Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Get ready! You're in for it!

So opens a stimulating new anthology of French poetry, Writing the Real, edited by my good friend Dr Nina Parish and her colleague Dr Emma Wagstaff. The words are those of Christian Prigent, whose oblique, surreal, linguistically playful work opens a collection as varied as it challenging. Rather than foregrounding any one tendency, the editors have done a good job of introducing a range of voices that (outside of a few translations through mirco-presses) will be largely unfamiliar to a UK audience. While the experimental end of writing practice is very much the focus here, those experiments are of many different kinds, ranging from the more process-driven approach of Jean-Michel Espitallier ('Tales of up to 15'), or the interrogation of the banalities of everyday language in Christophe Tarkos' poems ('Song 1' and 'Love'), to the New York School-ish work of Stephane Bouquet. Female poets are strongly represented (for example, Anne Portugal and Sabine Macher) and the editors have done an excellent job of providing an introduction that sets the scene and gives us a sense of who the key players are, while at the same time leaving us free to come to our own judgements. Where further translations are available, details are provided to allow us to follow up on other publications by the poets whose work most holds our attention. The translations themselves are by various authors, many of them practicing poets themselves (such as Keston Sutherland), but the texts are presented alongside the original French, which is always a bonus in this sort of edition. Even if our own grasp on the language is not so strong, we can begin to approach the original texts once we have absorbed the translations.
French poetry seeps into the consciousness of UK readers in a fairly sporadic way, driven by the enthusiasm of translators and other advocates for particular authors, so it is a great thing to have this overview of writers whose work might not yet have appeared on our radar. What is most striking about the differences between French writers and UK poets, if this anthology is anything to go by, is the extent to which longer sequences rather than self-contained short poems appear to dominate, alongside a strong tendency towards the prose poem. French poets are clearly working on larger canvasses than many of their UK counterparts, and that alone is a good reason for UK writers and readers to be grateful for this book.
Enitharmon are also to be congratulated on the design on this volume, which looks great!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

True confessions

I have recently been reading the work of Danish poet Yahya Hassan, the son of Palestinian refugees, who was jailed in September over the shooting of a 17-year-old boy. Hassan has been a literary sensation in Denmark, selling over 100,000 copies of his book (there's currently no English translation of his work that I am aware of, so I am relying on the German version here).

Hassan writes of a life of brutalization, both by his parents and the Danish authorities, describes what he perceives as the hypocrisy of Danish Muslims, and details his own (sometimes brutal) juvenile crimes. His direct, unflinching poems, written exclusively in capitals with no punctuation, have made him famous, but the financial success they have brought has clearly not allowed him to transcend many of troubles of his early life. Not only that, but he has found himself alienated from elements of his own community, which have reacted angrily to what they perceive as the attacks on them in his work.

Hassan is part of a wider trend in recent years towards a new kind of confessional poetry from previously marginalized voices, speaking uncomfortable truths about violence, discrimination, mental health, illness and disability, addiction, economic disadvantage, and a whole range of other issues. These texts live from their authenticity. The poet does not hold back from revealing painful, even shocking details from their lives: In the case of Hassan's book, there is a particularly disturbing episode where the teenage protagonist assaults and robs a Danish girl who has rejected his sexual advances and racially abused him.

Image result for yahya hassan book
There are, of course, questions to be asked about the construction of such authenticity. Charles Bukowski is arguably the granddaddy of this kind of writing, yet his 'Henry' persona is very much a fictionalized version of his own experience and not to be confused with the writer himself. However, the fate of Hassan, whose welfare and state of mind have increasingly been cause for concern, also leads us to ask moral questions about the audience's role. Hassan's readers may be fascinated by his life-experiences, but is there a danger of that fascination becoming a high-brow version of the gawking at 'car-crash' celebrities we encounter in the tabloid press? Some are beginning to question whether Hassan's publisher had a duty of care to counsel him against revealing certain experiences or expressing certain views, or at least to talk to him about possible consequences.
There are clearly no easy answers here. One might hope that poetry of the kind that Hassan has written will have a therapeutic effect, allowing the writer to deal with their experiences productively and taking on a positive social role in terms of breaking down taboos and encouraging tolerance and change. Clearly, even if those positive social effects are achieved in this case, the writer himself has paid a high price.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Best Blogs of 2016

Matthew Stewart at Rogue Strands has been kind enough to include 'A Thing for Poetry' among his best blogs of 2016. Good to know that the blog is read and appreciated, and also very helpful of Matthew to have provided this excellent list of the best in UK poetry blogging. There are certainly some here I need to explore more thoroughly.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Unexpected Encounters is online

Poems from my residency for Stratford upon Avon Poetry Festival, along with the work of the other poets who took part in 'Unexpected Encounters' are now free to read on-line in this electronic publication.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

New publications from John Freeman

What Possessed Me

I have taken great pleasure in the last week reading two new publications from John Freeman, whose excellent collection of prose poems, White Wings, I reviewed a while back. Now retired from his teaching post at the University of Cardiff, John has clearly entered a highly productive phase, with a chunky new collection from Worple and a pamphlet just out from Knives, Forks and Spoons.

