote...

"...Larkin realised The Mower was only a qualified success, worth publishing, but not worth presenting on a national stage. He let it appear in the Hull Literary Club magazine Humberside."

I can't quite imagine what Larkin might think of the poem appearing all over Twitter! And that, of course, is the crux of the matter: he's no longer in charge of people's taste, and a so-called qualified success is fast becoming one of his most renowned pieces.

Another such example, meanwhile, is the excellent Welsh poet Sheenagh Pugh. If you type her name into Google, you're immediately directed towards the following search term: "Sheenagh Pugh Sometimes". This refers to her most famous poem, which was also widely shared in the aftermath of the latest General Election results, though I've no idea why! ;-)

From observing her reactions on Twitter, Sheenagh is less than enamoured of her own poem these days, but she can't stop it cropping up all over the place and many readers associating her name with it, even though she's far prouder of many other poems (she's got a lot of top-notch work to be proud of!). Yet again, the poet can't stop her poem having a life of its own...!

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Lyrical Aye poems

I'm pleased to report that Richie McCaffery has posted a short sequence from my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, on his blog as part of his special feature for lockdown, Lyrical Aye Poems. You can read it by following this link. While you're there, I'd recommend a browse of the archive, which already includes excellent work by the likes of M.R. Peacocke, Matthew Paul and Chris Powici, etc, etc...

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Inner and outer worlds, Anthony Wilson's The Afterlife

I’ve long been an admirer of Anthony Wilson’s poetry, ever since I picked up a copy of his first collection, how far from here is home? (Stride, 1996) at a second-hand bookshop over a decade ago. I later discovered his excellent blog, of course, and his work as an editor, which has brought poetry and new poets into so many people’s lives, but it is his own creative output that always calls me back, invites me in once more and moves me afresh.

For this reason, I devoured his latest collection, The Afterlife (Worple Press, 2019), in one greedy session, before going back over it again and again. From his first collection onwards, Wilson has displayed a talent for re-energising everyday language, for using ordinary words to conjure something extraordinary. He does this by engaging with events via observations of the people who live through them, as in the following extract from Sitting With Your Body:

…and Tatty stroked
your shoulder as if comforting
a child who was poorly and hadn’t slept,
all the while watching your stillness,
finally you were still, as though present,
then we kissed your ice forehead
and found our coats and walked
across the common to eat with the others.

The emotional intensity of these lines develops in subtle ways, by the juxtaposition of contrasts such as movement and stillness, by the ambiguous double or triple meanings of certain pivotal words. For instance, Wilson implicitly hints at different interpretations of terms like sleep and presence, trusting his readers to forge their own connections and take off on their own journeys.

An ability to play with the multiple meanings of words is also present in the collection’s title, The Afterlife. Initial readings might offer up religious connotations of life after death. In fact, Wilson is referring to a second life that comes after having faced your own death, a second life in which everything has changed forever.

This theme runs through the collection and marks a step forward in the poet’s thematic concerns. In dealing with his second life, Wilson works to find reconciliation between his inner and outer worlds, as in the opening lines of There are Days…

There are days I lose to knowing
it has come back.

An ache in my back, a run of night sweats.
Then nothing.

I am me again, climbing out of bed
to make the tea…

Physical acts are here portrayed alongside emotional torment, routine seen as a necessary counterpoint to the loss of former certainties.

The Afterlife is far from being a depressing or morbid read. Instead, its poems celebrate life with greater intensity thanks to their acknowledgement of our frailty, encouraging us to seize our days too. I thoroughly recommend it.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

The tension of enjambment

If enjambment in syllabic or stressed metrical verse creates a tension by holding a key part of meaning over to be delivered in the following line, it's my understanding that this tension is heightened by the sudden disruption to any correlation between line length and semantic/syntactic units.

In that context, how does free verse deal with enjambment? I've noticed a number of well-known poets largely steering clear of it, turning each line into a semantic and syntactic chunk, only invoking it in clearcut cases. Meanwhile, others use it regularly, seeking to fragment and distort both meaning and expected sentence structures. This varyiing use of enjambment also seems tied in with contrary aesthetics and approaches.

