Wednesday, December 27, 2017

That was the (poetry) year that was

Somewhat contrary to expectations, the world seems to have survived 2017, and continues to produce plenty of new poetry for us to enjoy. It was hardly a 'thin' year from where I was standing (or, rather, sitting and reading). However, there are already plenty of lists of 'the best' of the year out there for you to take a look at (including this one from the Poetry School that kindly included Scare Stories), so I'm not going to add to that discussion. Nevertheless, as the year draws to a close, here are a few reminiscences of the poetry year 2017 as it comes to an end. My memory for dates is terrible, though, so the chances of this being in any kind of chronological order are slim.

In that spirit, I'll start with Rory Waterman's excellent collection, Sarajevo Roses, which came out in November. I enjoyed Rory's first book very much, but this second set of poems feels even more convincing. Whereas the autobiographical element was strong in his debut, the poet manages here to incorporate that direct response to his own lived experience (there are quite a few poems of travel here, for instance), while remaining attuned to the political and social moment. The poems are formally very assured too,  harnessing a direct and apparently colloquial form of speech to a subtle musicality. Trump, Brexit, and so on are all there in the background, but it's Rory's ability to bring that sense of history into the everyday life of the rural Lincolnshire he knows so well that is most impressive. I know many of the places he talks about myself, which adds an extra poignancy for me, but there is a strong 'state of the nation' thread running through these poems, which is all the more convincing for its lack of portentousness. Although he is sometimes angry, the poet is also generous and open-minded. If, in time, I'm ever asked by anyone what England was like at this time of transition and perceived crisis, I'll put this book in their hand.

Another book from late in  the year was New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird's Hera Lindsay Bird, the self-referentiality of which is announced in the title. Despite the apparent reference to autobiography or self-analysis, however, Bird is actually playing with the persona of the self-obsessed 'millenial'. By turns hilarious and bleak, these are fluid and troubling poems. They are deceptively easy to consume, and (on the face of it) brutally honest, but the apparently confessional mode in which they operate is both revealing and concealing at the same time. Are we hearing the voice of Hera Lindsay Bird or a poetic avatar called 'Hera Lindsay Bird'? The poems oscillate between cool insight and desperation. Unnerving but (even more unnervingly) highly entertaining stuff.
Henry Farrer, Winter Scene in Moonlight (Metropolitan Museum)

My own recent publisher V Press had a great roster of work out this year, and deservedly got themselves a Michael Marks Award nomination. I particularly enjoyed Stephen Daniels' debut, Tell My Mistakes I Love Them. Stephen's carefully conveyed sense of the surreal qualities of the everyday allows him to address the big themes from surprising angles, for instance in one poem where intimations of mortality lurk in the background as he describes getting a mole checked by his doctor. He's one of those poets who writes poems about things that other poets wouldn't write poems about, which is only ever a good thing.

Another big favourite of mine from this year in the pamphlet form was Paul Stephenson's Selfie with Water Lilies. As in Paul's previous pamphlets, Oulipo-like games, patterns and constraints structure many of these poems. Sometimes the effect is humorous, as in a poem about Alan Sugar that uses the word beetroot at the end of every line, but in others these surface effects provide a way into talking about more difficult topics, particularly the bereavement that dominates the collection. These poems don't emote, but find a way to pattern language so that the reader finds their way to emotion, which sidles up as if from just outside the field of vision. This writing feels like a kind of magic trick, but I never feel hoodwinked reading these poems. The poet wants to lead us to something true. I think Paul is one of the most interesting people writing at the moment and it really is time someone offered to publish a full collection by him.

Sometimes that move from pamphlets to full collections can take a good while, so it was great to finally see a book from Jacqui Rowe, an energetic promoter of others' work via the award-winning Flarestack Poets imprint. Blink showcases Jacqui's range, both emotionally and culturally, from occasional poems and ekphrasis to responses to Apollinaire and Verlaine; all held together by a characteristic clear-sightedness. Drawing as it does from Jacqui's previous publications, her first 'proper' collection is arguably a 'New and Selected', but it still feels remarkably cohesive.

A project very close to my own adopted home was Angela France's The Hill. I've walked on the eponymous Leckhampton Hill in Cheltenham myself a few times (although not for the decades Angela can boast) and her sense of the place, and of the meaning of place in all of its social, historical and political associations, is unrivaled. She interweaves the natural history of the hill and her own autobiography with the history of riots that took place on there in the early 20th century after a local quarry owner attempted to fence off the land local people had walked for centuries. As Angela points out when performing the poems, this protest pre-dated the Kinder Scout trespass, but is now largely forgotten, perhaps due to the working-class origins of the protagonists. The collection manages to encompass and transcend local history, however, and asks important questions about what it means to belong to a place in ways that cannot be captured in the title deeds of property.

Place plays a very different role in Michael Symmons Roberts' Mancunia, another of my favourite reads this year. Roberts has a particular voice, like someone whispering directly into your ear, conjuring worlds that are written like a kind of ghostly palimpsest over own lived reality. Ostensibly about the city of Manchester, the poems in the book offer many Manchesters, that is to say many possible versions of the city, in order to think about the end of things, the coming of utopia and utopia's likely failure. Here as elsewhere, Roberts is constantly inventive and compelling. 

