Absolutely delighted to have a poem in the new issue of Acumen, the first to be edited by Danielle Hope...
Tuesday, 21 September 2021
Monday, 13 September 2021
Within the constraints of the format of a blog, it’s difficult to do justice to the complex simplicity of M.R. Peacocke’s poetry. As a consequence, rather than offering up a condensed review of her excellent new collection, The Long Habit of Living (HappenStance Press, 2021), today’s post attempts an in-depth analysis of an individual poem from the book in question. Peacocke’s work very much lends itself to such close attention, rewarding the peeling-off of her delicately applied layers of potential sense.
The poem in question, titled ‘The Path through the Wood’, feels especially significant because it comes to represent something of an Ars Poetica and, by extension, a vision of life itself. The opening lines of ‘The Path through the Wood’ immediately set out the co-existence of opposites. This is achieved via their juxtaposition:
Through the little gate. A breath in,
a breath out
measured the interim between is and is not…
‘In’ and ‘out’, ‘is’ and ‘is not’: both these opposites are interconnected by inhabiting the ends of consecutive lines. And then there’s the use of the word interim instead of interval, which might at first glance seem more natural. Peacocke’s choice underlines the provisional rather than the inevitable, the relative rather than the absolute.
As the narrator of the poem progresses through the wood, so conventional vision has to be put to one side:
…One sense became another: sigh of an
taste of the darkness, fragrance of touch. My eyes found rest…
In other words, the absence of sight means that other senses have to work overtime. The consequence is transcendence via unexpected perspectives and sensations. Is the poet referring to a fresh understanding of the world around us or to a creative process whereby experience and anecdote are turned into poetry? Or to both?
The poem’s last stanza, meanwhile, not only draws these strands together but also opens out beyond the poem itself:
…The self that walked through the wood
knew more than I,
till all that had led me, left me as I stepped out —
part with relief, part with regret — into fields of stars.
The first line invokes the sense of transcendence that ran through the previous stanza, but Peacocke eschews any Wordsworthian exaltation of the natural world. Instead, she uses the poem’s closing lines to relativise the narrator’s experience: led becomes left, while relief blends with regret.
And then, of course, she plants a deliciously ambiguous final image in our heads. Romantic? Stark? Or both once again? That interpretation can only depend on the beholder and the reader. Clarity riven through with nuance: M.R. Peacocke’s Ars Poetica and outlook on life.
Sunday, 5 September 2021
This is just a quick post to point you in the direction of a couple of pieces I've had published over the past few days. On the one hand, the Poem of the Week at the Mary Evans Picture Library is Home Comforts from The Knives of Villalejo, my first full collection. You can read it here. On the other hand, meanwhile, my OPOI review of Liz Lefroy's new pamphlet, Great Master/small boy (Fair Acre Press, 2021) is up at Sphinx (see here)...
Monday, 23 August 2021
I'm delighted to report that my poem Scroll Down is up at Ben Banyard's blog as part of his "Finest" series. This poem was first published in Strix, but is now making its online debut.
You can read it via this link. Moreover, while you're there, you can explore an extensive, top-notch back catalogue of his choices...
Friday, 20 August 2021
If I were asked to name one signature theme or image for U.K. poetry over the past twenty years, it would be water. British English has so many words for different types of rain and for the movement of liquid, and numerous poets seem to reflect those riches in their work.
Am I right...? If so, why? Is such close attention to water a consequence of the U.K.'s climate? And does climate have a deeper connection not just to our everyday experiences but to our poetic lives...?
Thursday, 5 August 2021
It's always a joy to discover high-quality poetry blogs, so I was delighted to find Jeremy Wikeley's The Left Margin last week. Moreover, it might be new to me, but there's an extensive archive of posts, which means prolonged reading pleasure while I catch up. My personal favourites are probably his pieces on Philip Larkin and Louis MacNeice. Why don't you have a look for yourself by following this link...?
Wednesday, 28 July 2021
On many occasions, the whole set of connotations of a word in one language simply cannot be conveyed in another. One such example would be the statement Espero in Spanish. In English, this could be translated in several ways, but the three main options would be as follows:
1) I wait
2) I expect
3) I hope
The translator firstly finds themselves forced to interpret which version the original writer might have intended to communicate, as all three cannot be succinctly retained in English. Secondly, meanwhile, they're consequently obliged to remove any ambiguity that the original might (or might not) have sought to play on among those three potential meanings. And thirdly, the verb esperar is loaded with the same three etymological, social and emotional connotations that cannot be conveyed in English by a single word.
In other words, for instance, when a Spaniard expects something, they're linguistically aware that they're also hoping and waiting for it. An English speaker is not. No matter how we dress up a translator's syntactic and semantic dance, how can such tensions ever be resolved to any degree of satisfaction, how can the same ambiguities and multiplicities of meaning be preserved?
Thursday, 22 July 2021
I've long avoided translating poetry from Spanish, despite multiple requests over the years, because I'm convinced there's a tipping point for certain linguists, including myself, after which their growing awareness of the layers and depths of nuance in the original language disarms them as translators.
What do I mean by this statement? Well, thanks to Carmine Starnino's Facebook feed, I encountered Katia Grubisic's excellent new essay in The Walrus (see here to read it in full) about this very subject, including the following extract that expresses my stance perfectly:
"Literary translation...is a pack of lies. Every word compensates, approximates; every sentence omits far more than it includes. Choice is begrudging; while the chooser wrangles every possible permutation and absence, the reader trots around in the target language, blissfully oblivious to what is missing, what’s been cut, inserted, made up, woven in..."
Of course, you're within your rights to challenge me as to what the alternative might be, because translations, however imperfect, are the only way for us to access any poetry that's been written in a language we can't speak. And my reply would be to recognise that you're right, but also simply to ask for your understanding as to why I can't take on any translations myself.
