Friday, 17 June 2022

My review of Stewart Sanderson's The Sleep Road on Wild Court

My review of Stewart Sanderson's first full collection, The Sleep Road (Tapsalterie, 2022)) is now up at Wild Court. In both individual and collective terms, The Sleep Road is a significant collection. You can read my review via this link.

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

My second full collection

Massive news for me: HappenStance Press will publish my second full collection in November 2023. I’m delighted/chuffed/overjoyed, etc, etc, to have the chance to work again with Helena Nelson, one of the best editors around.

What’s more, HappenStance books are gorgeous objects in themselves. Now to keep chipping away at my ms, only sixteen months to go…!

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Poetry Birmingham Issue 8

I'm pleased to report that I've got two new poems in the forthcoming issue of Poetry Birmingham. What's more, they're in excellent company...

Friday, 20 May 2022

My article on Ben Wilkinson's poetry

My article on Ben Wilkinson's poetry is now up at The Friday Poem, tracing his development from his first pamphlet through to his second full collection, Same Difference (Seren Books, 2022). Here's a small taster...

...Same Difference sees Wilkinson concluding a process that began with The Sparks, resolving the co-existence of accessibility and erudition in his poetry, and employing a coherent and cogent method that combines allusion and directness of speech. By resolving these potential clashes and making them work in synch he’s already generated an approach that’s highly unusual in the context of contemporary UK poetry... 

You can read it in full by clicking on this link.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Job, hobby or vocation?

How would you describe poetry’s role in your life? As a job, a hobby or a vocation?

For me, it’s definitely not a job. However, the fact I don’t use poetry as a means to generating my primary source of income doesn’t mean it’s any less important to me, nor does it mean my own poems are any worse (or better!) than stuff by people who do. Moreover, in my own personal case, viewing poetry as a job would kill off my capacity to write. This is because poems are ring-fenced in my mind as one of the few parts of my life in which I can do as I please without worrying about the fallout!

But then the term hobby makes my hackles rise immediately. It insinuates I might be playing at being a poet, categorising my writing alongside stamp collecting or trainspotting. And it also gives the impression that poetry plays a secondary role in my life, which isn’t true.

And what about vocation? There’s a concern it might sound pretentious or feel like a pose, but it’s the word that works best for me. It doesn’t mean I necessarily spend umpteen hours a day writing poetry, but then I’d argue anyway that the genre doesn’t require or even benefit from lengthy periods at a desk. Instead, poems are often better for being filtered through lived experiences. My life feeds into my poetry and my poetry into my life. And that interwoven relationship is the reason why writing poems is a vocation for me.

Tuesday, 26 April 2022

The specific as a pathway to the universal

Having recently read a few gorgeous lyric poems that failed to transport me anywhere at all, I found myself (yet again!) wondering why.

Once more, I reached the conclusion that supposedly universal lyricism without context is just beautiful language that floats in a vacuum without an anchor. It's to be admired rather than absorbed.

In my view, one ideal way to achieve universality in a poem is via a specific frame of reference. This is crucial to the ability of a poem to create a credible new reality that enlightens and transforms the reader's pre-existing imaginary world.

Contrary to certain critical beliefs, the specific is a pathway towards the universal and never deserves to be disparaged as unambitious. In other words, so-called anecdotal poetry is capable of generating power that reaches far beyond its initial modest confines. The supposed anecdote is simply a point of departure...

Monday, 18 April 2022

A letter to a reader

Dear Camilla,

Fingers crossed this letter finds you in good health and still enjoying poetry!

I’m afraid I can’t quite remember your face from my reading at the New Park Centre four years ago, though I do just about recall resisting a dodgy joke about the royal family while checking the spelling of your name and signing your brand-new copy of The Knives of Villalejo. However, I’ve been thinking about you a lot these past few days, ever since my friend spotted that very copy at the Oxfam shop in Chichester last week and whizzed a photo of it over to me.

On the one hand, I hope you enjoyed it and then passed it on, rather than regretting your purchase. And then, of course, I hope that you yourself chose to give it to Oxfam. Far too many books in charity shops are from personal libraries that have been dispersed by relatives (see my blog post about Peggy Chapman-Andrews from a few years back).

