Sunday, 20 December 2020

An exceptional object poem by Christopher James

I have to admit I’m a fan of object poems, especially those that take a seemingly insignificant item and invest it with personal meaning. This process often involves a so-called “poetic leap” from the object to the experience.

In this respect, Christopher James’ recent object poem on And Other Poems (see here) is exceptional for several reasons. First of all, it doesn’t make one but several leaps, all of which are successful. And then the object in question convincingly comes to life. And then it gradually gives up further mysteries and details as the poem progresses.

Such a layering of elements is extremely difficult to achieve in an object poem, but the result is terrific depth and a delicious degree of nuance. Recommended reading that will lift you out of this grim, grim set of current circumstances...!

Thursday, 17 December 2020

My poetry books of the year

My poetry books of the year will lodge in my head. Every now and then, I’ll experience something that reminds me of one of their lines or poems, and I’ll reach for them, and then I’ll linger, and the book in question will lead a second life beyond the shelves in my study, being tasted every few days for a couple of months before returning to those shelves. And then the cycle will begin again.

What’s more, I won’t yet have read several of my poetry books of the year, as they’ll be slow-burners that a trusted friend will recommend or I’ll encounter on the shelves of a second hand bookshop, flick through a few pages and reach for my wallet.

And then there are my other poetry books of the year, the ones I thought weren’t much cop when I read them in 2020, but which will reach out and hit me/hug me/renew me if I’m lucky enough to be around in 2030.

These are my poetry books of the year. Sorry if yours isn't on the list.

Sunday, 13 December 2020

A lost year...?

Is 2020 a lost year? I’ve seen this mournful term on several occasions recently in the media and even being invoked by poets. However, I’m convinced it’s a misnomer and can only lead us down a dead end.

Of course, my above comment isn’t intended to trivialise the fact that countless people have lost everything in 2020, while it’s also clear we’ve all missed out on experiences this year. Nevertheless, one of the things that poetry teaches us is that time is never lost or wasted. 

Fallow periods in our poetry lives are necessary. Through our writing, we soon learn that the genre doesn’t require or even benefit from our spending eight hours a day sitting at a desk. In fact, it encourages us to live and let ideas percolate through our subconscious in the meantime.

Beyond our writing, it’s worth adopting a similar approach to our days, using the patience that poetry given us. As a consequence of having pressed the pause button these past few months, certain projects will have lost significance. Others, on the other hand, will have unexpectedly become crucial. Our priorities will have shifted and we’ll be in a better position to face the rest of our lives. In other words, however we view it, 2020 is in no shape or form a lost year.

Monday, 7 December 2020


I loathe the act of translating from one language to another. Where many find creativity, I only encounter the frustration of insurmountable challenges, especially when a word possesses two connotations in the original text and one or three (or two different ones) in the new one. What’s more, I know I’m not alone in this respect. One of the most popular posts on this blog, for instance, from 2009, is titled Traduttore, Tradittore or Translator, Traitor.

However, today’s thoughts aren’t concentrated on translation per se. Instead, the afore-mentioned problem is a point of departure for a questioning of our use of the word submission in poetry. If we look up any major dictionary, this term has two main meanings in English, as in the following example:


the action of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.


the action of presenting a proposal, application, or other document for consideration or judgement.

As a consequence, in English at least, I’m unable to imagine the second definition without a small part of my mind recalling the first one. The two are inextricably linked and cannot be separated because they co-exist.

Going back to my initial explanation of the nightmare of translation: this word cannot be considered if we don’t accept the sociolinguistic ramifications of both its potential meanings. These, by coincidence, don’t exist in Spanish in the same way (in which language there are actually other, subtly different connotations), so a translator either way could never transmit the full load of the word in question.

But let's cut to the chase: I’m always uncomfortable with the mention of a submission when referring to poetry journals and publishers. I’m personally incapable of shaking off the implication of being subjugated, of submitting myself to judgement, of yielding to a superior force or will, especially if it’s being invoked in the context of artistic creation.

Why can’t we just use contribution?

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

The Best U.K. Poetry Blogs of 2020

Poetry blogs have taken on special significance in 2020. As mentioned in my previous post on Rogue Strands, time might well have speeded up this year in many respects, but many people have also had that very same time weighing on their hands as a consequence of isolation, both in mental and physical terms.

In other words, poetry blogs have provided their readers with longer reads than social media posts, all alongside more substantial content. They offer us the chance to remember we’re not alone in the midst of this pandemic, together with the reassurance that there are other people whose experiences mirror ours.

