Tuesday, December 31, 2013

At the End of the Year

This blog is about poetry, often about my own, but not necessarily about me. It isn't a diary or a place to record personal thoughts. At least I don't see it as such. This is probably one of the reasons why I haven't posted anything of significance here for a while. I've been too caught up with myself to say anything worthwhile on other topics - and this is not normally the place I want to write from. The chief reason has been a pleasant one. My pamphlet, Gaud, which was published last year, was nominated for the Michael Marks Award, and was subsequently named the winner at a dinner in the British Library in November. What's more, my publisher, Flarestack, received the award in the publisher category. Since then, I have felt like I ought to write a post about the experience, but haven't really known where to begin.

I've received many congratulations, and I'm immensely grateful for all of those; but I never quite know how to respond. It just seems like enormous luck to win faced with a very strong shortlist, including much better known and more widely published poets than me. Also, as anyone who tries to write poetry for publication and who seeks an audience will know, to get anywhere you need to go through hearing a lot of people telling you your stuff is no good. Feedback is essential, and we all know poets who attend workshops year on year, never getting any better because they brush aside any negative comment. Nobody wants to be that person (I hope!). Rejection and criticism are part of the process, but it is also part of the process to know how to deal with that in a discriminating way.

I have quite a number of poems in print that have at one time or another received pretty short shrift from other quarters; not that their being in print is a seal of quality, but it does at least demonstrate how widely even well-informed views can diverge. Reading reviews of Gaud has brought this point home even more forcefully: some reviewers are positive, some aggressively negative, others slightly bemused. Now, I could take the Michael Marks Award as finally blowing all of these views (except the positive ones, of course) out of the water. But somehow it doesn't. The doubt about my own work remains, and I suppose always will remain.

At another prize-giving event not along ago (where I had a poem commended), the judge reminded us that we shouldn't get hung up on prizes, which could distract us from the poetry itself. The judge in question has won or been nominated for just about every one of the most prestigious and lucrative prizes available in the UK. So, a little, cynical voice inside me thought, 'easy for you to say!' But she was right, of course. It would be great if winning the Michael Marks Award (which still seems entirely unreal to me) meant that now the whole world loved what I did, and that masterpiece after masterpiece just flowed from my pen, only to be snapped up by every journal worth its salt. Sadly, no prize, no recognition, no praise can do that. I will still mostly write mediocre to bad poems, occasionally a good or very good one, maybe before I die at least one excellent one.

However, what winning the Flarestack pamphlet prize and now the Michael Marks Award has given me is a sense that my poetry could be good enough to make it worth my carrying on. I would always write for myself, but writing for others is a different matter, and recognition by the judges is the best encouragement I could have not to give up on that goal. That is the thing I'm most grateful for. Also, the award has already opened some doors: I'm in discussions with a publisher I really like about a first collection and my work will be included in a forthcoming anthology alongside poets whose work I admire. These are exciting opportunities, and the Michael Marks Award allows me to feel that I could produce some poetry that would be worthy of them. That's an invigorating, if slightly daunting, way to end 2013.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Return to the Echoing Gallery

For those of you in Bristol who missed the launch of Redcliffe Press' beautifully produced anthology The Echoing Gallery, edited by Rachael Boast, there's another chance to hear some of the poems being read on 29 November - full details below.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Top Ten Autumn Poems

If the sign of spring is the first cuckoo, for me the sign of autumn is hearing someone - usually someone just stepping outside into a foggy day with golden leaves swirling across the pavement - quote Keats' 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness'. Like 'now is the winter of our discontent' or 'shall I compare thee to a summer's day', these lines are no so much part of the English language that they survive quite happily without the poem they introduce. Autumn provides a ready-made metaphor for the end of youth, the process of ageing and intimations of wintery death on the horizon. And yet, as in Keats' lines, autumn is also a time of plenty and harvest. So, my selection of favourite autumn poems (in no particular order) may be downbeat, but there is always some comfort to be found.

I'd love to discover some of your favourites - feel free to leave a comment!

File:Hapgood Pond - Flickr - USDAgov.jpg
Image: Wikipedia

Thomas is the 20th century poet of the English countryside, but the landscapes he loved were never only beautiful, shadowed as they were by existential and political concerns (for instance, in 'The Team's Head Brass'). Here, the observer is struck by the beauty around him, but also experiences a melancholy born of his own awareness of his difference from the rest of nature, that difference which is a product of human consciousness. The irony is, of  course, that the beauty of nature could not be experienced without that human point of view.

A wonderfully musical poem which manages to make the mountain of winter (and, metaphorically, death) sound like a relief from the stiffness and decay of the autumnal world. It certainly seems more of a comfort than the narrator's fellow human beings, growing cold as the nature around them.