And on the other hand, I’m writing to thank you for granting me this poetic rite of passage: the first time my book has been spotted at a charity shop. I’m pleasantly surprised not to feel annoyed at all that it might have been discarded. Instead, I’m excited to wonder about the prospective new life it’s been given. As soon as I get back to Chichester, I’ll be popping in to the Oxfam shop to find out whether it’s found another owner.

In other words, I'm proud of joining the ranks of the charity shop poets. I've always loved second-hand books, and my collection's now among them! For that, Camilla, I’ll always be grateful to you.

All the best,

Matthew Stewart

Sunday, 10 April 2022

Clarity and freshness, Sarah Mnatzaganian’s Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter

Sarah Mnatzaganian’s first pamphlet, Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter (Against the Grain Press, 2022), is as refreshing as the fruit it evokes and invokes. Of course, as its title immediately indicates, a key theme is origin and identity, but this is not wielded as a statement. Instead, it’s explored via fierce curiosity.

And then there’s Mnatzaganian’s use of language. This might initially seem slightly formal on the spectrum of lexical registers, as in the following choices: whom is used instead of who, until instead of till, and if I were instead of if I was. However, any lazy accusations of stiltedness can easily be dismissed due to the clarity of her sentences, which flow naturally and are easy to read. They’re far from old-fashioned, simply acknowledging a linguistic tradition behind them.

One key poem in terms of the above-mentioned theme of identity is undoubtedly Juice, dedicated To my father, Aphraham. Its closing couplet reads as follows:

…Now I want to watch your dark throat dance
while you drink.

The metrics and aural patterning are especially interesting here. Three trochees are followed by three strong syllables in the penultimate line, thus imitating the dancing movement of drinking, while the open vowels and closed consonants also follow suit. And then the final line, made up of a single anapest, stops the poem in its tracks as Mnatzaganian suddenly accelerates to its climax.

Of course, the key adjective in the above couplet is dark, especially in the context of the poems that comes immediately after it in the pamphlet, which is titled Made in Hemsworth. The penultimate stanza resonates and reflects back towards the previous poem…

Now mum knows she’s one-third Viking,
she’s proud of her pale and ageless skin,
her North Sea gaze.

In this case, the pivotal adjective is pale. By juxtaposing a father’s dark throat and a mother’s pale skin, plus the contrasting proper nouns of Aphraham and Hemsworth, Mnatzaganian is portraying the two elements of the blend that creates a person. Rather than claiming or declaring an identity, she’s working through it, portraying it, unravelling its roots, reconciling its differing facets.

The clarity, freshness and light touch of this pamphlet are the qualities that lift it out of the hubbub of contemporary poetry, especially when considered alongside Mnatzaganian’s refusal to take short cuts or reach facile conclusions. For not much more than the price of a dodgy pint in a flash London pub, Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter encourages the reader to pause, breathe in its vitality and return to everyday life, newly invigorated. Get hold of a copy for yourself and you’ll see what I mean…

Tuesday, 29 March 2022

My review of Thorpeness, Alison Brackenbury's new collection

 My in-depth review of Alison Brackenbury's fine new collection, Thorpeness, is now up at Wild Court, and here's a quick quote as a taster...

"Thorpeness finds Brackenbury stripping away artifice to face the ageing process and the only possible end of age, setting her narrative thrust in the context of the world around us."

You can read it in full via this link. Thanks to Robert Selby for the commission. 

Tuesday, 22 March 2022

Nuances and undercurrents, Helena Nelson's Pearls

When we approach Helena Nelson’s new book, Pearls (HappenStance Press, 2022), certain potential misnomers and misconceptions are worth addressing and dismissing.

First off, it isn’t really a collection as such. Instead, it’s subtitled The Complete Mr and Mrs Philpott Poems, and includes several poems that were previously published in earlier collections, now reprinted alongside a whole host of uncollected pieces. And secondly, Pearls isn’t thematic if we take that term as it’s understood by most people in the poetry world, i.e. preconceived, planned and executed as a whole. There are no fillers here, nor are there poems whose role is to link themes or join up a narrative. These are individual, connected poems that accumulated over decades.