The collection, aptly titled What Possessed Me is resolutely personal in its focus. The poems often start from everyday or even mundane experiences (a walk around the village, going to the dentist), or from encounters with people and places (there is a sequence on a visit to Athens, another on a series of visits to Llandaff), but this is not autobiographical or even confessional work in the narrow sense. The poet does not have any revelation to make about his own life, rather the poems are a record of his concerted paying attention to his surroundings, his cultivation of a state of receptiveness and careful observation, in which he wishes 'to be fully open like wild roses, / wanting only this, nothing more than this.' ('Summer Solstice, Cornwall'). Reading the poems opens the reader to such attentiveness, too -- a welcome corrective to distracted the consciousness of our digital age.

The pamphlet, Strata Smith and the Anthropocene, mixes prose poetry, verse and essayistic fragment to address the legacy of William Smith, the founding father of geology, whose 1815 map surveyed and classified the various geological strata to be found in the British Isles. The texts deftly interconnect Smith's life story, the poet's investigation of that life and our shared ecological predicament, expressing genuine admiration for Smith while not losing sight of the wider historical and political ramifications of his work. To me, this felt like a taster of what could be a longer account, although the pamphlet stands up very well on its own terms. I can certainly recommend both books.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Guest Poet - Stewart Carswell

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve attended some excellent events at Bristol Poetry Festival, including a reading featuring Stewart Carswell, a young poet and a fascinating new voice. I first encountered Stewart when we attended the same Poetry School course a few years ago. He was living in Bristol while he studied for his PhD in physics and was, amazingly, managing to combine this with his writing life. He was included in Eyewear’s Best New British and Irish Poets anthology this year and they were so enthusiastic about this work that they have now published his first pamphlet, Knots and Branches, which reflects both Stewart’s interest in the natural world and his strong sense of place.

Many of the poems reflect the landscape of the Forest of Dean, not far from my own Cheltenham home. That attention to the natural world, particularly the world of trees, rivers and weather, combines a closely observing eye with a search for revealed wisdom in the poet’s surroundings. Many poets with Stewart’s background might have gone down the route of ‘science poetry’ (there is certainly a good deal of that about from poets with similar professional experience), but the influence of his academic training is worn more lightly than that here. We see it in the close accounting for the physical interrelatedness of things and the processes by which they are transformed, yet it is ultimately through the act of imagination that the poems’ epiphanies are quietly achieved. There is an assuredness to this voice that is rare in debuts and I’m sure we can look forward to further publications.
Stewart has kindly agreed for me to publish the poem ‘Instructions for Winter’ here, with the following words of his own commentary. Stewart writes:

'As a poet with a scientific background, I'm quite often asked how I got into poetry. To most people, poetry and science seem to be two very different disciplines. But I would say that they're actually quite similar.

Typically with science research, the procedure is that you make an observation of something interesting, and you try to understand what is happening. You then communicate what happened in a way that people can understand, often using equations where letters are symbols representing properties of the system you observed.

It's the same with poetry, I try and communicate my observations and thoughts concisely through the symbols of poetic imagery. On the surface, the poems may be short and simple, but underneath they are communicating something deeper and more complex through those symbols. I think it is important to make the poems accessible, in order to share the knowledge with a wide audience.

Research is a series of experiments, a journey to find out something unknown.  The process of writing is a little like finding out what is inside yourself.

This poem, Instructions for winter, looks a simple one. I wrote it I think at the start of a winter, or at least it was the first snow of the season. I was walking home through those gentle flakes. The movement of the walk moved me physically, and the falling of the snow moved me emotionally. I wanted to combine those movements, while illuminating something about poetry and observation at the same time.'

Instructions for Winter

If the snow is still falling as you read this
then stop reading and go outside.

Go outside: feel the snow melt upon you.
Some things are not meant to last

and this moment is one of them.
Go outside.

Let the snow do its falling and melting,
stay until the moment has changed you

but don’t forget: when you return,
this poem will also be different.

This poem was first published in Sarasvati.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Poetry, Left and Right