The cranefly of the summer becomes an ungainly, unlikely creature in Hughes' description, like a species about to be made extinct by an environment which has changed without leaving time for it to adapt. The 'vast empire' of nature is indifferent to her fate.

Elizabeth Jennings says that 'every season is a kind / Of rich nostalgia' - as in most things, she is right.

Skilfully using the sestina form to suggest a moment of stasis, Bishop captures autumn as a time of waiting - the cold felt by the grandmother is an intimation of mortality, while the child waits for the flower bed she has drawn to bloom in an anticipated spring.

Autumn as a desolation that only May can redeem.

Frost beautifully juxtaposes autumn's twin themes of decay and plenty - here the narrator is weary from harvesting so much richness, and that weariness suggests that he may not be able to enjoy the fruits of his labour for too much longer. The pane of ice from the water trough, which he holds up to observe the autumn world, is a lovely metaphor for his melancholy point of view.

A much more vital and life-affirming take on autumn here, as we might well expect from Redgrove, who is never a glum poet - the poetic imagination gives the changing season an energy which charges the whole of the natural world with erotic expectation.

A lovely poem by Shuttle for her late husband, Peter Redgrove. Here autumn is a moment of loss and loneliness. It's remarkable how much Shuttle is able to achieve with such economy - a real contrast to Redgrove's effervescent style.

If there's one thing I personally try to refrain from, it's commenting on or attempting to interpret Stevens' poetry. I just read it. A kind of desolate music in this exquisite poem.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Autumn Dates

After a pleasant summer lull in poetry goings-on, I have a few appearances coming up in September and October.

On Sunday 22 September, I'll be in Bromsgrove for the prize-giving ceremony for the Ralph Ockendon Poetry Prize (http://ralphockendonpoetrycompetition.com/). My poem 'Lenin at the Music Hall' is nominated for the prize. The event takes place at 3.00 p.m. at the Artrix Theatre. The prize has been judged by Sean O'Brien.

On 26 September, I'll be in Cirencester with my good friend Jennie Farley, performing our 'Counterpoint' programme at the Brewery Arts Centre, from 7.00 p.m. Further details here. Jennie and I have put together a wide-ranging performance of about 40 minutes, with reflections on love and relationships, taking in myths, cross-dressing and superheroes along the way. There's an open mic sessions before our reading, so the audience can share their poems, too.

On 2 October, I'll be reading my poem 'Leda' at the launch of The Echoing Gallery, an anthology of ekphrastic poems by writers based in Bristol. The reading will feature 22 poets and live music. It starts at 7.30pm at The Orangery, Goldney Hall, Lower Clifton Hill, Clifton, Bristol BS8 1BH. Further details on the anthology can be found here.

On 5 October, I'll be reading my poem 'To the Harvesters of Ambergris', which was commended in this year's Battered Moons poetry competition, judged by Alice Oswald and Cristina Newton. You can read all of the winning and commended poems here. Further details of the event can be found here. The chief attraction of the evening will be to hear Alice Oswald read. I'm very much looking forward to it. Tickets seem to be selling quickly, but can be booked here.

On 13 October, I'll be reading my poem 'Song of His Suterkin Brother' at an event for the poets nominated for this year's Wells Festival of Literature poetry prize. The even begins at 2.30 p.m., but details are not yet on the web. I'll update in due course.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


As noted below, I haven't been blogging much recently, faced with an increasingly tricky work-life-writing balance. Writers who don't do it for a living often complain that they lack the freedom (i.e. the time) to write, but I wonder if I would get any more written if I had more time to do it. After all, what I have written has happened in amongst everything else that I do. What would really happen if that was taken away?

