Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Things I'm Glad I Read in 2014 #4

I've already talked about how much I have enjoyed Jonathan Edwards' poetry - in fact, he was a guest poet on this blog only recently. Since then, his début collection My Family and Other Superheroes has gone from strength to strength, making the shortlist for the Aldeburgh first collection prize and the Costa Book Award. Some funny poems are a bit like jokes that you can only hear once, but Jonathan's work, although always infused with humour, repay re-reading, as I find this morning looking into this collection again. In language which is understated but continually surprising, Jonathan makes that humour a vehicle for talking about national identity, family, love and loss. These are moving and vivid poems, and I am glad to see them getting the recognition they deserve, not least in light of the discussions which went on this year about 'prize culture'  (for example, Jon Stone's essay or Fiona Moore's analysis of the statistics).

Monday, December 29, 2014

Things I'm Glad I Read in 2014 #3

I'm at the disadvantage of writing this post about Helen Mort's Division Street without the book in front of me. Not only is it one of the collections I have returned to most often in 2014, but the one I have most often leant to others. That is the real mark of quality: a book you pass on to others saying 'you must read this!' So, currently my copy is being enjoyed elsewhere.
Technically, I think Mort's book came out at the end of 2013, but I'm going to sneak it into 2014 on account of it having been up for (and having won) The Aldeburgh first collection prize this year. I remember buying it on a trip I made to London for reasons entirely unrelated to poetry. I snuck into the Waterstones near UCL one Saturday morning with a long day of conference ahead of me, bought this book and a cup of tea, then nearly didn't make the start of the conference.
Mort is a writer who is accessible in the very best sense of the word: You don't need to be 'into' poetry to get her, but her work is quietly sophisticated, full of wry humour, and pulls you along on an undertow of emotion which is stripped of all sentimentality. In some senses, she is an inheritor of Tony Harrison, working through her Northern heritage from the vantage point of  a metropolitan life, but Mort's take on this theme (especially in her poems about the Miners' Strike) is not guilt-ridden like Harrison's, perhaps for generational reasons. The ambiguous title of the volume hints at social divisions, but is best understood, I think, in universal terms. Mort's poems are often about growing up, breaking away, becoming an individual who emerges from a particular context, but who must gain some distance from that context. That process of division is cause for both celebration and mourning, and the best of these poems hold those contradictions finely in balance.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Things I'm Glad I Read in 2014 #2

Like Rosemary Tonks, discussed in the first of these end-of-year posts, Bobby Parker seems propelled by the energy of pure honesty. In his collection Blue Movie, he addresses mental illness, addiction, his relationship to his parents, being a father himself, and the breakdown of relationships. Like Tonks' poetic subject, the self here is fragile but defiant. Parker's poems express a fear of the persona's own perceived inadequacy and the hostility of the outside world, yet joy pulses through these poems; joy in reality and joy in language. It is as if the poems themselves were an attempt to stave off the darkness which ends in addiction and reaffirm Parker's commitment to genuine happiness. At the end of 'Ducks Staring Into You', for example, the struggle between these two existential possibilities is expressed with shocking immediacy:

                                                   Forget about
your wife’s innocent leg hanging out the bed.
Your daughter, crawling faster with light to hug you
every morning. Every fucking morning. Smell her hair
and tell yourself, ‘This is what makes me happy!’
You liar. You bastard father. You darkness.

Despite the difficult terrain which the collection negotiates, Parker's gentle sense of humour and wide-eyed enthralment to all that is good make this an ultimately uplifting read; not in the sense of those gentle epiphanies of so much modern verse, but rather in the sense of what Larkin once called 'an enormous yes'.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Things I'm Glad I Read in 2014 #1

Bedouin of the London Evening

Despite my continuing neglect of this blog, the end of the year brings breathing-space enough to look back on 2014, the year in poetry. There have been many reading highlights for me this year, but not all of them have been books published since January. For instance, this was also the year I read Cavafy, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis (inspired by my Greek travels) and, a little closer to home, W.S. Graham and Peter Riley. I also enjoyed catching up on the early work of Mark Doty, collected in the volume Paragon Park. Nevertheless, in this post and several others to appear over the next couple of days, I'll reflect on the newly published collections which made me sit up and take notice in 2014. They come in no particular order, but are all warmly recommended.

My first choice, one of the last things I read this year, is a bit of a cheat, since the poems themselves are hardly 'new.' But Neil Astley of Bloodaxe has done an excellent job rescuing the poetry of Rosemary Tonks from the oblivion to which its creator once sought to assign it. I had become aware of Tonks through Astley's piece in The Guardian soon after her death earlier this year, and he has worked in double quick time to put this volume (Bedouin of the London Evening) together, including a fascinating introduction, which does as much interpretative work as many literary biographies in the space of a few pages.

