Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Stanza - A New Course for the Poetry School

After having taught a one-off workshop on-line for the Poetry School earlier this year, I'm very pleased to be returning to teach with this amazing organisation in the autumn of 2016. The topic of this five-session course (running over 10 weeks) will be 'The Stanza'. To promote the course, I've been asked to a write a post over at the Poetry School blog, which you can read here. I hope some of you will consider signing up -- I'll be doing my best to make the course stimulating and productive for all of us.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

What's going on?

In post-Brexit Britain, as political leaders tumble and old certainties are shaken, this is a question I find myself asking more than once every day. In another (non-poetic) guise, I've written about what I think is really going on here, but things are moving so fast, any substantial judgement still seems premature. We can't see history while we're making it, or while others are making it for us.

What does poetry do here? There are a couple of interesting projects up and running where poets respond directly to contemporary events: over at The Fat Damsel and a rejuvenated New Boots and Pantisocracies. I've written a few pieces in this vein myself in the past, as evidenced in part by this blog, but I'm finding that the general atmosphere of upheaval is seeping into my writing in more oblique ways at the moment, so that I don't think I have it in me to write a poem directly in response to current events. Instead, a rather odd and fantastical sequence is emerging with the title Scare Stories, which may or may not see the light of day in due course.

Luckily, I have the distraction of some summer readings to look forward to. July is quite a packed month in this respect.

On Monday 18, I'll be reading at Leicester Shindig, from 19.30, in the company of Claire Walker and others at The Western, 70 Western Road, Leicester LE3 0GA. There's an open mic, so please come along and share your work!

On Friday 22, I'll be reading with other Gloucestershire-based poets at Waterstones Birmingham, courtesy of Cheltenham Poetry Festival (full details below).

On Tuesday 26, I'll be reading with Daniel Sluman at Poetry Bites in Kings Heath, Birmingham (full details here), also including open mic.

On Thursday 28, I'll be reading at Words and Ears in Bradford on Avon with Rachael Clyne (see full details below).

Friday, June 3, 2016

Letter from Brussels

This week I was in the Netherlands and Belgium for my work. With a couple of hours to kill in a rather misty and chill Brussels, I took the retro-futuristic Metro to see the Grande Place and buy truffles for the nearest and dearest. The standard tourist stuff. No time to look at the fine museums or pop into the 'Parlementarium', which is surely what Eurosceptics imagine hell must look like.
There I was, at the heart of what we have come to see as 'Europe' (although its real heart may lie further east these days), thinking of the journey home and the prospect of arriving back in the truly depressing midst of the EU referendum debate, with the looming prospect of Britain's self-isolation from 'the continent'. The old myth of separateness and parochialism is alive and well in this ever-more interconnected world -- a colossal failure of the collective imagination, whatever one thinks of individual EU policies, or even of the apparatus as a whole.
Judy Sutherland has been publishing some lovely, positive Europhile poems over at The Stare's Nest. I recommend you check them out. Below are a few lines of doggerel written on that rainy afternoon in Brussels. They can't match the positivity of the poems Judy Sutherland has posted, I'm afraid.

Letter from Brussels

I call a narrow land my home –
it does not thank me for my hymns.
For want of answers it says NO
and doesn't care what it doesn't know.

Whatever phoney war this might
turn out to be, the last of fight's
gone out of me. The double-dealing
chatter smoothly on, the feeling

offered's like some sticky hand
you brace yourself to shake. Bland
messiahs packed in spittled suits,
poisoners of the grass-roots.

And here is better? Why not stay?
Today these flatlands, clipped from baize
and duller cloths, are rich enough
for killing over petty stuff –

who speaks how or prays just so,
who may stay and who must go.
Here too, the papers all report
opinions instead of thought.

