Friday, December 28, 2012

Reading the Poet

Really, I should follow the lead of many illustrious poetry bloggers and offer this final post of the year as an overview of what has been and what is to come. But two reading experiences in the latter months of 2012 have set me thinking, and the following - rather than an end of year thought - is more of an ongoing thought about how we read poetry.
It has been a while now since Roland Barthes declared the 'death of the author', liberating literary criticism from the quest to reconstruct what the author 'really meant' or to uncover the hidden meaning of the text in her or his biography, but poetry like any other art form is intrinsically bound up with the facts of the maker's life, at least from the reader's point of view. Would any reader really approach Plath or Larkin without wanting to find out something about who they were, even if that only went as far as tapping their names into Wikipedia? The fact that standard editions of poets' works are incomplete without some kind of biographical sketch and an apparatus of notes filling in the details of the author's movements and acquaintances suggests otherwise.
The End of the Poem by Paul MundoonPaul Muldoon's Oxford poetry lectures, published in The End of the Poem (2006), are much preoccupied with the relationship between the work of reading and interpreting and the work of writing. One of the questions that Muldoon asks is, where does the poem end and its author begin? How can the poem survive without the context of the author's biography? (I'm thinking here particularly of the chapter on Lowell). The interpretative process which Muldoon's lectures enact is unconventional in contemporary academic terms: he picks up on certain words or plays on words between the poem he analyses and a broad range of material which, his readings assert with a certain ironic twinkle of the eye, must have informed the creative process of the poet in question. Sometimes this seems likely, sometimes little more than hypothetical, if always fascinatingly so. To my mind, what Muldoon is really about is constructing an 'implied author', in much the same vein that academic literary criticism once sought to construct an 'implied reader' from the text. Ultimately that author is only one who exists in the connections Muldoon himself makes, the readings he fashions; but those readings are akin to a writerly process in which the reader reimagines the original act of creation, a process not unlike that of translation as described in one of Muldoon's lectures. The paradox Muldoon presents to us is the necessity of the author for our engagement with the poem, faced with our own construction of that author in the act of reading.
The other book that has provoked me into thinking about the role of the particular personality of the poet in the reading process is Jan Wagner's Die Eulenhasser in den Ellenhaeusern (2012), a collection that - I realise - will remain inaccessible to many people who will read this post. Wagner is to me one of Germany's most interesting poets, possessed of a keen awareness of form and a lyrical approach, doubtless informed by his work translating contemporary English verse. He stands somewhat apart in German poetry today, dominated as it is by a hermetically modernist approach in the tradition of Celan. However, Die Eulenhasser can rightly be described as an 'experimental' book. Wagner presents himself as merely the editor of a collection of work by three obscure (or 'hidden') poets, two deceased and one anonymous. One is an 'untrained' rural poet, one an avant-gardist who writes only anagrammatical poems, the last writes 'Roman elegies' in the tradition of Goethe. The poets are presented with copious notes, biographical essays and a list of secondary literature - all of which, it gradually dawned on me - is entirely fake. The only author at work here is Wagner himself.
What Wagner is up to here may seem like showing off, demonstrating his versatility. And all of the poems are good, I think, sometimes very good, so this is not just an exercise in fakery. While enjoying the poems, however, I found my psychological relationship to the book unsettling. Particularly the first of Wagner's poets, the farmer Brandt, is so affecting not only because of the skill with which Wagner has given him a unique voice, but also on account of the very authenticity from which such voices live - an authenticity we realise to be entirely spurious. Although I would not want to reduce Wagner's achievement to this one point, I find a link to Muldoon's poetry lectures, in that text allows us to imagine three fantastical poets in much the same way as we would imagine the 'real' poets whose work we read. Imagining such poetic identities, both Muldoon and Wagner seem to suggest, is inseparable from the reading process. This modifies Barthes' obiturary for the author considerably. The philosopher had also argued that the creator of any work was only the sum of the texts by and about her or him, onto which the reader projected a personality. What Muldoon and especially Wagner add is the insight that knowledge of this state of affairs does not mean that we can stop reading for that personality, even when we know that it is a (pleasurable) fiction.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Poet Among the Engineers

Recently, Sir James Dyson was in the headlines for deriding the study of 'French lesbian poetry' at university, a subject apparently in demand among 'little Angelina[s]' everywhere.

I don't normally write in response to current events, or put poems into the public domain so quickly, but I couldn't resist in this case. Dyson's comments immediately put me in mind of Fleur Adock's 'The Ex-Queen Among the Astronomers', which provided the inspiration for the poem below.

The Poet Among the Engineers
after Fleur Adcock, for Sir James Dyson

The engineers are hunched at their desks,
patter their keyboards with finger-tip rain,
siphon data up from the labs
where prototypes spin in man-made storms

and spines of metal are stressed ‘til they snap
like wishbones. Each shudder throws a peak
on the graph that shows these men how useful
they are, how worthy of praise that she fails –

hélas! – to dispense. She slinks across
carpet-tiles, scratches a dance of sparks
from her killer heels, paces out –
perhaps – some dithyramb of desire,

composes couplets that fail to rhyme
on the names of those engineers. Her scent,
her lulling voice will muss their lines
of clear decision, for which they’ll hate

as men can only hate those things
they’ll never own, or cancel out
or comprehend. She moves on quickly,
smuggles her song through the hum of machines.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

In Transit

For my many train journeys last week, I had the perfect travelling companion: Ruth Padel's The Mara Crossing (2012). I was already a fan of her book on her great great grandfather Charles Darwin, in which she manages to capture the character of his life, but also the character of his times, showing how the challenges of modernity, religious doubt and the advance of science were part of the fabric of Darwin's personal experience. In that earlier book, Padel skilfully weaves together her own words and those of Darwin from his letters and writings to make a narrative which is also an experiment in story-telling through verse. The Mara Crossing approaches a not unrelated topic, that of migration, and there are again many references to evolution in this book. But what is particularly fascinating, apart from the tremendous amount the reader (or, at least, this reader) learns about the natural world, is the mixture of prose and sections of thematically linked poems which structure the narrative. The prose sections aren't exactly essays. Framed within a personal narrative of migration (the poet moving house), they combine observations on nature and anecdotes of the people and places Padel encountered while researching and writing the book. She writes movingly and humanely of our common fate as migrants, from the very first migration of cells to the detention centres of 'fortress Europe', and makes a powerful case for tolerance in world whose ecology is threatened as its population explodes, a process both driven by and driving migration. Then, in the poems themselves, particular scenes and characters are evoked again from new perspectives and in greater concentration.