As with any writer who, like Tonks' own favourite Rimbaud, disappears from the literary world after initial success, there is a danger that the romance of the doomed figure will overshadow the work or appear to lend it depth it may not have earned. In the circumstances, it is hard not to read the two fairly slim volumes of poetry collected here through Tonks' life and fate. However, there seems little doubt that this is a voice worth saving.

The first of her books, Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms (1963), contains a number of poems which foreshadow themes which solidify in the second collection, Iliad of Broken Sentences (1967). The settings are often seedy hotels, solitary bedrooms or other spaces of urban ennui, yet alongside these there are also declamatory, visionary poems like 'Diary of a Rebel' or 'Oath', in which the poet seeks to break out of a state of spiritual poverty through sheer force of will and rhetoric; swearing, for example, 'To thirst like a drunkard for the scent-storm of the trees.' As Astley notes in his introduction, there is something of the New Apocalyptics in Tonks' style at earlier on. In the later poems, which are more cohesive in terms of tone and theme, a cast of bohemians and students haunts Soho's coffee bars while the poetic subject slouches around her flat in an eternal dressing-gown, both overcome with disgust at the apparent 'waste' of her existence and defiantly embracing it. Here Tonks is like an English Baudelaire transplanted into the 1960s: Her writing is expansive and emphatic, her imagery both exoticising and down-to-earth (see, for example her poem 'Addiction to an Old Mattress'). While she clearly wears her influences on her sleeve, it is difficult to think of anyone quite like her in her own time or now.

What I also like about Tonks' poetry is its commitment to big feelings. In an interview reproduced in Astley's volume, she talks of how English poets seem to think that a state of mild disgruntlement is as emotional as they should allow themselves to get in their writing (surely a sarcastic nod to 'The Movement'), but Tonks is unafraid to head straight into the most challenging emotional territory. This would be reason enough to read her today, when we otherwise have so much orderly and restrained poetry to read. That this commitment to emotional honest is paired with linguistic energy and invention makes hers a compelling voice.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Talking with the Internet about Poetry

I am a keen user of social media, which is probably tantamount to saying that I am a keen time-waster. That said, as I have gradually started publishing poetry and meeting other poets, social media has provided me with a network of contacts which, I imagine, would have taken years to build without the internet. I rarely turn up to a poetry event and find I 'know' nobody else attending (in the sense of having encountered them on-line at least).
And yet, in recent weeks, I have become increasingly concerned with the quality of the debate around poetry and poets in social media, especially on Facebook. Perhaps, though, this isn't a concern specific to discussion of poetry on the internet, more a reflection of a wider culture which has emerged in the digitial age. What bothers me, now I think more carefully about it, is that poets unthinkingly mimic that culture. That isn't to say that I think they are likely to be better, more astute people than the general populace; just that I feel I belong, however tenuously, to this group, and so their actions matter more to me.
So, what is this general culture? The political philosopher Chantal Mouffe has described it as 'antagonistic', that is to say that the public debates which take place within that culture are highly polarised. Each side assumes that the other can only be viscous and dangerously foolish, their world-view an abomination which must be rejected totally, not listened to. There can be no compromise with those whose arguments have no validity, and who are themselves essentially malign. The 'Tea Party' in the US has been one of the most prominent examples of this kind of thinking, with its aggressive demonization of whose whose view of the good society differs from its own. We could speculate, as Richard Sennett has for example, that the rise of this culture is linked in some way to an ideology of neo-liberalism which promotes an atomistic, mobile and ruthlessly competition-oriented view of society, in which individuals no longer learn the skills of 'everyday diplomacy', as Sennett calls them; skills which would help them deal with conflicts of values in a 'cool' fashion, not by heated confrontation. For Sennett, such a world increasingly promotes the culture of 'screw you!' - you are either for me or against me, an ally or an enemy. Neither Mouffe nor Sennett are arguing for the abandonment of world-views in favour of vague compromise, it should be noted. Rather, they suggest that we need to return to a world in which the civil competition of world-views would be possible, in which we could respectfully differ.
Clearly, the internet does not help. Theorists of the bourgeois public sphere, chief among them Jürgen Habermas, have argued that our current democracy grew out of the creation of a public sphere in which ideas could be made the subject of public debate without becoming cause for destructive conflict. Because that debate took place in the slower paper media of the letter, the newspaper, the pamphlet and the book, it allowed for a certain detachment. Certainly, the people who proposed ideas and arguments often felt passionately about them, and were also open to personal attack and satire. Nevertheless, the relative slowness of the media arguably created a detachment between person and argument. Even the (possibly idealised) London coffee house of the 18th century, where anyone could turn up and take part in debate face-to-face for the price of a drink, was a space where ideas could be tested against each other, questioned and defended, in a notably under-heated atmosphere when compared with the current level of debate on the internet.
Social media discussions combine the apparent detachment of the old print public sphere with the immediacy of the coffee house debate, yet the combination is far from productive. Taking place in the context of our generally antagonistic, 'screw you!' culture, the speed of communication on social media makes arguments less emotionally detached, while the relative anonymity of the keyboard and screen embolden individuals to behave in ways which would not be seen as appropriate if they were looking each other in the eyeball. What we end up with instead is an impulse not only to denigrate others' ideas, for which no validity whatsoever can be admitted, and to denigrate the people who hold those ideas. Discussions quickly descend into name-calling, and those who feel under attack resort to undermining their opponents by questioning the (implicitly evil) motives for their arguments, rather than engaging with the arguments themselves.
Why does this matter? Firstly, in terms of the poetry 'community' I see engaging in debate on Facebook in particular, I find very often that its attitude closes off the very possibility of anyone learning anything from the discussion. If I encounter ideas which challenge my own view, I have two options: I can either go away and explore those ideas for myself and reconsider (but not necessarily abandon) my own position, or I can just assume that the person expressing those ideas is somehow despicable and can't have anything interesting to say. Sadly, I see more of the latter than the former in these discussions. This is highly unproductive, not least for those aggressively proposing arguments, whose desire seems to be less  to persuade others and more to reassure themselves that they are right and everyone else is just an idiot. Such discussion might just as well not have taken place, since all it has produced is animosity and the terrible thrill of self-belief on all sides. Secondly, especially in the competition of differing aesthetic positions in poetry, there is something to be gained by borrowing from or simply reacting against different approaches and philosophies. Let's face it, such borrowings and reactions are what the history of poetry is. If we continue to foster a culture of aggressive non-communication on-line, then the danger of a(n even more) sclerotic poetry culture may be the ultimate outcome. After all, how can you respond to anything productively if you have decided that it must be worthless?
I am far from being able to offer solutions to any of this, and I may well be wrong in certain (if not many) aspects of my analysis. However, I hope I have gone some way at least to stating the problem.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Greek Adventure