I've been thinking a lot about constraint recently, having read a new book of two essays on the Oulipo movement: The End of Oulipo by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito. It's quite a curious book, polemic at times, and less about the movement and its poetics than about particular individuals, but still worth reading as a reminder of the fascination which this group of writers, founded in Paris is 1960, can still exert. In the English-speaking world, the prose works of Oulipo writers are perhaps better known, including those of Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, but their approach to literature is equally applicable to poetry. The Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature (Oulipo for short) proposes an approach to writing which emphasises the imposition of artificial and often complex constraints on the text to be produced. The resulting work represents a possible outcome of the experiment conducted by the author, but only one of the many potential outcomes. And, indeed, the experiment can be repeated again and again within the same text to demonstrate the many possible versions that might be produced. So, for example, Queneau's Exercises in Style retells the same banal anecdote over and over again in a variety of literary styles. A recent practitioner of Oulipian techniques in poetry, although not a member of the group, is Christian Bok, whose collection of prose poems Eunoia contains five sections, each written using only words containing only one of the vowels. (There's an excellent essay on Bok's work here, by the way)
Photo: D. Clarke
While these extreme forms of constraint produce fascinating - and often very witty - results, I wonder to what extent Oulipo, at least in poetry, is in fact at one end of a spectrum along which all poetry operates. Really, there is no such thing as 'free verse' - poems tend to invent their own conventions, and every poet is constrained to some extent, even if only by the practice of line breaks and stanzas which we all recognise as making the text on the page seem like a poem.
When I look around at contemporary poetry, I see a lot of poets setting themselves formal challenges. Michael Symmons Roberts recent Drysalter, for example, consists of 150 15-line poems. As far as I'm aware, there is no special reason for adopting these parameters, but - once accepted - they allow Symmons Roberts to explore a range of formal possibilities within the space of those 15 lines. Only by limiting himself is he able to discover something new. Matthew Caley's Apparently (2010) is a very different collection, but takes as its starting point the premiss that each poem will either begin or end with the word 'apparently'. This gives the whole collection a speculative, playful atmosphere, as if everything were in the subjunctive - which, in poetry at least, I suppose it always is. There's more game-playing of various kinds to be found in Jon Stone's excellent School of Forgery (2012), much of it with distinctly Oulipan tendencies.
But even poetry which does not foreground its formal constraint so openly cannot escape the fact that its artifice is central to its own production. I have often heard the view expressed that poetic form should somehow melt into the background or become natural-seeming. Of course, we have all heard and read bad poetry which is written only to make the rhyme or meet the requirements of the chosen metre, but these poor examples should not distract us from the potential of formal constraint, of whatever kind, to challenge the poet to explore new terrain - form is not just something the poem is poured into, but a factor in its production, opening up new potential for expression.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Coming soon...

I've been feeling terribly neglectful of my blog of late. (Paid) work has been all-consuming, and any poetry energy available has been channelled into actually writing some poems. Hopefully the summer months will bring a little breathing space.

For now, readers will hopefully be content with another bit of self-publicity, this time for three gigs where they can here me reading some of the poems from Gaud and more recent work.

3rd July sees me in Bristol, at Charles Thompson's Bristol Poetry Review at the Square Club in Bristol. I'm very excited to be involved in this reading in particular, as it sees the first outing for the re-vamped Poetry Factory, a workshop group/performance collective, which will be delivering a programme with the enticing title 'Lucky Dip' to the good folk of Bristol. Full details are below on the excellent flyer created by Philip Rush. You can find out more about Poetry Factory at our blog, run by Sharon Larkin, or on our Twitter feed. We really are very 21st century, as you can see.

Only a few days later on 7th July, I will be reading at Buzzwords in Cheltenham (from 7 p.m. in The Exmouth Arms) along with the aforementioned Philip Rush. I'm especially pleased to be doing this, as Buzzwords - run by the amazing Angela France - was the first open mic I went to when I moved to Cheltenham and the first place I really started to get a sense of how my work came across in performance. The quality of the poetry you can hear at this venue really is excellent, and the support in the room is always magnificent. Can't wait!

Incidentally, Buzzwords has a top-notch competition running at the moment, judged by David Morley. Please do enter - the prizes are generous and the cause is a good one.

Last but not least, one half of the Flarestack Poets team, Jacqui Rowe, has invited me to read on 23rd July at Poetry Bites at Kitchen Garden Cafe in Kings Heath, Birmingham. The gig starts at 7.30 and will also feature Nichola Deane and open mic slots. I'm looking forward to seeing some new faces and hearing some new voices.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Monday, May 13, 2013

Never Apologise.

A seminar room in a college or university somewhere in the UK. The students, aspiring journalists, have been set the task of writing a piece for the cultural pages. Just to make things more of a challenge, they've been asked to write about something they know all of their readers will hate - poetry.

'Don't forget', the tutor says, raising an admonishing finger, 'you have to start by reminding your audience how dreadful poetry is. Poetry is dull, alienating, intellectual, inaccessible, la-di-da. Or it's effete, over-the-top. Most of it doesn't even rhyme, that is to say, it isn't actually poetry at all.'

The students tap away frantically at their laptops, getting this all down.

'But the secret to writing about it,' the tutor continues, 'is to get all of that out of the way first, which will allow you to then do your big reveal - the reading, event or festival you are writing about is actually...'

He pauses for dramatic effect. Fingers hover over keyboards. Jaws slacken in anticipation.

Illustration by Paul Gilligan
Image: Concordia University Magazine
Now the students look less convinced.

'No, seriously - poetry in the UK at the moment is vibrant, exciting, moving, all of that stuff. In fact, I'm not sure it ever stopped being that way. But we can't say that in print, UNLESS we start by emphasising that, in general, it is pretty awful. You will only ever convince a reader that anything to do with poetry is worth paying attention to by making clear that whatever you are taking about is very much the exception to the rule.'

A murmur goes through the class. They are almost ready to be persuaded.

'Don't believe me? Well, just take a look at just about any article on poetry in the non-specialist press, listen to any mention of poetry in broadcast media. It's common practice and what the punters expect.'