I certainly found the book compelling, and many of the poems stand alone as excellent pieces which would work well without the context provided by the overall story, which is nothing less than ambitious than a history of life on the planet. Having said that, there are times when the particular figure or episode presented in the prose did not feel like it needed revisiting in the form of a poem, of rather where the poem itself did not seem to add a great deal, but I think that is more a side-effect of what is, in the final judgement, a very successful experiment. It has certainly made me think about my place in the world differently - and that is not something many contemporary poets achieve.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In Translation

I've had a busy few weeks with work, but have also been attending poetry events as reader, audience member or workshop participant. In particular, I enjoyed several excellent sessions of this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival unofficial fringe - Words on the Side.

I'm not, sad to say, a huge fan of workshops which try to inspire you to write poems, often by giving you a model or a prompt. They just don't work for me, although I know others get a lot out of them. At best, they give me something to go away and think about much later, but often it feels like a great pressure to jump through a hoop I would never have chosen myself.

A workshop I did enjoy, however, was Philip Rush's excellent session on 'translating Lorca' for Words on the Side. I have no Spanish and my knowledge of Lorca extends only as far as having seen a production of The House of Bernada Alba and loving Leonard Cohen's 'Take this Waltz'. The real point of Philip's workshop, though, was to explore how a poem written in another language could be the starting point for re-interpretation and re-invention as much as for literal translation. Using English translations of the poems or prose summaries, he encouraged us to produce new versions of Lorca. The result was not exactly mimicry, but it did help us to consider different ways of writing which might enrich our own.

Anyway, here's my very modest effort, slightly tweaked since the workshop: a version (but not a translation) of Lorca's 'La Luna Asoma'.

after Lorca, for Philip Rush

When the moon first rises
it muffles the bells,
draws unnavigable paths across the infinite
land, then floods that land
leaving only an island for your heart.

And there you sit, hungry for oranges
but eating only cold and unripe fruit,
turning two silver coins in your pocket,
sliding their faces across each other
to hear them weep.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Words on the Side

Live Canon

I'm very happy to have been shortlisted for the Live Canon Poetry Prize with my poem 'Domestic Gods'. I wrote this poem a few years ago and never did anything with it after getting some uncomprehending looks at the one slam I ever entered. Maybe the slam was a mistake, but it just goes to show you should never give up on a poem.

The Live Canon team are producing not only an anthology of the shortlisted work, but also a performance of the poems by their own actors. I'm going to have to miss this, unfortunately, due to family commitments, but I'd certainly encourage anyone within easy reach of the Greenwich area to go along and check it out on Sunday 21 October at 3 p.m. Full details of the shortlist and of how to get free tickets are here. After the performance, judge Antony Dunn will tear the golden envelope and announce the lucky winner.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Poetry and a Pint

June Hall photo

Poetry and a pint make a marvellous combination, as will my good friend June Hall and R. V. Bailey when they appear at 'Poetry and a Pint' in St James Wine Vaults, Bath on 8th October from 8 p.m. (entry only £2/£1).

June writes with great humour and warmth about family life, but is also committed to addressing its darker untertows with unflinching honesty. It's a compelling mix. Widely published in UK magazines and serial winner of competitions, she has two collections with her own Belgrave Press.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Gentle Art of Self-Promotion

Recently, I placed a pre-order for Fiona Sampson's new book on British poetry, Beyond the Lyric. So far, everything I've heard about the book and Sampson's take on the contemporary poetry scene leads me to expect a great read. She has a piece in the New Statesman's current special issue on poetry which sums up her position.

One claim in the New Statesman article gave me pause, however. Sampson writes

The development of open-mike evenings, increasingly competitive in format, runs alongside the way emergent poets use Facebook and the blogosphere to broadcast poetry “achievements”. When this kind of competitive model encounters the range of poetic practices, it leads to claims that poems written one way “fail” to do what those written in another can.

I'm not going to directly criticise Sampson's thesis here, because (and this is part of my point), I don't feel that being negative is part of the function of this blog. And I'll leave aside the argument about open mics (in general, these are not competitive - I think she means slams, which definitely are. Also, shoot that copy editor over 'open-mike' - who he?). But, as someone who might at a stretch be described as an 'emergent poet' (or someone who would like to be, I suppose!), and as someone who uses this blog and Facebook to let friends and the world at large know when I have something published or am taking part in an event, for instance, Sampson's criticism makes me question myself. Am I really broadcasting (even trumpeting?) trivia which only I (so the implication of the quotation marks) would regard as worthy of the name of achievements? Do I do so in a spirit of competition, eager to make myself look better in relation to others? Does publicising my (really very minor) successes de-legitimise what others write?


A trumpet, yesterday.

Now, I know that Sampson doesn't mean me personally (my ego isn't that inflated), but I think it's worth my considering whether these charges stick in my case.

Well, yes, this blog did emerge out of the impending publication of my pamphlet (quick plug, there, obviously) and I do let people know when I get something published or do a reading, which isn't that often. But, really, the whole thing for me is about joy. My joy in reading poetry became a joy in writing it (although not unalloyed joy, it has to be admitted), which has now become a joy in sharing what I have written and the work of other poets who mean something to me. Ultimately, this is something I do for pleasure, not to compete with others.

The blogs and Facebook pages by other poets I enjoy (Matt Merrit, Roy Marshall and Todd Swift's Eyewear get honourable mentions here) have the qualities I am aiming for: reading them tips me off on the latest publications by other poets they themselves enjoy, lets me know about events I could attend or take part in, gives me insight into their enthusiasms and - from time to time - lets me know that there is also something of their own to read on-line or elsewhere. I'm glad to have all of this because I like their work and trust their judgement.

Without trying to paint myself as entirely selfless, I'd also point out that promoting one's own work is not just promoting oneself. Small publishers and magazine editors put in huge amounts of work and love to promote poets' work and reach readers, so when they print something of mine or print something I have really enjoyed, I feel duty bound to do all I can to help them in that effort. The really great thing about social media is the possibility for readers and writers to interact in new ways which help to promote stuff which would otherwise drown in the general din. That stuff can be one's own, but, as John Self recently wrote in The Guardian, we can all be champions of the things we value using the Internet, even if we didn't write them ourselves.

So, I don't feel Sampson's charge is justified, but I'm still looking forward to reading her book. Which I found out about on Facebook, as it happens.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Hard Times

In these days of austerity, the arts are prime targets for cuts - and people who work a 'day job' to fund their own artistic endeavours, like everyone else, can have a hard time of it. Crowd-funding is a novel way of addressing some of the pressures, and poet Adam Horovitz is currently asking those who have enjoyed his work, and supporters of poetry more generally, to give a little so that he can take up a prestigious Hawthorden Fellowship later this year. You can find more details here.