It has been a couple of weeks now since I returned from my trip to Greece as a guest of Harvard University's Centre for Hellenic Studies (CHS), kindly sponsored by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust. This was the other element of my prize for the Michael Marks Award, which I won for my pamphlet Gaud in November 2013. At the time, going to Greece seemed like something of a footnote to winning the prize itself, and I wasn't entirely sure what to expect of it. Well, now I can only say that my two weeks on the Pelopennese and in Athens were by far the most valuable aspect of winning the Michael Marks Award, far beyond the monetary value of the generous cheque that came with it.
Flying into Greece
I was accompanied on my journey by Andrew Forster of the Wordsworth Trust, which administers the Michael Marks Award. We visited some beautiful places, including Napflio, Epidaurus, Mycenae, Messolonghi, Sounio, Athens and Olympia. These experiences were considerably enhanced by our having the best possible guides at every turn, whether they were archaeologists, classical scholars or poets, and the generosity of everyone we met, from the brilliant staff of the CHS to museum workers or the owners of the smallest tavernas, was simply breathtaking. This felt even more remarkable given the obvious signs of the continuing economic crisis and civil unrest which we encountered in the capital. Despite the obvious pain of the Greek people at their country's situation, their determination to overcome and their openness to others remains undaunted.

View of Napflio from the CHS offices
During our stay in Olympia, Andrew and I were also able to attend lectures offered as part of the CHS summer school. It was a privilege to hear scholars such as Professor Greg Nagy and Dr Paul Kosmin sharing their knowledge with a remarkably attentive and enthusiastic group of students from the US, Greece and the UK. Andrew and I also organised a poetry workshop for the students and shared some of our own work with them.
The 'grave of Clytemnestra' at Mycenae
Poets in Napflio
Apart from learning so much about the history of Greece, both ancient and modern, the trip was also an opportunity to meet Greek poets and compare notes on the situation of writers of poetry in Greece and the UK. Here again, the constraints imposed by the current financial situation soon became clear. However much poets in the UK may complain about a lack of resources, we should be grateful for the many opportunities which Greek poets are denied. There is no lack of enthusiasm and engagement, however, as became clear when Andrew and I participated in this year's Paros Symposium in Athens, which has been bringing together Greek and anglophone poets and translators every summer for the last decade. Organisers Siarita Kouka and Helen Dimos managed a free-flowing, yet good natured and productive event over several days, culminating in a public reading and celebration on a warm evening in central Athens.
Siarita Kouka and Helen Dimos reading on the last night
of the Paros Symposium

Despite these many activities, there was also time for reading by the pool, and I was lucky in Olympia to stumble across a little bookseller, Galerie Orphee, carrying English language editions of 20th century Greek poets and a lot more besides. I was also able to draft a few poems of my own in response to the many wonderful experiences and encounters. I'm hoping that some of them will find their way into my first collection.