Recently, my contributor copy of the New Boots and Pantisocracies anthology plopped through my letter-box. It is a good-looking book, with many startling poems by some of the best contemporary British poets, engaging in sometimes angry, sometimes oblique fashion with the outcome of the 2015 general election; an election which, as we all know, has had untold ramifications, setting the country on the path to Brexit.
Sheenagh Pugh has quite rightly raised the question of the apparent political homogeneity of the work offered here, and of that submitted to the original (and ongoing) blog that gave the anthology its name. As W.N. Herbert says in his introduction, it is (or has become) an avowedly left-wing project; and, indeed, is published by Smokestack Books, who specialise in publishing work in that tradition. That in itself is not a problem for the book, of course, but Pugh and others have worried why such consensus reigns in the world of poetry; or, at least, appears to.
Public Writer, Jean Jacques de Boissieu, 1790, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In one discussion I noticed on-line, a poet who is not included in the anthology, and who clearly doesn't share its political leanings, has argued that this left consensus among poets is a reason why poetry is alienated from a public he considers to be made up of a majority of conservatives. On a number of levels, this seems rather tenuous. Plenty of contemporary poetry, even by those who are part of this alleged left-liberal cabal, is not overtly political, or is perhaps at most vaguely humanistic. There are plenty of other reasons why people are not interested in poetry, which have nothing to do with its ideological content. Nevertheless, this does leave us with the slightly embarrassing question of why there is so little political diversity to be found, not just in the New Boots anthology, but in contemporary British poetry more widely.
The problem, I think, has to do with the nature of the contemporary politics more than with contemporary poetics. Quite simply, the dominant political ideology of our time makes the adoption of what we might call a conservative position in poetry a vexed undertaking. Our on-line commentator, who finds it problematic that poets don't represent the views of the alleged majority, is wrong-headed in a number of respects, not the least of which is to assume that voting preferences actually tally with the views that voters hold on particular issues (that link is not as strong as commonly imagined). Yet the chief misconception here is to assume that it is the function of art to reflect back to 'the majority' what it already (thinks it) thinks. This is a dubious assumption, even leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of other social institutions already doing this job quite efficiently. There is ultimately something authoritarian about it, as if the only thought that should be expressed is the kind that everyone can agree on and that will trouble nobody.
The point about poetry, or art in general, is that it is not affirmative of the status quo. This does not mean that it cannot affirm something (the beauty of nature, the value of human relationships, etc.), but it does so in a context in which those things it affirms are not to be taken for granted or are fragile and threatened. Poetry is a response to a world that is not as it should be (when was the world ever as it should be?) and is a corrective to those who peddle the notion that everything is in its right place. This certainly leaves room for conservative or right-wing writers (understood here as a very broad category), as the likes of Eliot, Pound, Benn, Hamsun, Celine, Nietzsche, Waugh, or, today, Houellebecq demonstrate (I'm not going to draw any conclusions here about my inability to name an example of a female writer. This is probably my ignorance. For reasons that will become clear, I don't think Ayn Rand really fits). However, what links these writers is their relationship to progress, or what their contemporaries consider as such. The writer of the right, or the conservative writer, is the writer railing against what everybody else consider to be the great advances of their time. All of those things the left tends to think are inherently progressive (technology, democracy, cosmopolitanism, equality, materialism, humanism, etc.) are held up to scrutiny by the literary right, which looks back to the values of a world (very possibly of their own retrospective construction) that is being bulldozed by a new form of society that they abhor. The left's relationship to progress is perhaps more straightforward: They think progress is a good thing, just not the kind of progress we are getting now. Their writing is against a variety of progress, not against progress itself.
In the prevailing ideological climate, the position of the left-liberal poet is clearly easier to negotiate. If we restrict our view to the UK for the moment, we are currently witnessing the dominance of an ideology that calls itself conservative or invokes the position of conservatism, as in the case of UKIP and its demand to 'get our country back'. However, this 'conservatism' is an ideological smoke-screen for a brand of neo-liberalism that worships the 'creative destruction' brought about by increasingly restless flows of global capital and rejects any impediment to such flows as they tear down borders, uproot ways of life and trash the global environment. This is not a conservative project, but a revolutionary one, yoked to a notion of progress that has increasingly lost sight of the needs of individuals and communities in favour of the needs of corporations and their shareholders. Frankly, conservatives should be in up in arms about it. This would, surely, be a position from which to write, but one looks in vain for British poets who can take up this tradition. Where they do exist, they seem to fall into the trap of endless attacks on the 'liberal intelligentsia'. Not that that this intelligentsia doesn't deserve and need critical scrutiny, but at the moment this seems to me to be largely an excuse for not addressing the real nub of the problem, which is the nature of the contemporary capitalist system, from a conservative standpoint.
Conservative writers of the twentieth century recognised that the society that capitalism had created was the target of their critique – they just formulated a different kind of critique to that proposed by the left. The fact that conservative writers, if they exist outside the pages of the opinion columns in the tabloid press, fail to rise to recognise this today, must surely be due to the ideological confusion that has been brought about by the importation of neo-liberal ideology into British politics. Free-marketers have found no ruse more effective for selling their project than to drape it in the colours of reactionary cultural conservatism. While UKIP and the Conservative Party strive for a society of the market, dreaming of a future UK as a kind of new Singapore off the European coast, they promise the electorate that such a society will return them to a culturally homogeneous, insular world of national sovereignty, when exactly the opposite is the case. For truly successful conservative writers to emerge, I would argue, this is what they would have to write against, not just against the 'left-liberal elite', which is (let's face it) by far the lesser threat to the things conservatives (in the true sense of the term) hold dear. That we do not have such writers is an impoverishment, even if I would have to spend a lot of my time radically disagreeing with them about almost everything.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Unexpected encounters

Over the last two days, I've been privileged to have been part of a poets in residence scheme for Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival at the Billesley Manor Hotel near Stratford. The Festival, organised by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, secured Arts Council funding and the cooperation of local businesses and attractions for poets to go into all kinds of unusual settings, from nail bars to railway station cafes. The poems inspired by the residencies will be performed this Saturday night (24 September) in a special Festival event.