This year’s list of The Best U.K. Poetry Blogs 2020 comes, as usual, with the caveat of being incomplete and subjective, but it also includes several newcomers, some of whom have been blogging for years but have only appeared on my limited radar this time around. Let’s start with them…

- Julie Mellor’s blog, chatty, intimate, yet wide-reaching and with an excellent eye for poetry.

- Ama Bolton’s barleybooks, creativity personified.

- Hilary Menos’ blog, intermittent posts but with thought-provoking content.

- Charlotte Gann's blog, a chronicle of her personal journey that implicitly reaches out to all of us.

- Elizabeth Rimmer’s Burned Thumb blog, packed with generosity, news, poems and a personal touch.

And now for the old-timers (sic)….

- Mat Riches’ Wear The Fox Hat, an idiosyncratic, insightful poetry blog...

- Matthew Paul’s blog, packed with wise and wry observations on poetry.

- Richie McCaffery’s The Lyrical Aye, a personal, sometimes ironic, sometimes acerbic view of the poetry world.

- Chris Edgoose’ Wood Bee Poet, in-depth poetry criticism.

- Sue Ibrahim’s My Natural World, what it says on the tin: a personal view of nature and life.

- Liz Lefroy’s I buy a new washer, so good it’s been turned into a book!

- Tim Love’s litrefs, a scientific yet hugely human view of poetry.

- Martyn Crucefix’s blog, critical rigour and thought-provoking views of contemporary poetry.

- Charles Boyle’s Sonofabook, still different, still dedicated to the genre.

- Abegail Morley’s Poetry Shed, original work from guest poets, plus reviews and news.

- Josephine Corcoran’s blog, a personal poetry journal that reaches out and touches on opportunities, events and news in the poetry world.

- John Foggin’s cobweb, honesty, human warmth and a love of poetry.

- Robin Houghton’s blog, generous, personal and warm. Just the ticket for a tough year like this.

- Clarissa Aykroyd’sThe Stone and the Star, different, curious, always exploring poetry, just like the person who writes it.

- Anthony Wilson’s blog, understandably riven with personal grief this year, but also heaving with life.  

- Emma Lee’s blog, a tireless promotor of poetry whose blog shines a light of countless aspects of the genre that deserve more attention.

- Sheenagh Pugh’s Good God! There’s writing on both sides of that paper! Reviews and views with an excellent critical eye.

- Matt Merritt’s Polyolbion, wise words on the poetry world and beyond.

- Caroline Gill’s blog, a personal poetry diary.

- Helena Nelson’s HappenStance Press blog, nuff said.

- Angela Topping’s blog, excellent written poetry blog, all in the context of the world around us.

- Roy Marshall’s blog, news and original poetry.

And that’s the end of the 2020 list, with a quick mention that I’d love to welcome the return next year of the likes of excellent bloggers such as Clare Best, Giles Turnbull, Katy Evans-Bush, John Field, Paul Stephenson and Maria Taylor.

Oh, and one annual reminder; as mentioned in previous years, I do know that grim feeling of reading through a list, coming to the end and realising you’re not there, so I can only apologise if I’ve missed you out. As one individual reader, I can’t keep up with everyone, and I’d be very grateful for any additional blogs that readers might like to add in the comments that follow this post…

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Time is speeding up

It seems to be a widely acknowledged fact that time has been speeding up over the last few years in current affairs and newsfeeds, especially in terms of how quickly one major story is replaced by another (often on puropose, so as to bury bad news quickly!).This effect has also been noticeable in the poetry world, meaning that every magazine issue, new collection or review has a shorter time in the sun.

However, the pandemic seems to have accelerated that process even more. Zoom launches pile up, one on top of another, while social media races ever more quickly onwards, spitting out promotional posts, mini-reviews and quotes as it goes. Attention spans appear to shrink on a daily basis; books sink without trace. 

In normal circumstances, a collection would still be very much alive six months after coming out. Right now, I've spotted several friends bemoaning the fact that their 2020 publications have already vanished from view.

In this context, it's important to pause, take a deep breath and keep subscribing to print-based journals with a greater time lag and thus a longer life, while also forcing ourselves to read more substantial texts online such as essays and blog reviews instead of scrolling through Twitter. Poets will thank us for doing so, while in purely selfish terms we won't miss out on stuff that would otherwise pass us by. Most of all, we might slow down and actually take the time to snaffle a poem properly, read it, re-read it and read it again...