From time to time, we crossed Byron's path. He reminded us of the UK's strong cultural and historical links with Greece. In Messolonghi, for example, we saw no less than three statues of him, plus an impressive museum run by volunteers and dedicated to his short time in Greece and the phenomenon of Philhellenism in the 1820s. It is worth remarking on the fact that, nearly two hundred years later, fellow Europeans have not found it in themselves to express solidarity with Greece at a time of crisis. A little of that Byronic spirit would seem in order for us today.
One of the Byron statues at Messolonghi

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


My poor neglected blog - so long without a substantial post! And that it should be an intervention by British journalism's answer to Cyril Sneer, Jeremy Paxman, which made me want to write again. Not that I am particularly exercised by Paxman's comments. The online discussion has been lively, but I've found it hard to get hot under the collar. Whatever one may think of Paxman, he is a shrewd media operator who knows how to whip up a bit of publicity for the Forward Prize.

Cyril Sneer takes the poets to task

George Szirtes' comments on Paxman's frankly weird idea of putting poets before peoples' tribunals are spot on: It all sounds vaguely Stalinist, although perhaps more Maoist, if you ask me. Get the dunces' hats, parade the intellectuals around the village to let them feel the righteous anger of the people! What's not to like?

And yet.

There is that question of ordinariness. The very nub of Paxo's argument goes unexplored. So here are some thoughts on ordinariness, in no particular order...

1. Poetry is a marginal art. And always has been, or at least in the modern era. From time to time, individual poets or volumes of verse have achieved significant sales and caught the British popular imagination, for a whole range of contingent reasons: Tennyson's In Memoriam, Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Housman's A Shropshire Lad, the Georgian anthologies, Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters... But when I say 'popular imagination', we really are only talking about sales in the tens of thousands and, for want of a better term, a predominantly middle class audience. Most poetry books, by these writers' contemporaries, have always sold far fewer copies.

2.  In the post-war period, writer-educators like Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart insisted that we should pay more attention to the culture of ordinariness, the everyday culture of newspapers, popular song, and so on. What gets forgotten is that, in their own educational practice, originally in extra-mural programmes at British universities, Williams and Hoggart believed that 'ordinary' people should aspire to appreciate the classics of English literature. They didn't believe that those classics had to modified to make them more accessible. The (implicitly working-class) ordinary reader could enjoy those works on their own terms and find their lives enriched by them.

3. In Neil Roberts' biography of Peter Redgrove, Roberts discusses J. H. Barclay, a retired biscuit-maker from Bootle, who had left school at 13. He was Redgrove's most avid reader, who would buy all of Redgrove's books, travel to attend his readings, and visit the places Redgrove wrote about. He was an ordinary man who connected very deeply with the work of a poet who is by no means 'popular' in the sense of being straightforward or undemanding.

4. Poetry is sometimes hard work. It doesn't take much effort on the part of the viewer to watch The X Factor, although clearly millions of people find it an exciting and rewarding experience. It is pure entertainment, and no the worse for that. Poetry demands to be re-read, it asks you to spend time with it - not simply to fill time with it. Even when it hits you straight in the gut on first reading (and plenty of the best poetry does do this), there are more intellectual and emotional rewards when you return to it. I don't believe that appreciating certain art forms automatically makes anyone a better, more moral, or more sensitive person (see John Carey's What Good are the Arts? on this point). However, I do believe that a better society would equip people with the cultural education, the time and the aspiration to engage with art forms which ask more of them - not as some worthy chore, but as a means to expand their perception and feeling, to become more fully alive to the world and to themselves.

5. A lot of the entertainment which pervades our lives and demands our time - on television, on-line, in the cinemas, on the library shelves - is avowedly popular. It wants to give the public what it wants, to engage desires and patterns of thought which are culturally established and commodified. That is not to say that imaginative 'ordinary' people don't do very interesting and often subversive things with the products of entertainment culture, nor is it to say that more 'difficult' cultural forms can't become commodified as part of a leisure experience (just pop along to Tate Modern and take a look). However, we can say that the chief message of much entertainment culture is essentially (to quote Bill Joel) 'don't go changing'. It says: There is no need to be anything other than ordinary. The challenge of poetry to the reader is 'be extraordinary.' Or, as Rilke succinctly put it - 'you must change your life.'