One last question though...and, no, it isn't loaded, it's simply an attempt to shake off my own prejudices: how can enjambment in free verse ever generate as much tension as in metred verse if it lacks the additional tool of simultaneously breaking with form?

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Elizabeth Rimmer's BurnedThumb poetry blog

Through my recent dealings with the excellent Red Squirrel Press (my endorsement for David J Costello's collection, etc), my attention was drawn to Elizabeth Rimmer's poetry blog, BurnedThumb.

Apart from being a fine poet, Elizabeth also does some editing for Red Squirrel and is a lively presence on the poetry scene both via the web and in the flesh (when this virus permits!). Her BurnedThumb blog reflects her infectious enthusiasm and acquired knowledge, ranging from virtual launches with top.notch original poems to reviews of festivals and events. All in all, it's well worth a read and a follow!

Monday, 30 March 2020

David J. Costello's Heft

This is a tough, tough time for all of us. In that context, it's important to empathise with others such as publishers who've seen their distributors close down, festivals/readings cancel (where poetry is most often sold) and new books lose the impetus of launches. Of course, it also goes without saying that the poets in question are suffering too. They might well have been working away on a manuscript for years, only to find that publication turns into a damp squib.

One of those cases is David J. Costello and his first full collection, Heft, which has just been published by Red Squirrel Press. David had a whole host of launches and readings lined up, but he's seen all of them gradually disappear for the foreseeable future. I was fortunate enough to read a proof of his book prior to going to press, and here's the endorsement that I provided:

‘David Costello’s poetry is especially adept at evoking the passing of time. Throughout this collection, he portrays the ambiguities and ambivalences of relationships between the individual and the collective, the human and the natural, the historical and the present, moving his readers in every poem.’

Moreover, you can read three poems from Heft over at Elizabeth Rimmer's blog, BurnedThumb, where she generously held a virtual launch for the collection. If that then encourages you to get hold of a copy for yourself, you can do so via the Red Squirrel Press website here.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Dreich Magazine

The emergence of a new print-based poetry journal is always excellent news, so I was delighted to discover Dreich Magazine a couple of months ago, and I'm now even happier because they've just published three of my poems in Issue Two alongside several fine poets!

What's more, I've spotted that they're now open for subs to Issue Six if you fancy chancing your arm. You can find their website here, but further details about those submissions are on their Twitter feed here.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Singular and plural, Michael Brown's Where Grown Men Go

Michael Brown’s poetry is deft and skilled in its portrayal of male identity, specialising in vignettes that capture and transform moments and experiences. Even so, repeated readings of his first full collection, Where Grown Men Go (Salt Publishing, 2019), were required before I finally got to grips with the subtleties of his craft.

One striking example of this afore-mentioned craft is Brown’s use of pronouns. Several poems are written in the second person and others in the first-person plural. In fact, very few poets use the first-person plural as much as Brown. However, my favourite pieces from this collection are those that combine pronouns, play them off against each other and let them interact, often to powerful effect. Here are the opening and closing stanzas to two poems. Let’s start with The Social and Economic Consequences:

I found the place easily enough.
It was a Sunday and I was here to drink.
They were already six sheets in the wind…

…and we had not come to think of love
as any more or less than this: a space
where grown men go to find they’re lost.

And then let’s compare it with Minor Operation:

When I was four I nearly died.
My temperature sky-rocketed
fahrenheit degrees: 108,109…

…I don’t believe in fate, how routines of days
and weeks are fixed at birth. We all pretend
we don’t balance on that edge.

Of course, these extracts don’t do justice to the poems in question, as they miss out the central cores. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to quote them in this way so as to illustrate how the two pieces employ a similar technique, shifting from the first-person singular to the first-person plural, but in slightly different ways. The first one invokes a specific first person plural, referring to the people in this place, while the second expands that plural far more widely to include the reader.