And the above points lead us to a third clarification: Pearls is not a novel in verse. This is demonstrated by the fact that
every single poem retains its value as a stand-alone piece while also adding to the sum. Nelson employs a collage effect throughout the book, implicitly building her characters and their stories via juxtaposition, each scene, each moment, each episode enriching the reader's experience, page on page, pearl after pearl. As a consequence, it’s useful to quote Nelson’s own explanation, which reaches beyond the structure of the manuscript, taking her title as a point of departure to understanding life itself:

...But now I feel there’s a sense in which all the moments of our existence are suspended timelessly, pearls on a string. Each moment contains the whole story: beginning, middle and end...

And then there’s a fourth issue to clear up.
Poetry readers don’t often encounter the explicit, sustained deployment of three-dimensional characters, so it’s important to underline that these poems are far from being confessional in tone and content. This statement would be superfluous if we were discussing a novel, but even experienced heads often seem prone to seeking out pointless biographical parallels when it comes to considering poetry. Of course, any character contains a proportion of the writer that created them, but that’s the case in any novel too.

Moving on to the poems themselves, one of Helena Nelson’s greatest attributes is her knack for observation. Not just watching people and then portraying them, but the capacity to pick up on the nuances and undercurrents that play crucial roles in social and human relations. One such example is the closing couplet to

…She is back. He is glad. And the bed is glad
and a pot of coffee is almost ready.

he and she of this extract are the Philpotts, of course, the protagonists of this book. Their relationship, a second marriage in middle age, is evoked via snapshots such as these lines in which emotion is conveyed indirectly through the active role of objects such as the bed and the pot.

In technical terms, meanwhile, this couplet is fascinating. For instance, the penultimate line features three anapests before a iamb kicks in, drawing the elements together and offering a musical reassurance that’s mirrored by semantic warmth.

And what about the punctuation? At first glance, it might seem artificial or unusual. Two three-word sentences without conjunctions are then followed by a longer, unexpected sentence that goes against convention, not just by starting with a conjunction but also by refusing to place a comma midway through (at the end of that penultimate line). However, this punctuation is actually riffing on our expectations, surprising us and then turning inevitable, guiding us through the couplet’s delicate cadences.

As the clichéd rhetorical question goes, which came first, the chicken and the egg? In this case, however, we’re referring to the poet and the editor. Is Helena Nelson such a scrupulous editor because of her highly tuned understanding of the importance of the tension between sentence and line or has her poetic skill-set been further developed by her work as an editor?

Deep down, of course, the important thing remains that her awareness of syntactic and semantic cause and effect, already keenly felt in her first full collection, Starlight on Water (The Rialto, 2003), has only increased over the years. In fact, one of the aesthetic pleasures in reading this book is derived through observing an expert at work, admiring her control of sentence and line, learning from it.

In other words, Pearls possesses numerous attractions both for previous readers of the Philpott poems and for newcomers. Perhaps the most moving facet of this book can be found in the previously uncollected pieces that portray the couple’s ageing process and their slow-looming awareness of impending death. In this context, the books closing lines from Peril pack a huge punch:

...of course they are not all right

but she takes him in her arms
and she tells him that they are.

The mirrored, satisfying rhythms of this final couplet strengthen its comforting effect. And once again, there’s that slipping-away and stripping-back of punctuation, leaving behind only the words and their latent power.

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that critics’ and judges’ prejudices might well kick in and indicate to them that Pearls will only be of interest to women of a certain age and certain social origin. They couldn’t be more wrong. Pearls matters to us all. Like any great story, its specificality is what makes it universal. And then, moreover, for poets themselves, it provides an implicit lesson in the roadcraft of writing poetry, far more useful than any handbook or workshop. With such wide appeal, here’s hoping Pearls reaches the swathes of readers that its poems so richly deserve.

Friday, 11 March 2022

Everybody loves a winner!

Everybody loves a winner, that’s for sure, and the poetry world’s no different, though winners create losers too.

Certain losers could complain bitterly, seething with resentment, that they’re being ignored by major awards, and they could set up an important poetry prize for poems that are unsuitable for competitions. Or they could launch a subtle coup and take over an existing award. Of course, they’d also have to name judges who have been ignored up till now.

