Saturday 30 December 2023

The Poetry Society's Books of the Year

The Poetry Society have chosen Whatever You Do, Just Don't as one of their Books of the Year. Thanks to Tim Relf for the recommendation...

Friday 15 December 2023

Three poems on iamb

Three poems from Whatever You Do, Just Don't are being featured today on iamb. Thanks to Mark Antony Owen for the invite. You can read my poems and listen to my readings by following this link. I hope you enjoy them!

Thursday 7 December 2023

On the future of funding for poetry in England...

The recent removal of funding from Planet and New Welsh Review should shake English poetry publishers and magazines to the core. Bearing in mind that this axe has been wielded by a Labour-run administration in Wales, it’s a stark reminder of a bleak future for business plans that are reduced to making applications to ACE, no matter who might win the forthcoming general election, no matter what prior relationships might have been built. How long will such funding bodies continue to sustain ventures where the sales figures often total less than a third of the staff costs, and that’s before we discuss non-existent profit margins?

In this context, instead of simply waiting for eventual, inevitable rejection, then panicking and scrambling to beg individuals for help in a last-gasp survival bid, wouldn’t it be more sensible for publishers and magazines to act in advance and reconsider their attitudes towards the relative importance of sales when balancing their books (sic)? Several excellent, self-sustaining models are already out there, after all, but such outfits have had to commit fully to driving sales, and have taken time to build a strong identity. It’s impossible to generate a core base of loyal customers overnight.

Rather than viewing funding as a necessary, permanent prop, why not see it as a temporary boost that enables magazines and publishers to target long-term editorial and commercial independence…?

Wednesday 6 December 2023

Victoria Moul's poetry blog

Victoria Moul has a terrific poetry blog, titled Horace & friends, over at Substack (see here). 

Her blog's terrific for two main reasons, the first being a deft combination of rigour and accessibility when dealing with complex issues of literary theory and practice. It's refreshing to encounter an academic who's willing and able to engage with readers from beyond the realms of university life.

And then the second reason is its additional linguistic and sociocultural perspectives, thanks to her classical background and the  time she's spent in France. This means that she's often able to cast fresh light on U.K. poetry.

All in all, Horace & friends is thoroughly recommended. It's already among my favourite poetry blogs...!

Friday 1 December 2023

Dislodging preconceptions, Paul Stephenson's Hard Drive

Long-awaited debut is a cheesy cliché in the poetry world, but it’s actually true of Hard Drive (Carcanet, 2023), Paul Stephenson’s first full collection, following three stellar pamphlets that had left readers wondering how he might deal with a broader canvas. Throughout those pamphlets, if anything had defined Stephenson as a poet, it was the feeling that his writing was indefinable. Impossible to pin down, refusing to be pigeonholed, his principal aim seemed to be a constantly evolving exploration of the genre’s possibilities.

The above backdrop is key to an understanding of Hard Drive, which revolves around a series of elegies for a partner. It’s often stated that elegies are ideal for poets to stretch themselves and push their boundaries, due to the inherent attempts to capture something that lies beyond the capacity for expression of human language. As a consequence, they lend themselves perfectly to Paul Stephenson’s approach to poetry. In these poems, his inquisitive method revolves around a continuous and continual reinvention of itself, desperately thrusting into the indescribable agonies of loss.

One such example is Putting It Out There. Here’s the first stanza…

So here I am worrying myself to death
about commodifying your death,
arranging and sequencing your death,
curating the left and right pages of your death,
deciding which parts of your death to leave out…

From the start, this poem finds Stephenson playing with language but with utterly serious intent, toying with the absurdity of its idioms such as worrying myself to death, which is juxtaposed to death itself in the original meaning of the word.

And then it implicitly challenges the blurred roles of subject, speaker and poet, inviting us to question this collection’s supposedly confessional nature, suggesting a difference between factual truth and poetic truth, casting doubt on the poet’s own motives, underlining that these poems move far beyond anecdote, claiming them as art.

In other words, Hard Drive might be a series of hugely affecting elegies, but it’s far more than that. The collection rummages through the received wisdom of how the poet and the reader are meant to interact, dislodging many preconceptions with great emotional courage. I recommend you get hold of a copy - its echoes will linger in your head and heart for years to come.

Thursday 23 November 2023

Bob Mee reviews Whatever You Do, Just Don't

Bob Mee, the former editor of Iota magazine and Ragged Raven Press, has kindly reviewed Whatever You Do, Just Don't on his blog. Here's a short extract... "The poems drew me into them slowly. It took me a little time to absorb their depth, given they are short, observant, precise, deceptively relaxed, often gentle in tone, and range between a sense of sadness and the need for amusement and fun..." And you can read his piece in full by following this link.

Monday 20 November 2023

Mat Riches' Collecting the Data

Bearing in mind that I’ve seen all the poems in Mat Riches first pamphlet, Collecting the Data (Red Squirrel Press, 2023) at multiple stages in their development, and have given feedback on every single one, from first draft to reassembly after Nell’s ritual dismembering of words, lines and stanzas, there’s no way I can rightly write a review of this book.

It wouldn’t be objective or independent of me to do so, as most people know we’re good friends. And then, such a supposed review might well also end up sounding like an extended blurb, as I deeply admire the huge strides he’s made in his poetry over the last six years. Mind you, talking of blurbs, here’s the one I wrote from the heart for his back cover:

Mat Riches is a specialist in the humorous use of the serious and the serious use of the humorous, channelled through a playful but yoked relish for language.