At least, perhaps, there may be space
to share – a hope we learn to face.
Rarely do we get to choose
the juice in which we will be stewed.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Guest Poet: Katherine E. Young

Katherine E. Young
One of my most pleasurable poetry discoveries of recent months has been Katherine E.Young's collection, Day of the Border Guards (University of Arkansas Press, 2014), a book that addresses the author's long experience of living and working in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia. Katherine, who I was lucky enough to meet at a reading she gave in Cheltenham recently, is also an accomplished translator of Russian verse into English, and her deep knowledge of and love for Russian literary culture in particular are a hallmark of this collection. And yet the tone here is never academic; rather, the poems are constructed around the lived detail of everyday existence in Russia's past and present, closely observed, yet never exoticized. I have many personal favourites in the book, but Katherine has been kind enough to allow me to showcase the following poem.

Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

But how little they resembled the gods
who wore winged crowns in allegorical paintings,
those dissidents who frowned through scotch-taped glasses
and shook their fingers at my naïveté.
No more than I resembled Icarus
falling from the sky, my failures even
more ordinary. What amazed me then:
the armies of the everyday who woke
each morning and set patiently about
making something of their lives, despite
every conceivable incentive to do
nothing. Onetime ploughmen throttled combines,
the torturer’s chauffeur strained his back
changing a flat, printers inked metal plates
to print the newspapers office workers
used to wrap up fish. On the Koltso,
trucks belched smoke; and up in space men floated
in expensive delicate ships and watched
the earth in blue radiance whirling away.

Of 'Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts', Katherine writes:

'I first went to the USSR as a student in 1981 – all the poems in Day of the BorderGuards are in some way connected to the years I lived and worked in the Soviet Union and then Russia. I started studying Russian because I wanted to be an astronaut and meet up with cosmonauts in space: I had this naïve, idealistic notion that meeting face-to-face with Soviet citizens could somehow help bridge the Cold War gap between America and the USSR. And, in fact, meeting Russians – all the peoples of the USSR – was illuminating, but not always in ways I’d expected. Quite often, Soviet citizens turned out to be just as mulish, obstinate, and unempathetic as Americans! Some of the most mulish and obstinate among them (with good reason, of course) were the dissidents and refuseniks whose lives had been twisted and ruined by the Soviet system: they could be even more strident in their anti-Soviet rhetoric than Americans. This was an uncomfortable discovery for me, because I instinctively distrust people who see the world in black and white. In later years, I’ve experienced a good deal of guilt for harboring such mixed feelings about the dissidents, for preferring moral ambiguity to moral certainty, for not fully understanding how much they suffered. But at the time, I found the very Soviet-ness of the USSR in all its strangeness, its casual cruelty, its cheerful stagnation, to be curiously compelling. This poem explores my fascination with Homo Sovieticus, particularly the generation of women who lost millions of potential mates in the Second World War, women who held the nation together from sheer force of will, almost completely uncredited (nor do they receive their due in my poem, I’m sorry to say). While the poem pays obvious homage to WH Auden, its final line comes from the nineteenth-century Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov’s phrase “The earth sleeps in blue radiance…” from “Alone I set out on the road” [“Выхожу один я на дорогу”]. I discovered new meaning in Lermontov’s phrase when translating Inna Kabysh’s “Yuri Gagarinwas a great Russian poet”. Elsewhere Kabysh has written eloquently about the unimaginably difficult everyday existence of Soviet and Russian women, but her poem about Gagarin (the first human in space) speaks particularly to the kind of idealism and optimism felt by a young American girl who wanted more than anything to grow up and become a celestial ambassador.'

The American poets who get a hearing on this side of the Atlantic are few in number compared to the productivity of US poetry, and we often rely on UK publishers to act as gatekeepers, selecting for us the books we will engage with. Clearly, British poets and readers have much to gain by looking further afield in the US poetry scene. In that spirit, I can wholeheartedly recommend Katherine's book, which can be ordered inthe UK.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Salt on the Wind