Sunday, 18 July 2021
When encountering yet another post on social media from a poetry journal who've been inundated with over a thousand poems in their latest submissions window, my first reaction is inevitably to reflect on the long-standing feeling that everyone seems to want to be published in magazines that they don't support via subscriptions or even one-off purchases. Of course, the most common and (to a certain extent) justified kick-back is cost: it's impossible for poets to buy copies of all the journals where they submit.
However, on this occasion, my thought processes went a step further: the majority of the most outstanding poets in the U.K. are barely shifting 200 copies of their well-reviewed collections. In many cases, these books were published by excellent outfits that boast decent distribution networks. In other words, if we look beyond the thorny question of the circulation of poetry journals, what about the absurdly low sales of collections and pamphlets?
And a final doubt: leaving aside the colossal elephant in the room ( i.e. how to find readers who aren't poets), do poets themselves read enough poetry, especially work that's outside the comfort zone of what their workshop leaders show them or what's shared by their friends on social media...?
Friday, 9 July 2021
No ifs, not buts, Michael Laskey is a major poet.
My essay on The Friday Poem today looks at the reasons why his work deserves far greater recognition. You can read it in full by following this link, but here's a small taster to tempt you in...
Sometimes the best poets creep up on us when we least expect them to do so. Sometimes we first skim-read them in disappointment before later encountering them at a moment in our lives when they speak to us like nobody else ever has. Sometimes such poets make an imperceptible, gradual impact on our emotional lives until we suddenly realise they’ll now accompany us for the rest of our days. Michael Laskey is one such poet...
Wednesday, 30 June 2021
Monday, 28 June 2021
On a first skim through Meg Cox’s first full collection, A Square of Sunlight (Smith-Doorstep, 2021), it’s inevitable and natural that most eyes should focus on her exceptional rhyming poems. These poetic earworms combine wit and musicality, and lodge in the reader’s mind with ease, as in the ending to ‘The Third Person in the Marriage’:
…You said we were finished. But that
can’t be true –
it can’t be too late for us – I really love you.
And what has she got, that woman, I’ve not?
Just his kids, a house, my lover. The lot.
These poems will probably become her signature pieces. Not only are they eminently quotable, but a certain unexpected inevitability to their cadences and structures runs through them via her imperceptible heightening of the natural flow of language.
However, it would be a crass mistake for readers and critics to pigeonhole Meg Cox’s work, as this collection offers evidence of a more wide-ranging talent. Cox is capable of adopting and adapting a variety of poetic techniques while binding them together via a cohesive approach to both writing and life.
One such example is the following extract from ‘Cowlick’:
thoroughly and roughly,
and the calf’s head is turned
to one side, reluctant but compliant
and I recognise my mother
washing my ears and behind my ears
and my head turned at just that angle
with a flannel as coarse as a cow’s tongue.
An initial comparison with ‘The Third Person in the Marriage’ might reveal superficial differences in technique in terms of rhyme and metrics, while this second poem also showcases a delicious poetic leap from the cow to the human that’s then capped off by a terrific simile. Nevertheless, both poems share qualities. These include turns of phrase that startle but then feel just right, alongside acute observation of the dynamics of relationships.
The poems in this book are brave. There’s a co-existence of a huge zest for life with an awareness of the ageing process to such an extent that it’s impossible to read the collection without being infected with an urge to make the most of life. And then there’s Cox’s embracing and subverting of poetic influences to layer them with her own idiosyncrasies, as in ‘Marmalade’…
There’s a pot of your dark orange
marmalade in my cupboard,
still unopened. It lasts a long time but I might never open it now.
The last time you gave me some jars I asked how much
you’d made and you said enough to see us out…
This poem doesn’t hide from its connection with Larkin’s ‘An April Sunday brings the snow’. Instead, it takes his male, filial perspective and filters it through an intensely female view of friendship.
In other words, Meg Cox’s poetry is a joy. Whether savoured in sips or gulped down in one, A Square of Sunlight is an excellent read. As mentioned above, it will probably lodge in people’s minds thanks to its excellent rhyming pieces. However, the collection’s greatest value perhaps lies in Cox’s diction. It’s claimed that the best radio presenters manage to speak as if addressing a single person, striking up a conversation, making the addressee feel special and unique, as if the presenter in question is talking only to them. Few poets achieve such an effect, but Meg Cox does so. Get hold of her book and let her talk to you too…
Friday, 11 June 2021
I'm absolutely delighted to report that my poem, Las Cigüeñas, is The Friday Poem today (you can read it by following this link). Very grateful to the editor, Hilary Menos, for the chance to take part in this exciting new project.
Moreover, you might be interested to note that their submissions are now open if you'd like to see your poem in due course where mine appears today...!
Wednesday, 9 June 2021
A Postcard To (Red Squirrel Press, 2021) is an unusual collection for many reasons. To start with, there are the obvious ones, such as the fact that it’s co-authored by two poets – John Greening and Stuart Henson – as the book is comprised of their sonnets initially written on postcards to each other over the past twenty-five years. And then there’s the innovative format: pages are turned horizontal to imitate those afore-mentioned postcards. The consequent, ingenious marriage of formats is surprising and pleasing to the mind and eye.
However, A Postcard To is also unusual in more subtle ways. First off, its focus on personal, social and literary history is acute. Even the format itself – the postcards in question – is an artefact that’s rooted in the 20th Century, halfway between letters and WhatsApps. In this context, the poets not only show awareness of epistolatory traditions, but they also choose an ideal length of poem for their postcards, 14 lines lines just squeezing on to the available surface.
In terms of contents, meanwhile, that afore-mentioned consciousness of the individual’s place in history becomes clear once more. If these postcards are written while the poets are on trips, they inevitably coincide with counterpoints to their everyday experiences. As such, of course, they serve as celebrations of the act of travel, and feel even more significant during this pandemic that inhibits our movements so much. One such example can be found in the closing lines to Stuart Henson’s ‘Cranes Above Florence’:
…So they’re always here, turning
like mobiles, toiling to haul up
the perfect skyline – and spoiling it.