A hand goes up.

'But what about opera, Dr Hackensack? That's just as turgid and elitist as poetry, surely?'

Another hand.

'Yeah, and ballet?'

The tutor smiles the smile he reserves for questions of such naivety.

'Oh no, no. Other minority arts' - he scratches some scare quotes in the air - 'are just not in the same category. I know we're supposed to encourage critical thinking, but this really is one of those eternal laws of journalism. No editor will be able to explain it, but that's just how we do things. I look forward to reading your articles.'


Well, that's how it must happen. Otherwise, this journalistic reflex seems hard to explain. Is there no better way journalists can find to talk about poetry than to begin their pieces by apologising for its existence. I've read this sort of thing far too often.

And it infects poets, too. I had to turn off my radio recently when the otherwise excellent Paul Farley began his Radio 4 series The Echo Chamber by reassuring his audience that contemporary poetry really wasn't as scary as they reckoned. This apologetic and negative stance does poetry no good and is actually patronising to the audience, who don't need to be told what they feel about anything. Poetry needs to present itself on its own terms and let the audience make up its own mind - and journalists are not helping that process by prefacing everything they say about poetry with negative stereotypes.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review of 'The Debris Field' at Sabotage Reviews

My review of 'The Debris Field' by Simon Barraclough, Isobel Dixon and Chris McCabe has just been published at Sabotage Reviews. I'm looking forward to writing some more for this excellent website in the near future.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Poetry = No Rules

National Poetry Competition season has been upon us. Nick Laird, one of the judges - and an admirable poet himself - has added to what must now, I think, be considered a sub-genre of poetry crit: the 'how not to do it' guide.
These sorts of interventions have something of a tradition, one of the most famous being Ezra Pound's 1913 essay 'A Few Don'ts by an Imagist'. There are even poems by disgruntled competition judges and editors dedicated to the things you should never do if you want to get your work published, for example by Todd Swift, Michael Mackmin of The Rialto, and Fleur Adcock. I also regularly come across blogposts with lists of 'what not to dos' by established authors.
When this advice relates to how to deal with editors and others who have a say over whether your work gets published, much of it seems to be sound. I'd certainly agree that making demands or even threats is a bad way to go. It's just plain rude, for a start.
But then there is the advice about how the poetry itself should be. Don't use commas at the end of lines. Don't use cliché. Never repeat a word in same poem. Never repeat a significant word within a collection or sequence of poems. Never write 'shards'. Never write 'gossamer'. Never use a rhyming dictionary. Write simply. Only use everyday language. Use footnotes if you are making obscure references. Never make obscure references. Never use adjectives. Never use more than one adjective in the same line. Never use semi-colons. Never use dashes. Never ask questions in poems...
All of these pieces of advice (and there are plenty more where those came from) are things I have read in guides to poetry writing or heard repeated by fellow poets, in the latter case quite often with the (frankly infuriating) rider that 'my poetry tutor said...'
Well, it's all guff. Total and utter guff. I have read excellent contemporary poems that do all of those forbidden things (although not usually all at the same time) and bravely fail to follow the accepted wisdom. No doubt such wisdom is helpful in some ways, if only to make us question what we are doing and pull us up when we are writing lazily, but there also comes a point where we have to have the courage of our convictions and say, 'I know that isn't supposed to work - but it does.'
Another problem with the don't-ers, is that they limit poetry. Pound was pushing an aesthetic agenda, and this is true of any maker of prohibitions in art. On some level, they want poetry in general to be like the kind of thing they like. But isn't that a strange thing to wish for? Would it make sense for someone to say, 'music should be like this, and only like this', when music as an art form is so immensely diverse? That 'a painting can be like this and only like this'? Then why do so for poetry?
I'm more than happy for there to be poetry I don't like, since nobody yet has forced me to keep reading it, and I can see when I am reading something I don't care for how I would do it differently. But to suggest that there is a way to 'get it right' turns poetry into something akin to a sport, like diving or synchronised swimming, where the reproduction of an ideal set of moves is what counts, not the testing of the boundaries.
So let's have an end to these supposed rules of poetry. They are snake oil. And the excellent winner of this year's National Poetry Competition is proof of that, since it marvellously contravenes one of my own personal (and vehemently espoused) don'ts - 'don't write poems about World War One'.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Who'd a thunk it?

Image: Thunk

A quick mention for Thunk, a South West-based magazine for fiction, journalism and poetry that is about to launch its first issue. I will be in Issue 2, scheduled for June, but in the meantime they have published one of my poems on their website. For those who know me, the central figure in this poem is an amalgam of various characters I've worked with over the years, not any particular individual - and the joke is really on the narrator of this tale, not its subject.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Poem at 'Antiphon'

I'm delighted to have a poem in Issue 6 of the excellent on-line poetry journal Antiphon.

