Sunday, 8 November 2020

Backlisted: The Diary of a Nobody

I think I've mentioned my admiration for the podcast Backlisted on here before. I've certainly mentioned my admiration for George and Weedon Grossmith's wonderful The Diary of a Nobody.

A recent episode looked at this comic classic, and very good it is too. Among other things, they mention something that always bothers me, namely that Charles Pooter isn't actually very pooterish, our at least not in the sense that it is usually used in the modern media.

Anyway, have a browse of the other episodes while you're there. I've enjoyed those on Chandler, Tolkien, and JL Carr in the past, but there are a lot of interesting ones. 

Friday, 2 October 2020

Derek Mahon, 1941-2020

I was very sad to hear of the death of poet Derek Mahon earlier today, after a short illness.

I like an awful lot of his poetry, and if I had to pick a favourite poem of his it would probably be A Disused Shed In Co. Wexford, but you'll probably see that elsewhere, so I thought I'd post a link to the first Mahon poem I can remember reading, The Last of the Fire Kings. Given his Belfast background, and the time of its writing, it's a brave, outspoken statement.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Back to my roots

Over the last year or two, I've been trying to trace some family history, and at the end of last year, I sent off for one of's DNA tests. 

When the results came back, there were no huge surprises - more Scottish and Irish blood than I'd expected, and some Norwegian/Icelandic ancestry (but not much). 

This week, though, they sent an email updating the results, because they have now refined the process further and have more DNA samples to compare. And the results are very intriguing (well, to me, at least).

They came out as: 

39% Welsh, and specifically south-east Wales, which is my mother's mother's side of the family, and which I already have a lot of background on.

30% English, particularly Devon and Cornwall. Again, I knew about the latter part.

18% Scottish - we'd always known that my dad had some Scottish blood, but this is much more than expected, so it's one of the areas I really want to dig into.

3% Irish - not sure where this comes from at all.

10% Norwegian/Icelandic - certainly no idea where this comes from. Reading the background notes, this isn't anything to do with 'Viking' blood, as that would come under the other headings. It's more recent than that. There is a bit of a Norwegian link to Cardiff, but I think more likely this is from my dad's side of the family (some of whom were trawlermen), possibly connected to the Scottish link.

Funnily enough, I also came across this story online yesterday. It confirms that, back in the so-called Dark Ages at least, what we once thought were ethnic groups were often nothing of the sort - 'Viking' came to be applied to people with no Scandinavian DNA at all, in the same ways as 'Anglo-Saxons' came to be used to refer to any of the Germanic settlers who arrived in the UK - Frisians, Franks and others would have been among them. 

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Comets NEOWISE and McNaught

Last weekend, as I was going to bed, I noticed a very bright light in the northern sky, not that far above the horizon. I stupidly assumed it was Venus or Jupiter, and that it was looking slightly blurred through the glass, so I didn't take a closer look with binoculars (you can sometimes pick out the main moons of Jupiter with a decent pair of bins).

Next day, I saw all sorts of things on Twitter that made it clear that it had been Comet NEOWISE. And of course, since then, there hasn't been a clear night to have another look, although it should be visible until around the end of the month.

It reminded me of Comet McNaught, from 2007 (also sometimes called the Great Comet of 2007), which was bright and pretty spectacular. It inspired a poem (in as much as a poem is ever inspired by one thing) that appeared in my first collection, Troy Town, which was published by Arrowhead Press in 2008. Here it is:


That spray of light on the western horizon
this last fortnight is a comet. All the papers say so now.
The best of it was believing it was our discovery

but it seems a scientist at an Australian observatory
has been tracking its orbit for months. Yesterday, late,
as I walked back the long way round, the way I haven't

walked in years, I watched a single cloud
swallow half the heavens whole, but this morning
– oh my sungrazer, my hyperbola, my single apparition –

it was only the hills the stars have always hid behind.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Summer's here

So, its been a long time. What can I say? The whole Covid-19 lockdown situation has dominated everything for the past few months, and Polyolbion has had to take a back seat. But here I am again. It's July, and summer's here, sort of.

Those nice people at Candlestick Press have a new pamphlet, Ten Poems for Summer, for anyone in need of a bit of literary sustenance. It also, like all Candlestick's pamphlets, makes a nice alternative to a greetings card.

Of course, it's a pretty strange summer, and not just in terms of weather. There's been no cricket, for a start, although that will change next week, when England start to play a test series against the West Indies behind closed doors.

But while I was at the Candlestick website, I was reminded that among their other fine titles, they have Ten Poems about Cricket, which includes my own poem Two Orthodox Left-Armers. If you're missing the sound of leather on willow, you could do a lot worse than picking up a copy.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Roddy Lumsden, 1966-2020

I haven't posted much on here at all lately, and in the time that I've been away there was the very sad news of the death of Roddy Lumsden.

His funeral was yesterday, and there have been a lot of moving tributes on Facebook and blogs, from friends and fellow poets.