This poem is packed with contrasts that coexist and rub against each other: modernity and tradition, stasis and change, ideals and practicalities, all via the observation of a city that’s heaving with wider historical connotations.
Literary figures from the past play important roles throughout A Postcard To. The poets encounter places on their travels that are connected to dead writers, and consequent, implicit dialogues ensue, such as Henson’s thoughts on Hardy when he visits Dorset and Greening on Browning in Venice, as in the following extract…
…Fame throws its rope towards the
and misses, falls into the bluey green
oblivion of the Grand Canal, as Robert Browning
departs and leaves his dry son drowning.
Tensions run through this poem, from the missed rope of fame that has ramifications for creators of any genre at any point in history, through to Browning’s success in comparison to his son, all followed by the deeply personal clash of the final three words, homing in on the strains of a paternal relationship.
What turns A Postcard To into a unified collection is the implicit dialogue that’s struck up between the two poets through their shared concerns. The past is portrayed via the personal and the public, both Greening and Henson always very much aware of their individual places in the broader expanse of the passing of time. The reader, of course, is left to wonder how these traditions will be absorbed by the present and the future.
Greening and Henson know that postcards might fall out of fashion, but the need to tell people about our trips, to bounce places off each other, to compare our own stories with those we encounter, is eternal and inherent to the human condition. As such, this collection might seem locked in to specific times and places, but it actually holds the key to opening our minds to universal issues. Just like travel itself.
Wednesday, 2 June 2021
I've blogged previous about the relative virtues of drafting with a pen, a pencil or a keyboard (see here), so I won't be going over that old ground again today. Suffice to say I prefer a pen, as it enables me to follow the trail back to my first draft via crossings-out, red herrings, dead ends and stuff that seemed useless but becomes pivotal and requires salvaging.
No, today's post takes as its point of departure the fact that many younger generations always write poetry via a keyboard and a screen. Their typing is far more rapid than my two-fingered efforts, and a fair chunk of them don't even own a printer. This last point means that they read through their drafts on a monitor rather than on a piece of paper, of course.
The key issue is whether the above-mentioned shift in writing habits is affecting the way their poetry is functioning. There seem to be two major questions. The first is whether speed of writing encourages lines to be longer, freer, less tense. The pen weighs up every letter before committing it to the notebook, but the keyboard rushes onwards.
The second matter for debate, meanwhile, is whether trends in line endings are also altering. The argument might be that moving a line ending with a pen involves writing the poem or at least the stanza out again (and again). It entails meditated probing as to whether an experiment functions. However, on a screen, the return key encourages the poet to play around with line endings at will, changing and then changing back in a few seconds flat, spotting immediately how semantics and syntax might interact with expected and unexpected line endings.
In other words, my suggestion is that if there's a generalised evolution towards longer lines and more unexpected line endings among younger poets, it might not just be because of their aesthetic tastes but because the actual means by which they write are also different. And this is before even starting to consider poems that might have been drafted on phones...!
Monday, 24 May 2021
Further to my post last week about certain poetry readings in London, I thought it was only fair to focus today on regular events that are held all over the country (having mentioned them in passing as a point of comparison and/or contrast with London).
I myself have been a guest poet at regular events in Leicester, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Manchester, Huddersfield, Edinburgh, Chichester, Portsmouth, Cambridge, Coventry, Oxford, Shrewsbury, Bradford on Avon, Reading, Lewes and Birmingham, so I’m speaking from personal experience when I state that these events are all idiosyncratic and play an important role in many people’s lives, reaching far beyond the stereotypes of open mics, etc.
First off, there’s invariably a dedicated individual or team who volunteer to run things, often without any funding whatsoever (the irony, of course, is that this is where poetry really flourishes and makes a contribution to society). Secondly, there are the regular attendees, some of whom even arrive from outlying towns and villages, coming together for the reading in question. And that’s before considering their personal circumstances: on several occasions, a member of the audience has told me that poetry events provided their main (or even only) source of social interaction.
In other words, this post is a celebration of regular poetry events all over the country, though it’s also a lament, as their temporary shift online provides yet another example of the huge damage that the pandemic has inflicted on many people who already suffered great loneliness. And then, finally, it’s an expression of hope, that poetry can still form communities, even maintain them via the internet, and emerge into a post-pandemic era where we’ll be able to gather above a pub or in a village hall, and listen to each other’s poems once more.
Wednesday, 19 May 2021
I've long been troubled by the huge gulf between the poetry world in London and the poetry world in the rest of England, and Toby Litt's review in the Guardian of Sam Rivere's novel, titled Dead Souls (see here), has brought my thoughts into focus.
On the one hand, not having read the novel itself, I can't judge its contents, but I can suggest that the most troubling aspect of this review is its false equivalence between the "the small world of English poetry" and the London scene. In other words, there's a huge world of English poetry beyond the capital's elite. It's thriving and vibrant, anything but "monstrous".
On the other hand, having given numerous readings in London and in other locations, I've observed certain important differences in the audiences, dynamics and interval chit-chat, etc. Of course, these interpretations are subjective and partial, as I'm fully aware that exceptions do exist. However, here goes...
1) Far fewer books are sold by poets at readings in London than elsewhere. Of course, there are more events in the capital and money can only reach so far, but this is still indicative of a certain attitude.
2) There are undoubtedly groups of fawning acolytes around certain poets and editors at London events that are a lot less common in other towns and cities.
3) In London audiences, there's invariably a proportion of people who seem uninterested in the readings themselves, only coming alive at the interval and during post-reading drinks, when they grab the opportunity to network.
Monday, 17 May 2021
As a reader, I'm especially keen on poets who show a knack for trapping and then heightening the natural ebbs and flows of language. Of course, many don't even want to. However, their forced and artificial turns of phrase tend to leave me cold despite their popularity with certain editors and judges. I seek an apparent simplicity in a poem, accompanied by an almost imperceptible tightening of its cadences and layering of its potential ramifications. This is difficult to achieve and notoriously undervalued, but it moves me far more than linguistic fireworks that don't earn their corn.
