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 PietraƟ
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...