This year was a good year for anthologies, too. Nine Arches Press did the poetry world (and the world more generally) a great service in producing Stairs and Whispers, an anthology of D/deaf and disabled poetry. As a non-disabled person, the value of the book for me was two-fold. Firstly, and perhaps rather obviously, it confronted me with the reality of other lives. In a world apparently short on empathy, that is a valuable contribution. Secondly, the editors' choices go far beyond poetry that simply talks about disability to consider how differently inhabited subjectivities might make formal innovation necessary, not just in terms of composition, but also in terms of how poetry reaches its audience and makes itself accessible in all kinds of ways. If the poetry 'scene' wasn't talking about these issues until this anthology was published, it must do now.

I'm also going to sneak in Sophie Collins' anthology Currently and Emotion, despite the 2016 publication date, as I only became aware of it later and it feels like one of my 2017 books of choice. If you think that you know what translation is and does, then those notions will be challenged by some of these occasionally weird and occasionally wonderful approaches to translation as a creative process. The book itself is a beautifully produced object, too, as I'd expect from its publishers, Test Centre.
The New Year – 1869 – Drawn by Winslow Homer,
Metropolitan Museum

So, not a best of, then, but a list of 'poetry highlights', perhaps. These are the poetry books I'd be most likely to mention if asked 'what did you read this year?' Clearly, 2017 was indeed a good year, not least in terms of the richness and variety of what contemporary poetry has to offer. And that's without mentioning all of the great poetry events the year gave us (Jan Wagner giving the Poetry Society lecture, Verve Festival, Ledbury, Cheltenham Poetry Festival...). Here's to 2018!

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Today is the UK's Remembrance Sunday. Seeing the preparations for this commemoration in the last few days, during the country's four-year-long programme of events to mark the centenary of the First World War, I am reminded of our connection, for better and for worse, to Europe's history. Let us hope that such commemorations are meaningful commitments to keeping the peace in Europe, which was an important motivation for the founding of what has become the European Union.

My first collection, Arc, contains a poem for my great uncle, a man I never knew who died in the First World War. I'm sharing it with you here.

Friday, November 10, 2017


The results for the Resurgence Poetry Prize 2017 are out and I am pleased to see that one of my poems, 'Fractures', has been commended by the judges. Resurgence draws attention to ecological issues as well as attracting a very high standard of entries, as you'll see from the winning poems and the rest of the commended poems, which can all be viewed here.
My poem was inspired by the documentary Gasland and reports about the consequences of melting tundra as a result of global warming.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Pretentious? Moi?

People find some curious ways to promote poetry. One strategy I've often noticed (and already complained about when journalists do it) is to flag up to the prospective audience that the poet or poetry promoter is already aware of their potential objections. No! It isn't like that usual poetry you've probably come across before - you know, the obscure, boring, pretentious kind! Ah, the p-word. How often have I seen it used to promote some poetry event. 'Poetry without the pretension', the flyers will say.

Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man (Metropolitan
Museum of Art)
I'm not sure where the organizers get their ideas about marketing, but using a negative as an opening gambit doesn't seem like much of a winner to me. I realize there is a confectioner who promises 'a lighter way to enjoy chocolate', but offering poetry 'without pretension' is more like trying to sell me one of those slabs of fat and sugar by first reminding me about what they are likely to do to my waistline.

Of course, I'm all for those who try to promote poetry. More power to them. But there's something I find oppressive about that most English of put-downs: the accusation of pretension. To be pretentious is to pretend to something, to stake a claim on something to which you have no right. In the language of literary criticism, to be pretentious is to be showy, to make a greater claim for one's importance than is justified. But if we are all afraid of being pretentious, then how will we ever create anything?

Whenever an artist of any kind produces work they are making a claim for the importance of what they want to communicate to the world. They are also making a claim for the importance of the way they are communicating. As an audience, we may find form and content disappointing, risible even in their failure to persuade us of their importance. But that is just plain old artistic failure, which may in itself be bound by the tastes of the time.

Those bandying about the notion of the pretentiousness of poetry fail to see that poetry is trying to be important. I don't mean that it is always trying to be weighty or serious, but it is trying to be important to its audience: to move them and shift their perception of the world and their place in it. Most poetry, if we're honest, will fail to do that for many people, but that doesn't make poetry any different from other art forms. And we should see failure as something worthy, as an honourable attempt to be important. Sneering at so-called pretension does not embolden anyone to make better poems, but makes them more likely not to try.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Top ten poetry pop songs

Okay, this is a frivolous post, but there's nothing I like better than a pop song that gives a nod to the world of poetry. True, there's always the danger that songwriters will turn to poetry to add a little easy intellectual 'credibility' to their output, but poetry in song also reminds us that the medium still has the power to inspire work in other art forms. Some of these are silly, some of them profound, but all of them show poetry's influence in our culture.

1. Peter Gabriel - Mercy Street (for Anne Sexton)

Peter Gabriel's moving response to the life and work of Sexton, who struggled with mental illness, manages to engage obliquely with the poetry while taking on an existence all of its own. And the song also did the service of introducing Sexton's name to a new generation of readers.