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review of Kevin Powers

I just reviewed Kevin Powers' new book of poetry, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, over at Dr Fulminare's Irregular Features.

Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2014

Hard to believe that Cheltenham Poetry Festival has already been over for a week. What a great time we had! It has taken me this long to recover enough to be able to write a post reviewing the whole event (or those parts of it I was lucky enough to attend).

The preview weekend got off to a strong start on 22 March with local all-female troupe 'Picaresque', masterminded by Jennie Farley. A range of accomplished voices were showcased in a thoughtfully constructed and professionally delivered reading. Then Howard Timms left his audience deeply moved with a one-man play on his mother's dementia, that featured songs, some brilliant acting, and Howard's impersonation of his grandfather doing drag. This was an affecting and cathartic piece of work - never was the cliché 'not a dry eye in the house' more apt. Later that evening, the Stroud Pamphlet poets (led by Rick Vick) gave an eclectic and laid-back reading of their work.
The first weekend of the festival proper began on Friday 28 March with a reading by Don Paterson and David Briggs. It was a real coup for the festival to secure a reading from Paterson, one of the most essential voices in contemporary British poetry, and he was well-matched with David Briggs, whose two collections from Salt are among my favourite books. David's reading was beautifully presented and contained some excellent work - you could feel the audience's concentration in the room as he read. Paterson was relaxed and funny, sharing with us some work-in-progress as well as his feelings about poetry readings, especially those where the pre-ambles are more entertaining than the poems they preface.
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Sarah Dixon (photo: Write Out Loud)
Later that evening, I forsook the rowdiness of the slam for a parallel event organised by 'Quite Compere' Sarah Dixon. The theme was 'life, death and poetry' and several of the readers had had their own experiences with life-threatening illnesses, or were (in their day jobs) involved in the medical professions. This was a great combination of perspectives, and much of the work was first class. Sarah is currently organising a tour of readings across the north of the UK and has similar projects in line for the future. Do look out for her events, as she clearly has a good eye for putting together thought-provoking, high quality shows.
Sadly, I wasn't able to attend a full day of events on Saturday 29 March, but I did make it along to the launch of Mikki Byrne's Flying Through Houses, an autobiography of Mikki's early life and childhood illness in the medium of prose poetry. Mikki is able to write directly and unsentimentally about her difficult start in life, evoking the spaces of her childhood to great effect, and her work speaks of a resilience of spirit which is genuinely uplifting. Later that afternoon, I was able to make it along to a reading of Laurie Lee's work in the Chapel of Frances Close Hall at the University of Gloucestershire. Angela France had organised a well-balanced programme of Lee's prose and verse, and it was a great treat to relax and listen to such good work in such peaceful surroundings. This is Lee's centenary year, and there are plenty of other events going on, especially in and around Stroud, throughout 2014.
Me, Jennie Farley and Chris Hemingway
The next event for me, on 30 March, was one of the three I was lucky enough to appear in, presenting a programme on 'Myth, Memory and Music' with Jennie Farley and Chris Hemingway. Here we are looking nervous before our performance, which I'm pleased to say drew a good audience (as many as our small venue could hold, which is always pleasing to see). After all of the hard work putting the the event together, it was heartening to hear from members of the audience that they had enjoyed themselves.
Although I had to slip away from the festival in the early afternoon, I was volunteering all evening at one of the venues, helping to make readings by Pat Borthwick, Maria Butonoi, Jean Riley, Sujata Bhatt and Gillian Barker run smoothly. It was a pleasure to meet the poets, and I came away with an armful of books, which is a good sign. It was a particular pleasure to hear Sujata Bhatt read again, and also good to see that the festival is in a position to attract really top-notch international names like her. Romanian-born Maria Butonoi is one to watch, I would say - her debut pamphlet from Yew Tree Press is original and surprising.
Anna Saunders, Struck (Image: Pindrop Press)
I mainly had to miss out on the events in the following week, due to work commitments. But did make it along to 'Women's Words', with Angela France and Dani Schlosser. Interspersed with tweets from #everydaysexism, these poems addressed women's experience. It was humorous, raw and direct - and still felt vital in today's climate of backlash against women's liberation.
On Thursday, I went to the launch of Anna Saunders' amazing collection Struck from Pindrop Press. Anna gave a brilliant reading to a packed room, which enjoyed free wine and chocolates, not to mention excellent support from fellow Pindrop poet Jeremy Page. My own small contribution was the brief appreciation of the book I had written a while ago at Anna's request, which is quoted on the back cover and reproduced in full in the endpages. Having read the book again now, my initial enthusiasm has only been confirmed. A quick mention, also for Helen Dewbery, who produced a fantastic film to accompany Anna's reading - you can see more of Helen's work here.
Little Machine (Image: Cheltenham Poetry Festival)