And on that note, I feel it’s only right and correct that I should suggest you immediately visit the Red Squirrel webshop (see here) and get hold of a copy for yourself…!

Sunday 19 November 2023

"These poems are a joy to read"

 The Yorkshire Times (with thanks to their Literary Editor, Steve Whitaker) reviews Whatever You Do, Just Don't here.

Thursday 16 November 2023

The Alternative Stories podcast

For your listening pleasure, be it on a lazy evening at home or as a distraction during your commute, here's the Alternative Stories podcast with me (via this link), featuring several poems from Whatever You Do, Just Don't, plus debate about poetry, Brexit, football and Spain...

Monday 13 November 2023

A sample poem on Creative Writing at Leicester

Can you imagine never having seen a banana till the age of ten...?!

Creative Writing at Leicester (with thanks to Jonathan Taylor) are featuring today a poem about just this subject from Whatever You Do, Just Don't.
I hope you enjoy it (see this link)!

Sunday 12 November 2023

Terrific review for Whatever You Do, Just Don't on London Grip

A terrific review of Whatever You Do, Just Don't is now up at London Grip (thanks to Emma Storr for her scrupulous reading of my poems!).

Here's a brief quote:
Whatever You Do, Just Don’t will raise important questions in your own mind as you read Stewart’s beautifully crafted poems. I can thoroughly recommend this collection.
You can read the review in full via this link.

Saturday 11 November 2023

The best editor a bloke could hope for...!

At the launch with the best editor a bloke could hope for (with thanks to Clare Best for the photo)...

Friday 10 November 2023

Who said there isn't an audience for poetry...?!

Here's a pic of our launch last Tuesday, packed with poetry lovers and newbies, all enjoying poems together..

Saturday 28 October 2023

Aveley Lane on Wild Court

'Aveley Lane' is one of my personal favourites from Whatever You Do, Just Don't, so I’m delighted and grateful that Rob Selby should have chosen it as a sample poem from the collection for publication today on Wild Court. You can read it via this link. I do hope you enjoy it!

Saturday 21 October 2023

The Yorkshire Times Poem of the Week

 The Yorkshire Times Poem of the Week is Farnham Library Card from Whatever You Do, Just Don’t.

Thanks to Steve Whitaker, the Literary Editor, for his choice and insightful words about the poem. You can read it by following this link.

Tuesday 17 October 2023

From ‘Form Photograph’ to ‘Starting Eleven’

Three or four years ago, I knew I wanted to write about the footballing heroes of my childhood, those lower-league footballers who triumphed and failed before my eyes, who evoked a sense of masculinity that was hugely different to today’s view of men, whose team generated a sense of belonging among the local fans. In short, I knew I wanted to write directly about Aldershot F.C. footballers of the 1980s, but indirectly about far more. However, I didn’t know how to go about putting such a group of poems together. And that was when I read Stanley Cook’s excellent poetry for the first time.

Cook wrote two separate pamphlets on the back of his time working as a schoolteacher, Form Photograph (Phoenix/Peterloo, 1971) and Staff Photograph (Peterloo Poets, 1972). In each case, he created a set of vignettes. The first batch, of course, were pupils, while the second were teachers. He generated these portraits of individuals within a specific context, building a wider picture of society through the implicit dialogues that were generated among the poems, accumulating his effects via verbal collage.

On reading Cook’s poems, I admired them immensely and suddenly realised I could adapt his technique to my footballers. And rather than using a photo, I was drawn to the team sheet that appeared on the back of every programme, and thus Starting Eleven, the second section in Whatever You Do, Just Don’t, started to take shape. Thank you, Stanley! I’d like to think you’d enjoy my poems too…

Saturday 7 October 2023

The first review

The first review for Whatever You Do, Just Don't is in, and it's terrific! I'm very grateful to Christopher James for his scrupulous, in-depth feature on my collection for The Friday Poem. Here's a brief snippet, but you can read it in full by following this link...

Stewart is consistently sure-footed while navigating rocky emotional landscapes. He shows a craftsman’s touch for form, deft handling of syntax, and an ear for half-heard rhythms and cadence...There's a grace and an empathy at work here that make these poems slip deep into the heart, the mind and the memory...

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Four sections, one book

Whatever You Do, Just Don’t is organised into four separate sections. Some readers might label them mini-collections, but that would be to view them mistakenly as separate entities that don’t establish dialogues with each other.

Ok, you might say, so what do poems about Aldershot Town footballers of the 1980s have in common with poems about life in rural Spain, for instance? Well, quite a lot now you come to mention it.

The main nexus is the chafing of belonging and estrangement. In the commuter belt in South-West Surrey and North Hampshire, where most town centres look alike, have similar shops and chain restaurants, where people don’t put down anchors but move around to be closer to a new job, there’s no doubt that the second half of the 20
th century saw a loss of community, of identity, which was pretty deeply felt by the time I was a kid in the area during the 1980s. In that respect, lower-league football had become a significant factor in generating or recovering communal identities. By supporting their local team, people belonged. And that was definitely what attracted me to Aldershot Town.

Not enough, of course, because I ended up leaving southern England for Extremadura, where I found a profound, established sense of identity in small towns such as Almendralejo and Villafranca de los Barros. In retrospect, that feeling of belonging was what made me stay, even though I would never quite be one of them, always a foreigner.

This dual perspective runs through Whatever You Do, Just Don’t and knits its sections together. By straddling two countries, two languages, two societies, I can’t 100% feel at home in either, but my perspectives on them both have acquired extra nuance, additional layers. In these poems, Sunday tapas and siestas in deepest Extremadura might even remind you of a nap after Roast Topside or Brisket in Knaphill or Croydon in 1979 or 1982…

Monday 2 October 2023

Pre-orders are ready to leave...!