It needn't cost you the earth to help Adam out. In fact, you can sponsor him for as little as £1. He's already raised over £100 of the £800 he needs, and it would be great to see him achieve his target. Please give something if you can.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Back to Work

Over the last couple of days, I've been intrigued and beguiled by William Letford's first collection, Bevel (Carcanet, 2012).

A roofer by trade, this Scottish poet is rare among contemporary writers for his engagement with the world of work. I've often thought it strange that literature rarely engages with work, Larkin's hated 'toad', despite the fact that most people spend a good chunk of their lives engaged in it. For all of its faults, one thing that could be said for the literary culture of communist countries was its persistent examination of what it meant to be a worker (even if it didn't always do so very realistically).

Letford's account, however, has nothing to do with the politics of labour, despite the inclusion of one brief poem that compares work to slavery ('A bad day'). The very title of this one piece suggests that this is not Letford's usual attitude to his working life. His writing is, in fact, squarely within the wisdom tradition where, as Rachael Boast points out, poetry has its roots; and it is an existential truth about working life, particularly involving manual work, that Letford is after. In these poems, work is a human instinct ('Waking for work in winter'), a mode of being, and an acquired craft ('Be prepared'; 'Wit is it'), yet at no point does Letford appear to make a direct metaphor for poetry out of the processes of manual work. In fact, in 'It's aboot the labour', the craftsman's incomprehension for the poet's desire to get his poems published is presented not patronisingly as ignorance, but with a sense that he may well be right.

Many of Letford's poems are brief and have the appearance of formal casualness, long relaxed lines giving the impression of prose poetry at times. But these often lead us gently to a killer pay-off that is emotionally arresting without being showy. In other poems, however, he explores the space of the page, introducing concrete elements. There's a gentle humour throughout, but no satirising of his subjects, and it's possibly the poems about human (sexual) relationships that, alongside the poems about work, will repay re-reading. Here the sense of wisdom acquired in the work poems gives way to a world-weariness that seems to preclude lasting relationships, as in his 'Sex poem number 2', where the the couple are described as 'two people rooting around for something beautiful/ so we could grind it/ to dust'.

This is an original début by a fascinating new voice.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mirror, Mirror

Rona Laycock, the driving force behind the Gloucestershire Writers' Network, has organised this great event during the Cheltenham Literature Festival to celebrate the GWN competition 2012.

The competition winners and runners up will be performing amid the baroque elegance of the  Spiegeltent.

The event takes place on Monday 8 October, 20.15-21.30, and will include a reading by Adam Horovitz.

Book early to avoid disappointment!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Let Them Eat Poetry

I'm very pleased to have been included in an excellent 'pop-up anthology' inspired by the BBC's 'Great British Bake-Off' series, alongside Cliff Yates, Adam Horovitz, Jacquline Saphra, Simon Barraclough and others. I have to admit, I don't get to see a lot of TV, but I do love baking and poetry.

You can take a look at my poem here, at The Great British Bard-Off, which is still taking contributions on any baking-related subject. And as for the cake, here's one I made earlier: a German Pflaumenkuchen, no less.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Poetry and Art

A while ago, Rachael Boast, who was my tutor at The Poetry School for a couple of terms, invited me to contribute to a volume of ekphrastic poems responding to works of art displayed publicly in Bristol. After a very pleasant day wandering around the Bristol Art Gallery and other art spaces in the city, the image that stayed with me the most was Karl Weschke's picture of 'Leda'.

I almost immediately realised that this was a bad idea, given the long history of depictions of Leda in all kinds of media, and the obvious reference point of Yeats' famous poem. Nevertheless, Weschke's depiction of Leda not as victim, but as bearing down upon the enigmatic swan, suggested a whole other story, a re-writing of the myth. And a deeply unsettling re-writing at that.

I hope that the poem I've produced, with much support from Rachael, is up to the challenge of engaging with this powerful image. For anyone interested in hearing it, I will be taking part in an event in Bristol on 21 August, where the main reader will be T.S. Eliot prize-winner Phlip Gross.His performance will be worth the meagre £2 entry fee alone. Please do e-mail the organiser to reserve a place.

Poetry and Art in Bristol

First floor study room, 43 Woodland Rd (The Old Baptist College)
Tuesday 21st August

This event arises from a unique year-long project to gather poems inspired by artworks in Bristol.
There will be a discussion between the poet Philip Gross and the sculptor Simon Thomas about their
respective pieces entitled ‘SmallWorlds’. There will also be readings and contributions by Ralph Pite,
Edson Burton, Jane Griffiths and many other poets and visual artists.
Wine reception afterwards.
Entry is £2 (payable on the door) but places are limited to 60.
email: to reserve a ticket.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Invention of Language

Forgive these rather unformed thoughts, but after I blogged about line endings a while ago, one of my fellow workshoppers challenged me to post about the next topic put to us by our leader, Polly Moyer. In our last workshop, Polly got us thinking about invented words, which reminded me of an excellent talk I heard at Cheltenham Poetry Festival this year by the poet-lexicographer Giles Goodland. Goodland's main point was that, in the past, poets were actually a source of new words, expanding the vocabulary of English as a young language by coming up with new ways of saying things that needed to be said. The greatest word inventor was Shakespeare, with over 1700 coinings of his still in common usage. Once we have a standardised language, of course, with dictionaries, grammarians and English teachers, some words are 'right' and some words are 'wrong' or disallowed.

But inventing words is still a fundamental human instinct. Reading Roy Marshall's excellent Gopagilla (Crystal Clear, 2012), for example, I am reminded of how children learn language as much by making new words and playing sounds as by simply imitating what already existing - Roy's title is a word invented by his son. And poets, I think, have to remain as much language inventors as language imitators. While there is much to be said for the precise use of the arsenal of language as it is, there should always be room for the creation of new words where that invention gives us access to untapped experience. For instance, Paul Farley gets a whole poem out of someone else's invention of the word 'landy' to describe the smell of land from the sea after a long solo voyage (in his collection Tramp in Flames, Picador 2006).

For anyone who wants to try their hand at word invention, I can recommend Oli Hazzard's poem 'The inability to recall the precise word for something' which provides a list of things in the world that are still in search of some precise terminology (the recording is not that great - you can also find the poem in The Salt Book of Younger Poets).

Finally by way of my own contribution to word-coining, here's a poem I wrote a while ago, an unashamedly romantic sonnet, for which I came up with the term 'unkeltered'. Somehow, nothing else would do.