All of the residencies have been run under the heading of 'Unexpected Encounters' and, to judge from the report back that some of us enjoyed in The One Elm in Stratford last night, they have lived up to this promise. You can check out the hastags #SUAPoetryfestival and #unexpectedencounters on Twitter to see some of the things that have been going on.

Billesley has been a lovely setting that has offered me a kind of poetry-writing mini-break in beautiful countryside and historic surroundings. The manor house itself was originally Tudor and has a real English country house feel to it. The topiary garden, pictured on the left, is particularly fine. The staff and the guests have been very welcoming and generous with their time, and -- by the end of day two -- I have managed to draft six poems, on subjects as diverse as spa treatments and the life of a night manager. I was particularly struck by how much everyone seems to enjoy their jobs. I didn't meet any member of staff who wished they were doing something else!

I'm fascinated to see what work has emerged from the other residencies. What has struck me most about the residency experience is the role of chance. I made plenty of plans for the residency, and I'm glad I did, but in the end I found myself having to respond to situations and encounters I could never have predicted. Still, without that element of randomness, I would have only written what I expected to write, which would not have been nearly as much fun.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Autumn, Hotels and Pantisocracy

Logging on to look at my blog, the statistics tell me that my post on Top Ten Autumn Poems is getting hits again. Clearly, when autumn arrives, we cannot help but turn to poetry. My autumn certainly has plenty of poetry in it, with a reading with Cliff Yates at my favourite monthly poetry event Buzzwords on 2nd October and my participation in a very exciting residency with Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival.

For the residency, I will be based for two days at the Billesley Manor Hotel (19-20 September) and will also take part in a reading on 24 September with other poets who have been brought into local businesses to create some 'Unexpected Encounters'.

I'm also hoping to put on a short performance on 'The Poetry of Hotels' while I am at Billesley. You'll be able to find updates on that here and also on my Twitter feed (@davidcchelt).

The various residencies at the Festival will contribute to an online publication of poetry produced in Stratford. The link will be posted on this blog as soon as the project is complete.

In other news, four of my poems have just been published in Bare Fiction magazine, which is an outlet I've been wanting to get into for a while. This little magazine packs a real punch, combining fascinating new poetry, drama and fiction in a carefully designed package.

Also on the publications front, the crucible of discontent that is New Boots and Pantisocracies is about to make the transition from the screen to the page with an anthology from radical publishers Smokestack Books. I've just seen the proofs, which include my poem 'In the Snug', and it really is going to be a corker. There is passionate and spiky work here from just about all of my favourite contemporary poets (Sean O'Brien, Rachael Boast, Tony Williams, Helen Mort, Ian Duhig, Ciaran Carson...). Let's hope there is a post-Brexit sequel!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Stanza - A New Course for the Poetry School

After having taught a one-off workshop on-line for the Poetry School earlier this year, I'm very pleased to be returning to teach with this amazing organisation in the autumn of 2016. The topic of this five-session course (running over 10 weeks) will be 'The Stanza'. To promote the course, I've been asked to a write a post over at the Poetry School blog, which you can read here. I hope some of you will consider signing up -- I'll be doing my best to make the course stimulating and productive for all of us.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

What's going on?

In post-Brexit Britain, as political leaders tumble and old certainties are shaken, this is a question I find myself asking more than once every day. In another (non-poetic) guise, I've written about what I think is really going on here, but things are moving so fast, any substantial judgement still seems premature. We can't see history while we're making it, or while others are making it for us.

What does poetry do here? There are a couple of interesting projects up and running where poets respond directly to contemporary events: over at The Fat Damsel and a rejuvenated New Boots and Pantisocracies. I've written a few pieces in this vein myself in the past, as evidenced in part by this blog, but I'm finding that the general atmosphere of upheaval is seeping into my writing in more oblique ways at the moment, so that I don't think I have it in me to write a poem directly in response to current events. Instead, a rather odd and fantastical sequence is emerging with the title Scare Stories, which may or may not see the light of day in due course.

Luckily, I have the distraction of some summer readings to look forward to. July is quite a packed month in this respect.

On Monday 18, I'll be reading at Leicester Shindig, from 19.30, in the company of Claire Walker and others at The Western, 70 Western Road, Leicester LE3 0GA. There's an open mic, so please come along and share your work!

On Friday 22, I'll be reading with other Gloucestershire-based poets at Waterstones Birmingham, courtesy of Cheltenham Poetry Festival (full details below).

On Tuesday 26, I'll be reading with Daniel Sluman at Poetry Bites in Kings Heath, Birmingham (full details here), also including open mic.

On Thursday 28, I'll be reading at Words and Ears in Bradford on Avon with Rachael Clyne (see full details below).