In the above context, I was especially drawn to Ruth Beddow's two poems on Wild Court last week (you can read them yourself via this link). Their connection to experience is clear, while their capacity to reach way beyond mere anecdote is also startling. In other words, I thoroughly recommend them and I'll be keeping an eye out for more work from this excellent poet whose name is new to me. Yet another example of the role of a fine editorial eye at a poetry journal: spotting talent and bringing it to readers...
Monday, 10 May 2021
I finished Uni in June 1995 and decided to move to Spain, where I intended to live, work and write. A few months later, I came back to Farnham for Christmas and made the first of what would be many day trips up to London to the National Poetry Library (every time I visited from Spain!), where I'd browse their collection of poetry mags, making notes on those that might be worth a subscription and/or a submission. In those days, that was the only way for me to keep abreast of developments!
On my afore-mentioned first trip up, I also stopped at the bookshop on the ground floor of the South Bank Centre and bought as many poetry journals as I could. Chief among them was this one...
It's the Winter 1995 issue of Stand magazine, edited (of course) by the legendary Jon Silkin and featuring the likes of R.S. Thomas and Harry Smart, who passed away only last month. I must have read it dozens of times and it still inhabits my bookshelf!
In other words, Stand has been a constant presence throughout my poetry life. As a consequence, the news that the current editorial team (John Whale et al) had accepted three of my poems for publication was especially significant. I'm delighted to report that they've been included in the new issue (Nº229,19.1) alongside work by the likes of Zaffar Kunial and Alison Brackenbury, etc, etc.
I very much look forward to getting hold of my contributor's copy whenever I finally make it back to the U.K., just as I also yearn to visit the National Poetry Library once more...
Tuesday, 4 May 2021
Richie McCaffery has very kindly sent me a copy of his new pamphlet, titled Coping Stones (Fras Publication, 2021). Being a one-man band, I try to spread my work as widely as possible in order to optimise the number of poets that I feature, so I won't be reviewing Coping Stones as such. This is because I wrote in depth about Richie's previous pamphlet, First Hare, here on Rogue Strands just eight months ago (see here). However, suffice to say, it carries all the hallmarks of his poetry: terrific poetic leaps that open up new avenues of thought to the reader, along with enlightening explorations of how objects interact with our inner lives.
Moreover, you can read two excellent reviews of Coping Stones (by D.A. Prince and Vic Pickup) over at Sphinx Reviews (via this link). I very much recommend both pieces, as they give distinct flavours of this excellent pamphlet. A warning though: you'll inevitably end up getting hold of a copy for yourself!
Wednesday, 28 April 2021
I'm pleased to report that I have a new essay up at Wild Court, titled Larkin Stateside: implicit dialogues between the poetries of Joshua Mehigan and Philip Larkin. You can read it in full by following this link, but here's a taster...
...As so often in the past, transatlantic poetic exchanges enrich both cultures, the differences highlighting just how much we have in common and to how great an extent our non-literary prejudices colour our enjoyment and judgement of exceptional poems...
Monday, 19 April 2021
Anecdotal Poetry. What does this term mean to you? In my experience, it's often invoked disparagingly and dismissively by certain critics, reviewers and editors to describe work that seems to take a rooted place or experience as a point of departure. It's used to imply the poems under scrutiny are somehow lacking in imagination and of less consequent artistic value than pieces that have been written via other approaches.
In fact, this perspective isn't just a slight on the poetry in question, but also a misinterpretation of the very essence of the genre's transformational powers. In summary, it encapsulates a wilful confusion of the nature of poetic truth, as if such poems were a simple relaying and portrayal of fact.
What term might be used in its place? Realist Poetry is useless, as it also imposes similar pigeonholing limits that are equally and intrinsically absurd. For example, surrealism is simmering away just under the surface in any decent so-called realist poem. On second thoughts, I'll leave this last question to people who are obliged to answer it by academic demands and constraints...
Friday, 16 April 2021
I'm pleased to report that I've got a new poem up today over at One Hand Clapping alongside excellent work by the likes of Julia Copus, Samuel Tongue and Mat Riches, etc, etc. You can read it by following this link.
Wednesday, 7 April 2021
Brian Johnstone’s new collection, The Marks on the Map (Arc Publications, 2021), takes those afore-mentioned maps as a point of departure, observing their landmarks and the consequent parallels that can be drawn with our lives, particularly with the ageing process.
One excellent example can be found in ‘Outfield’, which evokes the development of an Ordnance Survey map…
…A slow collapse
to dereliction – flagged as ‘ruin’ there,
in brackets, on the map – then nothing
on the later OS sheets…
The poem comes alive via Johnstone’s deft description of the human changes that mirror the building’s decline:
clear of habitation, bar the farmhouse
standing empty, your father
gone, bedded in a care home,
blind; the light I saw each evening
switched off, disconnected at the mains.
In the above piece, Johnstone draws mainly on implicit comparisons that can be made between the building and the people around it. However, in other poems, he portrays the contrasts, as in ‘Primrose’, which also begins with a reference to the Ordnance Survey before homing in (sic) on the specific connotations and ramifications of a landmark on the speaker’s own life:
...New housed ourselves, and wed the year
we wondered what the place had left to share,
what archaeology of home we might obtain.
Some floor tiles, red and heavy fired
clay, we left
an age ago in a cottage long moved on from,
and this small plaque still with us here today.
A finger plate, it holds the touch of
the shepherd it depicts guiding them like flocks
to lower pastures for the coming autumn days.
This extract contains a pivotal, beautiful turn of phrase, the archaeology of home, that very much encapsulates the drive behind The Marks on the Map. Moreover, Johnstone’s tracing of the gradual loss of the souvenirs plays a pivotal role in pitching his own ageing process against that of the building. Of course, the evocation of autumn in the last line invites connection with the four seasons of life, human beings, nature and buildings all coming together. There’s no instruction to the reader, just juxtapositions that allow implicit connections to be made.