Over at HappenStance Towers, Nell informs me there's a hefty pile of pre-orders of Whatever You Do, Just Don't ready to be posted this week. Now's the chance to save her an extra trip to the post office and ensure your copy joins them by clicking on this link to the HappenStance webshop...!

Monday 25 September 2023

My mate Mat

21st June 2017, a sweltering day in London, was a significant date for me in two respects. The number one reason was that it was the launch of my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, at the LRB bookshop. But the second reason is that at the same event I met my mate Mat Riches for the first time.

On that back of that reading (and a fair few pints after the event itself!), we exchanged a couple of poems by email, gave each other feedback, found the feedback useful, realised we also had a fair bit in common apart from poetry, and began a WhatsApp chat that must now have thousands of messages in its archive. It soon stretched well beyond poetry to the key issues of dodgy craft beer, dodgy football teams, dodgy knees and dodgy tastes in shirts.

In fact, I’d argue that every poet needs a mate like Mat, and I feel hugely fortunate to have found him. He’s seen all the poems in
Whatever You Do, Just Don’t at multiple stages in their development, and has given me feedback on every single one, from first draft to reassembly after Nell’s ritual dismembering of words, lines and stanza of numerous poems that we had thought finished. Just as I have for him, of course. His development as a poet has been massive over these six years, and his forthcoming pamphlet, Collecting the Data, will be a terrific calling card.

Mat and I are very different poets, but I’d suggest the key to our successful mutual support is that we never attempt to get the other to write in our aesthetic or voice. Instead, we strive to understand, respect and sometimes push each other gently towards a stretching of our self-imposed limits.

Perhaps the only bad thing is that we now can’t ethically bring ourselves to review our respective books. However, that won’t stop me telling you on multiple occasions over the coming months just why his pamphlet is ace. That’s what friends are for, you might think. And yes, you’d be right. Though it really is ace

Oh, and we ended up organising Rogue Strands readings as a tag team (he’s Big Daddy and I’m Giant Haystacks), and will soon launch our new books together (my second full collection,
Whatever You Do, Just Don’t, and his first pamphlet, Collecting the Data). There’s a beautiful symmetry to this process, as our meeting at my first launch has contributed in no small way to the existence of our new books, which we’ll now celebrate together.

We’d be absolutely delighted if you could join us to share the occasion at the Devereux Pub in London on 7
th November alongside three top-notch guest poets (Hilary Menos, Maria Taylor and Eleanor Livngstone), plus the shining presence of the two terrific publishers themselves, Helena Nelson and Sheila Wakefield. See you there…???!!!

Monday 18 September 2023

What's in a title? How and why we decided on Whatever You Do, Just Don't...

A few years back, Nell from HappenStance sent me feedback on a poem. She told me “I like it, Matthew, but the title’s dead.” That phrase has stuck with me ever since. What did she mean? Well, the implicit conclusion is that the title wasn’t contributing anything extra, not drawing the reader in, not adding an extra layer, not coming alive. It was simply there as a placeholder, as if for internal use only.

And I was very much reminded of this exchange when we went through the process of deciding on a title for my second full collection. My initial suggestions were perfectly neat, summarising key themes or bringing them together, but Nell rejected them all, one by one, explaining once again that they weren’t bringing anything to the party.

She then came back to me with a list of potential alternatives. One of them leapt out at me. The one that she might not have expected me to embrace, the one that threw caution to the wind but worked perfectly: Whatever you Do, Just Don’t.

I was recalling her advice from years ago when we made the decision. This title is memorable, and that’s a good start, though it’s not enough on its own. From my perspective, the most important quality is that it intrigues and ushers you in, making you wonder exactly what you’re being told not to do. And in terms of getting to grips with the book, the implicit question is significant. Otherwise, this title could simply be seen as a gimmick.

So…what does Whatever You Do, Just Don’t actually refer to? Well, if you want to find out the answer, the best way is to get hold of a copy via this link to the HappenStance webshop…!!!

Wednesday 13 September 2023

i.m. Tobias Hill (1970-2023)

Back in the 1990s, when I was starting out on the poetry scene, Tobias Hill had just emerged as a stellar figure. I recall being more than slightly jealous and envious of  his good looks, flowing locks of hair, major prizes and subsequent contract with OUP.

And then there were the terrific poems. His writing was extremely visual, packed with startling images and turns of phrase, while his poems about life in Japan really hit home, especially as I myself was newly arrived in Spain at the time.

Over the years, he moved on. From OUP to Salt and Faber on the demise of the former’s poetry list. And from poetry to prose, like so many others, forging a successful career for himself as a novelist.

However, I was especially reminded of his poetry a couple of years before the pandemic hit, when I acquired several volumes from Peggy Chapman-Andrews’ private library. Chapman-Andrews had been the long-serving secretary of the Bridport Prize, which Tobias Hill won in his early years. In fact, that triumph pretty much set him on his way.

Anyway, back to those volumes. Among them was a copy of his first short collection of poetry from a long-vanished small publisher. And tucked inside was hand-written correspondence from Tobias Hill to Peggy Chapman-Andrews, reacting to news of his win. The young poet’s excitement shone from every word!

Today’s belated announcement of his death in August follows on from several years of little news about Hill since a stroke in 2014. I’ve been keeping an eye out for news about him over the last few years, putting him name into Twitter searches every now and then in the vain hope of finding he might be writing again. Nevertheless, all I encountered were fewer and fewer references to his work.