Friday, June 3, 2016

Letter from Brussels

This week I was in the Netherlands and Belgium for my work. With a couple of hours to kill in a rather misty and chill Brussels, I took the retro-futuristic Metro to see the Grande Place and buy truffles for the nearest and dearest. The standard tourist stuff. No time to look at the fine museums or pop into the 'Parlementarium', which is surely what Eurosceptics imagine hell must look like.
There I was, at the heart of what we have come to see as 'Europe' (although its real heart may lie further east these days), thinking of the journey home and the prospect of arriving back in the truly depressing midst of the EU referendum debate, with the looming prospect of Britain's self-isolation from 'the continent'. The old myth of separateness and parochialism is alive and well in this ever-more interconnected world -- a colossal failure of the collective imagination, whatever one thinks of individual EU policies, or even of the apparatus as a whole.
Judy Sutherland has been publishing some lovely, positive Europhile poems over at The Stare's Nest. I recommend you check them out. Below are a few lines of doggerel written on that rainy afternoon in Brussels. They can't match the positivity of the poems Judy Sutherland has posted, I'm afraid.

Letter from Brussels

I call a narrow land my home –
it does not thank me for my hymns.
For want of answers it says NO
and doesn't care what it doesn't know.

Whatever phoney war this might
turn out to be, the last of fight's
gone out of me. The double-dealing
chatter smoothly on, the feeling

offered's like some sticky hand
you brace yourself to shake. Bland
messiahs packed in spittled suits,
poisoners of the grass-roots.

And here is better? Why not stay?
Today these flatlands, clipped from baize
and duller cloths, are rich enough
for killing over petty stuff –

who speaks how or prays just so,
who may stay and who must go.
Here too, the papers all report
opinions instead of thought.

At least, perhaps, there may be space
to share – a hope we learn to face.
Rarely do we get to choose
the juice in which we will be stewed.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Guest Poet: Katherine E. Young

Katherine E. Young
One of my most pleasurable poetry discoveries of recent months has been Katherine E.Young's collection, Day of the Border Guards (University of Arkansas Press, 2014), a book that addresses the author's long experience of living and working in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia. Katherine, who I was lucky enough to meet at a reading she gave in Cheltenham recently, is also an accomplished translator of Russian verse into English, and her deep knowledge of and love for Russian literary culture in particular are a hallmark of this collection. And yet the tone here is never academic; rather, the poems are constructed around the lived detail of everyday existence in Russia's past and present, closely observed, yet never exoticized. I have many personal favourites in the book, but Katherine has been kind enough to allow me to showcase the following poem.

Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

But how little they resembled the gods
who wore winged crowns in allegorical paintings,
those dissidents who frowned through scotch-taped glasses
and shook their fingers at my naïveté.
No more than I resembled Icarus
falling from the sky, my failures even
more ordinary. What amazed me then:
the armies of the everyday who woke
each morning and set patiently about
making something of their lives, despite
every conceivable incentive to do
nothing. Onetime ploughmen throttled combines,
the torturer’s chauffeur strained his back
changing a flat, printers inked metal plates
to print the newspapers office workers
used to wrap up fish. On the Koltso,
trucks belched smoke; and up in space men floated
in expensive delicate ships and watched
the earth in blue radiance whirling away.

Of 'Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts', Katherine writes:

'I first went to the USSR as a student in 1981 – all the poems in Day of the BorderGuards are in some way connected to the years I lived and worked in the Soviet Union and then Russia. I started studying Russian because I wanted to be an astronaut and meet up with cosmonauts in space: I had this naïve, idealistic notion that meeting face-to-face with Soviet citizens could somehow help bridge the Cold War gap between America and the USSR. And, in fact, meeting Russians – all the peoples of the USSR – was illuminating, but not always in ways I’d expected. Quite often, Soviet citizens turned out to be just as mulish, obstinate, and unempathetic as Americans! Some of the most mulish and obstinate among them (with good reason, of course) were the dissidents and refuseniks whose lives had been twisted and ruined by the Soviet system: they could be even more strident in their anti-Soviet rhetoric than Americans. This was an uncomfortable discovery for me, because I instinctively distrust people who see the world in black and white. In later years, I’ve experienced a good deal of guilt for harboring such mixed feelings about the dissidents, for preferring moral ambiguity to moral certainty, for not fully understanding how much they suffered. But at the time, I found the very Soviet-ness of the USSR in all its strangeness, its casual cruelty, its cheerful stagnation, to be curiously compelling. This poem explores my fascination with Homo Sovieticus, particularly the generation of women who lost millions of potential mates in the Second World War, women who held the nation together from sheer force of will, almost completely uncredited (nor do they receive their due in my poem, I’m sorry to say). While the poem pays obvious homage to WH Auden, its final line comes from the nineteenth-century Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov’s phrase “The earth sleeps in blue radiance…” from “Alone I set out on the road” [“Выхожу один я на дорогу”]. I discovered new meaning in Lermontov’s phrase when translating Inna Kabysh’s “Yuri Gagarinwas a great Russian poet”. Elsewhere Kabysh has written eloquently about the unimaginably difficult everyday existence of Soviet and Russian women, but her poem about Gagarin (the first human in space) speaks particularly to the kind of idealism and optimism felt by a young American girl who wanted more than anything to grow up and become a celestial ambassador.'