Brian Johnstone’s interpretation of the role of maps, landmarks and buildings in our lives is not only skilled and infused with experience, but it also provides a personal perspective that encourages us to view those roles afresh, leaving us to ponder the marks on our own maps. It might be time to stow our Sat Nav and dig out those old Ordnance Surveys once more.
Tuesday, 30 March 2021
When I was chatting to my friend Mat Riches the other day, he reminded me of the comparisons and contrasts that we could make between the likes of George Kendrick (whose poetry was the focus of my latest essay on Wild Court) and the likes of Maggie O'Farrell (whose poems from the 1990s have featured recently on my Twitter feed).
If the former might fit into a category of forgotten poets, then the latter could well be included in a separate grouping for poets who forgot about poetry. In O'Farrell's case, she abandoned verse for prose in the shape of the novel, although she did so at a far earlier stage in her literary development than many others. However, I get the feeling this journey has been made by several well-established poets over the past few years, and I wonder about their motives: artistic, financial, size of canvas, readership...? Moreover, I don't often see them making a return trip. Or am I wrong...?
Friday, 26 March 2021
When John Greening posted on social media the other day that Harry Guest had died, I was taken aback to note that the news didn't then spread far more widely.
I'm not at all qualified to write an obituary of any sort, but I do know that Harry Guest was a significant figure in British poetry who published with Anvil/Carcanet and was widely anthologised. In fact, I even have a battered copy (picked up from an Oxfam shop in the early 1990s) of the Penguin Modern Poets that featured his work...
In other words, his passing seems to me to be yet another example of the ephemeral nature of poetic fame. Of course, as Bob Mee mentioned on Twitter, the poets who "disappear" are often among the most interesting to read.
Wednesday, 17 March 2021
Now that Eleanor Livingstone’s stint as Director of StAnza is coming to an end, I’m sure there are many people who are better qualified than me to provide an overview of her long-term contribution to the festival’s development.
However, as a poet who read at StAnza in 2019, I just wanted to put on record my thanks to her. During my days in St Andrews, I was struck not only by the scale of the event and by the countless details that were required to ensure its smooth running, but also by Eleanor’s capacity to pause and treat every individual poet as a person. Moreover, her love of the genre shone through at all times. It’s no exaggeration for me to state that she played a huge part in making StAnza a magical experience.
In other words, thank you, Eleanor! I now hope you get to enjoy the festival from the other side of the fence (and without quite as much stress) in 2022…!
Monday, 15 March 2021
My essay on George Kendrick's poetry is up at Wild Court today. Here's the opening paragraph to give you a flavour of the piece...
Let’s take a forgotten poet who went from publishing with Carcanet, garnering a PBS Recommendation and receiving excellent reviews in the broadsheets in the process, to barely appearing in Google searches for his name. Let’s chuck in an almost cinematographic biography with enough intriguing details and mysterious gaps to set a screenwriter’s pulse racing. Let’s top it with off with a dedicated small publisher who’ve finally managed to bring together a Selected that’s taken from an unpublished manuscript and a generous wodge of work from the first book. Let’s assume his work must have been neglected for a valid reason, and let’s guess that the poems themselves probably aren’t much cop when we read them decades later. Except they are. In fact, several of them are outstanding and deserve a place at the top table of 20th century UK poetry...
You can read the rest by following this link.
Monday, 8 March 2021
A few days ago, I asked Twitter whether the expression Full-Time Poet is a contradiction in terms. The wide range of replies was fascinating.
Some people homed in on the cash, as in the need for an inheritance or a high-earning partner if somebody wanted to devote all their time to writing. This suggestion, in turn, garnered responses from others who understood Full-Time to be a synonym of Professional. In other words, certain poets do view themselves as Full-Time in the sense that their professional lives revolve around poetry: its teaching, its workshopping, its reviewing, etc, which also combines with their own writing. The counter-argument, of course, is that their workload means that they might not have much time or energy left for actual creation of the genre, meaning that they’re anything but Full-Time in one sense but completely committed in another.
And then there’s an alternative take, which is implicit in my loaded question. This involves questioning whether poetry is improved by spending eight hours a day at a desk, trying to write, draft and re-draft the stuff. It wonders whether the creation of poetry’s not better served by other stimuli, be they sleeping (!), drinking or doing a job that has nothing to do with poetry whatsoever. Moreover, this issue connects with a false dichotomy between so-called Amateur and Professional poets, as if the origin of a person’s earnings were to dictate the artistic value of their creation. On both sides of this absurd debate, there seem to be delicate egos.
For what it’s worth, my own perspective was brought into focus by my wife when I mentioned this issue to her. She innocently remarked that if I stopped talking to her in the car because I was mulling over a stanza, or if she found herself waiting by the door, shopping bags in hand, because I’d suddenly had to jot down a line in my notebook before we left for the market, then I was most definitely a Full-Time Poet myself. In other words, the term might well be applied to anyone who writes in the genre. This is down to the fact that our creative process is alive, both consciously and subconsciously, in our heads and hearts, throughout the day and night. We never stop being poets, starting to write our poems long before we put pen to paper…
Wednesday, 3 March 2021
Wendy Pratt’s new collection, When I Think of my Body as a Horse (Smith-Doorstep, 2021) is not only brave and ambitious in its thematic scope and aesthetic approach, but also achieves an astonishing degree of humanity, coherence and cohesion.
Pratt takes received formats by the scruff of their necks and lifts them out of their expected usages, such as in the case of Two Week Wait. At first sight, it seems a supposed, so-called list poem, beginning with a conventional couplet and starting three of its first six lines with a repeated form (love + verb + and`+ verb), as follows:
Love turned the dial up
and watched us burn.