Sunday, 22 November 2020

For us all, Hilary Menos' Human Tissue

There’s a strong argument that the most universal literature is actually rooted in specifics rather than in the evocation of abstracts. According to this theory, universality is found in an individual set of circumstances that’s portrayed with such skill and empathy as to ramify far beyond the limits of its immediate context, moving its readers, no matter whether they themselves have undergone such an experience. Hilary Menos’ new pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith-Doorstep, 2020) provides us with an excellent example of how to implement this idea.

As stated in the introduction by Hugo Williams (who has suffered from kidney disease himself), this pamphlet takes a family’s story as its point of departure. Menos’ son, who suffered from kidney failure, received a transplant, aged 17, of one of his mother’s kidneys. Two years later, the son had a rejection episode and the transplanted kidney had to be removed, thus meaning he had to go back on dialysis.

The aforementioned events are moving in themselves, of course, but would initially seem most of interest to other sufferers of kidney disease or to their family members. The poet’s skill lies in her ability to transcend those supposed limitations via implicit ruminations on faith, mortality, family and love, all anchored in this concrete narrative.

The nature of faith, for instance, is explored via the pagan figure of The Mud Man, a tree stump that lies at the bottom of the family’s garden and is invoked from the beginning of the pamphlet, as in these closing lines from the first poem:

…The Mud Man looks at me through struck flint eyes
and mirrors a requiem for you, for us all,
through broken slate teeth.

These words hint that more conventional religion has preceded The Mud Man in the narrator’s life, as invoked via the mention of a Christian-infused requiem, while also indicating to the reader that the forthcoming story isn’t just about the patient but about us all.

Love, expressed through familial relations, is consequently a pivotal theme throughout the book, as in the opening lines to Admission:

Lying on the hospital bed late at night
with the cannula in my arm starting to sting
and a bag shoving fluids into me at a rate
that tightens my wedding ring

I write a letter to you, at home with our son,
and bury it deep in my notebook
between special diets and test results and plans
where only you would look

just in case anything goes wrong…

This poem offers us a tremendous example of Hilary Menos’ gift for using physical, often everyday detail, layering it and accumulating its effect, so as to reach out towards a vision that reflects back on to its readers. It doesn’t just evoke the process of giving a kidney, but speaks to anyone who’s been alone, afraid, in hospital and missing their loved ones.  In other words, while we might not have gone through this specific experience, we are so moved by its poetic transformation that we are invited to ruminate on our own versions and visions of love.

Such a ravaging context, however, never leads Menos down the path of melodrama. Instead, it enables her to delve deeply into another of her concerns, one that runs through all her collections: the strained yet vital relationship between the human and natural worlds, If this theme was already present in the pamphlet’s first piece, it culminates in the closing lines to its final poem, Sloe Gin, as follows…

…Time matures the thing. At least, adds distance.
I sit at the kitchen table, trying to make sense

and pouring a shot of sweet liquor into a glass.
The filtered magenta, sharp and unctuous,

reminds me of sour plum, of undergrowth,
the scrub, the blackthorn and the hard path.

In this poem, perfectly cadenced metre is set against unsettling doubts, while the transformative quality of human hand is present via the liquor that has been created from fruit and undeniably changed. Nevertheless, it’s then undercut by the realisation that the darker side of nature can never be ignored and forms an inevitable part of our journey through life.

What’s more universal than the above thought?! And it’s achieved through the telling of everyday incidents! Hilary Menos’ pamphlet connects with readers, launching them into the poet’s life, then catapulting them into another fresh vision of their own world. This is the epitome of what poetry can grant us. Human Tissue is thoroughly recommended.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

A career (in poetry)...

This term always makes me wince when I see editors or poets invoking it. For me, it’s a misnomer and a contradiction in terms, even if placed in inverted commas. It hints at a structure, a ladder and an inner sanctum for poets to aim at, none of which actually exist, while also implicitly belittling anyone who doesn’t make their living from the genre, casting doubt on their commitment. However, more than anything, it seems to forget why we started writing poetry in the first place: vocation.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Review of Maria Taylor's Dressing for the Afterlife on Wild Court

As mentioned in my previous post, I've been working on an in-depth review of Maria Taylor's excellent second full collection, Dressing for the Afterlife (Nine Arches Press, 2020). It's now up at Wild Court (see here), and comparisons and contrasts with other reviews elsewhere of the same book make for interesting reading!