Your body’s the only warm thing in the room –
One finger keeps me moored to it, for safety,
until I am unkeltered by a moon
that fixes me cold and drives me out to sea,

where limbs of kraken scrape against my hull,
then pitch to depths where flitting shoals collide
and squirm with eelish memories, whose shocks seemed dull
when I was still salt-roped along your side.

I’m off the radar, a green and ghosting blip,
a bottle with its SOS unread.
My thousand lies send out their fearful ships
to sink me fifty fathoms to the dead.

Still, from your sleep, you cast a saving hand
that drags me back, anchors me to land.

(First published in Dreams and Nightmares, Gloucestershire Writers' Network, 2010)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Buying 'Gaud' On-line

As promised, I can now give details of where to buy 'Gaud', as well as the other great Flarestack Poets pamphlets, on-line.


Update 15 August 2012

Gaud is also now available direct from the publisher, Flarestack Poets. Click here to go to their on-line shop.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Gloucestershire Writers Network Competition

I was delighted to hear a couple of days ago that I am the winner of the poetry section of this year's Gloucestershire Writers Network competition. I was a runner up in this competition a couple of years ago, so it's particularly satisfying that I've been successful this time around.

My poem 'How It Was' was inspired by meeting Richard Pietrass, an East German poet, and translating some of his work, which captures so well the contradictions between conformity and the resilience of individual human identity under dictatorship. As the theme of the GWN competition this year was 'people power', I was in a good position to write a poem on this very subject.

Thanks to Alison Brackenbury, the judge of the competition, for her generous comments on the poem:

'Everyone, I think, has moments of vision and it is the poet’s privilege to try to capture these.  I felt that the winning poem, "How it Was", succeeded marvellously.  Its brief but compelling lines convey the gap between the flags and ceremony of an oppressive state with the anarchic, private lives of its people.  The poem is patterned by repeated, powerful contrasts.  Its rhythms vary from the urgent beat of a short line about blood to the long-drawn-out fall of a lazy afternoon. This is a quiet but profound poem which I shall remember with admiration.'

I'll not post the poem here yet, as it will soon be appearing in the competition anthology. However, there will be an event in October at Cheltenham Literature Festival where the winners will read. More on that soon. And, if memory serves, there is even a trophy to collect - I'll make a space on the mantelpiece!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Flarestack Poets Launch

I'm just about recovered now from the intense experience of presenting poems from my pamphlet Gaud at the Flarestack Poets launch in Birmingham on Tuesday night.

Loyal parents and partner waiting for the event to begin
Jacqui and Meredith, the Flarestack editors, had found a really great venue in the Ikon Gallery, supported by Writing West Midlands; and the other poets and members of the audience were extremely friendly and supportive. All three of the competition pamphlets seemed to be selling well and I even got to sign a few of mine own.

The quality of the competition entries was clearly very high, particularly the poems of my fellow prize-winner Nichola Deane. Favourites of mine among the shortlisted and anthology poets were Jacci Garside, Oliver Comins, Claire Dyer, Michael Conley and Roy Marshall.

I can't say much about my own reading, as it all seemed to go by in a blur. I think I got the introductory-chat-to-poems-ratio about right. There's a review of the event here, at Gary Longdon's blog.

Gaud will soon be available to buy via the Flarestack website, where you can also get hold of their other excellent pamphlets. Otherwise, copies can be had from me in person at forthcoming readings.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Praise Indeed

One of the most interesting aspects of preparing Gaud for publication has been asking poets I very much admire for their comments on the pamphlet.

It's ony really since Gaud was accepted for publication that I have started to ask myself what it is I do when I'm writing poetry, what it is that really preoccupies me. These things are probably clearer to other people, and I'm immensely grateful to David Briggs and Alison Brackenbury for having offered their comments for the back cover. Their words will not only give readers a sense of what to expect, but they've made me see my work from new perspectives, too.

'Everywhere in David Clarke's Gaud the senses are engaged: "fuck-off cologne" assaults the nose; mouths bloom with cognac, smoke, tongues and wry-baroque irony. But, there's a very continental intelligence at work here too. In these poems the body is political space, tussled over by sharps, transvestites, revolutionaries, pornographers and lovers; and the landscape is a semiotic battlefield, from which this sharp-eyed reporter delivers his slant despatches with "an extraordinary level of wit and detail". Frustrating to discover a new writer of such range and talent; but, there's no point grumbling when "this is what I really want."' (David Briggs)

'David Clarke’s exact, unsparing poems are executed with an eerie coolness.  His intriguing narratives have their own sensual music, as subtle as his rhymes:

For me, a man must love his art, its cost—
choose his poison, drain it to the last.'
(Alison Brackenbury)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gaud Gigs

The launch of Gaud is now imminent and I have two readings lined up.

The first is the official launch, organised by Flarestack Poets and Writing West Midlands at the Ikon Gallery in Brimingham on 31st July (click here for more details). The event is free, but you are advised to reserve a place.

I'll be reading for about 20 minutes, as will the other Flarestack winner Nichola Deane. Other poets featured in the competition anthology will be there, too (including  including Oliver Comins, Michael Conley, Claire Dyer, Jacci Garside, Roy Marshall, Janet Smith, Michael W. Thomas, Charles Wilkinson and Madeleine Wurzburger).

Apart from hearing the poetry, the chief pleasure of the evening will be to meet Jacqui Rowe and Meredith Andrea of Flarestack for the first time!

Then, on 4 August, I'll be reading with Cheltenham's 'Poetry Factory' and Ann Drysdale at a 'Poetry in Store' event organised by Anna Saunders of Cheltenham Poetry Festival at Waterstone's, Cheltenham (click here for more details).

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Step Back in Time

The Night Sky in My Head

I've just finished reading a novel for teens, the début of my very good friend Sarah Hammond. It's a long time since I read a book for that age-group (not since I was a teenager myself, in fact), but The Night Sky in My Head (OUP, 2012) is very impressive: tightly paced, wonderfully imagined and emotionally engaging.

Sarah has made the brave choice of telling her story from the point of view of a 14-year-old with learning difficulties, and some dark themes are tackled. It's a testament to her skill and compassion that she never patronises her hero (and certainly not her readers) while dealing delicately with love, loss, betrayal and the challenges of growing up. The book also has strong magical realist elements, as Mikey, the protagonist, has the special ability to see back in time; an ability which he uses to piece together the mystery surrounding his father's imprisonment and the murder of another man.