I had the pleasure of reading with Anna and fellow members of Poetry Factory the following evening for the launch of The Museum of Light, a limited edition anthology of photographs by Create Photographers in Cheltenham accompanied by our poems.
Saturday 5 April had further treats in store, kicking off with Ros Cogan's talk on talk on the sonnet form, of which he is himself a highly skilled and effective proponent, and readings by Peter Carpenter and Lesley Ingram. Then we changed venue to the newly developped Wilson gallery at the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, where we heard readings by Ruth Padel and Cristina Newton. Both readers prefer to recite their poetry by heart, and these were both beautifully judged performances that thrilled the large audience that had come along to see them. They were followed in uproarious fashion by poetry band Little Machine, who blew us away with settings of classic and contemporary poems.
Next morning I was reading (again!), this time as part of a Flarestack Poets showcase, with the excellent Michael Conley and Richard Moorhead. It was good to meet the two of them properly and hear them read from their work. Both pamphlets can be thoroughly recommended!
Then I was on duty again, volunteering at readings by Sophie Hannah and Nic Aubury and Peter Wyton and Robin Gilbert. Then, fittingly for a Gloucestershire event, the programme came to an end with a talk about and readings from the Dymock Poets. Having recently read Matthew Hollis' biography of Edward Thomas, I was familiar with the story, but it was great to have the atmosphere of that time and place evoked by the wonderful readers, and by Jeff Cooper, grandson of Lascelles Abercrombie, who was a key figure in the group.
There are so many things I've left out here, not least Buzzwords with Carrie Etter, which rounded off the final festival weekend. But hopefully this gives some sense of the variety and quality on offer. Reliving the whole thing as I write this, I think I need to have another rest!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Guest Poet - Jonathan Edwards

I first met Jonathan Edwards a couple of years ago on a Poetry School course run by David Briggs in Bristol. Jonathan's poems immediately captured the imagination of everyone in the group. The warmth and wit of his work is balanced perfectly with a precise sense of craft. His first full collection, My Family and Other Superheroes, which has just been published by Seren, is a triumph. Moving and audacious, Jonathan's vision is shrewd without being harsh, surreal yet grounded in the world we all share. This is poetry that believes in seeking out the truth in the ordinary, its flights of pop-culture-inspired fancy always bringing us back to the bedrock of what makes us who we are. This is especially the case in the wonderful 'Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family', which is featured below as a guest poem.

Jonathan has this to say about the poem:

"I work as a teacher and sometimes, when they’re not asking me why they have to do the homework, or why they have to study this book for GCSE, or even why the sky doesn’t have orange polka dots in it, my pupils have been known to ask an interesting question: where’s the best place to write a poem? I think they’re expecting me to say something like ‘In a rose-lined arbour in high summer, as bees buzz their ideas round your ears, and all your senses tingle’ or, ‘On a hillside at night overlooking a city, as the silhouettes of office buildings and smokestacks form their ghostly backdrop to the nightingales’ song.’ Instead, my answer is usually the same: sitting on the sofa, during the advertising break in The Simpsons.

The Simpsons is a gift for anyone wanting to write the comic, pop culture surreal – the kind of work that grows out of Jo Shapcott poems like ‘Superman Sounds Depressed,’ or ‘Tom and Jerry Visit England,’ or the wonderful sonnet sequence by the American poet David Wojahn, ‘Mystery Train,’ which explores a series of apocryphal but plausible moments in pop culture. There’s a sonnet about Francis Ford Coppola teaching Philippine tribesmen the lyrics to ‘Light My Fire’ on the set of Apocalypse Now, for example, and another about the time Delmore Schwartz went to a Velvet Underground gig. It’s difficult to look at the plot synopsis of a Simpsons episode, or even a single frame, without getting a bunch of ideas for comic and surreal poems which also – and this is the crucial thing – get to something which matters. The surreal as a way of getting to the real – that’s the thing for me.
With ‘Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family,’ the episode of The Simpsons in question was an early one, where a character clearly based on the real-life daredevil 70s motorcyclist inspires Bart to try and jump Springfield Gorge on his skateboard – something which Homer subsequently does instead, to try and win over his son. This reminded me in turn of an Evel Knievel action figure I had when I was a kid and would launch across the room, having him risk his plastic life by leaping candlesticks, coffee tables, toy giraffes. From there I was off. What could Evel Knievel say about my family? What if Evel Knievel jumped over my family? How would my mother feel about that? My great-grandmother?