Love caught us like frogspawn
and cupped us in the light
of a duck egg blue day…
This technique creates the effect of a chant, lulling the reader into a false sense of syntactic security. However, Pratt quickly changes gear as the poems moves forward, piling up irregular line breaks, then two clauses per line, then a foreshortened final line…
…Love was needles and charts
and scans, love was clinic visits
and operations, love riddled us
with drugs, love shook us with hope,
love gave us you, love lost us both,
love lost us all.
Via her subverting of a list poem, Pratt rips away an initial incantation and transforms it into a wail, into a heartrending lament.
The above poem is also an excellent instance of the deft use of repetition that crops up throughout this collection. Sentence and line structures mirror each other up to a pivotal point where they suddenly diverge in meaning, highlighting those contrasts and differences. Here’s one such example from Nesting…
I was giddy with instinct. I wanted
to pull bits of my new wild world
into my bedroom. I wanted
to open the window and jump out,
onto the back of grazing sheep
and pull their wool out. I wanted to use
my own spit to shore up the pebbledash
of our ex-council house…
This extract juxtaposes the natural and the manmade, the human and the animal, all via the afore-mentioned device of twisted repetition, drawing out the tensions and unifying forces between them, just like in the following lines from later on in the same poem…
of my body, my poor body and its need
to nest, my animal body and its unformed hopes…
In this case, layers are placed on top of the initial construction: my body becomes my poor body and then turns into my animal body, implicitly highlighting the crucial importance of the link between animal and body. This is a theme that’s of utmost significance to the poet’s understanding of her own being and of the world it inhabits. Furthermore, by extension, it’s just as fundamental to our reading of the book as a whole.
Pratt’s harnessing of intense imagery and complex sentence structure, all with an ever-present thrust into the core of her inspiration, is one of the joys of When I Think of my Body as a Horse. It enables her to turn what is already an emotionally charged story into art without ever slipping into sentimentality, her skill shining through on every page. In other words, the judges of this year’s major prizes will struggle to find a more human yet exquisitely crafted collection. Here’s hoping that When I Think of my Body as a Horse soon receives the recognition that it so richly deserves.
Tuesday, 23 February 2021
During the last general election campaign, my attention was drawn to several articles that described the echo chamber effect of social media. In other words, supporters of a party tended to follow people of their own political persuasion. Their timelines and newsfeeds were consequently stuffed full of views that reflected theirs, which led to a misguided belief that everyone was of a similar mindset. Of course, many disappointments on polling days were colossal.
Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the parallels that exist between the above-mentioned scenario and poetry on social media. These parallels have several manifestations.
First off, there are poets who only surround themselves with others who write within their same aesthetic, thus encouraging them to look inwards, feeling they’re the only true believers. This is very much along the lines of political beliefs, as per my previous anecdote.
Then there’s the bubble, the misguided belief that Twitter or Facebook make up the only poetry world that remains, when huge numbers of poets and readers actually don’t have social media accounts. Moreover, this sensation has grown during the pandemic. Physical contact has been stunted, so there are no opportunities to have conversations with people at readings who’ve never heard of supposed big fish from Twitter, for instance.
And to top it off, there’s a shrinking of the world on social media, as poets only look in on themselves, using their own jargon, their own frames of reference, their own allusions, their own entrenched positions and axes to grind, all going round in ever-decreasing circles. I often think that any non-poets who might venture onto many poetry threads would be scared off for life.
All of the above forms part of my concern that poets tend to cut themselves off from wider society. Social media, while providing excellent chances for people to feel less alone, is unfortunately adept at developing echo chambers. As poets, I feel we should use such platforms to reach out to readers, to share work, to show that we’re inclusive. That way, we might earn ourselves a few votes at the next literary genre elections and at least keep our deposit…!
Friday, 19 February 2021
My poem Grecian 2000 (sorry, Dad!) is in this week's issue of The Spectator. You can find it online via this link to The Spectator's website, though it should be in three five-line stanzas instead of a fifteen-line block. While you're there, I'd thoroughly recommend a read of Rebecca Farmer's excellent poem from the same issue...
Thursday, 18 February 2021
I might be completely mistaken, but poetry magazines that use Submittable to deal with their submissions seem to feature a high proportion of poems that leap off the page from the moment you start reading them. Do you agree?
If so, is it because the journals who use Submittable might generally favour that aesthetic anyway, or does it have something to do with the huge volume of poems that they have to process due to the ease of submitting via such a platform? What do you think...?
Wednesday, 10 February 2021
An awful lot of poets use their new experiences, their new memories, as a point of departure when sitting down to write. They bounce off recent events, places, feelings and sensations, transforming them into poems. Of course, the pandemic has stunted much of this process. Many people are feeling bereft of stimuli. What's more, I'd argue there's a finite number of lockdown-inspired pieces that you can write, although a scroll through social media might cast doubt on my assertion.
One different route is the re-exploration of older memories. I've no doubt our perspectives on them will have altered greatly over the past few months (I know mine have). That change is an opportunity in itself to delve into their (un)reliability and constantly shifting patterns...
Monday, 8 February 2021
One important factor when approaching poetry collections is their attitude to the reader. Some seem intent on talking to themselves in an echo chamber, while others generate an implicit dialogue with anyone who opens them. However, a select few establish their own interior dialogue, before offering the reader a role as observer and even as an additional participant.
If Jonathan Davidson’s new book, A Commonplace (Smith-Doorstep, 2020) achieves the unusual feat of belonging to this final category, it’s primarily because his method when assembling the manuscript also deviated from the norm. Not an anthology, not a single-author collection, Davidson’s book is a unique combination of his own poetry with work by others, all interwoven through snippets of prose that comment on, complement and join up the poems themselves. In itself, his breaking with convention is already a statement of intent.
Throughout A Commonplace, the afore-mentioned dialogues are established via two main methods. The first is implicit, using juxtaposition, as in this example, in which Davidson offers us Kit Wright’s ‘Sonnet for Dick‘…
…So brave in his dying, my friend both
kind and clever,
And a useful Number Six who could whack it about…
And he then follows Wright’s poem up with one of his own, titled ‘Tony‘…
I’m reconciling a bank account,
thinking of you.