2. Joni Mitchell - Slouching Towards Bethlehem 

Although basically a setting of Yeats' 'The Second Coming', Mitchell's adaption of the original text manages to make it work as a song lyric. Her impassioned delivery and the pounding percussion on the track give such a sense of urgency to Yeats' words that you can't help feeling that the crisis is a very real one and very much in the present moment. In the context of one of Mitchell's most political albums, Night Ride Home, the poem takes on a new resonance.

3. Talking Heads - I Zimbra

It may sound like David Byrne is singing nonsense on this track from 1979's Fear of Music, and in a way he is. But the song is also an adaptation of a sound poem by Dadaist Hugo Ball, founder of Zurich's famous Cabaret Voltaire. Talking Heads turn this into a great dance tune, but Ball's invented language also takes on a strangely sinister feel as Byrne and the backing singers bark the words at us.

4. They Might Be Giants - Hate the Villanelle

Anyone who has ever taken a writing class and had to write a villanelle will relate to this one. A catchy ditty about the difficulty of writing to strict form that manages to keep to the form as well.

5. My House - Lou Reed

Lou Reed was briefly taught by the poet Delmore Schwartz and dedicated a song on the first Velvet Underground's first album to his former professor. Schwartz is euologized more directly on 'My House' from Reed's The Blue Mask. Critics rave about this album, which I'm not so persuaded by, and this song verges on the corny at times. Reed's singing is a little strained, too. Somehow, though, this manages to be a sweet tribute and a moment of genuine gratitude to someone who was a key influence on the musician.

 6. Iron Maiden - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

I'm not sure I can entirely get on board with Iron Maiden's interpretation of the underlying message of Coleridge's poem, but this is a great big slab of rock bombast that wrings ever last drop of drama out of the original story.

7. Sparks - Metaphor

Maybe not strictly or exclusively about poetry, but a great reminder that, as every teenage poet in the tradition of Adrian Mole surely knows, 'chicks dig metaphors!'

8. Suzanne Vega - Calypso

Suzanne Vega re-tells the encounter between Ulysses and the nymph Calypso from Homer's Odyssey. In this version, however, Calypso is not so desperate to hang on to the Greek hero. She sounds like she might actually be glad to see the back of him.

9. Regina Spektor - Apr├Ęs Moi

I'd been listening to this song, one of my favourites by Regina Spektor, for years without realising that the Russian sung about half way through apparently quotes lines of verse by Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak. I don't understand Russian, but if Wikipedia says so, it must be true. I'm not sure if it makes this surreal song any easier to understand and it maybe even complicates matters.

10. Suede - Heroine

Quite a tenuous one, given that the band start with stealing that famous line from Byron for their opening, before going off in quite a different direction. Still, I think the mood of obsession from the original poem gets carried over here, with a nicely decadent twist.

I'd be fascinated to hear suggestions for songs inspired by, referring to, or even adapting poetry. I'm sure I'm only just scratching the surface here...

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Running a poetry book group

As some readers of this blog may already be aware that I have started running a poetry book group in cooperation with my local independent book shop, The Suffolk Anthology in Cheltenham. For six months of the year, we meet monthly and discuss one recent, single-authored collection of poetry. Later I produce a list of discussion points for other readers or groups to use. This doesn't seem to have inspired a mass movement as yet, but I'm hoping it might still encourage other readers of poetry (and other poets) to organize and facilitate similar groups elsewhere.

Our group seems to work pretty well, from the reactions I have had so far, which emboldens me to offer the following pointers for anyone else thinking of setting up a similar project. There are probably many ways to do this, but this is the way that we've done it, and it seems to be working so far.

1. Choosing your venue

As already mentioned, we work with an independent book shop, but I know that larger and smaller chain book stores are amenable to hosting groups. It works for a shop if you can guarantee that those attending will buy their copy of the book to be discussed from the venue, but it is good to be clear with those attending about this, so that they are not tempted to visit on-line retailers offering discounted copies.

It's a good policy to work with your venue so that copies of the book for discussion next time are available at the end of each meeting. Make sure your venue orders the books well in advance, as it can be trickier that you imagine to quickly get hold of ten or a dozen copies of a book from a small press.

Groups of friends may want to run a book group like this and host it in one of their own homes, but we've chosen the route of using a book shop so that people who don't already know each other can participate. It really helps with the diversity of the group, and new friendships are formed!

2. Choosing your book

There may be avid poetry readers (and writers) in the group, who are clued up about the latest releases. To make sure that the book you choose isn't one that some people have already bought and read, you need to keep a close eye on forthcoming titles. Most presses keep an up-to-date list of what is coming out next on their websites.

There always seems to be a lot of poetry being published, but if you actually follow the 'big' publishers (like Faber, Cape, Picador, Bloodaxe and Carcanet) and the reputable small presses (e.g. Nine Arches, Shoestring, Shearsman) you'll see that they publish only a few new titles each quarter. Publishers often have a sample of new collections available to download and Carcanet even has a full preview facility for selected new collections.