Yet again, I’m reminded of the ephemeral nature of poetic fame. Tobias Hill was a significant poet less than twenty years ago, a point of reference for many readers of the genre. In 2023, his work seems to have faded from view. Here’s hoping the grim news of his death might at least remind people of his excellent poetry…

Tuesday 12 September 2023

What are you writing about...?!

A few weeks ago on Twitter, I posted a short tweet that seemed to strike a chord if the shares and likes were anything to go by. In the afore-mentioned tweet, I suggested that I sometimes think I’m writing about one thing, only to discover, on rereading the poem months later, that my subconscious was writing about something completely different.

The tweet in question was implicitly referring to my poems about football in
Whatever You Do, Just Don’t, my forthcoming second full collection from HappenStance Press. These poems are grouped together in the book as a section titled Starting Eleven, subtitled Aldershot F.C. Footballers of the 1980s. When first showing them to my editor, Helena Nelson, I was sceptical as to whether she’d like them, as she’s a self-declared football atheist. So I was stunned when she really enjoyed them!

On reflection, I feel this is because the poems aren’t really about football at all. Football is just a setting and a point of departure for the real issues that they tackle. In
Starting Eleven, I’m exploring the classical themes of triumph and failure via the small-town heroes of my childhood, while also reflecting on 1980s masculinity, on how it was to be a boy or a man in that period in suburban England.

In summary, I hope you’re not put off
Whatever You Do, Just Don’t just because you don’t relish watching people chase after a round ball! Apart from only comprising one single section of the book, they’re actually football poems for football atheists, poems that might seem about one thing but end up being about something altogether different…

Wednesday 6 September 2023

London launch for Whatever You Do, Just Don't

London launch of Whatever You Do, Just Don’t, jointly with Mat Riches, who’ll also be launching his pamphlet, Collecting the Data, Tuesday 7th November at The Devereux pub (7p.m. to 10p.m.). Free entry!

This is a Happen
Stance/Red Squirrel event with a rare chance to meet both publishers in person (Sheila Wakefield and Helena Nelson), plus readings from three exceptional guest poets: Maria Taylor, Hilary Menos and Eleanor Livingstone.

Monday 4 September 2023

Whatever You Do, Just Don't

My second full collection, ‘Whatever You Do, Just Don’t’, is now available for pre-order from HappenStance Press. Please do support Nell’s terrific work by purchasing a copy via this link.

Tuesday 29 August 2023

Clive James on the ordinary becoming extraordinary

Continuing with some (late) summer reading, I've been poring over one of several excellent articles by Clive James on The Poetry Foundation website. The feature in question, titled A Stretch of Verse, is especially interesting when addressing the question of how the ordinary can become extraordinary. Here's a short quote as a sample:

Being in the right spot can make a phrase powerful even when it might seem frail heard on its own. Consider the placing of Louis MacNeice’s lovely phrase “the falling London rain.” It comes at the very end of his poem “London Rain” and seems to concentrate all the phonetic force of the poem:

My wishes now come homeward,
Their gallopings in vain,
Logic and lust are quiet,
Once more it starts to rain.
Falling asleep I listen
To the falling London rain.

This is the least obvious version of the hit: when ordinary words become extraordinary because they are in the right spot. The most obvious version is when one or more of the words is doing strange work. 

You can read the piece in full by following this link.

Wednesday 9 August 2023

Dennis O'Driscoll in Poetry Ireland Review

I might be absurdly late to the party, but my discovery of Dennis O'Driscoll's poetry has been a joy over the past few months. 

On the back of that process, I sought out examples of his prose online, and stumbled on an excellent article by him from Poetry Ireland Review. It's well worth a read in full (see link here) if you've got a few minutes free over the summer, but here's a thought-provoking snippet as an initial taster...

"...Many of the techniques of poetry can be acquired and improved through practice and emulation. What cannot be taught, what must already be in place, is an individual perspective on the world. We want the poet's own version of life, not a rehash of Dylan Thomas's or Sylvia Plath's world. The personal rhythms, obsessions, linguistic quirks which readers and reviewers may initially deprecate are the best foundations on which to build a poetic talent. The poems which the editor rejects may become your cornerstone..."

Wednesday 26 July 2023

Jonathan Totman's new poetry blog

Jonathan Totman has recently started a new poetry blog and it looks like becoming an top-notch addition to the scene. Using his expertise in clinical psychology as a point of departure, his posts provide a focus on poetry and mental health, offering selected poems by the likes of Ramona Herdman alongside reflections that are informed by his counselling work.

There are already five excellent posts awaiting you, though I'd especially recommend the latest one on loss and fearing joy, which also features a terrific poem by Sue Rose. You can read it here.

Friday 14 July 2023

Interview with Di Slaney from Candlestick Press

Di Slaney and Kathy Towers are doing a great job at Candlestick Press. There's an extensive interview with Di up at The Friday Poem today, and it's well worth a look. You can read it in full via this link, but the following quote should give you an excellent taster...

New readers are who we’re primarily aiming for – the people who don’t currently read poetry but who would love it if only they could find a way in.

Tuesday 4 July 2023

Till, until or ‘til?

First off, a clarification: from my perspective, poets shouldn’t rule out or discard any linguistic resource, nor should they label one as being superior to another.  In such a context, this post simply aims to provoke thought about how we use these three terms: till, until and ‘til, all of which can serve different purposes in a poem.

If using everyday, accessible registers, I’d suggest till is the ideal choice. It’s certainly my default selection. And if playing with registers or going for a more formal tone, I sometimes plump for until.