I don't know much about contemporary fiction for young people, but I can't help but mention this here for those who may be looking for a brilliant summer read for someone of this age. The story has a real summertime feel to it, too.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Crystal Clear

Ledbury Poetry Festival takes place (more or less) on my doorstep. Sadly, this year I have been so busy at work that I only managed one Ledbury afternoon, on the last day of the festival. So, while everyone else was in end-of-festival fatigue, I was experiencing beginning-of-festival buzz. The same can't necessarily be said of my long-suffering, poetry-agnostic partner - although he did enjoy the very entertaining reading by Sophie Hannah, perhaps one of the rare poetry performers you would be itching to invite to your next dinner party (just take a look at her blog to see what I mean).

Andrew Motion gave an engaging talk about his new 'sequel' to Stevenson's Treasure Island, as well as reading some poems from The Cinder Path and discussing this time as Laureate. Motion has a great talent for communication - he comes across like a kindly university lecturer who allows you to feel as clever and erudite as he clearly is - and that skill certainly did the office of Laureate a lot of good.

Nevertheless, the highlight of the festival for me was a very short reading by three poets who have been published by Leicester's Crystal Clear Creators in pamphlet form. Crystal Clear are relative newcomers, with their magazine Hearing Voices currently running to a fourth issue. They have now also branched out into pamphlets, with six elegantly-produced titles on sale for a very reasonable £4 each.

All three of the writers I heard seemed to me to be worth reading, but I was particularly taken by the work of Jessica Mayhew. Her pamphlet Someone Else's Photograph is precise and subtle, eschewing the strained exuberance or self-conscious 'coolness' sometimes to be found in young poets (Mayhew is 22). As the cover image suggests, the sea is a constant presence in these poems, introduced with the story of the drowning of Mayhew's grandmother's grandfather at the beginning of the collection. The sea is a mutable symbol in Mayhew's work, but often suggests both the fragility of human lives and relationships, as well as the haunting effects of their loss. There are also several poems which draw on Greek myth to address sexuality, mortality and their inter-relation.

What impresses me most about these poems, however, is the quality of their imagery. In 'Stealing from her Garden', for example, Mayhew describes a scene following her grandmother's death where her uncle 'pinches the flesh of his hands, / as if to draw the whole of her dying / out like a splinter.' Elsewhere, birds fall onto a boat-deck 'like bright drops shaken from an oar.' Let's hope some sensible publisher is soon offering to publish her first full collection.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Break it down

At a recent poetry workshop I attended in Bristol, a writer new to poetry asked the organiser to explain why poets use line-breaks the way they do. Not an easy question to answer.

Lineation seems obvious enough when a poem has a regular metre, and especially if end-rhymes are used, but how to explain what poets are up to when they use other principles to break their lines? The obvious answer, I suppose, has to do with the rhythm and weight of the individual lines, but I've heard claims for all kinds of other allegedly hard and fast rules: for instance, the suggestion that line-breaks are a substitute for punctuation, that they somehow stand in commas (surely piffle to anyone who has actually read contemporary English-language poetry). I prefer to think of line-breaks as a conventional feature of verse which doesn't have a function per se, but which can be made to do all kinds of things.

Here's a list of my top five things to do with line-breaks, not necessarily in order of importance - I'd be happy to hear some more...

1. A line-break can suspend meaning, or even give us two (or more) meanings for the price of one.

For example, in Alasdair Paterson's poem 'Dome' (from his pamphlet Brumaire and Later, 2010), a description of a space where a cathedral used to stand begins as follows:

The park's quiet
where the cathedral was.

Seems simple enough, but we can see how the line-break create ambiguity. It forces us to read 'the park's quiet' at first without reference to what follows. We could read it as 'the park is quiet' or 'the quiet of the park', both meanings being possible until we have the following line, which pins things down more closely to 'the park is quiet'. But the second meaning ('the quiet of the park') does not just cease to exist as a possibility, and this notion of the 'the park's quiet' as some particular kind of quiet that is specific to the park, a quiet which becomes almost a tangible thing in itself, still echoes.

2. A line-break can surprise

Th value of surprise in poetry is severely undervalued. But who wants to read a predictable poem? Line-breaks create surprise by allowing out thoughts to move in one particular way, only to make them shift into some other direction. The example from Paterson's 'Dome' is a good one for surprise, too. First we have the perhaps rather banal statement that the park is quiet. Perhaps we are expecting one of those nice nature poems. Perhaps there will be swans alighting on a silvery pond. And now, all of a sudden, we have the idea that a cathedral used to be here. Since when did cathedrals use to be anywhere. Surely they are the kinds of things that stay built, massive as they are? How much more surprising this notion seems because of Paterson's use of the line-break. If his poem had begun 'The cathedral used to stand in the park' (which would make a much inferior poem) we would not even be invited to see this as a surprising idea.

John Burnside is a real master of the many possibilities of the line-break, and often uses them to make imagery more surprising to the reader. For example, in his poem 'Nativity' (from Black Cat Bone, 2011), the narrator describes his birth:

and I lie squalling in a slick of blood
and moonlight [...].

Blood and moonlight is an unexpected combination (although Burnside is doubtless drawing on ancient associations of femininity, fertility and the moon), but the line-break makes the image much more striking. We take in the fairly naturalistic 'slick of blood' only for the next line to then reveal a further element which unsettles the image we have already established in our minds.

3. A line-break can suggest movement or distance

In the same poem, Burnside gives us an instance of the line-break that suggest physical movement or distance of some kind, when he describes lights going out

in house after house, from here
to the edge of the world [...].

In that line-break, we can almost feel the gesture, as if the poem was pointing and making us feel that difference between the here and the unimaginably far away.

4. A line-break can make strange

There is a widely-held view that line-breaks should not break up the sense of an expression so that it wrong-foots the reader. I think what the reader really needs is wrong-footing. To poets I say, 'come on - wrong-foot me, give it your best shot.'

Paul Muldoon and Matthew Caley do this a lot. In Muldoon's case, there is often a very deliberate strategy of fragmenting the sense of an expression over several lines so that the reader is constantly having to reorient themselves. The individual lines frequently don't make much sense standing alone. In a way, this is a similar process to no. 1 (suspending meaning) but carried to such an extent that language becomes a strange material the reader has to struggle with rather than simply the opaque medium of some easily-digested meaning. So, for example, in his recent collection Maggot (2010), we can read the following in 'The Humours of Hakone':

[...]  I'd read somewhere that the Japanese love of kitsch
is nowhere more
evident than in the craze for these sticker-photo booths which

go even further to reinforce
not only the heels of a panty hose worn under a kimono
but the impression that phosphorous
might still be a common element in flash photography. Dead

There's a kind of stop-start quality to this I like - we get drip-fed bits of meaning which slowly accumulate.