Monday, 2 November 2020

Outdated and irrelevant battlelines

I was struck the other day by the following comment in Alan Baker's review of Maria Taylor's second full collection, Dressing for the Afterlife, on Litter magazine (see full post here):

In terms of the poetics used, there seem to be two forces operating; one is pushing the poetry to be the standard poetry of the British mainstream variety; that is, first-person anecdote and  subjective observation and comment; and another pushing it towards something much more interesting, which is unpredictable, language-driven and exciting. Happily, it's the second of these forces which wins out, although the tension between the two is a fascinating feature of the collection.

This stance felt like a blast from the past, a reminder of the ridiculous, artificial battlelines that seemed rife in U.K. poetry a few years ago. In fact, I suddenly realised that I hadn't read such an outdated distinction between poetics for a long time. 

Perhaps this is because excellent contemporary poets such as Taylor have overcome or ignored these anachronistic supposed opposites. They know full well that poetry isn't a battle in which one aesthetic wins out over another due to its inherent superiority and greater interest. 

Instead, they're aware that poets possess a whole gamut of resources that they can blend and juxtapose, both within individual poems and also across collections. I'll stop here though, as I'd better keep my powder dry for my own forthcoming review of Maria Taylor's book...

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

My team

Our centre half floundered and our goalkeeper's palms turned to Telfon, Torquay United's fourth goal went in and I rocked in frustration yet again. As on umpteen previous occasions, my wife then went through the motions of turning round and asking me why I couldn't support a winning team instead of Aldershot Town. She knows full well that I could never stop supporting the Shots, that they're part of my identity.

And the same is true of poetry. If being a Real Madrid or Liverpool fan is far too easy for contrary people like me, so savouring isolated poetic achievements is made much sweeter by the countless defeats that necessarily surround them.

Sunday, 25 October 2020


I have to admit that I've never been a fan of directly Ekphrastic poems. They often seem to use the art in question as a prompt, and I'm afraid that prompts are complete anathema to me, even though I do understand and appreciate their important role for other poets..

That said, however, art feeds back into my poetry in many indirect ways. One fine example is Eric Ravilious' work. I deeply admire his juxtapositions of the natural world and man-made objects, timeless yet contemporary, close yet distant, and I try to replicate such feats in some of my poems. Of course, right now I'm missing his favoured landscapes of the South Downs, which means his emotional impact on me is greater than ever...!

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

To sink or swim...?

While the pandemic continues to rage with no sign of any light at the end of the tunnel (in supposedly libertarian societies at least, where a political obsession with the theory of individual freedom is ironically leading to its practical curtailment), as people and poets we mistakenly feel left with a stark, binary choice: to sink or swim.

In the early stages of this phenomenon, social media was buzzing with examples of surges in creativity, of creativity being put on hold, of extreme reactions to an extreme situation. However, everything seemed temporary and sudden, something we would soon be able to place in temporal brackets. As the weeks and months go by, so we're forced to come to terms with a long-term scenario, and our mindsets consequently change.

There's one analogy that I find useful on a personal level. When I first came to Spain as a student and language assistant, I loved it. There was always a clearly defined time period for my stays and I relished the counterpoint to my life in Britain. Nevertheless, once I made the decision to move out permanently, that buffer was removed and time yawned ahead of me, vast and disorientating. I took me several months to get to grips with the waves of homesickness that hit me.

And that's what we're dealing with now: a form of homesickness and longing for our previous lives, of not knowing when they might return. This process requires us to be patient, to reset our day-to-day routines and then by extension our reading and writing. It's not a question of sinking or swimming. It's a reconciliation with ourselves.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

A poem in The New European

I'm absolutely delighted to have A Poem for Europe in this week's issue of The New European...

Friday, 9 October 2020

Universality (on Louise Glück and the Nobel Prize)

I was pleased to hear that Louise Glück has won the Nobel Prize, as the championing of her work can only encourage non-readers of contemporary poetry to realise that the genre offers multiple interpretations beyond their preconceived expectations. However, I was struck by a quote from Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel committee, which read as follows:

Even if her autobiographical background is significant in her works, she is not to be regarded as a confessional poet. She seeks universality...

The above statement is unfortunate, to say the least. It perpetuates numerous fallacies. For a start, no poem can ever be fully defined as autobiographical or confessional, even if the poet in question were to claim such a status or label. This is because role playing always becomes a factor once the creative process is set in motion.