Moving house last summer involved the disassembly and reassembly of a greenhouse - a process we had already been through once when we had bought it second hand and transported it in pieces from the outskirts of Birmingham. On both occasions, it was an extremely long-winded and fiddly process, but - as poets probably say too often - at least I got a poem out of it.
Photo: D. Clarke

In keeping with their name (antiphony is when a song features a call and response between the singer and the choir or audience), the editors are keen for readers to comment on the published poems and tell them about their favourites. Click here for more information. I know that Orbis have been doing this very successfully in print for a number of years, and it seems only logical that on-line magazines should provide a forum for this kind of discussion. So, why not get in touch if you have enjoyed the work?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

There is Nothing in the Garden

I've had the above image up on the blog for a few days, and I'm pleased to see it has been getting plenty of traffic. A busy week has meant that I haven't been able to write anything about it until now, but this is just to fill in some background.
Chaucer Cameron is a member of Poetry Factory, a workshop group and occasional poetry performance collective based in Cheltenham. It's a cliché to talk about poetry being 'haunting', but Chaucer's work really is that - her poems stick in the mind in ways that other people's just don't.
Working together with photographer Helen Dewbery, Chaucer has now produced a film for the forthcoming Cheltenham Poetry Festival. There is Nothing in the Garden explores themes of loss, alienation, and transformation, using maternal and ecological metaphors. Its aim is to explore the possibilities of transforming loss into movement and combines both still and moving images with lyric and narrative poetry. The film travels across a diversity of  landscapes, sometimes stopping in a quiet country garden, sometimes trawling through the remains of a devastated Japanese city after an earthquake, where things are not quite what they appear to be.
This is an ambitious project, and I am looking forward to seeing the end result. Full details are above, and you can click on the image to go to the associated blog.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Loved-Up Top 10

Love makes poets of us all, but love poetry isn't all about hearts and flowers. Here's a selection of poetry for Valentines Day that provides ten very individual views of love's agony and delight.

This little poem packs a real punch. The line 'Now I can only smile' so subtly suggests physical loss, but love and memory triumph over it.

Hilarious and oddly moving. Hoagland is one of the best American poets currently working, if you ask me. There's a video of him reading the poem here. (NB The version of this poem that appeared in Hoagland's collection Unincorporated Persons of the Honda Dynasty has a variant and, to my mind, better ending. But I'll leave you to search that out yourselves).

3. 'The Shipwright's Love Song' by Jo Bell

A spine-tingling performance here from Jo Bell, the UK's Canal Laureate, and a beautiful extended metaphor for the thrill of new passion.

4. 'A Subaltern's Love Song' by John Betjeman

This ought to be doggerel, but Betjemen's handling of the rhyme and metre is so masterly, while at the same time apparently so uncontrived. As you can hear from the audience reaction on this great recording from The Poetry Archive, it's a real crowd-pleaser. I love the way the poem manages to combine breathless, boyish infatuation with hints of sexual frisson, for instance in that 'warm-handled racket [...] back in its press.'

5. 'Rubbish at Adultery' by Sophie Hannah

Maybe not such a great poem for Valentine's Day, but a reminder that, if you are going to cheat on your beloved, you might as well enjoy it. I've seen Sophie Hannah read this live - a real treat.

6. 'An Arab Love Song' by Francis Thompson

Swooning and exotic. A great suggestion for this list from Jennifer Farley.

7. 'The Garret' by Ezra Pound

Pound's work is infamously difficult and cerebral, but this poem is not a typical one. A defiant, plain-spoken little lyric that captures the 'us against the world' feeling of new love.

8. 'Epithalamion' by Dannie Abse

An epithalamion is a song or poem for a wedding, but the lovers in this poem make their own church and their own religion.

9. 'Sleeping Hermaphrodite' by John McCullough (scroll down to p. 11 of this sample of McCullough's first collection, The Frost Fairs)

This is so clever, sexy and seductive. McCullough's poem gives voice to a sexual outsider, empowering a figure who would otherwise be the object of a voyeuristic gaze. Could this poem be more perfect?

10. Lullaby by W. H. Auden

If Pound's lovers in 'The Garret' are defiant, Auden's couple are embattled by history and the morality of their times. And the fidelity of the lovers themselves is also in question. Nevertheless, love, like the lover's innocent sleep, provides some protection, some hope - if only temporarily.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Making It

There's been a considerable brouhaha in poetry cyberspace of late about a case of plagiarism relating to a young poet, a poetry competition and now - it transpires - some prestigious magazines. I'm not going to go into the details here, as that ground is well covered elsewhere.

My first reaction to the story was one of puzzlement and mild disbelief. Why would anyone do that? However, on reflection, it seems almost inevitable that this should happen at some point. I can have no insight into the psychology of this individual case. And yet it seems to me that any system that seeks to recognise intellectual or creative merit is bound to lead to unfair practice at some point.