It has taken me a little while, but last week I finally found time to read work by American poet Ruth Stone, specifically her collection Simplicity (1995). Stone died in her nineties in 2011, after becoming more well known relatively late in her career (more details on the Poetry Foundation website). Stone is an immediately engaging presence, writing out of everyday life, but unafraid to address the fundamental issues of human existence head-on, with a humour and lack of sentimentality that feel hard won in the face of her own experience, which was marked in particular by the suicide of her second husband in 1959 (several of the poems in Simplicity make reference to this).
I came to Stone's poetry (and hope to read more of it) as a result of the kind gift of a new anthology edited by Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery, Salt on the Wind: Poetry in Response to Ruth Stone (Elephant's Footprint). I'm not going to offer a full-scale review of the anthology here, although it does contain many very fine poems (my particular favourite has to be Cristina Navazo-Eguia Newton's 'Dog', but there are numerous others I could recommend). What I like most about the book that Helen and Chaucer have put together is that it is not a straightforward homage. Stone herself is not strongly present as an individual in the book. Rather, it is her writing and teaching which provide the starting-point for a diverse range of poems. There are interesting notes at the back of the book where the poets talk about how they came to write what they did, and these are testament to the many forms that influence can take, how - in their own mind - poets often fashion subterranean connections to the work of others. Apart from the enjoyment of the poems themselves, the anthology as a whole provides a fascinating demonstration of the true value of literary influence - not as slavish imitation, but as a dialogue in which we take up where others have let off, but selectively, personally, and always making something new with what we find. Given the recent scandals in the world of poetry over the plagiaristic use of models from others, this volume could be recommended as a primer in the creative possibilities of engaging with the work of other poets. The poems are  more than worthy of engaging with in their own right, but will also serve as an invitation to get to know the work of Stone herself.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Music and Lyrics

One of the questions I get asked now and then about poetry, and one of the more interesting ones, is about the difference between song lyrics and poems. Are song lyrics just poems with musical accompaniment? Are lyricists poets? After all, from time to time, publishing houses (I mean you, Faber and Faber) try and milk a few book sales and a bit of pop-cultural kudos out of putting out collected lyrics by various singer-songwriters.
The answer to the question of how to distinguish song lyrics from poems is, I think, both straightforward and quite complicated. The straightforward answer is that a poem can exist on the page or in performance without music. It makes its own music, that is to say that the sound, structure and rhythm of the poem are sufficient to produce the poem's overall effect. You could set a good poem to music (and there are many examples of this in the history of music), but then you are making something new. The poem itself doesn't need the music. Lyrics on the other hand, while ideally working well with the music which accompanies them, might struggle to have anywhere near the same effect as poems without music.
So, that's the basic position - but then things get complicated. In reality, we probably have to imagine the relationship between poems and songs lyrics on a sliding scale. At one end, we have lyrics that work wonderfully with the music they were written for, but which would be much less impressive on the page. There are many varieties of this phenomenon, but we could take the example of Paul McCartney's lyrics for 'Yesterday', one of the most successful popular songs ever written, to stand for those lyrics which, on the page, would seem hackneyed and uninspiring, but which are magically transformed in combination with that great tune (and McCartney's brilliance as a performer). Let's face it, rhyming 'yesterday' with 'far away' and 'here to stay' is not the stuff of great poetry. Without the tune (which is pretty hard to forget) it would not be great art. With the tune, it unquestionably is. Another variety of the lyric which can't survive without the tune would be the work of Morrissey. A remarkably lyricist, many of Morrissey's texts actually have relatively few words in them, but these are repeated, woven in and our of the melody and subjected to some of the most extraordinary performances you are likely to encounter. Just think of what he does the with the word 'etcetera' in 'Sweet and Tender Hooligan'. Apart from all of his wit and insight, what makes Morrissey's lyrics work is the way they are sung.
At the other end of the scale, there are certainly song lyrics which, although they might have a different kind of impact, could easily survive on the page without any knowledge of the music which normally accompanies them. Leonard Cohen, who of course is a published poet as well as a songwriter, is the name that comes to mind immediately. Lyrics like 'Chelsea Hotel #2' or 'Tower of Song' have that quality. And somewhere on this scale, between Leonard Cohen and 'Yesterday', most other song lyrics have their existence.

Another interesting sub-category are lyrical collaborations between poets and songwriters. So, for instance, Frank McGuiness has written lyrics for Marianne Faithfull, Paul Muldoon worked with Warren Zevon, and Jeremy Reed collaborated with Marc Almond on Piccadilly Bongo. There are sure to be others out there I don't know. Feel free to leave me a recommendation!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

In the booklight

My fellow Nine Arches poet Sarah James has been kind enough to publish an interview with me on her blog, as part of a new series called 'In the booklight'. Sarah came up with some really interesting questions - I hope the answers are worth reading too! It was really rewarding to enter into a dialogue with someone who had read Arc so thoughtfully. Click here if you want to read the whole interview.