A common purpose links Brown’s varied use of singular and plural pronouns in this collection. His intention is to take something specific and expand it out into the universal, inviting us in to his anecdotes, encouraging us to invest in them emotionally. Moreover, he’s posing constant questions as to the role of the individual and the collective both in the family (such as fathers and offspring) and in wider social contexts. As such his use of pronouns is pivotal to a deeper understanding of his work.

Michael Brown’s poetry might initially seem straightforward. Certain critics might dismiss it as facile or simplistic. In reality, the opposite is true, as Where Grown Men Go demands close attention before its layers begin to reveal themselves. I only hope potential readers give this collection the chance it so richly deserves.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

The individual and the collective, James W. Wood's Building a Kingdom

James W. Wood’s New and Selected Poems 1989-2019, titled Building a Kingdom (The High Window Press, 2019), is shot through with hard-earned awareness, as befits a book that’s been thirty years in the making.

This awareness is first expressed through Wood’s technical knowledge. It’s never flaunted but is always present in his formal rigour, in his control of line and stanza and his sure-footed musicality.

Moreover, the same awareness is a key, unifying, implicit theme throughout Building a Kingdom. It’s explored in several ways such as the changing role of the individual in family relationships. The following extract from The Parting portrays one such generational shift with aplomb:

…Looking down at the cobbled road
where I walk, do you see
what I saw when my father
rushed off to work thirty years ago?
You’ve learned to wave a wobbly hand

so I return the gesture just as
my father, past working, waved to me,
framed stern and proud in my window.
Later that same day, we walk together
up and down our carpeted corridor. You falter

and my arms fly out: have I caught you
the way I caught your grandfather
falling in the final days
before his death…?

These lines are remarkable in many ways, from the gorgeous stanza break of You falter/and my arms fly out to the unexpected but then inevitable leap that places a grandfather in the same role as a grandson.

And then there’s Wood’s capacity for placing the individual in a wider family history that consequently reaches out beyond the specific family in question. The opening lines to Dropping provide us with an excellent example:

I spark up my saw, pull down the mask. My people
been felling timber since 1860, every man
never living much past forty, when most

passed on to our Lord from disease…

This poem places the individual not only within the context of their people (sic) but also in the passing of time via a nod towards new technology in the face of traditions.

All of the above combines in Building a Kingdom with pieces that focus on other characters, again homing in on the role of the individual, playing it off against the collective, as in the closing lines of Self-Help…

…Then those last few hours every Sunday –
some more wine, a book, and her sat quietly
listening to the motorway’s distant song
that echoed through her, something lost and wronged.

In this extract, Wood invites the reader to contrast the individual protagonist’s isolation with the collective noise of cars from the motorway. At first glance, Self-Help might seem light years away from Dropping and The Parting in its thematic concerns. However, as indicated above, the opposite is true.

Building a Kingdom brings us a poet in full maturity with a coherent world view that he expresses in varied ways but always with artistic craft. Get hold of a copy and this book will provide you with many hours of reading pleasure and reflection: never has our personal role in society been so important.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Three poems on Wild Court

I feel privileged today to have three new poems on Wild Court. It is, in my subjective opinion, one of the best poetry journals on the internet. Moreover, I'm especially pleased because the editor, Rob Selby, has chosen to feature pieces that are representative of how my recent work is developing. You can read them by following this link.

Monday, 9 March 2020

A bridge between worlds

If I were flippant, I'd be suggesting that magazine editors should be bracing themselves for colossal numbers of virus-related poems heading for their inboxes over the next few months. The only advantage of this, of course, is that such an influx might at least make a change from the typical themes that follow a British winter: floods, storms, deluges and everything water-related.

However, if I were serious, I'd be mulling over the cancellation of Prowein, the major wine fair in Düsseldorf, thinking about my customers' fears for their businesses and their health when I visited them last week, worrying myself about the vulnerability of people who are close to me.

Either way, poetry is a constant, reassuring companion, a counterpoint to rolling newsfeeds and social media, a bridge between our outer and inner worlds, emotional sustenance in these disturbing times...