However, I often see poems, written in an approachable tone with contractions in their verbs, etc, that suddenly throw in an until instead of a till to no specific semantic or syntactic effect. Why has the poet chosen to make this decision? Is it for musical and/or metrical reasons? In these cases, is until being used as syllabic padding?

And then there’s ‘til. I encountered many hurdles during the editorial process of my first full collection with Eyewear back in 2017, but one of the toughest was an editorial intern’s unilateral and systematic imposition of turning every single till into ‘til throughout my ms. I had to put my foot down at that point and refuse to continue unless they accepted my tills. From my perspective, ‘til is only acceptable if the poet wants to strike an explicitly colloquial tone.

But what about you? What’s your position on till, until and ‘til?

Friday 30 June 2023

A new poem on Bad Lilies

Issue Fourteen of Bad Lilies has just gone live, including a poem from my forthcoming collection. You can read it by following this link. 

Thursday 8 June 2023

To contract, or not to contract, that is (or that’s!) the question...

The decision whether to use a contraction (e.g. who is or who’s) might seem insignificant at first sight, but like any syntactic choice, it’s pivotal to how a poem works. As a consequence, it’s one of the initial things this poetic geek notices when reading a poet’s work for the first time, taking it as something of a signpost to how they treat language, to their love of detail.

For a start, one thing appears clear: we should never turn our back on any resource when attempting to achieve poetic effects. There’s no fundamentalism along the lines of always going either for the full or abbreviated form. Instead, the strongest poets seem very aware of the importance of their choice in each case.

A major factor, of course, is register, i..e. contraction for an informal tone and avoidance of it for a formal turn of phrase. Mind you, some writers like to mix their registers up for specific effect, dropping a contraction into a formal sentence or avoiding one in an informal line. This can work well, generating tension, making the reader pause and have a linguistic think, although it can also appear scattergun unless kept under control.

However, on certain occasions, I can’t avoid the feeling that the poet has made their decision on arbitrary grounds. Or they’ve chosen to contract or not purely on the basis of scansion or musicality. At that point, especially if the long form has been selected, a risk of syllabic/metrical padding kicks in, and certain editors would be readying their red biro.

All in all, this supposedly simple issue becomes a poetic hand grenade once we start looking at it up close! But what about you? Do you contract…?

Friday 2 June 2023

How, when and why do you write poetry or reviews...?

This is the question that The Friday Poem asked its regular reviewers for today's feature. Here's an extract from my response...

"As for the issue of what displacement activities I indulge in when I should be writing, I’m afraid my personal experience is the opposite: writing poetry is actually my displacement activity when I should be doing all sorts of other things that spell R-E-S-P-O-N-S-I-B-I-L-I-T-Y! Which is another reason why I’d never want to turn poetry into my job – doing so would kill my writing overnight..."

You can read my piece in full, plus those by other Friday Poem stalwarts, via this link.

Friday 26 May 2023

Anthony Wilson's The Wind and the Rain.

Anthony Wilson's sixth collection, The Wind and the Rain, is due out from Blue Diode Press next month. I was delighted to be asked to provide an endorsement for this excellent book. It reads as follows...

Throughout The Wind and The Rain, Anthony Wilson walks the tightrope of simplicity. He peels off layers of language, paring it back to its core, searching for the means to express the intensity of grief. In his skilled hands, less becomes more.

Wednesday 24 May 2023

My review of Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana's collection on Wild Court

My review of Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana's first full collection, Sing me down from the dark (Salt Publishing, 2022), is now up at Wild Court. My piece reflects on the confessional as poetry's play within a play. Here's a short snippet, but you can read it in full via this link...

...One key point is Corrin-Tachibana’s acute awareness of the poem as artistic artefact rather than as an object that exists purely at the service of the poet’s own self-expression and sense of self-worth....

Wednesday 3 May 2023

Pigeonholing in wine and poetry

There’s a primarily Anglo-Saxon obsession among so-called experts with attempting to turn wine into a dry, dead subject, to reduce it to exams (WSET/MW stuff) and points (Robert Parker, etc).

And then there’s the marketing ploy, often used by pubs and restaurants, of flogging wine by grape variety. This supposedly makes everything easier for the consumer to order once they’ve decided that they like, for instance, Sauvignon Blanc, in an impossible struggle to simplify things. Of course, such a strategy ignores the vagaries of soil, climate, grower and winemaker, all of which mean that there a huge gamut of Sauvignon Blancs. Many of them barely resemble each other in a comparative tasting.

Much the same could be said of poetry. It too is a slippery, incredibly complex subject that defies repeated critical and academic attempts at pigeonholing and classification. Poets are categorised but they defy those labels on a regular basis because the genre is alive and constantly shape-shifting.

In both poetry and wine, the more you know, the more you realise you know nothing. 

Wednesday 19 April 2023

Ten Poems about Wine from Candlestick Press

I have a poem, titled La Vendimia, in the new pamphlet/mini anthology from Candlestick Press, Ten Poems about Wine.

I'm grateful to the editor, Jonathan Davidson, for having selected my work, and it's especially pleasing to appear alongside such a star-studded cast. You can get hold of your copy via this link, while here's a photo of the pamphlet in all its glory...

Monday 17 April 2023

A celebration of Sphinx Reviews (2006-2023)

Sphinx Reviews is a project that has run alongside HappenStance Press since 2006 (see its website here). Founded by Helena Nelson and co-edited for the last six years by Charlotte Gann, it specialises in reviews of poetry pamphlets, a format that has long struggled to receive critical attention, and provides an incredible service to poets, publishers and, of course, readers.