And then there's the absurd implication (beyond reference to Glück herself) that a poet is somehow barred from universal appeal if their poetry is also partly autobiographical or confessional in its point of departure. How many of the greats would that rule out? Such a claim would definitely cast aspersions over certain previous winners of the same award!

All in all, Glúck's win is excellent news, but its annoucement was couched in terms that could at the very least be interpreted as critical shortcuts. Her poetry and the genre in general both deserve a more nuanced understanding of the role of autobiography in any and every poem.

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

On the Creative Writing at Leicester blog

I'm the featured poet today on the Creative Writing at Leicester blog (see here). There's a sample poem (taken from The Knives of Villalejo) together with an introduction that gives an idea of its genesis and of my method in general. Thanks to Jonathan Taylor for the invitation!

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Larkin and women from a contemporary perspective

As a female herself, Nicola Healey is ideally placed to cast a critical eye over Sinéad Morrissey's reinterpretation of Philip Larkin's view of women, and she does so to excellent effect in her recent essay on Wild Court, which begins as follows:

In Sinéad Morrissey’s collection On Balance (2017), Morrissey selectively quotes from Larkin’s ‘Born Yesterday’ (1954) as the epigraph to her titular poem, ‘On Balance’. She decontextualises his lines, however, to bolster her poem’s feminist drive, distorting Larkin’s poem and misleading the reader from the outset...

Healey then goes on to address wider contemporary concerns about Larkin's stance, making pertinent points not only about recent bandwagons but also homing in on current unease, not just in Larkin's case, when considering pieces of art alongside the biography of the person who created them. She comes to the conclusion that...

...Larkin the man is not beyond reproach, but for the hard-won gifts he bequeathed to us, Larkin the poet deserves more than this.

However, rather than just  tasting these morsels, why don't you read the essay in full over at Wild Court (see here) and savour its nuanced flavours?

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

The looming shadow of the present, Robert Selby's The Coming-Down Time

When describing Robert Selby’s first full collection, The Coming-Down Time (Shoestring Press, 2020), there’s a danger that critics might reach for terms such as “traditional” or “nostalgic”, particularly as the poet evokes and invokes an England that’s about to undergo a seismic shift.

However, those afore-mentioned terms would do Selby’s work a disservice, as they would misinterpret his implicit contextualising of the past and the delicacy of his touch. Selby’s work rewards patient rereading: poems that might seem a pastiche or anachronism are in fact inviting the reader to engage in a dialogue with the present. In The Coming-Down Time, what’s left unsaid is often even more important that’s what actually stated, and the impatient reviewer can easily miss these nuances.

One such example is The Sycamore. A pertinent comparison would be between the opening lines to the first and final stanzas, which read as follows…

The black-faced smithy’s boy of Brig o’ Turk
propped his bicycle against the sycamore
before his final shift at the clanging hearth,
soon to head to war to escape the bore
of pouring coal into the firepot’s girth…

…Long since the blacksmith sold off the yard,
since war ended, resprouted, withered again,
and the Trossachs became a National Park,
the bicycle protrudes still, a man-made limb
mimicking new growth…

These two extracts clearly mark the passing of time, as individual and social histories are portrayed in parallel, while the natural and human world are also juxtaposed to fine effect. Nevertheless, the poem’s significance pivots around the moment at which its narrative stops. The Trossachs became a National Park in 2002, and Robert Selby is leaving unspoken all the changes that have taken place since then, inviting us to continue with his temporal journey, making it our own, implicitly encouraging us to carry on to the here and now.

In other words, contemporary England might be termed “the elephant in the room” in The Coming-Down Time. Selby is entirely aware of the looming shadow of the present throughout his collection and plays on the knowledge that readers will approach these poems via the lens of 2020 with its new conflicts, tensions and changes. 

It might be something of a cliché to state that we must understand the past in order to get to grips with the present and future, but that doesn’t make such an affirmation any less true. As a consequence, The Coming-Down Time is far from being behind the times. In fact, it could barely be more relevant.

Monday, 28 September 2020

A second poem in The Spectator...

 Just like that old cliché about buses, I've been waiting for years to have a poem in The Spectator and now two have come along in quick succession!

Here I am again in the 26/9 issue. And no, I still can't quite believe it...