Friday, 14 February 2020

The sort of review that dreams are made of...

I feel very fortunate to have received some excellent reviews for The Knives of Villalejo, my first full collection, over the past two years, but Christopher James' recent piece takes the biscuit: it's the sort of review that dreams are made of.

Not only does he display a profound understanding of how my poems go about their business, but he also enables me to learn more about my own work, which is always a sign of an excellent reviewer. However, perhaps the most important point from a personal point of view is his highlighting of the layers and depths that can be found in my poems.

I can't quite bring myself to extract quotes from his extremely generous post, though you can read it for yourself by following this link to his blog...

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Special offers from a special press

HappenStance Press are one of my favourite poetry publishers. In fact, my shelves are full of their brilliant books, which is why I'd like to draw your attention to their current set of special offers.

As mentioned previously on this blog, I'm a firm believer that Tom Duddy deserves to be recognised as one of the best poets to have emerged since the turn of the century. If you haven't yet discovered his incredibly moving poetry, an excellent point of departure would be The Years, the posthumous collection that HappenStance brought out in 2014 and I reviewed on Rogue Strands at the time (see here). The Years is now on promotion at the HappenStance website, down from 12 to 9 pounds. Get your copy by following this link.

And then there's J.O. Morgan's In Casting Off. Morgan is a unique figure in contemporary verse in many respects, but perhaps most of all due to his breadth of ambition and his control of book-length narratives. In Casting Off is a rare achievement and is also available at 9 pounds instead of 12 at the HappenStance shop (click here!).

These are collections to savour, to go back to again and again, as my well-thumbed copies can testify. But there's an extra bonus to purchasing them now: by doing so, you'll be helping to fund HappenStance's next publications, ensuring we'll enjoy their new books for years to come!

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Grappling with love, Clare Best's Each Other

Titles sometimes fall flat or don’t quite represent the book that follows. However, the title of Clare Best second full collection, Each Other (Waterloo Press, 2019), certainly does so, as the poems are riven with duality.

First of all, the book is divided into two sections. Moon House evokes the dynamics in relationships between two people: wife and husband, daughter and mother, mother and son, son and father, grandson and grandfather, and in doing so it seems explicitly autobiographical. Each Other, however, appears far more fictionalised, portraying the evolution of an imagined couple.

Secondly, while the two sections might initially give the impression of being separate entities, the crux of this collection lies in their implicit dialogue. In order to get to grips with the terms of that conversation, it’s worth comparing their technical qualities.

Let’s start with Moon House. In this section, Clare Best captures and treasures moments. She’s explicitly personal, as in the ending to My father-in-law embraces my son:

…The love between you overwhelms the dream.
You both bristle with light,
I’ve never seen love as bright as this.

I must wake up and find my son, tell him
how much his grandfather loves him.
The love, the love. I will hurry now.

Love isn’t just invoked in these lines. Instead, it becomes a chant, being defined and redefined.

There are many instances throughout Moon House where Best, far from fearing this abstract noun, meets it head-on and wrestles with its potential connotations. As a consequence, Each Other (the collection’s second section) then comes as a shock.

In Each Other, most of the poems are driven by anecdote and observation. One excellent example can be found in the opening lines of What they depend on…

She believes in miracles, education, cotton sheets.
            He prefers wool socks, a tidy desk, blue cheese.
She swears by scent, candles, unexpected sex.
            He likes promises, weekends, knowing what’s next…

The casual reader might well be disconcerted by the juxtaposition of these two approaches in a single volume. Nevertheless, further inspection of the collection gradually reveals its cohesive nature. In fact, the poet’s skill is such that she is convincingly able to employ contrasting techniques and then let them play off each other (sic).

To explain this concluding statement, let’s go back to that afore-mentioned implicit dialogue between the two sections. Similarity and difference, definition and description, the abstract and the concrete, are all harnessed, inviting us to join Clare Best in her grappling with one specific term that also just happens to be this excellent book’s final word: love.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

A mouthwatering week for new collections

Looking back over my Twitter feed for this week, I'm struck by how much good news I've been able to share from poets that I admire, all revolving around their new collections. Just like buses, three of them are heading our way in near unison now that we've got the festive period out of the way.