In education, demonstrating learning and intellectual ability is the key to getting hold of a certificate that will help you to get a better job and have a better life, in the material sense at least. That isn't the only thing education is about, but it can't be ignored. When students mis-use the work of others, they can often feel like they deserve that qualification and that better life, but find themselves disadvantaged by pressures of all kinds: not least of time and money in these days of high fees and working low-paid jobs to make ends meet. Plagiarism in an academic context is often a symptom of desperation, not a sign of deviousness.

In the world of poetry, with lots of hopefuls and limited exposure to be shared around, a clear system has developed that provides recognition to some, and little or none to others. There are plenty of guides to this sort of thing, and young poets are regularly counselled to try to win competitions and get published in the right sort of journal. If you are looking to get a collection published, the web pages of the small presses will soon tell you that you need to be able to provide this kind of evidence before they will consider your work. That makes sense to them, as it will at least weed out a few of the many submissions they will in any case receive. As a whole, this system is not planned by anyone, but it all amounts to a fairly coherent set of mechanisms that can leave young people feeling that it's difficult to 'make it', as the co-editor of the Salt Book of Younger Poets, Eloise Stonborough, recently complained.

Need this be so? Not necessarily. The mechanisms of selection in different areas of intellectual or creative activity vary from culture to culture. For example, over the last few years, German politics has experienced a series of revelations about high-level politicians who have been caught plagiarising their doctoral theses. This problem wouldn't occur in the UK, where there is no expectation at all that a politician will have a PhD. In Germany, many young politicians making their career try to study for a doctorate on the side and find that they just haven't the time - the temptation to plagiarise is clearly significant.

In poetry, we certainly need some sort of filter that brings some to prominence. That filter is as much a service to readers as to anyone else, as they would easily get lost in the mass of poetry books and magazines produced every year. There may be other ways of providing that filter that are less likely to produce the feelings Stonborough expresses. Nevertheless, we will have to accept that, whatever system we have in place, it's bound to produce aberrant behaviour among a small minority for whom 'making it' sadly becomes an end in itself.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Cheltenham Poetry Festival Programme Announced

Rejoice, poetry-lovers of Cheltenham and environs! The programme for the Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2013 has been published and tickets are on sale now!

(Source: Cheltenham Poetry Festival)
I haven't yet had a chance to really look at the detail of all of the events, which this year cover two weekends and the whole of the intervening week (20-28 April 2013), but I've already spotted some must-see gigs, including the launch of a collection by local hero Mikki Byrne, and readings from the always surprising Bobby Parker and young poet-of-the-moment Liz Berry. Alongside slams and themed readings, there's a roster of established names (Fiona Sampson, Bernard O'Donaghue, Elaine Feinstein, Jeremy Reed, Christopher Reed). It will also be good to catch up with Maria and Jonathan Taylor and Nichola Deane.

With the extension of the festival from one weekend to nine days, and with such a packed and high-quality programme, it feels like Cheltenham is moving into the poetry festival big league - a major achievement for such a young festival. If enough of us support it (and why wouldn't you?), it will be here to stay.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Holocaust Memorial Day

27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day. Last night, I was making one of my frequent trawls through the excellent Ubuweb, where I found a mesmerising recording of Paul Celan reading his poem 'Death Fugue' ('Todesfuge').
File:Celan .jpg
Paul Celan (soure:Wikipedia)
Celan was one of Germany's most important 20th century poets, and arguably no other writer in the German language after World War Two wrote as much in the shadow of the Holocaust as he did. He committed suicide, drowning himself in the Seine, in 1970. You can read a translation of 'Death Fugue' here.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Too Late for Burns Night

..but still. Here's my favourite Burns poem. Although perhaps better known as a song lyric, it reminds us of Burns the social thinker and man of the Enlightenment. And this poem in particular seems no less relevant at a time when we seem all too quick to demonize the poor and vulnerable. As Burns reminds us: 'The rank is but the guinea's stamp.'

A Man's A Man For A' That

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

There's an annotated version of the poem here, for those who have trouble with the Scots vocabulary. And you can listen to an impassioned reading of the poem on Youtube:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Guest Poet: Jennifer Farley

Responding to yesterday's post about snowy poems, the excellent poet (and good friend of mine) Jennifer Farley reminded me of her poem 'Snow Journeys', once winner of the SouthEastArts poetry competition. I did, of course, know Jennifer's poem, but could sadly find no link to it on the Web for my 'Top 10'. She has kindly agreed to my re-publishing it here - which also makes me wonder if this could be the start of an irregular 'guest poet' slot on A Thing for Poetry. I think perhaps it could...

The poem is published in Jennifer's collection Masks and Feathers (The Palms Studio, 2012).