A very eminent poet once told me that if I wrote poems about my family, they would only be of interest to my family. But if there’s a more important reason to write poems than the people we love, I don’t know what it is. Evel Knievel, as he soars through the air, is my solution to that problem. Throw famous people at a poem and you might also be throwing readers. The poem forms part of a sequence of similar surreal approaches to the family at the start of my Seren collection, My Family and Other Superheroes. I’ve yet to write a poem set in a rose-lined arbour in high summer. But if I ever do, I might well-find that two figures come zooming through it: a boy on a skateboard, dust rising from his wheel-tracks, being chased by his balding, beer-bellied, and strangely yellow dad."

Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family

A floodlit Wembley. Lisa, the producer,
swears into her walkie-talkie. We Edwardses,
four generations, stand in line,
between ramps: Smile for the cameras.

My great-grandparents twiddle their thumbs
in wheelchairs, as Lisa tells us to relax,
Mr Knievel has faced much bigger challenges:
double-deckers, monster trucks, though the giraffe

is urban legend. Evel Knievel enters,
Eye of the Tiger drowned by cheers,
his costume tassels, his costume a slipstream,
his anxious face an act to pump the crowd,

surely. My mother, always a worrier,
asks about the ambulance. Evel Knievel
salutes, accelerates towards the ramps.
I close my eyes, then open them:

is this what heaven feels like,
some motorcycle Liberace overhead,
wheels resting on air? Are these flashes
from 60,000 cameras the blinding light

coma survivors speak of? Before he lands,
there’s just time to glance along the line:
though no one’s said a thing,
all we Edwardses are holding hands.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

And they're off!

The first event of this year's Cheltenham Poetry Festival took place last night - and what a corker it was!

The Cheltenham Improvisers Orchestra provided a wash of ambient sound - created live with synthesizer, bassoon, drums, cello, electric bass, household items and even a ping-pong bat and ball - over which poets read their work about spring. A whole range of styles was on offer - the combination of so many different voices with the lush and inventive soundscapes made for a mesmeric experience.

There are so many good things on offer over the coming weeks, and the standard is already high. You can see more of the programme and book tickets here.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

States of Independence

States of Independence is an independent publishers' fair held annually at De Monfort University in Leicester, home of one of the region's liveliest creative writing programmes. I've been meaning to get along to it for a couple of years now, but have now finally had the time to make the trip. It was well worth it. Apart from the all too-tempting book stalls (see my haul of purchases below...), the readings and discussions were some of the most stimulating I've experienced for a long time.

Sadly, it was impossible to attend everything on offer, but here are some impressions of the events I was able to see.

The morning began promisingly with 'The Poetry of Sex', presented by four poets recently included in Sophie Hannah's controversial anthology of the same name from Penguin. Although some of the participants had mixed feelings about the anthology itself, their poems, and the discussion afterwards, threw up lots of interesting questions about what sex in poetry could be about, apart from being about sex itself. Rich Goodson's impressive prose poems drew on mythology and theology to present sex as a transformative and potentially subversive force, whereas Cora Greenhill's poems explored the gender politics in various sexual encounters. Gregory Woods reflected on the place of depictions of gay sex in the fight for equality, and Maria Taylor's poems discussed sexuality in the context of her Greek Orthodox upbringing.

In the next session, Peter Hughes of Oyster Catcher Press presented three pamphlet poets: Alan Baker, Kathleen Bell and Sarah Crewe. Baker's wry collages of everyday thoughts and perceptions produced a restrained lyricism, while Bell's elliptical, fragmentary work was particularly effective in a sequence on the drowning of immigrants at Lampedusa. Here the poet drew on tales of legendary European travelers to weave a complex inter-textual fabric, which was political without being polemic. Sarah Crewe, who had traveled from Liverpool, delivered a blistering performance of highly original 'working-class, feminist psychogeography', then fairly brought the house down with a sequence of poems which re-imagines Steven Spielberg's Jaws from a feminist perspective. Her re-appropriation of pop culture (including the Thundercats) to political ends was witty and compelling.

At one o'clock, a full room was treated to a reading by Roy Marshall and Rory Waterman, both of whose debut collections came out last year. Marshall and Waterman both often write ostensibly 'personal' poetry (family plays a significant role), but they also have in a common a precision of expression and brilliant handling of imagery (especially of the natural world) which I very much admire. Waterman's book, Tonight the Summer's Over, is perhaps more melancholy than Marshall's collection, but certainly a worthy Poetry Book Society recommendation.