When choosing a collection to discuss, thematic cohesion  is a key consideration. A book of occasional lyrics on no particular theme is not as easy to start a discussion about as is a collection with a clear thematic focus. Issues-driven writing isn't automatically the best writing, but it does mean that everyone can discuss how well they feel that those issues have been tackled.

Poets are also more interesting to discuss when they have an awareness of the cultural tradition(s) in which they write. Where they drew draw on the influence of other writers, philosophical ideas, mythology, other art forms, intertextual references, and so on, they will provide lots of avenues for the discussion in the group to explore.

Finally, you may find that more 'experimental' writers, whether avant garde or postmodern (for whom language itself is a stronger concern than theme, situation, the expression of personal emotion, and so on) are quite hard to address in a context like this unless you have a very specialized group of enthusiasts.

3. Facilitating the discussion

Our group isn't a class, but it is facilitated by me. As a poet and reviewer myself, I have a strong interest in recent poetry and am willing to spend the time before the meeting working out some basic areas for discussion and chasing up any obscure intertextual or cultural references the poems may contain.

We don't always stick to my 'plan' of the key themes and ideas that could be discussed, but it does help to have someone in the room who has an idea of a basic structure for the discussion so that the evening feels like it has direction and purpose.

Discussing poetry in a group and discussing prose fiction are two quite different things. Even if a reader of fiction has no interest in style, the construction of the narrative or the use of language, they can still talk about the characters and what happens to them, and about their own subjective reaction to the book. Without (in most cases) extended narrative and character to fix onto, discussing poetry collections necessarily means a more technical focus, although there also has to be room for subjective impressions of the work. Having someone to facilitate (even if that role rotates within the group) helps to maintain this focus.

4. Organizing your time

Two hours seems to be about the perfect length of time for a discussion of this kind. It can be quite intense, so its important to include a break of ten to fifteen minutes, not least so the group can enjoy socializing and discussing the book in a more relaxed way if they'd like to. Sometimes, individual conversations throw up new ideas that get discussed in the second half.

5. Reading the poems

Discussing a novel largely relies on remembering what happened. With poetry, what 'happens' is the poem itself. Once you have identified an issue everyone wants to discuss, it is a good idea to home in on one poem and discuss that in detail. There are usually plenty of suggestions from the floor, but to get the discussion going it is important to read the poem out. You can take this in turns or ask for volunteers, but it is definitely the best way to start looking at the collection in detail.

6. Giving the poems time

Related to the issue of reading out the poems to help with close reading is the problem of sticking with the poems until everyone feels they have really engaged with them. Particularly with a very good collection, it can be tempting to read a poem out, say a few things about it and then move swiftly on to the next one. It's more rewarding for everyone, though, if they have time to really think about and discuss each of the selected poems, drawing out all of the things that interest them. Reading one poem closely can often be the cue to move to another poem on a related or contrasting theme, but there's no need to rush.

Well, that's a distillation of everything I think we have learned together at the Suffolk Anthology in the first season of our group. I hope it proves useful to anyone with a similar project in mind!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Not a defence of Philip Larkin

Hull is currently UK city of culture for 2017, so you would think its most famous literary resident, the poet Philip Larkin, would be getting something of a boost. However, whenever I see his name recently, it always seems that he is being held up as an example of what poetry is not supposed to be. Just in the last week, I have read a review of the work of a poet whose rejection of 'parochialism' was contrasted favourably with Larkin's own alleged failings in this area; and a restaurant review for an eatery in Hull (yes, a restaurant review!) that began with a quip about Larkin's 'rhymed misanthropy'.
When I read or hear such criticisms, I am reminded of Tony Hoagland's poem 'Lawrence', in which he experiences rage at the fashionable denigration of D.H. by those whose talents and achievements pale in comparison (take a listen here). I am not unaware of Larkin's failings as a man. Reactionary, racist and misanthropic in his private letters, he did at least have the luck to write in the years before the famous could express their jaw-dropping opinions direct to the world via Twitter. There are doubtless those who feel that all of those writers who had unpleasant views or behaved appallingly in the past should now make way for more virtuous, open-minded and cosmopolitan alternatives; that there is an injustice in the prominence of someone like Larkin who, despite apparently not having been a very nice (or particularly happy) man, still resonates so profoundly with readers today.
The major problem with this view is that it lacks moral complexity. Larkin's work is, on one level, bitterly, perhaps even tediously preoccupied with his own failures: there's an early poem, for example, where he is already bemoaning his life being over in his mid-twenties. And yet, few other poets have looked the nature of human existence so squarely in the face, have found words so telling for a life that is experienced as 'sweet, meaningless and not to come again', as he puts it at one point. Whatever Larkin the man was, Larkin the poet is capable of a simultaneous distaste for and aching sympathy with ordinary lives, among which he ultimately counts his own. Hopefully most of us are more enlightened in our personal views than he managed to be, but aren't we all in some way like him: flawed, sentimental and cowardly one moment; courageous, generous and awe-struck the next? The poems don't so much transcend the arguable weaknesses of the personality that created them, but transfigure those weaknesses so that they become key to the power of the work. That does not mean, of course, that any reader is required to accept or condone Larkin's personal politics, but it seems simplistic to me imply that appreciation of the poems has to equate to supporting those politics. Larkin was a formative reading experience for me, for example, despite the fact that I share none of his views on these matters.
I have no interest here in mounting a defence of Philip Larkin the individual. However, what I do want to raise my voice against is the lazy dismissal of work by writers whose personal attitudes are deemed not to be up to scratch. It seems to me that this is merely a strategy for avoiding an engagement with the ambiguities and difficulties of their work, escaping into moral platitudes that only demonstrate the limits of our own imaginations.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Short and sweet