Snow Journeys

All those journeys we used to make, our sleigh
(or grandfather's black Bentley) speeding
through the hushed and frozen night, that time
we fled S. Petersburg, the air heavy
with chypre and the scent of fur, warm plush
prickling our legs. The pale Empress (or
my grandmother) sat straight-backed. Her rings
smoked topaz fire across the glass, summoning forests
glittering with assassins and the threat of wolves.
Snuggled deep in winter dark, comforted by leather
and the fizz of sherbet on the tongue,
I urged the pace. Our hastening tracks left
echoes of tiny bells, the dogs' breath furling back
across the glinting minarets, the city's glow
(or Market Square lamplit at closing time).
These were the journeys I had to make, across
the table of the world, away
from the ordinariness of lives,
toward the long slow melt and miracles.

(C) Jennifer Farley

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Top 10 Snow Poems

Britain shivers, but also - whatever Mr Osborne says - gleefully skives for a few snowy days. Since the only thing better than an autumnal poem is one about snow, here's my top 10 wintery favourites. In order of my thinking of them, not in order of preference.

1. 'Snow' by Louis Macneice

An obvious choice, I know, but the snow poem all other snow poems now have to nod in the direction of.

2. 'History' by Paul Muldoon

Okay, getting off topic already - but this surely has to be the best response to Mcneice?

3. 'Snow' by David Briggs

A poem about words for snow, and how the wonder is as much in the words as in the snow.

4. 'Snow-Flakes' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Snow as 'the poem of the air'.

5. 'Snow Melting' by Gjertrud Schnackenberg

Snow melts to reveal a world without love.

6. 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' by Robert Frost

One of the best-known poems by any American poet. And the Fozzie Bear rendition is pretty good, too.

7. 'The Buck in the Snow' by Edna St. Vincent Millay

An uncanny, almost symbolist poem - frustrated desire and failed communication.

8. 'Slush' by Alan Buckley

A poem about the loss of growing up that also tackles the theme of climate change in a subtle and personal way.

9. 'Snow Water' by Michael Longley

Imagine drinking the purity of snow.

10. 'Snow and Snow' by Ted Hughes

The sensuality of snow in Hughes' transformative imagination.

I'm sure other people have their favourites - maybe some I don't know. Why note share them with a comment on the blog?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Roy Marshall has kindly tagged me in an ongoing project called 'The Next Big Thing'. This involves writers answering a set of questions about a book which has been or is about to be published. They then tag other writers who keep the chain going. My choice of tag-ee (?) is Deborah Harvey, who has a book launch very soon...

It was kind of Roy to invite me, but I feel a slight embarrassment to be talking about writing a book. Of which more below...

1. Where did the idea for this book come from?

I recently had a pamphlet published with Flarestack Poets, as anyone who reads this blog will by now be tired of hearing. Almost the first question I heard from other poets when the pamphlet came out was, 'So, are you working towards a collection?' Since it took me four years to have enough decent stuff to fill a pamphlet, this was a bit like having jogged around the block only to be asked when I would be running the marathon.
At the moment, I would say I am writing poems. And I tend to do that one poem at a time. Between writing poems I always have the feeling that it's something I will never do again, but then somehow I do. How this process would organise itself into the single-minded writing of a book, I don't know. The ideas for individual poems often come from reading or from staring out of the window, or a combination of both. I recently read an anecdote in a history book about Lenin enjoying the music hall while he was in exile in England. I immediately had to write a poem about that, which is the one I'm most pleased with at the moment.

2.What genre does your book fall under?

As you might guess from the above, if there ever is a book, it will be poetry.

3. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

An unlikely scenario, this. But I quite enjoy it when musicians turn up in films and are surprisingly good: for example, Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, or Lyle Lovett in The Opposite of Sex. Actors doing music seems to work less well. So, maybe my poems could be intoned by Elvis Costello over some Derek-Jarmanish video backdrop - which would also be a good way to get to meet Mr Costello, at least.

4. What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

A book of poems that some people may like.

5. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I'm still working on it. I have a good feeling about 2015, though, so perhaps it will be ready by then.

6. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See Answer 1 above on that. On another level, it's the medium of poetry itself. There's nothing as exciting, and English has such a rich tradition that a writer can be part of, even if in a modest way. Also my encounters with other poets, who I find unfailingly generous and enthusiastic about other people's work. That makes me want to carry on doing it. I'm obviously meeting the right kind of people.

7. What else might pique the reader’s interest?

I'm always intrigued by the reactions of different readers and audiences to my work. People tend to like different things about it, things I often find surprising or hadn't thought about myself. Quite a few people don't like it at all, which I always enjoy, rather perversely  I guess it isn't for everyone - and that's as good a reason to read something as any I can think of.

8. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don't think I would self-publish. There are certainly excellent poets who use their own imprints to publish their work (I'm thinking of Philip Rush and Jee Leong Koh, in particular). For established poets who do this, the issue is obviously control of the material, not the fact that another publisher would not take their work. As a rule, though, I think poetry does have to go through the rigours of the 'system'. If a poet has submitted poems to magazines, to competitions and so on, it tells me that they are writers who are willing to listen to the judgements of others, to accept that not everything they tap into the word processor is solid gold. They are writers who want to find an audience, not just get a book out with their name on the cover.
I suppose what I'm saying is, I'll wait until I can persuade someone whose judgement I trust to publish a book of my poems, however long that might take. I'm open to offers, though...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Eros and Thanatos

I don't know who it was who originally observed that poetry tends to be about sex, death and poetry - but Daniel Sluman's fascinating debut collection, Absence Has a Weight of Its Own, certainly fits that bill. Illness, murder and suicide sit alongside accounts of late-night encounters in clubs and investigations of the creative process. Sluman's insights, though, are clearly hard-won. This is not a doomy pose, but the real thing.

What particularly grabs the attention is the aesthetic unity of the collection and the ways in which Sluman's poetic technique both reflects on the physical experience of those encounters with Eros and Thanatos and establishes disturbing parallels between them.
The first aspect to note is the way that Sluman makes things that are intangible, emotional or even metaphysical into something physical. So, for instance, in 'We Daren't Go Back' bedroom walls 'glitte[r] with premonition' while 'revelation' is 'greasing the hands' of the narrator; or, in 'A Fist of Tax's Announces That It's 3 a.m.', 'the understanding of tonight / crawls up my stomach & rolls / over my tongue.' This latter example highlights a second feature of Sluman's writing: the way in which the borders of the body become porous to these concretised thoughts, fears and emotions, remaining passive as it is invaded by them. So, in 'Evocation', a lover's presence becomes 'smoke / easing through your muscles' and a description of drug-taking ('E') sees 'serotonin explod[e] / in the cradle of our stomachs'. In fact, this boundary-crossing and the making physical of the non-physical create a hallucinatory or dream-like quality across the entire collection. Sluman generally avoids simile, and while such description could be taken metaphorically, as in the dream-world these transformations are can also be seen as literal.
A central theme of the collection is illness and mortality, and it is here that we possibly find the root of this aesthetic. For instance, in 'My Death' the narrator in the hospital bed is losing control of his body and its boundaries: the doctors 'smooth out' his 'organs / one by one' and his own breath is transformed into 'the push & pull' of a 'fine wire' inside him. This is a voice that sees 'the entropy in everything' ('Lovesong to a Tumour'), whether that entropy is in the threat of physical disintegration or in the thrill of desire. And the two are clearly very close together.
This, then, is an intense and arresting début collection.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What a Shindig!

I was honoured to be invited to read as a guest poet at Shindig!, a Leicester poetry event organised by Crystal Clear Creators and Nine Arches Press. Like Buzzwords in Cheltenham, the format includes invited readers and open mic sessions. Matt Merritt has already blogged about the evening very well, but on the drive home I couldn't help remembering an earlier post of mine defending open mics and other features of the contemporary poetry scene.
Jonathan Taylor of Crystal Clear Creators comperes the open mic at Leicester Shindig! 

Poetry, it is often observed, is a highly competitive field, with a lot of people struggling for a little attention. But nights like Shindig! remind me that the poetry 'scene' can also be highly supportive environment, with established poets happily getting up to share new work alongside those new to writing or performing. Readers share recent successes and the audience take genuine pleasure in them. Everybody's work is given the space to be heard by the open-minded. I'm a little ashamed not to have made a note of the name of the open mic poet in question, but I particularly enjoyed a poem about cats and mortality by one of the readers in Leicester.
I know that probably sounds a little gushy, and maybe I idealise. There may well be plenty of unfriendly open mics, but it was great to be reminded that poetry sometimes really can feel like a 'community', however over-used that word may have become.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

George Barker Centenary

The excellent and industrious Philip Rush, poet and poetry impresario in the lovely town of Stroud, has organised an evening in celebration of George Barker, one of the 20th century's most prolific and eccentric poets, now chiefly known to posterity through Robert Fraser's biography. A rebel, womaniser and serious drinker, Barker was a contemporary of Dylan Thomas, but had much longer to hone the lifestyle. Reading about all of that is great, voyeuristic fun, of course. That's how we like to imagine our poets - 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', like Byron.
But Barker was also an experimenter and a fine technician who took the vocation of poet passionately and seriously. His work is so multifarious that it will be intriguing to see which poems the readers taking part in this event will choose to perform alongside their own work. I am still in the process of deciding myself, but am discovering many good things along the way. Let's hope this event, and Barker's centenary more generally, lead to a reappraisal of the work, and a little less concentration on the personal life of the poet.