I only knew Roddy a little, mainly online, although I'd met him a couple of times at London readings too. He was always, as others have noted, trenchant in his opinions, but also very generous with his time and encouragement for other writers. He once selected a poem of mine (Pluvialis), for an anthology, much to my surprise, and emailed a few comments on it that made me think of the poem in a different light altogether, as well as feeding into one or two other pieces I was working on at the time. Quite unsolicited advice, but very perceptive and warmly welcomed.

But anyway, this page at the Poetry School site tells you everything you need to know. His impact there, and in the wider poetry world, will be felt for a long while yet.

Friday, 20 December 2019

John Ash: Selected Poems

Following on from last week's post about the death of John Ash, I've been reading through his Selected Poems, from Carcanet. It's consistently excellent, but my favourite poems there are generally from his 1991 collection, The Burnt Pages. He's great at creating an air of disquiet from seemingly vague and disparate details (something I seem to remember from the poem Visigothic, that I mentioned in that previous post), and history and the present day are in constant conversation with each other.

A particular favourite is Smoke, which starts:

"It was late in the year
and forests were burning a long way off
the day the smoke arrived, almost unperceived"

before ending with the wonderful:

"But don't vanish, don't take the path to the river.
It is cold there and lonely,
and the sky is a burnt page. Stay –

you and you others. If we are not to become
a dispersed people of smoke
the monument that is us must be built soon."

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Hwaet next?

Fascinating article here if you have any interest in Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poetry more generally, linguistics, the Sutton Hoo burial, or early medieval history.

What's intriguing is that it focuses on the work of an archaeologist, Bo Graslund, who links it to the climate crisis of the mid-6th century, and whose detailed analysis of the material cultures of early Dark Age England and Sweden informs his argument.

Sadly, at the moment, you need to be fluent in Swedish to read the book, but hopefully there'll be an English translation before too long.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

John Ash, 1948-2019

Very sad to read this morning of the death of John Ash, a very fine poet who somehow often seemed to slip below the radar of surveys of contemporary UK poetry (perhaps because he had lived and worked abroad for so long).

I first came across his work in a Bloodaxe anthology in the early 2000s. One poem, Visigothic, caught my eye more because of my interest in early medieval history than anything else, but its quality got me hooked, I read the rest of Ash's poems in there (maybe half a dozen), and he became one of my favourite poets, one of those names who you really want the rest of the poetry-reading world to know about, but who you also regard as your own secret.

Carcanet have what I think is his last published poem here – typically of him, it's elegant and witty on the surface, with a very serious centre. He'll be very much missed.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

New poem at Ink, Sweat & Tears

I have a new poem – Peninkulma – posted today at Ink, Sweat & Tears. I hope you enjoy it, and that you'll enjoy looking through the many fine poems on the site.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Wear The Fox Hat: poetic coincidences

Poet Matthew Stewart kindly pointed me in the direction of this post by poet Mat Riches, which talks a little about a couple of poems from my first chapbook, Making The Most Of The Light, which came out through HappenStance back in 2005. As I explain in the comments, rather oddly one of the poems mentioned came to mind a day or so before I read Mat's post, even though I probably haven't read it or thought about it in 10 years.

But anyway, more to the point, have a good browse of Mat's blog, Wear The Fox Hat – it's full of good things.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

The Laurel Prize

I was very pleased to see this announcement earlier today – Poet Laureate Simon Armitage is promoting The Laurel Prize, for poetry themed around environmental issues, and the natural world. He'll be donating his £5,000 a year laureate honorarium to the prize fund, and there'll be prizes for best collection as well as best individual poems, plus a prize-giving day at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Which all sounds good. What are you waiting for?

Friday, 8 November 2019

Over at Rogue Strands

I came across this post at Rogue Strands earlier – lovely to see fine poetry being published there, and to read about the forthcoming second Rogue Strands poetry evening, featuring Katy Evans-Bush, Ramona Herdman, Rory Waterman, Rishi Dastidar, Matthew Stewart and Mat Riches, on November 28th. I won't be able to get along there on this occasion, but I'll have to make sure I can some other time.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Magma 75: Loss

I received the new issue of Magma in the post today – No75, themed around Loss. It contains my poem Grail Birds, which was partly inspired by Tim Gallagher's fascinating book The Grail Bird, and partly by the loss of my father a year ago this Friday. 

As always, it's packed with poems, reviews and articles, and I look forward to reading it over the next few days. I'll try to pick out some highlights on here when I do.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Competition feedback

Poetry competitions do seem to cause quite a bit of controversy, whether because of high entry fees, the use of 'sifters' (meaning that big name judge isn't necessarily going to see your work), or because some people see the whole idea of being competitive about art wrong.

I've never had a problem with them, as long as people know exactly what they're paying for, and the money is going to support poetry longer-term, by helping with magazine or reading series running costs, for example.

Some competitions also give some sort of feedback. This could be a full critique – when I first entered the Plough Prize back in around 2003, you could pay an extra £1 per entry to get a detailed and very thoughtful analysis of your poem from the judges. It was worth entering for that alone.

But most just publish some comments from the judge or judges when they announce the winners. The usual way it's done is to say what they liked about the winning or shortlisted poems. That can have the unfortunate effect of making you think that, if your poems weren't in the same vein, they didn't like them, but it's probably the safest option.