The American poets who get a hearing on this side of the Atlantic are few in number compared to the productivity of US poetry, and we often rely on UK publishers to act as gatekeepers, selecting for us the books we will engage with. Clearly, British poets and readers have much to gain by looking further afield in the US poetry scene. In that spirit, I can wholeheartedly recommend Katherine's book, which can be ordered inthe UK.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Salt on the Wind

It has taken me a little while, but last week I finally found time to read work by American poet Ruth Stone, specifically her collection Simplicity (1995). Stone died in her nineties in 2011, after becoming more well known relatively late in her career (more details on the Poetry Foundation website). Stone is an immediately engaging presence, writing out of everyday life, but unafraid to address the fundamental issues of human existence head-on, with a humour and lack of sentimentality that feel hard won in the face of her own experience, which was marked in particular by the suicide of her second husband in 1959 (several of the poems in Simplicity make reference to this).
I came to Stone's poetry (and hope to read more of it) as a result of the kind gift of a new anthology edited by Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery, Salt on the Wind: Poetry in Response to Ruth Stone (Elephant's Footprint). I'm not going to offer a full-scale review of the anthology here, although it does contain many very fine poems (my particular favourite has to be Cristina Navazo-Eguia Newton's 'Dog', but there are numerous others I could recommend). What I like most about the book that Helen and Chaucer have put together is that it is not a straightforward homage. Stone herself is not strongly present as an individual in the book. Rather, it is her writing and teaching which provide the starting-point for a diverse range of poems. There are interesting notes at the back of the book where the poets talk about how they came to write what they did, and these are testament to the many forms that influence can take, how - in their own mind - poets often fashion subterranean connections to the work of others. Apart from the enjoyment of the poems themselves, the anthology as a whole provides a fascinating demonstration of the true value of literary influence - not as slavish imitation, but as a dialogue in which we take up where others have let off, but selectively, personally, and always making something new with what we find. Given the recent scandals in the world of poetry over the plagiaristic use of models from others, this volume could be recommended as a primer in the creative possibilities of engaging with the work of other poets. The poems are  more than worthy of engaging with in their own right, but will also serve as an invitation to get to know the work of Stone herself.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Music and Lyrics

One of the questions I get asked now and then about poetry, and one of the more interesting ones, is about the difference between song lyrics and poems. Are song lyrics just poems with musical accompaniment? Are lyricists poets? After all, from time to time, publishing houses (I mean you, Faber and Faber) try and milk a few book sales and a bit of pop-cultural kudos out of putting out collected lyrics by various singer-songwriters.
The answer to the question of how to distinguish song lyrics from poems is, I think, both straightforward and quite complicated. The straightforward answer is that a poem can exist on the page or in performance without music. It makes its own music, that is to say that the sound, structure and rhythm of the poem are sufficient to produce the poem's overall effect. You could set a good poem to music (and there are many examples of this in the history of music), but then you are making something new. The poem itself doesn't need the music. Lyrics on the other hand, while ideally working well with the music which accompanies them, might struggle to have anywhere near the same effect as poems without music.
So, that's the basic position - but then things get complicated. In reality, we probably have to imagine the relationship between poems and songs lyrics on a sliding scale. At one end, we have lyrics that work wonderfully with the music they were written for, but which would be much less impressive on the page. There are many varieties of this phenomenon, but we could take the example of Paul McCartney's lyrics for 'Yesterday', one of the most successful popular songs ever written, to stand for those lyrics which, on the page, would seem hackneyed and uninspiring, but which are magically transformed in combination with that great tune (and McCartney's brilliance as a performer). Let's face it, rhyming 'yesterday' with 'far away' and 'here to stay' is not the stuff of great poetry. Without the tune (which is pretty hard to forget) it would not be great art. With the tune, it unquestionably is. Another variety of the lyric which can't survive without the tune would be the work of Morrissey. A remarkably lyricist, many of Morrissey's texts actually have relatively few words in them, but these are repeated, woven in and our of the melody and subjected to some of the most extraordinary performances you are likely to encounter. Just think of what he does the with the word 'etcetera' in 'Sweet and Tender Hooligan'. Apart from all of his wit and insight, what makes Morrissey's lyrics work is the way they are sung.
At the other end of the scale, there are certainly song lyrics which, although they might have a different kind of impact, could easily survive on the page without any knowledge of the music which normally accompanies them. Leonard Cohen, who of course is a published poet as well as a songwriter, is the name that comes to mind immediately. Lyrics like 'Chelsea Hotel #2' or 'Tower of Song' have that quality. And somewhere on this scale, between Leonard Cohen and 'Yesterday', most other song lyrics have their existence.

Another interesting sub-category are lyrical collaborations between poets and songwriters. So, for instance, Frank McGuiness has written lyrics for Marianne Faithfull, Paul Muldoon worked with Warren Zevon, and Jeremy Reed collaborated with Marc Almond on Piccadilly Bongo. There are sure to be others out there I don't know. Feel free to leave me a recommendation!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

In the booklight

My fellow Nine Arches poet Sarah James has been kind enough to publish an interview with me on her blog, as part of a new series called 'In the booklight'. Sarah came up with some really interesting questions - I hope the answers are worth reading too! It was really rewarding to enter into a dialogue with someone who had read Arc so thoughtfully. Click here if you want to read the whole interview.