Matthew Caley often does this making strange using hyphens to break up otherwise common words over more than one line. In his poem 'Elbow', for instance (in Apparently, 2010 - not sure why most of my examples were from 2010 - must have been a good year for line-breaking), he describes

the entire audience, vibrat-
ing life the F-holes of a cello [...]

Apart from making the word 'vibrating' seem very odd (like when you say a word you know over and over until it seems arbitrary and strange), there's a great joke here, too. The word 'vibrating' itself seems to, well, vibrate.

Despite my use of recent examples, this kind of thing has been around since Modernism at least. You can see all of these things happening in e.e. cummings, for one (as in 'Poem, or Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal').

5. A line break can be funny

While we're on the subject of humour - I love a good line-break joke. Maybe we're getting into the realms of  concrete poetry here, but let's finish with A. R. Ammons' rid-tickling two-liner 'Their Sex Life':

Their Sex Life

One failure on
Top of another


Well, that's my personal top five things to do with a line-break. If there's one thing a line-break should not do, though, it's to

fool us into thinking
that because we have added
line-breaks to what is essentially
prose, we have written poetry.
Because we haven't.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Not Going to the Library

I have only recently discovered the excellent poetry resource which is the Scottish Poetry Library. Based in Edinburgh, it's a long way from my home town of Cheltenham Spa, at the edge of Cotswolds. However, for a very modest yearly membership fee, the librarians send volumes directly to my home address, which is a great help when I am are hunting down long-out-of-print collections. It also mitigates, to some extent, my problem with an ever-increasing number of poetry books purchased and a proportionately decreasing amount of shelf-space.

The Library's web page also publishes a yearly compendium of 'The Best Scottish Poetry'. Edited this year by Roddy Lumsden, the 2012 selection includes some great work by Alisdair Paterson, John Burnside, Jen Hadfield and others.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Oblivion Breakfast Table

C.J. Allen
C.J. Allen

I've already mentioned my admiration for the poetry of C. J. Allen. After reading his new collection (which it took Amazon an age to deliver to my door), I feel compelled to mention it again. I opened At the Oblivion Tea Rooms over the breakfast table and nearly made myself late for work. In the last few days, I've read the collection twice, once at a single sitting. And each time I open it, I experience a sensation so rarely associated with contemporary poetry: pleasure.

The book is divided into five parts, dealing variously with the poet's early life (or a comic version of it), animals, landscapes and the writing of poetry. Allen's verse is playful and experimental, but above all startling and compelling.

Against all the wisdom of creative writing courses, he piles metaphor on metaphor, image on image. He notes how poets are obsessed with different ways to describe the light, then peppers his own work with seemingly endless attempts to capture its different qualities.

His imagery, while obviously clever, never descends into being just 'clever' - for example, when he describes donkeys as 'much like a box of cardigans / left in the sun, in an Oxfam shop'. This image is also typical of his deliberately excessive - yet perfectly controlled - style, and that final qualifier ('in an Oxfam shop') is key here. It hints at the irony (and, indeed, modesty) at the heart of this writing. The poet doesn't claim that his imagery is adequate; he is always adding to it, admitting that it's incomplete; some more exact description is always just about to occur to him. Significantly, the donkeys are only 'much like' his image, not entirely like it at all. And yet, the description is so arresting that I know the next time I see one of these creatures my perception of them will be changed by having read C.J. Allen's poem about them.

I could say more about what's on offer in the oblivion tea rooms: I could mention the fish who 'don't need passports' or the long exposition on the 'shirts of great writers'; but really the only thing to do is go there yourself.

To whet your appetite, why not try the free sample of Allen's poetry recently published at the excellent Gists and Piths blog.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Buzzwords Competition

Buzzwords -- a unique monthly combination of poetry reading, workshop and open mic, run by Angela France in Cheltenham -- has just launched its second annual competition. Last year's entries were of a very high standard, including those that were shortlisted for the separate Gloucestershire prize. This is a competition well worth entering, judged this year by Ann Drysdale. Even if you are not a lucky winner, you will have the warm glow of having supported the future of a really great poetry event.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Tony Harrison gave an incredible reading last night in Ledbury as a curtain-raiser for the forthcoming poetry festival. He's been doing readings for about 50 years and clearly knows how to judge these things perfectly. Not too many poems, just enough context and a relaxed but precise delivery. It helps that the poems are so good, of course.

The post-reading discussion in the pub included reflections on some of the really great readers we'd seen, and some that are not to everyone's taste. Sometimes the voice is the clincher, rich and commanding or reedy and indistinct - it makes a big difference to how the poetry comes across. The general consensus, however, was that rattling though poem after poem with head down and minimal acknowledgement of the audience is not the way to go.

But how polished does it need to be? Some very good readers are also very scripted, with every comment on the poems carefully worked out in advance; others fumble around looking for the next poem they've decided to read, which they're sure is somewhere in this book...

And do you have to follow the famous 'I'll just read two more poems' rule? Nearly everybody seems to do it and it does make audiences relax. It's as if the poet is saying, 'look, I know I've gone on a bit now, and you are probably finding it hard to concentrate, but just hang on in there for two more!' That's assuming the penultimate poem isn't their latest experimental verse epic, of course.

I've read very little in public, which I'm sure is why this is starting to preoccupy me now. There will soon be a launch for the pamphlet and - fingers crossed - a few opportunities to read here and there, and maybe even sell a few copies. Most poetry gets sold at readings, so this kind of showcasing is a key skill for poets. I think I'd better spend the rest of this rather damp Jubilee Weekend perfecting my poetry-reading persona. This fellow seems to have some good advice...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


I have just received the proofs of my pamphlet Gaud from Jacqui Rowe at Flarestack, which makes the whole business suddenly seem a lot more real. It really will be a great moment when I finally have a copy in my hand, particularly because Flarestack's pamphlets are produced with such style and care. It's also nice to be on a list the editors feel so passionate about - that much is clear from the communications I've had so far, even though we've not yet actually met.

More news to follow - especially about the launch, where I will also finally get to meet fellow pamphlet competition winner Nichola Deane, who's already been profiled by Clive James, no less. Not sure I can top that!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Poetry under Pressure

Uwe KolbeI'll be in Cardiff this evening for the beginning of a series of events organised by the University on 'Poetry under Pressure', and featuring two renowned East German poets, Richard Pietrass (right) and Uwe Kolbe (left). I've been asked to translate some of Pietrass' work, particularly poems from the 1980s reflecting on the experience of writing under the state socialist dictatorship.
Richard Pietraß
There is a public reading this evening (24 May) at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, then more events throughout 25 May. The public reading will include not only translations into English, but also into Welsh.