A thousand little contracts keep me in the black…
In this case, by placing the two poems alongside each other, Davidson is inviting us not only to compare and contrast both poems’ attitude towards death, but also to think about our own losses. If cricket and number-crunching are what remind these poets of a person who’s passed away, the inevitable, unspoken question is what unexpectedly comes to our minds when we remember our versions of Tony or Dick.
Davidson’s second method, meanwhile, is explicit, and can be found in his prose commentaries, as in this extract discussing the two poems that are quoted above:
…‘Sonnet for Dick‘…has the artifice I sometimes want from poetry, precisely engineered and polished. It goes in hard and then takes off into the distance…When I wrote the poem ‘Tony‘ about my late friend Tony Whitehead, I had Kit’s poem in mind…
Of course, the second method is usually invoked after the first. In other words, the reader is initially allowed to plough their own furrow without any preconceptions. Davidson often give his opinions only after the poems in question have been presented.
And those opinions are significant in terms of what we might take away from A Commonplace, because this book reaches beyond discussion of individual poems to a challenge about how we view the genre itself and how we interpret its relationship with our lives. The above extract provides one such example. When Davidson states that he sometimes wants poetry to be precisely engineered and polished, he’s also asking us whether we agree. And why.
As a consequence, A Commonplace is an excellent read that lingers in the memory. At times, while A Commonplace might even annoy or make us shake our heads, but this courageous provocation simultaneously becomes one of its fundamental qualities: the ability to make us question our established perspectives. And that’s never a bad thing…
Friday, 5 February 2021
Over here at Rogue Strands Towers, we're always looking out for a decent excuse to sideline all our commitments and dive into poetry blogs. Of course, this feeling only grows as the pandemic rumbles on, so I was delighted to discover Bob Mee's terrific poetry blog (see what I mean here) a few weeks ago.
I might be late to the party, as his blog's been going for a fair while now, but the excellent news is that I've thus had loads of top-notch reading matter to get through. Bob Mee's been involved in poetry for decades, and I've realised he even published one of my poems back in 2004 when he was running iota magazine (via Ragged Raven Press) with Janet Murch. His experience, knowledge and astute vision of the genre shine through in every post, whether reviewing, commenting on news, posting original work, etc, etc. All in all, his poetry blog's a gem and I thoroughly recommend it.
Sunday, 31 January 2021
I have to admit I'm not keen on references to gatekeepers in poetry, as the term implies that poets might somehow find favour with people who could grant them access to a supposed citadel or inner sanctum, at which point they'll have arrived and somehow made it to the top. This mistaken belief inevitably leads to continual and continuous frustration for the poets in question.
Of course, there's always a social establishment in the poetry world (as in many others), which is successively replaced by new establishments, all with their own prejudices, favourites and friends. However, I personally find that the key as an individual is to focus efforts on living, reading, writing, finding readers who are already out there and generating new ones for the genre rather than wasting precious energy on the pursuit of a non-existent Holy Grail...
Thursday, 28 January 2021
Sunday, 24 January 2021
I’ve recently seen several excellent articles and features on poetry in lockdown (and in the pandemic in general), advocating all sorts of useful approaches. These articles often focus on energising creativity, on organising time, on motivation, on finding stimuli that might help to generate a reconnection with art. This post is in no way intended to disparage or knock such features, because there’s no doubt they’re helping to bring people together and support in other in terrific ways.
However, there are other sections of the population who are probably beyond this sort of assistance right now, poets who don’t really have the chance to write in the pandemic and especially in lockdown, people whose route to writing has been blocked, such as stay-at-home parents who’ve lost the hours in the middle of the day when they carved out a bit of time for themselves. And then there’s a group who form the core of today’s post. I’m referring to poets that used to leave the house every day to commute and do a full-time job, but are now working from home.
It’s worth pointing out that I’m not among them: my working life, while tough, is also flexible. Nevertheless, I know of many friends who had an established writing routine that they’d built around the construct of the old working week. It made a clear-cut separation between their working time, family time and poetry time, their working space, family space and poetry space. That’s now disappeared.
All of a sudden, these poets are finding it hugely tough to defend their writing. Spaces they once used for poetry are now taken up by work, while timetables are fast becoming blurred. Bosses, colleagues and customers, who are also working from home, are now demanding constant connectivity and immediate reactions to requests at times that were previously viewed as unreasonable and/or out of bounds. In other words, work is intruding on periods of the day and week that were sacrosanct prior to the pandemic. And all of the above, of course, is before we mention home-schooling!
This last point brings me on to another key issue: family. In the past, husbands, wives, partners, sons and daughters might have found it easier to respect the fact that the poet in question disappeared into the attic, etc, an hour or two in the evening or at the weekend. But during lockdown, everyone’s already spending lengthy periods of time in separate rooms in the house over the course of the day, even before the poet dares to ask for more!
In conclusion, today's post isn’t a cry for help, nor a plea for recognition, nor a moan. It’s simply an attempt to open up the topic for discussion, to remind poets in this situation that others are in a similar boat, to lend moral support, to remember that sometimes poetry just has to wait until life gets out of the way….
Wednesday, 20 January 2021
When making notes for this review, I was struck by how difficult it was to introduce the book in question, Christopher James’ collection The Penguin Diaries (Templar Poetry 2017), without it seeming a hard sell at first glance. And at that point I realised I had come upon a pivotal reason why this excellent collection undeservedly passed under the radar on publication, as I’ll now explain.
The premise is as follows: 65 sonnets, one for each member of Scott’s ill-fated 1910 expedition to the Antarctic. The stumbling block can be found in certain contemporary preconceptions, which might initially indicate that the collection involves some connotations of failed empire building, etc, thus limiting its range of interest and blocking routes to readers. However, closer inspection soon demonstrates that these are poems of universal humanity that reach out to everyone.