The final event I attended was hosted by Bold Strokes Books, an LGBTQ publisher, who had invited a panel of authors along to talk about the extent to which LGBTQ literature needs to move out of the ghetto of the bookshop's 'gay and lesbian' section. There was a strong feeling in the room that the community (or possibly communities) still needs and wants books for themselves, but there was also an unresolved tension with the desire among authors to write what they chose without being bound to represent a particular group, and to have their writing read by a wide spectrum of people. The relatively brief discussion was never going to resolve this issue, but it was good to hear the conversation carrying on in the corridor afterwards. Also, it was fascinating to find out about developments in LGBTQ publishing in recent years which had passed me by.

In between all of this, there was a chance to chat with publishers, magazine editors and many familiar faces, including Jacqui Rowe of Flarestack. On the train ride home, in the spring sunshine, I was already beginning to read the book purchases I had filled my bag with.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Guest Poet - Daniel Sluman

I'm very pleased to have secured Daniel Sluman for a guest poet slot on this blog - the next in an as yet rather irregular, but hopefully increasingly regular series. I reviewed Daniel's first collection, Absence Has a Weight of Its Own, here a little while ago, and am very much looking forward to reading his second book. The poem below, which Daniel introduces himself, is from that new work. As is typical of Daniel's writing, this poem combines a frank tone with an artfulness and an arresting use of imagery that are all his own.

Daniel writes:

'One of the things I hate the most in contemporary poetry is the potentially lazy use of "poem" as a title. When the title is there for you to lift open a new ambiguity or show a different side to the piece,why waste that by telling the reader, simply that this is a "poem." Well, I broke this rule of my own because this poem in itself is about writing other poems, and contained a kind of meta angle that made it impossible for me to call it anything else.

As for the poem’s content, it’s typical of the confessional approach I used in my debut, and am refining, for what is currently known as #difficultsecondcollection on my twitter feed, to be published by Nine Arches Press at a later date . I have very mild OCD, which includes counting whilst opening doors, and turning light-switches off a certain amount of times (9 to be exact…) but this also included a stage where I would check the locks on the front door each night even when I was aware that I had locked them only ten minutes before. When I suddenly stopped this trait, I wrote it down in my notebook as I thought the idea of it could be seen to have a potentially deeper emotional reason behind it for the reader.

My then partner, Sonia Hendy-Isaac, who is herself a fantastic poet, and whose debut is out soon, appears in the poem as the female character.  She always looked at my poems before anyone else did. As someone who is always willing to turn his life into art, there are deeper connotations when that life is one you share with someone else and I felt at times that maybe Sonia gleaned ideas about my perception of the relationship, or was uncomfortable with how much I was willing to reveal about our lives on paper when she read these drafts. So that’s how the poem came about; quite typically for me, a collision of two ideas - this OCD act which I felt had deeper emotional connotations, and how someone else felt about showing the public our shared life bare to the world, this is how "Poem" came to be.'


For four years I’ve wanted to end this poem 
with    why have I stopped checking the locks 

at night       but as I part the pile-up 
of crash-red hair that slips over your scalp   

I understand the world only gets fuller
with the breaking of it      the smooth keys 

of your breath fill my shaking hands     
& we have never had as much blood 

in our bodies as we do now      you     
waking to read this draft       your face 

changing in the light of the laptop  
as you tell me to avoid repetition    

you count  the nouns      but worry 
is the grit in your eye     why do you wince 

when you read this poem       & why 
have I stopped checking the locks at night

Richard O'Brien's The Emmores

I have a review of Richard O'Brien's pamphlet The Emmores from The Emma Press over at Sabotage Reviews.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Cheltenham Poetry Festival Preview

The team at Cheltenham Poetry Festival have done a fine job again this year in putting together a wonderful selection of big names, rising stars and local writers (many of whom also fit happily into those first two categories!). I'm particularly looking forward to seeing the launch of Anna Saunders' new collection Struck, David Briggs reading with Don Paterson, the lunch of Mikki Byrne's Flying Through Houses, Sujata Bhatt, Sophie Hannah, Ruth Padel, and the swinging poetry band Little Machine (I'm especially hoping to hear their version of Larkin's 'This Be the Verse' again). There are also fascinating events about Dylan Thomas, Laurie Lee and the Dymock Poets, as well as showcases for excellent younger poets from the University of Gloucestershire.

The festival previews on 22-23 March, then gets into full swing from 28 March until 6 April. You can download the festival brochure and book tickets at their website.

In all modesty, I should also mention that you can see me reading on no less than three occasions: first with Jennie Farley and Chris Hemingway at an event we are calling 'Myth, Music and Memory' on 30 March at 12.30 in the Oxfam Bookshop;on 5 April with the Poetry Factory in The Strand, 20.00-21.00; finally, on 6 April, 11.00-12.00 in Taylors, with the Flarestack Poets showcase. Further details in the brochure.