Saturday, 19 September 2020

My poem in The Spectator

I'm chuffed beyond belief to report that I have a poem in this week's issue of The Spectator. Thanks to Mat Riches for getting hold of a copy on my behalf and for nudging an earlier draft of this piece in the right direction...

Thursday, 17 September 2020

The darkening hue of the years, Richie McCaffery's First Hare

Richie McCaffery is an unusual poet. To start with, his poems are immediately recognisable. And then there’s his commitment to his method. Instead of shedding a skin after every book, reinventing himself for the following collection, he chips away at his concerns. This quality shines through once more in his new pamphlet, First Hare (Mariscat Press, 2020), which builds on the foundations of his previous books, layering them with additional nuances in both aesthetic and thematic terms.

I’ve mentioned in the past that McCaffery is one of the best in the business when it comes to so-called poetic leaps. This device involves the invocation of an object, person or situation, followed by an unexpected, startling comparison with another object, person or situation. The comparison might at first seem incongruous, but poets of McCaffery’s skill render it inevitable and enlightening, thus capturing their reader.

One such instance in First Hare can be found in Lighthouse. This poem portrays a picture that’s hung on a bedroom wall in the first stanza; the second stanza introduces the figure of a sleeping partner; the third then brings both elements together as follows:

…It’s drawn in such a way
to imply that the onlooker
is deep in the eye of the storm.

Larkin might famously and disingenuously have disavowed the poet’s obligation to develop. However, McCaffery does so via deft steps forward in pieces such as Mac, which delivers a complex narrative with several character in eight lines. It’s one of those poems that doesn’t do itself justice via short extracts and it’s not fair to quote it in full in a blog review, so you’ll have to get hold of a copy of First Hare to appreciate the skill that’s brought to the table.

And then there’s also McCaffery’s thematic development. He’s always been excellent at delicate touches of wry whimsy, especially when bringing his poems to a close, but this new work finds him adding the extra tempering qualities of age, the darkening hue of the years that have gone by, as in the closing lines to Sports Days…

…On mandatory sports days I always took pride
in taking my time and if someone fell down,

bloodied their knee I’d stop to help them back up.
She’d be there, cheering me on as I came last.

One of McCaffery’s many achievements has been the gradual accumulation of a loyal readership for his poetry over the course of his earlier books. They won’t be disappointed by this fresh addition, but it’s also ideal for others who hadn’t previously discovered his lucid, clear-cut and thought-provoking work. First Hare will provide them with a perfect snapshot and introduction to his art.

Richie McCaffery speaks to us directly, with passion, with sincerity. He moves us in ways that should theoretically lie beyond the capacity of such accessible words. His poetry is essential reading.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Three poems in The High Window

I'm delighted to report that I have three poems in Issue 19 of The High Window alongside the likes of Diana Hendry, Sarah James, Myra Schneider and Richie McCaffery, etc, etc. You can explore their excellent poems by following this link. Many thanks to David Cooke for having published my work!

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Hilary Menos on metre

I was grateful to Mat Riches the other day for pointing me in the direction of Hilary Menos' blog. I've long admired her as a poet, but her blogging had previously passed under my radar. I very much recommend a leisurely browse through her archive of posts (see here), as it's littered with interesting pieces, a treasure trove of reading pleasure. And then, of course, if you haven't explored her poetry, I'd also suggest you do so: it's top-notch.

However, today's post here on Rogue Strands is specifically related to an extract from an interview transcript on her blog which caught my eye. It homes in on the relevance of metre, expressing a perspective that coincides with mine and is beautifully expressed. Here it is...

Good poetry is language that has been ‘tempered’; it has density and tensile strength. Meter provides a pattern or framework that allows for variations, for deviation and return. Without meter, verse risks becoming forgettable, lightweight, ephemeral and self-indulgent. As poets we need to ask why a particular poem takes a particular form. Some rules are trivial conventions and can be cast aside. Others are there for a reason and we abandon them at our peril. We do need forms that reflect our new understanding of language, new thinking about the world and our place in it. But certain poetic genres and forms have been around for centuries, and there are reasons why they have survived.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

The brutal truth...?

Over on Twitter, Magma (the renowned print-based poetry journal) have engaged positively in a debate about the cost of entering their pamphlet competition, which was 20 pounds. They've stated...

The brutal truth is that poetry magazines need competitions, grants etc to survive long term. Of course we'd rather sell more magazines...And we do have a reduced entry rate for our heroic band of subscribers who help to keep us going.