By my tedious manual count, a total of 1461 books have been reviewed on Sphinx, many of them by more than person, the equivalent of over 2,000 pamphlets that were received by Helena Nelson, repackaged and sent back out to her loyal band of reviewers. 2,000 batches of stamps to be paid for. Umpteen treks to the post office. 2,000 reviews that were edited by her (to the huge benefit of the reviewers themselves, whose prose style and critical approach to poetry were often transformed via this process). 2,000 posts that were formatted, uploaded and optimised for search engines.

What’s more, for many poets, the review of their pamphlet on Sphinx was the only critical response they’d ever receive. That’s a hugely generous gift in anyone’s language. Looking back at the archive, there are a fair few poets who have sadly died in the intervening years, though their reviews on Sphinx remain. As a record of pamphlet poetry in the U.K., it’s irreplaceable.

And now, of course, Sphinx is coming to an end. Helena Nelson has given so much to poets over the years via Happen
Stance Press itself and via Sphinx Reviews, in both cases to the detriment of her own writing, but even this labour of love must inevitably be finite.

Like so many positive presences in our lives, Sphinx has probably come to be taken for granted, as if it were destined to accompany pamphlet publishing forever. It will be sorely missed once poets and publishers bemoan the absence of alternatives. However, its online archive is to be cherished and celebrated. Here’s hoping that in the aftermath of this closure, we at least start to see more of Helena Nelson’s exceptional poetry…!

Monday 10 April 2023

Understated but resonant, John Lynch's These Days

From the title of the book itself to the titles of the individual poems, from the tones and colours of the cover to the absence of blurbs, from the syntax to the semantics employed in the poems, pretty much everything about John Lynch’s first full collection, These Days (Garlic Press, 2022) feels understated.

As a consequence, especially bearing in mind that current trends in the poetry scene seem to be heading in an opposite direction, it might not come as any surprise that
These Days seems to have flown under the radar. In fact, there don’t seem to be any other reviews available online at the moment. However, a closer look demonstrates that Lynch’s poems are very much worthy of recognition.

The poems in this collection work in tandem and build their effects when read together, their emotional impact gradually accumulating, page after page. Any quote from them inevitably fails to do them full justice, but the last two stanzas of
Vent give an indication of their latent power...

…One evening, in the kitchen
I found her scraping what he’d said
wasn’t cooked into the bin,
then she opened the window wider
to let out all the steam.

A tub of Peter’s vanilla ice-cream
amongst the cutlery and saucepans
on the draining board,
she stood staring out,
scooping up mouthfuls with a tablespoon.

Of course, on first reading, this feels like a quintessential kitchen-sink drama! However, there’s a complexity to these lines via the details that are layered to make the scene come alive, while a subtle music also gathers force, especially in the final stanza, in which the final two lines are of particular interest.

From the penultimate line onwards, Lynch’s cadences step up a gear, the soft consonants interspersed with explosions, the aural patterning of the vowels in ascendance. And then the pent-up emotion comes to a climax in the shortened penultimate line before its release in the longer final line, 
a metaphorical vent with an implicit reference to the poem’s title, thus complementing and contrasting with the more obvious physical vent of the previous stanza. In this context, deft juxtaposition extends the poem's reach.

As is made clear by the above extract, Lynch’s unassuming approach is actually underpinned not only by a deep understanding of the ties between meaning and language, but also demonstrates an unexpected capacity for deploying sophisticated technique when required to make a poem lift off.
These Days is a collection with emotional depth that’s capable of generating its own poetic worlds. Prejudices and fashions might put many readers off, but John Lynch is a skilled poet whose work resonates. Thoroughly recommended!

Sunday 26 March 2023

A celebration of poetry editors

Close editing is an act of colossal creative generosity, one of the best gifts a poet can receive. It's no wonder that such scrupulous, time-consuming attention is becoming less and less commonplace, but a top-notch poetry editor is worth their weight in gold and very seldom valued.

Stanza by stanza, line by line, word by word, comma by comma, a good editor enables a poet to understand their own method, makes them question and/or justify their choices, helps them spot their own weaknesses, encourages them to raise their game a notch. Such close editing places a draining demand on the person who does it, requiring a high level of engagement. It takes so much out of the editor that they often struggle to sustain their own writing at the same time. And this sacrifice is another reason why editing is generous.

Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press is the editor I know best, and her example is the point of departure for this post. Few publishers work as closely with their poets. What's more, her graft on others' behalf is definitely detrimental to her own terrific poetry. I’d suggest that U.K. Poetry could do with a few more Nells, though she's a one-off. In fact, you could do far worse than get hold of her latest top-notch collection, Pearls, which hasn’t received the attention that it so richly deserves. It’s available to purchase here.

Monday 27 February 2023

Delicious tensions, Clare Best's End of Season/Fine di stagione

Clare Best’s new project, End of Season/Fine di stagione (Frogmore Press, 2022), is a delicious portrayal of the tensions that run through life, yoking them to poetry so as to burrow down to the core of feelings.

To start with, as indicated by the title itself, there are linguistic tensions, each poem in English placed on the opposite page to its corresponding piece in Italian (written by Franca Mancinelli and John Taylor). Rather than translations, these feel like two independent texts that establish dialogues: views of Italy in English, then also in Italian but filtered through an English perspective. Languages, cultures and societies rub up against each other and generate further insight into how we view the world around us.