As the title of this blog suggests, when I write here, I write about poetry. However, my own reading fluctuates between phases of only wanting to read verse and gluts of prose consumption. As much as I enjoy fiction, reading it also also makes me realize why I love poetry so much. I have a fairly short attention span, I'll admit, so there is something about the concentrated power of poetic expression that I find attractive. For a few minutes, I see another reality that reflects back on my own. Or, if I am reading a full collection of poems, I may spend a day or so in one poet's company as they guide me through their version of reality. Of course, fiction does this too, but a longer novel means committing to live in the world the author has created for more than just a few hours. Frankly, I have to feel like that world is especially compelling to make that commitment.

The alternative, of course, (and leaving aside the short story or even flash fiction) is the short novel or the novella. The German Romantics had plenty of theories about what a novella was, apart from just being a novel that wasn't very long. Then again, they had theories about most things. What I like about a good short novel is that, as with a poetry collection, I can be caught up in the world of the author's imagination for a relatively short space of time. Short novels don't outstay their welcome and maybe even leave you wanting more.

So, with one foot still tentatively planted in the world of poetry, here are my top ten short novels or novellas (in  no particular order) that are ideal for poetry fans, or perhaps just for people like me whose attention wanders easily. As a rough guide, I'm going for books of less than 200 pages. There is a 6/4 gender imbalance here in favour of male authors, but hopefully there's a good geographical spread. I'd love to hear your suggestions of other short texts for my reading list, especially suggestions by female authors, or perhaps even by some non-Europeans.

Thinking about this list has also made me realize that short novels and novellas also potentially offer the kind of intensity of experience that can also be the province of poetry. Many of the selections below deal with heightened states that would become overwhelming if sustained over a longer piece. They are small books, but they have a big impact.

1. Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

Not really a novel at all arguably, but an entrancing and subtly moving short book of stories about a grandmother and her young granddaughter spending summers on an island in the Gulf of Finland. A book about youth and age, about endings and beginnings, delivering its philosophy gently and with good humour. Nothing much happens, but it is a book about the whole of life.

2. Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten

Jakob is enrolled in an eccentric institute whose educational purpose is unclear, if not dubious. He is a petty and pompous little character, whose aggressions and sublimated desires he does not fully comprehend himself. A surreal and at times hilarious book about adolescence and the tension between the need for conformity and the impulse to rebelliousness.

3.  Christopher Ishwerwood, A Single Man

Isherwood arguably recycled his Berlin years a little too often, but for me this short Californian book is his best work. A portrait of lost love and middle age, it deals with tragedy so compassionately and with such a lightness of touch that this remains ultimately a life-affirming read.

4.  Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger

Again, not a cheery read, but this description of the consequences of a terrible famine in Finland in 1867 is also clear-eyed, unsentimental and arrestingly cinematic. Pereine, the publishers, specialize in short European fiction in translation, and this is one of their most memorable publications.

5. Albert Camus, The Fall

A man confesses to a chance acquaintance in a bar, relating how he, who once enjoyed professional success and high self-esteem, came to realize the hollowness of his own existence and the values he believed he lived by. A classic of existentialist literature.

6. Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

The term 'novel' or even 'novella' seems to fall short with this book, which is more of an extended prose poem that charts a love triangle based loosely on the author's own affair with British poet George Barker. Full of agony and exhalation, this psalm to love is heady stuff.

7. Beryl Bainbridge, Harriet Said...

A tale of adolescent hysteria and claustrophobic British provincial life in the 1950s. Harriet and the narrator are inseparable, but Harriet's almost demonic influence leads to a shocking denouement. A book full of childish grown-ups and scarily precocious children.

8. Patricia Duncker, Hallucinating Foucault

A novel about literary obsession and the blurred lines between the writer and the work, appreciation and appropriation. Queer romance, literary theory and feverish drama are all in the mix.

9. Theophile Gautier, The Jinx

A gleefully grotesque narrative about superstition and unconditional love. A tale of the uncanny that manages to be simultaneously very Gothic, very modern and very funny. A most disconcerting read. Like Pereine, the publishers Heperus offer many shorter works in translation.

10. B.S. Johnson, Christie Malry's Own Double Entry

Christie Malry is a dull little man, but he soon starts putting his skills as a book-keeper to terrible use as he rails against the injustices of the universe. Johnson manages to make the mad logic of Christie's crimes seem oddly plausible.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Hanging on the telephone

The summer, or what passes for it this year, has been full of poetry so far. I managed to find some time to attend a number of events at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, after a hiatus of two years, and was also invited to take part in Steven Fowler's Enemies project in a Ledbury incarnation. I was partnered with the brilliant Jonathan Edwards to come up with 7 minutes' worth of poetry performance. After swapping some recent work, Jonathan and I discovered that we had both written poems about telephone boxes, which led to a performance on a telephonic theme. You can see the result on Youtube, along with the other videos of all of the other contributions to the event, which closed this year's festival.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Guest Poet: Maria Stadnicka

Last month, I was delighted to attend the launch of a new book of poems by Maria Stadnicka, a Romanian-born poet living and working in Stroud. Before coming to the UK in 2003, Maria worked as a radio and TV broadcaster, presenter and radio editor. She also won a series of national poetry prizes. In 2010 she became member of the Stroud Writers Group, Gloucestershire.