It's worth placing this quote in the context of a comment by Rob MacKenzie, the editor of Issue 79 of Magma, on a separate Twitter thread, in which he mentions the following 

For Magma 79, we have between 5000 to 6000 poems submitted...

In my view, the brutal truth is not the need for competitions and grants. Instead, it's the huge disparity between the number of poets who submit and those who subscribe to print-based magazines. If just 10% of the poets who submitted to Magma were to subscribe, the journal would surely be self-sustaining. The key question is why they don't do so.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

The National Poetry Library and the South Bank Centre

Regular readers of Rogue Strands might recall my post last September (see here) about the National Poetry Library's attempt to charge for membership, an attempt that failed on the back of petitioning from throughout the poetry scene.

Well, the situation has now worsened, not only with the temporary closure of the entire South Bank Centre due to Covid (which means no one could access the Poetry Library anyway) but also with the Centre's consequent aim to make mass redundancies and shift to a far more commercial model. The question at this point, of course, is how the change will affect the library in both the short and long term.

I'm not against the idea of seeking out new revenue streams for arts ventures and venues through the use of their premises, so long as that's combined with sensible public funding. However, this commercial process often seems to provide an excuse for ludicrous salaries in senior posts rather than making the most of those extra funds to generate high-quality, free artistic content for users who might otherwise be excluded.

Moreover, I do get extremely concerned when marketing people start producing word salads like the following quote from an excellent New Statesman article on the issue:

“When we talk about ‘start-up’ we mean a ‘mind-set approach’: being agile, adaptable to change, moving fast, risk-taking, innovating, constantly learning, changing the status quo, learning from failure, for example. We are not re-modelling operationally as a start-up.”

This is just empty fluff. Of course, everyone's aware that the South Bank Centre's income will have dropped hugely and will remain at a low level for the foreseeable future. Neverthless, the current crisis shouldn't be allowed to offer a perfect excuse for a permanent change in approach and the loss of one of the nation's key cultural assets. In this context, central government must step up to the plate for once.

We need the National Poetry Library, we need its excellent staff and we need free access to its unique collection. Once again, we're going to have to defend it...!

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Ten poetry trends in the pandemic

1)      If new online mags appeared regularly prior to lockdown, there’s now a veritable plethora, often created and curated by well-known poets/editors, and technically adroit. Will this be a watershed moment? How many of these outlets will stay the course? Does this daily bombardment of new work mean that poems disappear into a temporal vortex even more quickly than in the past?

2)      Zoom fatigue. When people were cooped up at home in full lockdown, Zoom readings and workshops immediately became popular. However, now lives are gradually opening up beyond the boundaries of the home, is a Zoom fatigue setting in?

3)      If everyone’s anxious, that means poets are probably more so! First and foremost, this seems to be expressed in their work itself, even if it’s not consciously Covid-related.

4)      And the same anxiety for poets is also reflected in an attitude to submissions that feels even more awkward than pre-Covid. Waiting for a reply to a sub is always tough, but it’s made easier if you’ve got a busy daily routine. If you’re furloughed or stuck at home, time weighs more heavily and those subs start to stress you out.

5)      Rejections consequently seem harder to take. People are more sensitised. Or is it simply that they have more time to express/act out these feelings on social media?

6)      And poets are thus subbing more and more of those new webzines (see point 1) with a quicker turnaround and a faster adrenaline hit from acceptances.

7)      Editors are being squeezed even more than normal, especially those who run print-based mags or book publishers. Not only do poets have more time to send them manuscripts, but they also have fewer opportunities to sell existing books. A large chunk of contemporary poetry is sold at readings and festivals, and online stuff can’t replace the ease and physical pleasure of handing over a tenner, having a chat with the poet in question and getting your new copy signed, all in one hit.

8)      Schedules. On the back of the above, publishers are desperately juggling schedules. It’s one thing to bring out a book in lockdown because you’d already committed to doing so. It’s another to print a new one four months later while most of your distribution channels are still out of action.

9)      Poets are having to become more inventive in their marketing ploys. Some are fun, some are annoying, others are plain barking, but they all make for interesting reading on social media.

10)  Weddings, funerals…and now pandemics! Poetry actually becomes a bit more relevant to the general public when there’s a major event in their lives. The key issue, of course, is whether this interest will be sustained in the long term…

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Might and maybe, Alan Buckley's Touched

Long-awaited has become a tacky term, its soul ripped out by marketing bods who desperately hunt a unique selling point for a poet, only to find it’s ubiquitous and emptied of any meaning. However, there are still certain moments when it really is valid. One such is the publication of Alan Buckley’s first full collection, Touched (HappenStance Press, 2020).