And then another inherent semantic tension exists in that title. The end of a season hints at the end of a cycle, wondering and worrying about what might lie beyond, the past providing a counterpoint to the present as in the following extract from

If I forget these short days
and cool nights, the lack
of screaming swifts,
I can pretend today is summer
and we are here together…

End of Season/Fine di stagione, Clare Best provides an acute reminder that the acts of writing and reading reconcile us with ourselves, Throughout these poems, she explores this process, leading up to On the Mulattiera, which delicately brings the past and the present back together…

…There was a time I couldn’t have left you.
I’m there, I’m here. The road’s collapsed.

Where have I been? My path – October
wood-smoke, pine cones fallen on rubble.

You let me go and then I let you go.
I never loved you well enough till now.

Fractured sky opens into rain.
What can it mean to be here, alone…?

And one final implicit tension in
End of Season/Fine di stagione is between the written page and song, as six of these poems have been set to music by Amy Crankshaw (you can watch the first performance for yourself on YouTube here). It’s well worth comparing the versions, as they cast a fresh perspective on each other.

End of Season/Fine di stagione
shows us (yet again!) Clare Best’s unquenchable thirst for collaborations with other genres, all tied to her drive to explore experience via hard-won artistic creativity, taking us along for the ride, allowing us to reflect too on the tensions within our own lives. This is the sort of writing that earns new readers for poetry, bringing it into settings and contexts where it is too often absent. Clare Best never lives in a bubble. She’s forever reaching out to people and that’s a terrific virtue.

Thursday 23 February 2023

Edmund Prestwich's poetry blog

Certain regular readers of Rogue Strands have complimented me on the number of poetry blogs I manage to follow (or insinuated that I've got far too much time on my hands!), but I continue to make new discoveries of excellent, long-running poetry blogs that have previously slipped under my radar.

This is at once annoying and terrific. Annoying because it makes me feel useless. Terrific because each discovery provides me with the chance to devour a whole back catalogue of interesting posts.

One such case is Edmund Prestwich's poetry blog (follow this link to read it), which is packed with in-depth reviews that get down to the nitty-gritty of books such as Hannah Lowe's The Kids, Maurice Riordan's Shoulder Tap and Gerard Woodward's The Vulture, alongside nuanced analysis of poetry from the past, especially from the 20th Century. All in all, it's a treasure trove of points of departure for poetic discussion and debate. Thoroughly recommended and it's going straight on my Poetry Blogs List. I can only apologise for not having found it earlier...!

Monday 13 February 2023

U.K. Poetry Podcasts - a list of resources

Back in December, I was delighted to be the guest poet on the Planet Poetry Podcast, hosted by Robin Houghton and Peter Kenny. Round about the same time, I began to notice more and more podcasts appearing in my newsfeed on social media, many of which had been running for some time but had slipped under my radar. And then there were comments from my mate Mat Riches about this and that interview or feature that he’d heard on this or that podcast.

And so I started to explore the scene, asking for recommendations on Twitter, realising that while I don’t have the joy of a commute, I do have hours batch-cooking in my kitchen without access to live radio in English – a perfect opportunity to work my way through a fair few poetry podcasts. I quickly found that not only is there a thriving scene, but it’s growing all the time.

As a consequence, I thought it might be a good idea to collate those podcasts in one blog post, just as I bring together U.K. Poetry Blogs annually in December, so here’s my first list of U.K. Poetry Podcasts, together with a link to each. Of course, most are available across multiple platforms. I've just selected one here for each podcast, but it should be pretty easy for you to locate them via a quick search on your brand/channel of choice…

Planet Poetry Podcast. As mentioned above, I’m hardly objective, but Robin Houghton and Peter Kenny run an excellent and invigorating ship.

The Seren Poetry Podcast. Lots to savour here from the Welsh Poetry Publisher par excellence, but I especially enjoyed the episode with Ben Wilkinson.

Versify is a terrific poetry podcast, accessible, educational, contemporary but also looking back at major figures of the 20th Century.

The Poetry Bath is presented by Sian Thomas and each episode of this radio programme-cum-podcast features an in-depth interview with a different poet.

A Mouthful of Air is run by Mark McGuinness.

The Poetry Society also have their own podcast.

Frank Skinner's poetry podcast. Nuff said.

The Poetry Exchange talks to people about a poem that has been a friend to them.
In exchange, this unique podcast creates a gift for them, a bespoke reading of their chosen poem inspired by the conversation.

Poetry to your Ears has a focus on sharing the diversity of contemporary poets.

Poetry Pause is run by Philippa Davies.

The Poet Laurensen has gone to his Shed is a personal podcast that’s hosted by Neil Laurensen himself, and the name is a nod to...

The Poet Laureate has gone to his Shed, Simon Armitage for the BBC.

Words that Burn is run by Ben Collopy, and invites you along If you want to learn just a little bit more about poetry, in a gentle calm way that won't overanalyse.

The Penteract Podcast is hosted by Anthony Etherin.

Eat the Storms might be Irish in origin, but it features many U.K. poets.

Faber Poetry Podcast is, as the name itself indicates, run by F&F themselves.

The Ted Hughes Society Podcast pretty much does what it says on the tin!

Tiny in all that Air is the Philip Larkin Society podcast.

Arji's Poetry Pickle Jar

The Scottish Poetry Library's podcast

The Alternative Stories podcast

And just like in my annual Poetry Blog List, I’m aware this post is subjective and partial. In fact, I’d be delighted if you could make suggestions of more U.K. Poetry Podcasts that I could add to it. If you know of any, please do let me know! 