As a taster, here's my translation of Pietrass' poem 'Frei':


We live together without living together.
We’ve made no promise it will be forever.

Our eyes are freer when we look at each other.
We’re no home-makers; not father, not mother.

We’ve made no nest, no cell of the state.
On the edge, at the margins, there’s always space.

Living on the sidelines, we come first and last.
All those between define the standard.

Without living with me, you live with me.
When I thank you, it’s not always a lie.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A New Collection from C.J. Allen

I'm very excited to discover, via Matt Merrit's blog, that C.J. Allen has just released a new collection with Nine Arches Press, called At the Oblivion Tearooms.

Allen is another one of those poets I think everyone should know - what I particularly enjoy about his work is his ability to be playful, inventive and witty without ever becoming superficial or self-consciously clever. One of my favourite poems of his is 'A Guided Tour of the Air Museum', which you can read here. It's typical Allen territory. What starts out as a nice conceit turns into something much more melancholy on the ephemeral nature of human dramas, without ever one losing sight of the irony which holds the possibility of bathos at bay.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


I have a strange relationship with some of my poems. This one, published in Snakeskin a while ago, is both loved and unloved. Some people have really enjoyed the imagery, but sometimes I feel I rather overdid it. I'd say it had some good moments, but I'm still not sure about the overall effect. Judge for yourself... 

Imagine We Live in a 
House of Paper
whose eaves are bound in the library of dark,
foxed by the wind’s thumbs,
hammered by rain’s brute type,
picking holes in watermarked shingles.

See that calligraphy of inundation,
spidering the parchment chimney breast?
It soddens deeds and affidavits, the fat tomes
where we press our little pieces of past

to desiccate between foolscap.
So, then, imagine also sliding
into the close envelope of bed, your body
a pale note on the theme of limbs

and eyes, jotted in magic ink.
But you will not be held—
in truth, you long for a spasm
of voltage, a rush of digits, hissing hot

in wires that filigree like trails of ember
beneath the skin of the world.
Lightning fires every screen
in your paperless future.

Originally published in Snakeskin.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tony Harrison at Ledbury

As a preamble to this year's festival, Ledbury are hosting an evening with Tony Harrison on June 2.

Now 75, Harrison is best known for his political poetry of the 1980s, which reflects especially on his own working-class roots. I first remember becoming aware of Harrison when his long poem 'V', which Channel 4 broadcast as a filmed reading in 1987, provided an opportunity for the usual Tory nitwits in the House to complain about its use of expletives. The fact that Harrison was only citing the kinds of language he saw sprayed as graffiti in his native Leeds, and particularly on the gravestones of his own parents, seemed to pass them by. I guess that, like most scandals about art, it was largely stoked up by people who hadn't actually seen the work in question. Neither had I, being only about 15 at the time, back in those days when Channel 4 was a magnificent source of anti-establishment ferment (and was thus viewed with suspicion by parents). Now they give us Big Brother, Deal or No Deal and Come Dine with Me. For shame.

You can now see the Channel 4 film of 'V' on youtube. In our own days of austerity, it doesn't seem any less relevant.

Friday, May 18, 2012


It seems like I haven't submitted anything to any poetry magazines for quite a while. Increasingly, I'm drawn to some of the on-line journals, many of which are well put-together, with high editorial standards and a quicker turnaround that many of their paper-based siblings.

At the moment, I'm giving Antiphon a try, but there are plenty of other good ones out there, including the already-mentioned Shit Creek Review, Snakeskin and Horizon Review.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Discovering Charles Tomlinson

Reading is all about connections. Only last week I was reading Rilke, inspired to return to him by David Cook's  translations, and now I'm reading Charles Tomlinson - and finding so many points of contact. And this even before I found pieces in his Collected Poems drawing directly on Rilke, as well as a poem on the Chateau de Muzot, where Rilke spent the past years of his life and wrote his best work.

I'd heard the name before, but I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I attended a tribute to Tomlinson as part of the recent Cheltenham Poetry Festival. In the hall of Cheltenham College, a modest audience had turned out to hear a line-up of some of Britain's best poets (including David Morley and Elaine Feinstein) express their admiration for and gratitude to Tomlinson, who was present, but now sadly unable to perform his work himself. It was a disquieting experience to witness that, in some ways: it felt like those taking part knew something important that I didn't; something on the point of being lost, but which (I felt perhaps rather unjustly) the audience seemed indifferent to.

Well, it was something important. The more of Tomlinson's poetry I heard that afternoon, the more I knew that this was a poet I needed to read. What's more, I realised that this is another part of our heritage of 20th Century British poetry which remains invisible, little noticed even within the poetry 'scene'.
Charles Tomlinson

I'd hesitate after only a few days' reading to draw conclusions about Tomlinson's work. What I find sympathetic about him is his exactness, his attention to seeing and to the relationship between human beings and the world which that seeing opens up. I can see why this approach might be interpreted as detachment, but Tomlinson answers this well himself in an interview with David Morley from The North in 1991: 'The [...] idea [of my poetry as cold, D.C.] was put into circulation by early reviewers whose own feelings were cold and numb towards the kind of things that interested me - our relation to the non-human world, for example, which surrounds us and has shaped us. But my feelings are born of excitement. I want to tell people.'

A good example of this is 'The Chestnut Avenue: at Alton House' (Collected Poems, Oxford UP, 1985, p. 75). The poem begins from a precise observation of the trees swaying in the wind, how their colours and shapes transform the observer's perspective on the house beyond, reducing it to form and light:

Beneath their flames, cities of candelabra
     Gathering-in a more than civic dark
Sway between green and gloom,
     Prepare a way of hushed submergence
Where the eye descries no human house,
     But a green trajectory in whose depths
Glimmers a barrier of stone. [...]

The observer then calls to mind the 'The patient geometry that planted them', contrasting the human imposition of order with the shapes and movement which the wind and the trees make together. A third element is then introduced. It is not only the relationship between human beings and nature made visible in the landscape which matters here, but also the effect of the resulting image on the mind. The trees, though without volition, move human thought: 'Mindless / they lead the minds its ways, / deny the imposition of frontiers'. Ironically, then, the very order humans create turns against their attempts to fix the world with their ideas.

Described in phenomenological terms, this point, i.e. that the tension between order and chaos in a landscape creates a visual impression which, in turn, is the starting point for (creative) thought, might not seem that novel. What's great about this writing, though, is that the poem itself allows that same experience to the reader. As the images in the poem unfold, we can take part in that same opening out of thought which the observer in the poems undergoes.

