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...