For instance, the poet makes a conscious decision not to tell the story as such. He takes it as read that we already know the outline of the plot, and uses this shared knowledge as a point of departure to explore a specific set of relationships in extreme conditions, alongside the consequent roles that are played out.
However, all of the above shouldn’t imply that The Penguin Diaries simply offers up 65 individual portraits or vignettes. Instead, James interweaves his characters. First of all, he highlights the differing geographical and social origins of each member of the group. Secondly, he allows them to appear in each other’s poems, building up a wider picture of the social and human dynamics that developed in this isolated set of individuals. One such example is Harry Pennell. He might have his own poem, titled The Master, but his presence is significant elsewhere, thus layering his character, as in the following extract from The Baptism, which is dedicated to Raymond Priestley:
The current swept you under, claiming
for the quiet and the dark. But in that
moment you felt a calmness, looking up at
the turquoise floe, the thin crust mottled
like clouds above a world in flood.
You were a dead man with a whale’s eye view.
When Pennell plucked you out, a hand under
your arm, you began a second life…
The above lines also possess one of the collection’s most interesting qualities: its attitude towards the second person singular.
Each and every eulogy is addressed to the person in question. This person is, of course, long dead. Furthermore, they seem to be told what their feelings are, what happened to them, how it happened. Such a technique would appear patently absurd. Nevertheless, there’s method in James’ technique. By using the second person singular throughout the book, he not only brings his characters back to life, lending their stories a greater immediacy and relevance, but he also establishes an implicit dialogue with them.
In other words, Christopher James’ achievement in The Penguin Diaries lies in his ability to portray the lives behind Scott’s expedition, reaching far beyond mere historical events to reflect on many aspects of the human condition. Once we start reading these poems, we’re immediately drawn in to their tremendous implied sensibility and a heightened awareness of our own miniscule place in history. The challenge now is to enable more readers to get hold of a copy…!
Thursday, 14 January 2021
First things first, I do understand and respect that prompts and exercises help certain poets unblock ideas at specific difficult points in their writing lives.
However, as a poet, I personally find that my own poetry is best served when I get on with my daily business, making sure I read, read, read in the gaps between the stuff I’m doing, thus allowing poems to ripen in my mind before putting pen to paper. As mentioned previously on Rogue Strands, sometimes it's better to wait rather than forcing work to come out.
As a reader, meanwhile, I get the impression that certain collections seem to use prompts and exercises as a systematic method of writing. I'm afraid I have to admit these are books I don't tend to enjoy because I find it extremely hard to connect with the poems in question...
Sunday, 10 January 2021
Prose that's packed with poetry, Liz Lefroy's I Buy a New Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence)
I seldom review prose on Rogue Strands, but I’m making an exception today for Liz Lefroy’s book, I Buy a New Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence) (Mark Time Books, 2020), simply because it contains far more poetry than the vast majority of collections that are brought out by major publishers.
I Buy a New Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence) takes Lefroy’s long-running blog as a point of departure and shapes it into 52 pieces, most about a page long, one for every week of the year. It offers snippets of a life, a family, a job, sometimes portrayed head-on, sometimes aslant, but always accompanied by a feeling that (like the best radio presenters) Lefroy is engaged in a one-to-one chat with the person who’s reading her book.
This effect is achieved via the presence of a fluidity and a supple cadence in each sentence, Lefroy’s excellent poetic ear underpinning every entry to such an extent that I’m tempted to label them implicit prose poems. What’s more, the easy-growing language then lends additional impact to her invocation of arresting images at crucial points, which is another extremely effective poetic technique. Here are some examples of what I mean…
…The space in the spanner which fits onto the nut of the tap is called the jaw. The satisfaction of finding the right-sized jaw for a nut is comparable to diving into water with barely a splash.
…My mother died before my son was born, but her material substance somehow shines through him every time his fingers (long as hers were) play piano keys, and every time he smiles his smile, which is sunlight illuminating thousands of days.
…There was nothing to learn, but that the moment I kick off my shoes, the moment I turn down the lights, the moment I dance for myself, is the moment I feel free.
… I went back to the car to get my camera, and returning, saw my sons silhouetted against the grey winter sky, standing together between rows of white gravestones. I stopped for a moment, watched them as they talked, so alive, so full of hope and energy, coming home for Christmas.
As these extracts demonstrate, I Buy a Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence) is a chronicle of how Lefroy’s creativity fits around and interplays with her everyday life. As such, it’s terrific, thought-provoking reading for anyone who’s juggling their writing with other commitments. However, as mentioned in the introduction to this review, it’s also shot through with poetry in abundance.
Liz Lefroy has previously published two excellent pamphlets, both of which are well worth seeking out if you get the chance. She’s won the Café Writers Competition. She’s been widely published in magazines and read at festivals. Her voice is unusual yet possesses universal appeal. The question now is simply when her poetry itself will be granted the platform of a full collection that it so richly deserves…
Monday, 4 January 2021
It’s my firm belief that poems benefit from silences between them, from so-called fallow periods that actually don’t tend to be fallow at all. Very few poets benefit from writing eight hours a day, as thoughts and ideas need to ferment and macerate. Moreover, poems improve when blended with experiences, both everyday and extraordinary ones, which is a key reason why I believe most people’s poetry deteriorates once they begin teaching Creative Writing in an academic environment without sufficient non-poetic stimuli and points of reference.
Of course, the same goes for drafts. They too require space to breathe. In their case, the space is necessary to allow me to fall out of love with them, to disentangle myself from the heady fumes of their creation and take a surgical step back before working at them again. And then leaving them in a folder for months. Maybe cannibalising them for a different piece. Maybe realising how to turn them from a failure to a success in a sudden spark, sometimes years after their initial creation. That spark, inevitably, comes from an unexpected facet of a new experience that takes me back to the afore-mentioned old piece and also reciprocally enables me to cast a different light on what’s just happened to me. Without life, poetry starves.