This, on the other hand, seems pretty out of order to me. At the very least, I think the Sentinel Literary Quarterly should be making clear that if you enter their competition, the judge might well decide to be publicly harshly dismissive of your work. I think they might find themselves taking rather a hit from this, if the reaction of many poets on Facebook is anything to go by.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Richard Thompson at 70

I'm not going to entirely rehash the old debate about whether song lyrics are poetry (yes, I'd say, although not the same sort of poetry you generally see on the page), but Richard Thompson is probably my favourite lyricist of all time. I hadn't realised that he was playing a 70th birthday gig at the Albert Hall, but there's an excellent interview about it and a host of other things here.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

James W Wood: Building A Kingdom, New and Selected Poems 1989-2019

Recent posts on this blog have, unfortunately, largely been concerned with the sad passing of poets and musicians, so it's good to have something positive to write about, namely James W Wood's Building A Kingdom: New and Selected Poems, from The High Window Press.

I was honoured and delighted to be asked to write the introduction for it, and I will post a few choice quotes from it over the next few days, but for now I'll leave you with Irish poet Noel Duffy's words about it, and an exhortation to get hold of a copy as soon as you can.

"There is a fierce sense of purpose in the poetry of James W Wood, revealing a writer with a uniquely powerful and, at times, bleak vision of modern life. Yet placed against such concerns are poems of a more intimate nature, rooted in the world with a thrilling sensuality."

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Elaine Feinstein, 1930-2019

Very sad to hear of the death of the poet, playwright and translator Elaine Feinstein. I hadn't realised previously that she actually grew up in my home town of Leicester (I knew she had a connection to the city, but for some reason thought that she'd been to university there).

Her fairly recent New and Selected Poems, from Carcanet, is probably the best place to start if you want to read her work (and I can recommend it very highly). Here's a poem of hers that I like a lot – I can't remember where I first came across it, but it's stayed with me, and feels more and more apt the older I get.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Daniel Johnston, 1961-2019

Sad news overnight of another death, that of US lo-fi indie icon Daniel Johnston, who suffered a heart attack at his home in Austin, Texas.

I first came across him back in 1996. Stewart Lee, the comedian, in his other guise as a record reviewer for the Sunday Times, raved about the double album Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo, a collection of out-takes, alternative versions, covers and other assorted oddities.

Although in truth it's fairly patchy (as such records always are) it started my long love affair with Yo La Tengo, and in no time at all I was working my way through their back catalogue. One of the tracks that did catch my attention was a cover version of Daniel Johnston's Speeding Motorcycle, being performed live on a radio show (YLT had already covered it on their album Fakebook). Johnston himself phones in and provides the vocals. Like everything else Johnston did, it's very rough-edged, but also full of passion and feeling.

I gradually collected a few of Johnston's earlier records, and found a lot there in the same vein. His music's always very affecting, although sometimes that's in the sense of being disturbing. It's always worth listening to, though – it's no wonder his songs have been much covered by other artists.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

David Berman dies, aged 52

Sad news this morning of the death of David Berman, US poet and the frontman and driving force behind indie band Silver Jews. I bought his collection Actual Air, way back when, and enjoyed it a lot, and I've got a couple of the band's later albums.

I think Berman's death was misreported several years ago, but sadly, this report seems to be all too true.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Paul Batchelor on Niall Campbell and Frederick Seidel

I haven't read either of the collections being considered here, and having read Paul Batchelor's article, I don't suppose I'll be in any great hurry to do so, but full marks to him and the New Statesman for a review that says exactly what it means. More of the same, please.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Peter Riley on WS Graham

Peter Riley is as excellent as ever in The Fortnightly Review, talking about WS Graham, and specifically the New Selected Poems edited by Matthew Francis, the Selected Poems edited by Michael Hofmann, and The Caught Habits Of Language, a recent celebration of Graham's work which I reviewed for Magma and enjoyed a lot.

I found myself agreeing with most of what Riley says, especially about Hofmann's almost total rejection of Graham's earlier work, and indeed of the poetry of the 1940s generally, which feels lazy and unsubstantiated.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

The sound of silence

I've only just got into the habit of downloading podcasts to listen to during my commute (yes, I'm years behind the times). A lot of the time it's Cricket – the Test Match Special podcast, Tuffers and Vaughan, or Tailenders.

But there's also The Verb, and this week's was excellent, looking at silences in poetry – coincidentally I'd started writing a poem on silence a couple of weeks back, so I listened with more than my usual interest. Ian McMillan, who's always a pleasure to listen to, was joined by poets Ilya Kaminsky, Julia Copus and Simon Armitage, and there's much to enjoy.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

David Lynch interview

Nice interview with David Lynch here. I've long been a fan anyway, but he has all sorts of interesting things to say about art and creativity generally.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Alice Oswald elected Oxford Professor of Poetry

Alice Oswald has been elected Oxford's first female Professor of Poetry, and a jolly good thing too. Andrew McMillan would also have been a good choice, and I'm sure he'll be in the reckoning in the future. Slightly staggered that 58 people still voted for Todd Swift, but there you go...