But then, once the winning poems had been chosen, others would inevitably kick back against the decision and generate an alternative award for the poems that hadn’t been selected. Or launch yet another coup. With a new batch of judges. Starting all over again. And again. And again. Just as generation follows generation, establishment follows establishment.

Or we could read, write and explore beyond prizes and awards, relying on our own tastes and judgements instead of invoking the Emperor’s New Clothes on a regular basis…

Monday, 7 March 2022

Writing out of who we are

Whether we like it or not, absolutely everything we write has its origins in our identity. Even when we use a persona, a context that’s far from our own lives, a filter of fireworks or devices, we are always writing out of who we are. That process might be more or less overt, and we might well be reluctant at times to recognise it (even to ourselves) but our identity runs through our poetry as if through rock.

Of course, over the last few years, many poets have emerged who’ve wielded their identity to terrific explicit effect – be that with an aesthetic, emotional, social or political aim. However, I also enjoy poetry that assumes, assimilates and textures its identity, using it more to enrich the genre’s capacity to create a whole new emotional world that casts fresh light on previous ones.

As a consequence, I’m especially drawn to Tamiko Dooley’s new poems on Wild Court (see here). They’re so similar yet so different, so strange yet so familiar. This is very much the effect that I seek in my own poems about life in Spain.

Saturday, 5 March 2022

On reading and writing poems during the war

In the context of events elsewhere, my thoughts turn to Auden’s statement, made in 1939, that Poetry makes nothing happen. Leaving aside the potential layers of nuance that we could read into his statement (e.g. whether he’s implying that it shouldn’t have to do so), it’s an important point of departure for any discussion of the relationship of poetry to war.

Like any theme, poets (and by extension, readers) can meet it head-on, in political and moral terms, or they can come at it aslant. Both approaches are valid, of course, but I personally prefer to find emotional refuge in poems that at first glace seem to have nothing to do with war.

At first, in the opening days of the war, I felt guilty and self-indulgent for admitting this to myself, for sharing poems on Twitter that appeared far removed from the context of Ukraine. However, as these poems lent me their support, I realised that reading them wasn’t an act of cowardice, nor was it turning the other cheek.

Instead, by treasuring the human significance and ramifications of simple, everyday acts, we implicitly celebrate love, which is the counterpoint to war. And therein lies one of the key roles that poetry can play in our lives, reminding us of what makes us who we are, of the values that keep us sane and might just lead us out of this mess.

If poetry helps us keep our humanity in the face of evil, its importance is beyond doubt.

Wednesday, 23 February 2022

Poetry submissions via Submittable

Since my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, back in 2017, I’ve had perhaps my most fruitful period ever in terms of placing new poems in high-quality journals. In fact, I’ve published a total of 44 pieces in outlets such as The Spectator, The New European, Stand, Acumen, Poetry Birmingham, Wild Court, etc, etc.

However, in that same period, absolutely everything I’ve submitted via Submittable has been rejected – a total of 31 batches of poems, all declined. Why? What might the reasons be?

Of course, one immediate reason may be that more people submit to journals via Submittable than via other means, while another suggestion might be that many of the most prestigious mags use Submittable. Oh, and an additional option is that younger editors tend to work with the platform, and my poems are less to their taste. Nevertheless, I do believe that I’ve accumulated a pretty decent and broad list of credits elsewhere (see above) during that same period.

What’s my point? What potential conclusions could be drawn? Well, I’d argue that the use of Submittable is extremely detrimental to the type of poetry I write. It favours work that catches a superficial eye rather than poems that layer their effects with subtlety. This isn’t to knock editors’ decisions, just a reflection on the way Submittable potentially skews their choices. Do you agree? If so, is the use of Submittable changing the poetry some people write and subsequently read? Is this a change for the better…?

Sunday, 20 February 2022

Anja König on being an unprofessional poet

I've just spotted an excellent article by Anja König on being an unprofessional poet (which is an extremely interesting term!) and on prizewinning culture. Here's a brief quote to give you a flavour of the piece...

