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...?