 Sarah James' blog

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


Whether you like it or not, readings are part of being a poet who is trying to flog a book (or pamphlet). As it happens, I rather like them. They are a chance to show off, at least. But mainly, I enjoy performing my work, although I'm not a 'performance' poet in the commonly understood sense. Although I always read out my work when I am writing it (the composition process happens somewhere between voice and page), it is only when I have a room of people looking at me that I really get a sense of how the poem could sound, which is often different from reading to reading. Reading other people's work aloud does this too -- even poems I know well can offer something new when spoken.
A lot of poets plan readings very carefully. I know I should, but it only makes me nervous. So, I try not to think about it until I enter the room and get a look at the audience. When events feature open mic slots, especially when the guest poet goes on last, this is a real help, as it is usually possible to pick up a couple of cues from poems that have already been read out as a starting-point for my own reading. Otherwise, I try to use my initial poem as the one that is going to capture people's attention, then take it from there. There's no use giving them a tiny, quiet and possibly slightly obscure poem to begin with. It might work on the page, but the opening of a poetry reading needs something big and bold. Equally, I've always found that the last poem works well if it can make the audience laugh. I don't do comic verse, but something that at least makes people smile is a good note to end on. By now, I've come to realise which poems can raise a titter, and I keep them in reserve. Only once did this go horribly wrong when my last, humorous poem, a sure-fire hit at every other reading, left an audience stony-faced. You can't win them all.
The thing I like least about readings is the terrible sense that, if the whole audience doesn't rush to the book table clutching a greasy tenner in their hands to buy the book, they must have hated the whole thing. This is silly, I know. Not everybody has the money to buy new poetry books every day of the week, and most people will probably not be instant fans in any case. It is lovely when people do buy the book and want to talk to you (or even when they just buy it!), but I've had to learn to take myself to a far corner with a glass of wine and ignore the business end of things. This also involves resisting the urge to fall at the feet of the few hapless book-buyers who have parted with their cash.
Happily, I have quite a few readings and other events in the coming weeks and months. On 19th March, I'll be in Birmingham taking part in one of the Vanguard readings (full details above). Then, on 12th April I'm taking part in the Ledbury Poetry Salon, which will involve and interview and a reading (further details to follow). On 27th April, I'll be appearing at a new event, In Your Own Words, organised by Miki Byrne at the Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury (from 17.00 to 19.00). Let's hope they all laugh at the funny ones!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

the terrible

On Thursday night this week I was in Birmingham to read in support of the launch of Daniel Sluman's the terrible, his striking second collection from Nine Arches Press. Daniel's book, which I've been reading and re-reading since the event, is unflinching yet tender as it faces issues of disability, mortality, love and sex - it's intense and compelling stuff. Daniel's reading from and discussion of the book was recorded, and I can recommend catching up with it here.

Daniel was quite a tough act to follow, and I also very much enjoyed hearing new work by fellow Nine Arches Poet and current Cheltenham poet in residence Angela France. The event was hosted by Birmingham City University and we had a good crowd, including students from their MA programme.
I'm also pleased to have been invited to contribute to another excellent initiative in the region, the Poetry Salons at Ledbury. Organised by the same people who bring us the Poetry Festival, these events include a reading and interview by invited poets, plus an open mic session. I will be reading on 12 April 2016, but the next event, on Tuesday 9 February, will feature Maitreyabandhu, and the following month's event with Myra Connell will take place on 8 March. The readings are held in the Panelled Room in the Master's House in Ledbury (7pm - 9pm) and entry is only £5, to include a glass of Poetry Gold cider. There's no need to book.

Finally, Cheltenham Poetry Festival is on the horizon once more. The programme will appear soon, but I'm flattered that the organisers have put my on the cover! From what I hear, it will be an excellent line-up again this year. Apart from reading with Sarah James, I'll be running a workshop on 15 May on 'Beginning and Ending the Poem'. More details to follow soon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Conceit

Gilding the Acrobats
Paul Cadmus, Gilding the Acrobats(Metropolitan Museum)

I'm pleased to announce that participants can now sign up here for my first on-line workshop with The Poetry School, on the subject of 'The Conceit'.

Some poetry takes everyday reality as its starting-point in order to reveal something about the world we know. But poetry can equally begin with a ‘what if?’ – it can create unreal or unlikely situations and then, by exploring the consequences of those situations, lead us to unexpected ideas and images.

These ‘what if?’ situations could be described as ‘conceits’ – extended metaphors that bring together disparate ideas, making the poem a kind of literary test-tube.

In this workshop, I'll be helping participants to explore how conceits can be used to open up our writing to new ways of imagining, while still remaining rooted in a concern for our human experience of the world. We will think about how the use of conceits can draw in the reader, hold their attention, and keep surprising them until the very end of the poem.

The workshop is free, but places are limited -- so sign up soon if you are interested. The workshop begins on 1 February 2016, and there will be a live chat on 12 February. I'm intrigued to see what people will create!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Why Do People Hate Poetry?