Buckley’s work is riven from experience, both of poetry and life. As a consequence, his verse eschews facile certainties, setting out its stall early on in this book, in the poem Life Lessons, which assumes the format of a Q&A:

…How do I live without being touched?
Your skin will be become stainless steel.

How do I learn to survive in a vacuum?
Don’t move. Don’t breathe. Don’t feel.

Of course, this poem’s significance is also signposted by its reference to the collection’s title. Moreover, its human questions, which are met by inhuman replies, implicitly encourage the protagonist and the reader to explore far more human routes. As such, these lines represent a statement of intent, the poet setting out on his quest.

In technical terms, meanwhile, what’s left unsaid is far more important than what’s actually stated. This requires a linguistic and thematic lightness of touch that in turn demands maturity. In other words, Buckley has left behind any need to prove himself via fireworks. Instead, he’s inviting us to accompany him on a journey of self-discovery through these poems, enabling us to reflect on our own lives in the process.

As mentioned above, the disappearance of certainty is pivotal to an understanding of Touched. Nuancing is present in each and every poem in the collection, and is often represented by the invocation of two key words: maybe and might. Here are several examples…

…Maybe, with patience,
both might be altered in some small way.
Or maybe we can’t be anything better than this…

(from Clocks)

“Maybe this is like that booth —
I’m Harry Dean Stanton and
you’re Nastassja Kinski….

…Or maybe I’m Natassja…

(from Confessional)

…Later, they might dress,
walk out for coffee at some café
down the road; or maybe not.

(from All That Matters)

“…Ordinary stuff, as if the years
to come were blank pages in a journal
that we might fill however we wanted…”

(from Things Can Only Get Better)

“…We part. I cycle down Cowley Road, mindful
of the oncoming buses as they swing out
to avoid the parked cars. It’s a glorious
July afternoon. Anything might happen.”

(from Cowley Road, 3.30 p.m.)

The last quote takes on added importance, as the action of the poem in question unfurls alongside the news of terrorist attacks in London. Buckley is unflinchingly portraying the best and worst of life, showing us how closely the two counterpoints co-exist, coming to the realisation that maturity and self-acceptance require our reconciliation with this fact.

Touched is a deeply moving collection, coherent and courageous in its poetic aesthetics and its attitude to human experience. Certainties are stripped of their facile attraction, while nuance is embraced throughout. Recommended! 

Friday, 17 July 2020

Metrics are all around us

Whenever I notice poets or readers getting themselves worked up about metre, I'm reminded that it's actually dead simple and is often made to seem difficult by terminology. In fact, it's present in all our lives, in every sentence we utter, and then is ramped up, as a certain Mr Matt Hancock might have it, in songs, advertising slogans and poems, etc, etc... At times, the creator of metrical lines is perfectly aware of what they're doing, but at others they're just following their ear.

To show what I mean, I'd now like to offer up a few examples from a wide gamut of sources in order to demonstrate how metre reaches every crevice of language. We can easily get to grips with it if we just relax and listen...

Tell me what you want,
what you really, really want...had the Spice Girls serving up two lines of trochees.

All my troubles seemed so far away,
now it looks as if they're here to stay...saw The Beatles working in a similar vein.

Old McDonald had a farm
and on that farm he had a also a series of trochees (followed by iambs), which is why any translation into Spanish sounds so wonky.

There were three in the bed
and the little one another nursery rhyme, but this time it's using anapests.

All the world's a stage
and all the men and women merely players... might be a classical example of trocheees and iambs...

They f*** you up, you Mum and Dad...on the other hand, was still using a similar beat in the 20th Century.

Let your fingers do the walking was an advertising slogan made up of trochees.

Totally tropical taste was another one that used dactyls.

These are just a few examples of the many that are around us. What are your favourite instances of metre being used in our everyday lives...?

Sunday, 12 July 2020

A signed copy of The Knives of Villalejo

I've finally managed to get a certain part of my anatomy in gear and set up a Paypal button on the sidebar to Rogue Strands (only visible on the desktop version, but it's a start!). This means that I can now offer you the chance to purchase a signed copy of my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, directly from me for 10 quid with free delivery. Perfect summer reading with a glass of Tempranillo, even if I say so myself!

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.