What is a professional poet? A poet who spends most of their time on poetry-related activities, a poet whose main income stems from such activities like royalties, events, teaching? With a full-time day job in biotech, I am not a professional poet. There are not many “unprofessional poets”, but there are a few: Wallace Stevens famously had a full-time job at Hartford Insurance...

However, you can read it in full here

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

The theatre of life, Barry Smith's Performance Rites

As its title, Performance Rites (Waterloo Press, 2021), indicates from the off, Barry Smith’s first full collection is very much concerned with the roles we play and the characters we act out in our lives.

In many poems throughout his wide-ranging collection, Smith’s exploration of this theme remains in the background, filtered through a narrative or a scene, offering a latent invitation for the reader to wonder whether things and people are quite as they seem. However, in the book’s title poem, he meets it head-on, as he also does in The Roles We Play. The opening lines of the latter read as follows:

What drives us time and time again
to place ourselves onstage in the line of fire
in front of the adjudicating panel?

Is it our search for a new identity,
a different self with licence to act
in ways we would never dare or dream?

Or do we lack essential definition,
just a hazy blur of expressions
an empty vessel waiting to be filled...?

This poem’s scenario is an audition for a play. As such, its concerns might appear specific to theatre at first glance, but they expand. In other words, the two questions from the above extract echo and reverberate through the collection.

Nevertheless, as the poem progresses, it also takes on further ramifications, moving on from its initial, more generic doubts, homing in on a social context, as in its closing stanzas…

…you’re howling into the night…
OK, thank you very much,
we’ll let you know if you’re needed for the call back.

And so in a giggle and gaggle you withdraw to the café
sharing your experience over a latte or expresso
- it went really well, I think they liked me –

you’re ready to take on the world in King Lear
or Maria Marten and the Murder at the Red Barn,
inhabiting an unhinged king or scheming villain,

or maybe just back to the yoga and Pilates
waiting for the next audition to strut your stuff
seeking the ministrations of our transient art.

The ending gives us the bathos of exaggerated drama being undercut by everyday language, followed up by the counterpoint of cosy middle-class conversation about the audition (which feels like a pose in itself), all before the mention of pastimes that are implicitly both compared and contrasted with theatre. This leads to an intentionally over-the-top final line shot through with irony.

In summary, the poem works so well due to initially incongruous juxtapositions that apply gradual layers of nuance to the poet’s probing doubts. As a consequence, it provides us with a perfect calling card for the collection as a whole. Barry Smith’s Performance Rites leaves us pondering just who we are and why we act as we do. And in my book, that’s never a bad thing!

Tuesday, 8 February 2022

History and place, Judi Sutherland's Following Teisa

As Judi Sutherland mentions in the introduction to her new book-length, beautifully illustrated poem, Following Teisa (The Book Mill Press, 2021), rivers have long played an important role in U.K. poetry. From Wordsworth to Oswald, water in general is perhaps more present and prevalent as a symbol, an image, a leitmotif or even a theme in itself than in other countries. This might well because the poets in question are living on an island or in a dodgy climate, of course. However, leaving aside attempts at cod psychology, the fact remains that Sutherland is acknowledging and tapping into a rich seam.

History and the significance of place are both important cornerstones of this collection. The title itself, for instance, references an 18th Century long poem about the River Tees which was titled Teisa, Sutherland explores our relationship with the evolving role of our surroundings. In doing so, her perspective is also crucial, as explained in the following extract from the introduction:

…I moved to Teesdale in 2014 and felt dreadfully homesick for my previous village near the Thames. I started walking by the Tees as a way of getting to know and love my new environment and decided to repeat Anne Wilson’s poetic journey for a different generation…

In other words, Sutherland engages as an outsider. There’s no forced attempt at vernacular, for instance. Instead, she invites us along on her own exploration of the River Tees, portraying it in language that’s both rich yet deft, as is indicated by the opening lines to the poem itself:

How it wells up from nowhere to chase
gravity downhill, becomes a rill,
a rickle of old stones, then hurtles rocks,
purls and pools in reed…

There’s huge skill present here, not just in the assonance, alliteration and internal rhyme, but in the precise way it’s all patterned and  interlinked, one device starting before the previous one has come to an end: downhill-rill/rill-rickle/rickle-hurtle/hurtle-purls/purls-pools. The effect is to mirror the onrushing movement of water.