Tuesday 31 January 2023

The intertwining of life and death, Rebecca Farmer's A Separate Appointment

Nine years ago, I reviewed Rebecca Farmer’s first pamphlet, Not Really (Smith-Doorstep, 2014) on this blog, admiring its subtle treatment of love, suffering and death, noting…

the role of ghosts. They crop up in several poems. They are characters. They take on human traits. As such, their haunting qualities are exacerbated.

And today, as I sit down to write about her second pamphlet,
A Separate Appointment (New Walk Editions, 2022), I’m struck by how much of my previous review holds true for these new poems, which seem to present two different strands - roughly speaking, hospitals and those afore-mentioned ghosts - that intertwine. In these poems, Farmer reminds us that death cannot exist without life, and that the living have to contend with others’ deaths.

In this context, the final stanza of
The Ghosts regret joining a self-help group provides an excellent illustration of the latent tension between life and death, Farmer’s work inhabiting a no-man’s land between the two. canvas It might seem cheesy and trite to state that her poetry occupies a liminal space, but in her case it’s actually true…

…Punched by the absurdity of death
the ghosts wonder why they never recognised
how they could have lived the life they had.
They used to go to classes to be taken out of themselves
but now they’d give anything to be put back in.

The everyday, natural rhythms of these lines belie the tension that they gradually build, never overstraining for effect.

And in the poems about hospitals and doctors, death is always hovering in the background, waiting to intrude, knowing the narrator will eventually join those ghosts, as in the following extract from the opening lines of

The surgeon shows the x-ray
of my left hand. I expect
to see its history in
black and white but
the image is as grey
as the sky before rain.
In it I catch a glimpse
of the start of my ghost…

The coherence and cohesion of Rebecca Farmer’s two pamphlets leave me wanting to see her poems on a broader
canvas. The format of a full collection would enable the reader to get to grips with her uncomfortable yet vital world. The question now is which publisher might step up to the plate and grant us that pleasure…

Thursday 19 January 2023

Ian Harrow, poet (1945-2022)

There's a terrifc poem up at The Spectator today (see here) by Ian Harrow, a poet who's new to me. However, the shocking detail was the appearance of brackets after his name. A quick google led me to another excellent article from the same journal, written by him in February 2022, titled The Delicate Business of Writing Poetry (see here), which states..

Living, as Clive James put it, under a life sentence, and having refused chemotherapy, I find I respond to the time issue in contradictory ways.

And then a further google brought me to his website, with some examples of his poems (see here). Moreover, it also explains that he published several collections and pamphlets in his lifetime, while...

Since the mid-70s his work has appeared in a wide range of periodicals and magazines including the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, Oxford Magazine, Stand, Poetry Wales, Other Poetry, Literary Review, London Magazine, Archipelago, Poetry Ireland Review, Shop Magazine and New Walk.

All this has made me reflect once more on the fleeting nature of poetic fame. I'm annoyed that Harrow's work should have flown under my own radar until today, but I'm also taken aback that nobody seems to have mentioned his passing on Poetry Twitter, for instance, bearing in mind his substantial track record in the genre. At this point, of course, I'm now keen to get hold of his books, explore them, share their poems and try to keep them alive for readers...

Tuesday 17 January 2023

Jonathan Davidson's Poetry Blog

I’ve long admired Jonathan Davidson’s poetry and have featured his collections on Rogue Strands, while his most recent book, Commonplace, is a uniquely generous engagement with other poets’ work.

And this same generosity runs through his poetry blog. I uselessly forgot to include it in my annual round-up back in December, though it deserves a post to itself in any case.

Jonathan Davidson’s blog might be irregular, but it’s packed with posts that force us to pause, think and re-evaluate our assumptions of poetry’s place in the contemporary world, analysing the seismic shifts that are taking place in traditional roles of poets, publishers and readers. Moreover, all this is grounded in sensible discussion without unnecessary linguistic fireworks. Instead, we encounter solid arguments and debates that speak to us directly. I cannot recommend it enough, and you can see what I mean by reading it via this link!

Tuesday 3 January 2023

The Poetry Publishing Machine

Over the past year or so, I've noticed that the Poetry Publishing Machine seems not only to have taken up where it left off at the beginning of the pandemic but to have accelerated further. What do I mean by this statement? Well, I'm referring to the speed with which collections (and sometimes even the poets behind them) are rushed out, promoted and then discarded in the genre's onward flight.

This phenomenon seems tied in with several issues. For a start, there's the urge, the adrenaline rush that many poets seek from publication. Once their book's out, they're no longer interested in it and immediately move on to the next project. 

And then there are publishing schedules to meet. Several significant U.K. poetry publishers appear to be constantly bringing out new books, month on month, and their skeleton marketing teams can barely keep pace with the revolving door. Is it any surprise that in this context the sales of many full collections from prestigious outfits struggle to reach three figures?

And what about the effect of social media and newsfeeds? We all scroll so quickly, a new book becoming an old one in the space of weeks, pressure everywhere to be constantly publishing or be left behind.

A number of poetry people whose opinion I value have long held that poets should allow at least four years between collections, firstly to enable the previous book to garner and gather a readership that gradually builds and accumulates, and secondly to allow a poet's customers to have a rest from shelling out on their wares, not to feel there's something nearing an annual fee to keep up with their output. I myself am still encountering new readers for The Knives of Villalejo, my first full collection, which was published back in 2017. I'm not sure that would be the case if I'd brought me second collection out a couple of years later.

What do you think? Am I imagining a problem that doesn't exist? Am I old-fashioned? Can collections still be slow-burning successes in the age of social media...?