 Sarah James' blog

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


Whether you like it or not, readings are part of being a poet who is trying to flog a book (or pamphlet). As it happens, I rather like them. They are a chance to show off, at least. But mainly, I enjoy performing my work, although I'm not a 'performance' poet in the commonly understood sense. Although I always read out my work when I am writing it (the composition process happens somewhere between voice and page), it is only when I have a room of people looking at me that I really get a sense of how the poem could sound, which is often different from reading to reading. Reading other people's work aloud does this too -- even poems I know well can offer something new when spoken.
A lot of poets plan readings very carefully. I know I should, but it only makes me nervous. So, I try not to think about it until I enter the room and get a look at the audience. When events feature open mic slots, especially when the guest poet goes on last, this is a real help, as it is usually possible to pick up a couple of cues from poems that have already been read out as a starting-point for my own reading. Otherwise, I try to use my initial poem as the one that is going to capture people's attention, then take it from there. There's no use giving them a tiny, quiet and possibly slightly obscure poem to begin with. It might work on the page, but the opening of a poetry reading needs something big and bold. Equally, I've always found that the last poem works well if it can make the audience laugh. I don't do comic verse, but something that at least makes people smile is a good note to end on. By now, I've come to realise which poems can raise a titter, and I keep them in reserve. Only once did this go horribly wrong when my last, humorous poem, a sure-fire hit at every other reading, left an audience stony-faced. You can't win them all.
The thing I like least about readings is the terrible sense that, if the whole audience doesn't rush to the book table clutching a greasy tenner in their hands to buy the book, they must have hated the whole thing. This is silly, I know. Not everybody has the money to buy new poetry books every day of the week, and most people will probably not be instant fans in any case. It is lovely when people do buy the book and want to talk to you (or even when they just buy it!), but I've had to learn to take myself to a far corner with a glass of wine and ignore the business end of things. This also involves resisting the urge to fall at the feet of the few hapless book-buyers who have parted with their cash.
Happily, I have quite a few readings and other events in the coming weeks and months. On 19th March, I'll be in Birmingham taking part in one of the Vanguard readings (full details above). Then, on 12th April I'm taking part in the Ledbury Poetry Salon, which will involve and interview and a reading (further details to follow). On 27th April, I'll be appearing at a new event, In Your Own Words, organised by Miki Byrne at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury (from 17.00 to 19.00). Let's hope they all laugh at the funny ones!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

the terrible

On Thursday night this week I was in Birmingham to read in support of the launch of Daniel Sluman's the terrible, his striking second collection from Nine Arches Press. Daniel's book, which I've been reading and re-reading since the event, is unflinching yet tender as it faces issues of disability, mortality, love and sex - it's intense and compelling stuff. Daniel's reading from and discussion of the book was recorded, and I can recommend catching up with it here.

Daniel was quite a tough act to follow, and I also very much enjoyed hearing new work by fellow Nine Arches Poet and current Cheltenham poet in residence Angela France. The event was hosted by Birmingham City University and we had a good crowd, including students from their MA programme.
I'm also pleased to have been invited to contribute to another excellent initiative in the region, the Poetry Salons at Ledbury. Organised by the same people who bring us the Poetry Festival, these events include a reading and interview by invited poets, plus an open mic session. I will be reading on 12 April 2016, but the next event, on Tuesday 9 February, will feature Maitreyabandhu, and the following month's event with Myra Connell will take place on 8 March. The readings are held in the Panelled Room in the Master's House in Ledbury (7pm - 9pm) and entry is only £5, to include a glass of Poetry Gold cider. There's no need to book.

Finally, Cheltenham Poetry Festival is on the horizon once more. The programme will appear soon, but I'm flattered that the organisers have put my on the cover! From what I hear, it will be an excellent line-up again this year. Apart from reading with Sarah James, I'll be running a workshop on 15 May on 'Beginning and Ending the Poem'. More details to follow soon.