In thematic terms, the poem also evokes tensions between manmade features and the natural world. Here’s one such instance:

…Below the concrete dam, a dry spillway,
while the river is re-birthed – an indignity
of outfall – with barely time to find its feet before
tumbling at forty-five degrees, a whitewater
staircase with a grand balustrade of columned rock.

Those tensions are then placed in historical context, starting from the point of departure of the allusive title and stretching throughout the book. Some references are closer to the present day…

…Once, a whole wartime platoon
of lowland men was washed away,
with their bridge pontoons, at Barne…

Others, meanwhile, engage with a more distant past:

...Above the town, a stand of pines on a barrow,
Bronze Age elders whose watchful eyes
follow. Turn around, you’ll swear they’ve shifted
in their rootball, their wooden footfall
silent on the hill. In comes the Lune
from its lonely dale, escaping the broad dams
of Selset and Grassholme...

Throughout Following Teisa, Judi Sutherland portrays the interaction of the River Tess with people over the course of history. Her achievement in this poem lies in her ability to carry us along and immerse us in her psychogeographic exploration, inviting us to reassess our own surrounding and their own significance in our lives, all this on top of bringing us a book that’s a gorgeous object in itself. Thoroughly recommended! 

Monday, 31 January 2022

Acumen's Guest Poem

I'm chuffed to report that my poem Translator, Traitor is now being featured on Acumen's website. It was first printed in Issue 101 and is one of this week's Guest Poems. You can read it via this link.

Thursday, 27 January 2022

Evangeline Paterson essay at Wild Court

Evangeline Paterson, now a name that barely seems to ring a bell, was one of the most outstanding poets of her generation. Today, via my new essay on Wild Court, I encourage you to discover her exceptional poems. Here's a quick snippet...

...Paterson’s speciality is the perceptive empathetic observation of human relations, loaded with understanding and compassion for the invisible limits we place on ourselves...
You can read the essay in full at Wild Court by following this link.

Thursday, 20 January 2022

A reflection on who we are, David Cooke's Sicilian Elephants

David Cooke’s poetry might be rooted in anecdote, but those roots are simply his point of departure for words that reach up towards the light. In this respect, his new collection, Sicilian Elephants (Two Rivers Press, 2021), builds on his previous work.

Many of these poems, all written from the perspective of a U.K. resident, were probably crafted prior to the consequences of the fateful referendum. However, their openness to Europe now grants them a fresh impetus in the context of Brexit. At first glance, excellent poems about gardening and DIY might seem geographically limited and limiting. In fact, the opposite is true. Let’s take the example of the closing lines to Grand Designs, which ends as follows:

…until once more in the back of their minds
they hear children squealing
who slid down a door on the stairs,
but now live hours away: they have little time
to decorate and even less for visits.

This reflection on the slip-slip of generations can then be compared and contrasted to an extract from Leaving Vigo:

…All he has or needs
is what he has managed to pack
into a cardboard suitcase,

with a pair of sturdy shoes
and the words he’s learned in a tongue
he’ll never handle like his kids.

At his back the town recedes –
the oyster market and the steps
that lead to shops above it.

He might be centre stage –
this man who is scurrying
towards his future...

The protagonists of both poems are parents. In one, their parenthood is slipping into the past. In the other, it is ahead of him. In both, a moment on a parent’s journey is being portrayed.

What’s more, difference and similarity, implicit comparisons and contrasts, are all laid out to be explored. Where less skilled poets might try to hammer home their points, Cooke uses juxtaposition and allows his readers to think for themselves. For instance, the immigrant from Vigo will clearly never belong in his new home, but are the parents in the first poem also being displaced themselves from their own lives? What is the meaning of belonging? What unites us as people and what separates us?

In the poems that are set in Europe, Cooke never looks through the lens of a tourist on a trip. Instead, his method reminds us of Larkin’s The Importance of Elsewhere: the act of travel enlightens the poet by providing a counterpoint to home. Sicilian Elephants would already have been a thought-provoking book even prior to Brexit. Nevertheless, it now becomes especially significant as a reflection on who we are. David Cooke’s collection brings us closer to Europe: it’s poetry for our times.