I first become aware of Maria's poetry when Yew Tree Press published her beautifully illustrated short collection A Short Story about War (as Maria Butunoi) in 2014 and her new poems, collected in Imperfect (also Yew Tree Press), are a welcome addition to her English-language work. Maria's poems are restrained and precisely crafted miniatures: enigmatic narratives shot through with dark humour and surreal detail, they are eminently political, but rarely tackle Politics (with a capital P) head on. In all of these respects, they put me in mind of the work of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, yet there also seem to me to be echoes of Kafka: the poems record fragile surface realities, beneath which lurk the symptoms of violence and oppression. This is a poetry of unease, and all the more honest for that, but also ultimately a poetry of hope, recording the struggle of the subject to maintain its integrity in troubled times.

Maria has agreed to feature as my guest poet in this post, which presents here poem 'City'. Of the poem, Maria writes:

'What can I know?'….'What can I know?'…This is not my question. Immanuel Kant answered it already, a long time ago, and many other thinkers answered it in their own way too. As a society, we slowly learnt to get used to 'knowing' everything a priori. When there is no obvious difference between 'freedom' and 'dogma', what is the point in asking? Everything is 'google-able', right?

Happy to be given the answer, happy to steer clear of uncomfortable dirt and pain. Happy and safe. But isn’t that called oppression?

Recently I have been thinking about oppression and the subtle nuances revealed by urbanism. The layers and layers of conformity which are impossible to eradicate without consequences. But then… how else shall we build consensus?

And one afternoon, walking through my working class town, out of the blue an answer kept staring me in the face. There was the rain and the shops closing at 5 o’clock and people hurrying to get the dinner ready. There was an English February, defined by our sleepwalking hyperreality. Me and everybody else: surrendered, crushed.


The afternoon we passed the city prison walls
fighting the wintry wind with a broken umbrella.

It was precisely five o'clock and
a girl on a bicycle overtook an old man
holding a rope.
About the same time,
the ice cream van closed.

The armed police arrived
to disperse the queue with tear-gas.

In the near distance, people ran
between horizontal watermarks
back to their semi-detached
airing cupboards.

We had nothing to stop for and then, I think,
I paused and
I covered my arms with a piece of history.

Imperfect can be purchased by contacting Yew Tree Press (philipalrush[at] or via Amazon.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2017

Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2017 will soon be with us, and this year Festival Director Anna Saunders and her team have put together an exceptionally good programme. You can find full details here on the festival website, but here's a preview of a few of my personal highlights.

On Friday 5 May, Matthew Sweeney will be reading with Ben Parker at Smokey Joe's in Cheltenham at 19.00. Matthew Sweeney's reputation needs requires no further comment from me, but this event will be particularly worth attending to hear work from Parker's first collection, The Amazing Lost Man. I've been a fan since reading his first pamphlet a few years ago and I'm eager to hear the new work.

On Saturday 6 May at 17.00 in St Andrew's Church, Jane Draycott will be reading from her translation of the 14th century poem The Pearl as well from new work. I'm intrigued to hear more about the process of rendering this beautiful text into contemporary English.

On Sunday 7 May at 15.30 in the Cheltenham Playhouse, I'm looking forward to hearing a showcase of poets published by Worple Press, one of out best independent presses, and especially to a reading by John Freeman from his collection What Possessed Me, as previously featured on this blog.

Also on Sunday 7 May, at 19.00 in the Cheltenham Playhouse, I'll be hearing Paul Stephenson read from his Happenstance pamphlet The Days that Followed Paris, which engages with the aftermath of the November 2015 terror attacks in the French capital. I'll be reading a couple of poems myself, alongside other local writers, on related themes. The intersection of poetry and politics is very much to the fore in this year's festival, and I'll be fascinated to see how Stephenson deals with this difficult subject matter.

On Monday 8 May, my fellow Nine Arches poet Roy McFarlane will be reading with Michael Henry and Tricia Torrington at the Playhouse from 19.00. For those who have never seen Roy perform before, this will be a revelation. The work is brilliant on the page, but Roy's charismatic delivery is not to be missed.

On the evening of Tuesday 9 May, there are two treats in store: a reading with Gram Joel Davis from his much anticipated V Press collection, Bolt Down this Earth, and new work from Rory Waterman. Be at the Muffin Man in Cheltenham from 19.00 for this two events!

On Wednesday 10 May at 19.45, Cheltenham Poetry Festival's very own Howard Timms will be offering a performance of his own drama about Oscar Wilde. Howard himself will be in the eponymous role for Oscar Wilde's Women, which is sure to be a treat.