The books in question are Robert Selby's first full collection, The Coming-Down Time, which is due this spring from Shoestring, Rory Waterman's third collection, Sweet Nothings, on its way soon from Carcanet, and Samuel Tongue's first full collection, Sacrifice Zones, launching in February from Red Squirrel. I very much look forward to featuring them on Rogue Strands in due course...!

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Making it big in poetry

Countless poets imagine on a daily or nightly basis (or both!) just what it would be like to make it big in poetry. They're convinced that they only need one major win or acceptance for their path to be cleared to stardom, for their arrival at some hidden inner sanctum to be declared.

In this context, let's imagine winning the Bridport, followed by the National Poetry Competition. How would it feel? How would life change? Would things be utterly transformed forever?

These aren't just questions to be thrown into a vacuum. They're issues that were faced head-on by Christopher James in an excellent post on his blog a couple of years ago (thanks to Mat Riches via Neil Elder for pointing me in its direction). You can read it here.

James has gone through the process of winning and has come out the other side. He tells his story beautifully, with self-awareness in spades and zero narcissism. Making it big in poetry is a fantasy that blurs our focus on the most important things: the reading and writing process itself, followed by a search for readers. Even if we just find one, we've discovered real success.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Turning tactile, Ramona Herdman's A warm and snouting thing

For my money, Ramona Herdman is one of the best poets on the U.K. scene at reading her own work. I was lucky enough to see her read from her most recent pamphlet, A Warm and Snouting Thing (Emma Press, 2019) in London recently, and I was most struck by how she paced each line, each word to perfection, accelerating and then slowing down, as in the ending to No Better Than She Should Be Red…

…the garden tapestried
with shock-sweet little nippled sherbet candies

vigorous  sprawling  decadent  shameless.

When seeing these lines on the page, I can physically feel Herdman lingering over those last four words, relishing the physical shape of their consonants and vowels, turning her poetry tactile.

Moreover, the above-mentioned poem is representative of much of the pamphlet in thematic terms. A Warm and Snouting Thing confronts and subverts traditional roles, especially when dealing with gender and sex, sometimes explicitly, as in Comeuppance…

…And I remember the sudden novelty
of making adult men feel something.

Of stealing some of their power. Making a ripple
in the world…

Moreover, this extract provides an excellent example of Herdman’s harnessing of sentence structure so as to play further with pace, with surprise and expectation. In this example, she allows a sentence to flow according to convention before slamming the brakes on, challenging both linguistic and social conventions.

At other times, meanwhile, Herdman’s technique is more implicit. She is adept at layering descriptions. In the following extract from Nudes, she juxtaposes them, allowing them to play off each other, inviting comparison and contrast:

…Summer-comfortable just in skin,
butter baby, unselfconscious, playing
in the stained glass shadows on the parquet…

Taken in the context of her previous (also excellent) pamphlet, Bottle (HappenStance Press, 2018) it’s clear that Ramona Herdman is building an outstanding body of work. Her challenge now would seem to be the development and publication of a new full collection that would enable her to reach a wider readership and surely gain the extra recognition that her poetry so richly deserves.

However, for the moment, let’s relish her most recent offering: A Warm and Snouting Thing invites you in, challenges your pre-conceptions and takes you on a sensorial journey in the space of thirty pages. What more do you want…?!

Friday, 3 January 2020

Don't live to write, write to live

Every now and then, when overdosing on momentary angst about a poem that I'm gestating, I find it's worth reminding myself of my own version of an old Spanish saying that we often repeat while at the office: no vivas para trabajar, trabaja para vivir...don't live to work, work to live.

From my perspective, a similar attitude to the blank page is extremely useful. Writing poetry makes me feel more alive and awake to experiences and feelings. In other words, as the title of this post indicates, my attitude is clear: don't live to write, write to live.