The recent controversy over the coverage of Sarah Howe's T. S. Eliot prize win has highlighted again the problems the British press has in discussing poetry. Katy Evans-Bush has analysed the sexism of much of the coverage in an article for the Guardian here, and that is clearly the central issue which needs addressing in this context.
However, apart from Howe's having dared to be young, female and of Chinese heritage, the portrait of her in The Sunday Times also chimes in with that strain of cultural journalism which turns a defensive attitude to poetry into a kind of passive aggression, with cliches about difficulty, elitism and lack of commercial viability to the fore. Poets will be familiar with these assertions, which are offered to them all too readily when they are outed as practitioners of the art in polite company. 'Oh, I've never really got poetry. All too clever for me. And I don't suppose you can make a living out of it, can you.' Sometimes, this is prefaced with a sorry, as if not liking poetry was a mild personal fault; at other times the tone is defiant, as if the very fact of appreciating and even creating poetry was an implicit criticism of all of those who don't.
Imagine substituting poetry for some other minority art in these exchanges. Would your first reaction on meeting a person training for the ballet be to tell them that you don't really get it, that you found it too elitist, that the dancer was never going to make a living out of it? I'm guessing that this would not be the case. Some polite questions about how it was all going and what the dancer's prospects were, perhaps, but nobody would feel it necessary to issue a statement on their own personal distaste for what is, after all, an art which only a small proportion of the population appreciate.
Ben Lerner has written very interestingly here and in a recent book about what he calls 'the hatred of poetry'. His argument, however, focuses very much on poets themselves and intellectuals of various stripes, exploring the notion that, compared to what it ideally wants to achieve, poetry is always to some extent a failure. His argument is a fascinating one and picks up on a neglected strain in thinking about poetry in order to launch a defense of what poetry can do. However, I'm not sure he helps us to understand the widespread hostility towards poetry in a society largely made up of people who do not think about it very much at all. Why is it that it is fine to mention going to the opera or an exhibition of video installations, but any hint of a visit to a poetry reading invites an open declaration of hostility. Most people aren't that bothered about opera or video installations, either (you certainly won't fine me sitting through the Ring Cycle) but nobody feels the need to feel defensive about their lack of engagement in those cases.
My own personal explanation is that other minority arts are not encumbered with the perception that they are educational. Poetry never lost its place on the school curriculum, despite a decline in its public profile, a situation which some poets have benefited from in terms of royalties and paid work with schools. However, when school is the only forum in which young people encounter poetry, the individual poem becomes a kind of test, a sort of overly-complex crossword clue which has to be decoded in order (literally) to make the grade. The novel arguably suffers from this treatment, too. But the young people are exposed to novels in other ways -- they can read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games for pleasure of their own accord and separate that pleasure from the grim accumulation of points in a school test. This, I think, is the reason for the defensiveness many people feel. Not only might you read poetry at them, they might well have to answer questions later about what it all meant. The idea that you might enjoy a piece of art without being able to discuss its deeper meaning in the appropriate academic terms -- as we manage to do every day reading novels, watching movies and listening to music -- does not seem to be extended to poetry.
Reading at a TableThis is clearly a shame. Contrary to many of the authors discussed by Lerner, I actually enjoy poetry. Reading it gives me genuine pleasure, and is certainly easier than writing it.
I don't always know exactly why I enjoy it, either. Reading Matthew Caley's new collection, Rake, recently, I was struck by just how much joy it brought me. Not necessarily because of anything Caley was saying, but because of its wit, its euphony, its ability to surprise, because of all of those things which, put into the dry language of criticism, are not adequately communicated. Let's just say that, on reading (and re-reading), I smiled. I probably couldn't write a decent exam answer on any of the poems (thank heavens I don't have to), but that's not what the poems are there for.
My experience has been that, when exposed to good poetry without the threat of a written test, most intelligent people enjoy what they hear. And most people I have met are certainly intelligent enough to experience that enjoyment. Yes, perhaps our education system could do more to allow people to engage with poetry, so that they could experience that enjoyment for themselves, but until you can get an A+ for having a good time, poetry might well benefit from being taken off the curriculum.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Two readings for February

Poetry people are hardy, resilient folk, so I'm sure some of them won't mind braving the plummeting temperatures and the dark nights of February to enjoy these two forthcoming events.

Firstly, on the evening of Thursday 4th February, I'll be reading with Angela France and Daniel Sluman to support the launch of Daniel's second collection, The Terrible, from Nine Arches Press. His first collection, Absence Has a Weight of Its Own, which I reviewed earlier on this blog, promises much for this new book -- expect passionate honesty and imagery wielded with astonishing precision. Tickets for the event, which is hosted by the Institute for Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University, can be had for free here.

Then, on Tuesday 16th February, I'll be reading as part of the Polari Literary Salon hosted by Paul Burston at the South Bank Centre, where the headline readers will be Jonathan Harvey and Chris Green. It will be an interesting experience to be the only poet on the bill.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

This week I'm looking forward to reading at Cheltenham's Poetry Cafe - Refreshed in the retro atmosphere of Smokey Joe's dinner. Apart from the poetry (there is always an excellent open mic) you can enjoy their lovely food, including some indulgent milkshakes.

Thanks to Roger Turner and Sharon Larkin for inviting me and producing this great poster!