On Thursday 11 May at 20.00, also in the Playhouse, Indigo Dreams will be showcasing a number of their poets, including Jennie Farley, who has previously featured as a guest poet on this blog. Indigo Dreams is building up an excellent list and there will be something here for everyone.

I'll be at the festival all day on 13 May, first running a workshop on 'Poetry and Politics' (a few places still available!), then reading with Alistair Noon at 17.00 in St Andrew's Church. In between those two events, I'll be listening to Sasha Dugdale and Alistair Noon talking about poetry and translation and hearing readings by Sasha Dugdale and Katherine Towers.

That same evening, Stuart Maconie returns to the festival to share some of his favourite poetry. I saw him last year and have remember it fondly as a warm, witting, moving and enlightening performance. Maconie is a real poetry fan-boy and his enthusiasm is infectious. The event will take place at 18.30 in Cheltenham Playhouse.

On Sunday 14 May at 14.00 in St Andrew's Church, I'll be listening to Fiona Sampson discuss Mary Shelley and the reading with Sampson and others that will follow. Sampson is one of our best poets, but also an excellent and lucid critic, whose views are always worth hearing.

Needless to say, there are plenty more delights on offer this year, with slams, performance events, workshops and poetry films, to mention only some of the other varieties of poetry in the programme. Small festivals like this survive on ticket sales and the support of the poetry-loving public, so I urge you to book early and make the most of this year's festival!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mass Production

This year, the beginning of National Poetry Writing Month coincided with my reading Ian Hamilton's collected poems. In his preface to 1988's Fifty Poems, reproduced in Alan Jenkins' informatively presented edition of Hamilton's work, the poet wryly addressed his own lack of productivity: 'Fifty poems in twenty-five years: not much to show for half a life-time, you might think. And, in certain moods, I would agree.' But, Hamilton concludes, 'Why push and strain?'
Hamilton published seventy-odd poems in his lifetime, of which he only thought sixty worth preserving. That's about two year's worth of NaPoWriMo, as it has become known. I wonder what he would have made of it? This was a poet who was all about concision and distillation, who was clearly only writing those poems he felt needed to be written, or that he needed to write. The idea of producing drafts of thirty poems in thirty days, on the other hand, arguably speaks of a desire simply to write, rather than of a need to write something in particular. I think those impulses are probably more evenly balanced in the work of most poets, since writing in itself is (or should be) a pleasurable activity.
Of course, Hamilton was hardly a lazy man: he wrote literary biography, edited magazines, wrote for literary journals, and so on. But he was never a 'professional' poet. Like his contemporary, Larkin, who also published a relatively slim body of work in his own lifetime, he had plenty of other bread-and-butter stuff to be getting on with.
I'm not against NaPoWriMo at all. Firstly, there are enough people in the world who spend their time disapproving of things that other people do (the opinion columns of our press are full of such sounding-off). Secondly, I would have to admit a certain jealousy. April is not the cruelest month for me, but certainly one of the busier ones in the year. I don't have the time or the excess mental energy to be churning out thirty poems, but I am envious of those who do. However, I would also say that it does concern me sometimes that our poetry writing culture (on-line and elsewhere) is so very fixed on production: workshops, residential courses, writing prompts. The injunction seems to be that we must write more and ever more poems. While it is a marvelous thing when people are given the confidence to write, while nobody should be discouraging anyone from doing so, I would also want to say that it is okay to write more slowly, to be less productive, to revisit, revise, to stop writing for a while, to spend more time reading than you ever do with a pen and notebook (especially that!). Is this a suggestion for National Not Writing Poetry Month (NaNoPoWriMo)? Well, hardly. I have plenty of those anyhow. But in this culture of productivity, poets also need permission to go slow, or at least find their own pace.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

All together now

Brimingham has a new poetry festival, the aptly named Verve, which took place for the first time last weekend at Waterstones in Birmingham. Due to other commitments, I was only able to attend on the Saturday, when I was reading as part of the launch of the Emma Press Birmingham anthology This is Not Your Final Form. I certainly wish I could have stayed longer.
What I liked most about this new event, which had a real buzz about it, was the determination to break down the barriers between different kinds of poetic practice. Instead of cordoning off the performance poetry in a festival slam, for instance, the organizers had clearly made a conscious decision to programme spoken word, avant garde, multimedia and more traditional work back to back. And it worked. I got to hear poets working in other forms who I would never have encountered otherwise, but more importantly the diversity in the room was visible and vocal, in terms of age, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and disability. This is something few poetry festivals are achieving at the moment, in my experience. While Verve clearly benefits from its location and the diversity of its potential audiences close at hand in such a large city, the programmers have to be congratulated for their innovative approach.
My enjoyment of the day also brought home to me a wider truth about this kind of diversity. In these days when politics has seemingly been reduced to a frantic defending of one's territory against the perceived threat of others (even to the extent of obsessing about who gets to use which public bathroom, if recent debates in the US are anything to go by), it can sound like a lazy liberal slogan to insist that it enriches us to hear the voices of people whose experience differs from our own. The poetry world, like any other sphere, sometimes suffers from the impulse to draw boundaries and police them, but more diversity always means more for everyone. Nobody has to lose out.
In this spirit, everyone should be encouraged to support another project currently seeking funding: the anthology Stairs and Whispers, the first major UK anthology of poetry and essays by disabled and D/deaf poets. As I write, they have hit 67% of their target, and for donations from £15 you'll get a copy of the book posted to you when it comes out. You know what to do!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Workshop