There isn't really a conclusion to this, as I feel I'm very much at the beginning of reading and understanding Tomlinson. Having said that, the connection with Rilke clearly lies in this exploration of the relationship between the world, seeing and thinking.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Launched in style

Thanks to David Cook for inviting me to the launch of his translations of Rilke at the stylish River Station in Bristol.
We were treated to an excellent talk on Rilke, a reading from the book and a sumptuous buffet.

David Cook reading from his translation of Sonnets to Orpheus

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Le mot juste

One of the exercises Jo Bell set for the Buzzwords crowd as a warm-up for Sunday's workshop was to right an epigram.
I came up with the following pearl of wisdom. Half of the room nodded, the other shook their heads disapprovingly...
It's better not to know what you want
than to only want what you know.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Slight Change of Plan

Katy Evans-Bush sadly didn't make it to Buzzwords in Cheltenham on Sunday night, but we were treated to a lively workshop and a storming reading from Jo Bell. Jo is a great performance poet, but her work on the page is wonderfully observed and moving, too. Her collection Navigation is out now.
Jo Bell, Navigation, Macclesfield: Bell Jar, 2012

Jo writes a lot about friendship, a subject that doesn't seem to get much attention in poetry, and her background as an archaeologist informs many poems about time, place and personal history. This poetry is personal in the very best sense - not navel-gazing confession, but the full expression of a unique life, inviting the reader to pay attention to their own being in the world.

P.S. Yes, I know I'm obsessed with book covers - but what a beautiful design for Jo's collection! The painting is by James Dodds. You can see more of his work here.

Monday, May 7, 2012

On Form

The ever innovative Penned in the Margins have published an intriguing new compendium, Adventures in Form, edited by Tom Chivers. Alongside all the more familiar formal experiments, such as the Oulipian 'N+7' game of automatic poem production and collages of found material, you can find 'skinny vilanelles' and even the 'tragic Wilson'. If that means nothing to you, that's all the more reason to get hold of this inspiring and often highly entertaining volume.

One of my favourites was the 'Poemixtape' proposed by Chrissy Williams. Here, a poem is constructed from song titles with one word linking each title to the next. This made me feel so nostalgic for the days of C90 cassettes, I made my own - listen here on Spotify to Side A and Side B!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Apocalypse? Now?

A while ago, the wonderful Shit Creek Review put out a call for poems about 'The End of Days'. This was great for me, what with most of my poems being about the end of the world somehow. Mind you, it did worry me to realise that.

They actually chose the least apocalyptic one I sent in, 'What the Waiter Gave Me'. Take a look here, where there's plenty of other good stuff to comfort you as things fall apart.

Rilke redux

I was recently asked to translate three poems from the German for an event in Cardiff called 'Poetry under Pressure' and I'm still working on them about a month later...

So, alle Achtung, as the Germans say, to David Cook for producing a complete translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnette an Orpheus with Redcliffe Press of Bristol. I know that David has been working on these for many years, and it truly is a stylish and delicious little volume.

Rainer Maria Rilke: The Sonnets to Orpheus
David Cook's translation of  The Sonnets to Orpheus
Rilke clearly has a fascination for British poets. My guess is that this is because he stands on the cusp between the Romantically lyrical and the modernist, that point where much contemporary British taste in poetry still resides. Don Paterson has recently had a go at Orpheus, and there are a number of other competent translations of this sequence by amateurs (in the true and non-pejorative sense) on the Web.

David Cook's approach is engaging because it's so intensely personal. These are as much interpretations of the originals as translations, keeping loosely to the structure of Rilke's variations on the sonnet form, but not seeking to recreate rhyme and scansion at the expense of sense. Sometimes I would quibble with the exact meaning the translator alights on (in the extended metaphor developed in Sonnet II, 6, for example), but that would be to miss the point. These are versions which speak of a long personal engagement with and an individual interpretation of Rilke. What's more, they would be a good starting-point for anyone who can't read the German and who wants to get to grips with a key work of 20th Century European poetry.

Apart from the translations themselves, David provides an excellent contextualization of the work in his introduction, a commentary which made me want to go back to the original poems and look at them in a new way. That, too, can be an important part of the work of the translator.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


Okay. Only day one and I'm going blog crazy. This won't last.

But before I lose momentum, just time to mention this week's Buzzwords in Cheltenham, which will be hosting Katy Evans-Bush. Poetry people of Gloucestershire and beyond need to be there from 7 p.m. at the Exmouth Arms.

The Short and the Short of It

Just to be contrary, the first post proper isn't about poetry at all. It's about Tania Hershman's fictions My Mother Was an Upright Piano. Here it is...

Tania Hershman, My Mother Was an Upright Piano,  Bristol: Tangent, 2012
I know Tania through a class I attended at the Poetry School in Bristol. We'd chat in the breaks between poetry lessons and on the poetry playground. Sometimes also in the pub afterwards, just like proper school.

Thursday night this week, she launched this book, her second collection. It's just come out with Bristol's dynamic Tangent Books, a small operation which really has an eye for the aesthetics of book production. Even a Kindle-lover like me has to admit that they make their books look and feel very special.

Tania works in a genre I've never really read before, the very short story or 'flash fiction'. So, I'm sceptical. I like poetry, I write poetry - that's the short form for me. Prose does the long haul, the plot, the character development. Poetry crystallizes, captures the essence.

But, apparently, prose can do that too. What's more, Tania Hershman's prose does it extremely well. It's a kind of poetic prose, a heightened prose - but somehow not prose poetry. She's interested in the things unsaid, the gap between desire and fulfilment, things we leave hanging in the air. That's where these short pieces work best. She conjures a situation - sometimes commonplace, sometimes surreal - then leaves us to imagine the hows, the whys and the what-nexts.

From hanging around at Tania's launch, I get the impression that there is quite a community of writers out there working with these short prose forms, writing - like many good poetry people - under the radar of our novel-obsessed literary culture. I feel like I want to discover more after reading this. Maybe someone can make some suggestions.

It looks like Tania's own on-line journal, The Short Review, will be a good place to start. And she has a good blog, too.

What's it all about?

I've had blogs before. They never really worked for me. Maybe because I tried to make them all about one thing. My thing is really poetry, so it's fine in principle for the blog to be about that one thing - but that does rule out a lot of other stuff not immediately connected to poetry. Then again, poetry is about everything, so maybe a blog can be primarily about poetry, and then again about everything else as well. Let's see...