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...