Although Alexei Sayle has been very unflattering about anyone 'who uses the word workshop outside of light engineering', workshops are undoubtedly a major feature of the world of contemporary poetry. I've attended a fair few and have delivered them myself for various groups, most recently for the Poetry School. Workshops can focus mainly on providing writing prompts or discussing particular techniques for inspiring new work, but I've been wanting for a while to write a post about the other kind, where groups of people get together, whether formally or informally, to share and discuss their work. These can be led by a tutor or facilitator, or can be entirely self-managing. Whatever the permutations, to get the best out of giving and receiving feedback in a workshop, I'd recommend following these pointers.

Giving Feedback

1. It perhaps goes without saying that the feedback needs to be constructive. That doesn't mean you can't say that you don't like something, but you need to offer reasons why. 'Not my sort of thing' or 'I don't see the point of it' just won't do. We all know that we don't all like every poem ever written. A writer will be pleased when others say they enjoy his or her work, but it is not necessary to like something to offer helpful critique. Try to understand what the poem wants to achieve (this may not be clear to the poet themselves!) and suggest ways it could achieve that more effectively.

2. Try not to be absolute in what you say - remember you are expressing an opinion, not a fact. Saying 'that phrase doesn't work' or 'that image is weak' leaves the person receiving the feedback no room to think about the advice on their own terms and will probably just make them defensive. Far better to formulate your feedback as a set of questions: 'How would it be if you took out or moved that stanza?' or 'How would it be if you weeded out some of the less original imagery to allow the rest to really shine through?' are questions much more likely to get the author of the poem re-thinking what they are doing than categorical statements.

3. This is, for me, perhaps the most important thing: Don't kill the negative feedback! Sometimes, you will disagree with the feedback that others offer, but this isn't about who is right. Too often, someone listening to a piece of negative feedback they disagree with will want to jump in and say, 'No! That's wonderful - don't change it!' This effectively prevents the person receiving the feedback from thinking seriously about these negative points. It is a given of the psychology of feedback that we listen to the positives and tend to ignore the negatives, and 'defending' the poem from others' criticism will only only reinforce this. You can disagree with what others say, of course, but try to present that disagreement in an open way. For instance: 'Well, I didn't have such a problem with that line as Kevin does, but that's for you to decide.' The feedback is, after all, for the author, not for you. So let them take away the positives and the negatives to process in their own time.

Receiving Feedback

1. Paradoxically, given some of the suggestions I have made above, the most important thing is to know when to accept and when to reject feedback. This is something that needs to happen after the workshop, though, when you have really had time to think. Write down what people say, but don't start formulating arguments to counter what they just have told you. You will hear very useful things and some frankly very unhelpful things, but you need to give yourself the space to decide which is which after the event. Sometimes this may mean being brave in terms of getting rid of elements that only you will ever like, but also in terms of keeping those elements that you have faith in. Remember that the workshop is not there to re-write the poem for you, but to get you thinking about it in new and productive ways.

2. Take the work you are not sure about. If you need affirmation, send your completed poems to good magazines or enter them into competitions. A workshop is a place for work in progress, not an audience to applaud your poetry. Sometimes, it may turn out that a poem you thought was only half-done and directionless is hailed as a work of genius. If so, lucky you! But if you go hoping only to be told how good your latest masterwork is, you may find the experience bruising.

3. Show your fellow workshoppers that you value what they have to say. It is natural to feel protective of your work - you want this poem to be good and you care deeply about it. However, when everyone is telling you critical things and telling you how much work you may still need to do, there is a temptation to try to counter their suggestions. The person who makes it clear that they are not going to take any of the feedback on board and also that they do not value the insights of others is the person who, from that point on, is only going to get vague and unhelpful comments. Other participants in the workshop will soon learn to avoid saying anything critical, as they realize that they are wasting their breath.

I hope that this is useful to some of you who may be just starting to attend workshops or who would just like to get more out of them. Do you have any do's and don'ts you want to share? If so, why not leave a comment?

Image Credit: Carpenter by Albrecht Altdorfer (German, Regensburg ca. 1480–1538 Regensburg), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

New Year, New Poetry!

A belated Happy New Year!

I've been very pleased recently to have a number of people speak to me about this blog and about the posts they've enjoyed reading here. I hope in 2017 there will be more thoughts about poetry to share with you, and perhaps not quite as much posting about my own activities, which I will try to confine as much as possible to social media (I'm @davidcchelt on Twitter, by the way...).

Nevertheless, I do want to use this first post of 2017 for an announcement about my own work.

My next pamphlet, entitled Scare Stories, is scheduled for publication with the amazing V Press in the first half of 2017. It contains a sequence of 25 new poems, all of which are written in the first person plural, and all of which imagine possible near futures or versions of the present.

I'm hoping also that the pamphlet will evolve into a performance and I am currently discussing this with some potential collaborators. More details will follow!