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...

Friday, 14 June 2019

Places Of Poetry

The Places Of Poetry blog is a terrific idea – basically you can pin your own poems of place on the map of the UK, as well as enjoying browsing the map and discovering a lot of excellent new poems by other people.

I haven't posted anything up there yet, although I notice there's something a gap around where I live in Warwickshire, as well as around my hometown of Coalville in Leicestershire. Time to get busy, perhaps.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Have Moicy!

I've been a huge fan of American indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo for a long time now, and one of their most consistently enjoyable albums is Fakebook, from way back in 1990.  It's far from typical of their output, being made up of semi-acoustic cover versions of various obscurities (as well as retreads of a few of their own songs), but it's got a lovely, laid-back vibe.

Anyway, one of the songs on there, Griselda, comes from an album called Have Moicy!, by Michael Hurley, The Unholy Modal Rounders, Jeffery Frederick, and The Clamtones. A couple of weeks ago, I finally got round to looking it up on Spotify and having a listen, and it's great. It's folk music, but not as we know it. Robbin' Banks is a particular favourite of mine on there.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Life after cricket: Robin Smith

I'm sorry the link has to be to the Daily Mail, but this interview with Robin Smith about the mental health problems he suffered after retiring from cricket is excellent, both moving and, ultimately, uplifting.

Back in the dark days of the late 80s and early 90s (for English cricket), he was one of my favourite players – combative and positive, as well as a terrific batsman. I remember watching his 167 in a one-day international (an extraordinary score in those days) – it was absolutely brutal.

But he also always came across as modest and unselfish, and there's a hint of that in the interview. Look at his stats, and his test average is really pretty impressive, again when you consider that in those days batting averages were generally lower. I thought he was ultimately rather shabbily treated by England – they suddenly decided that he was hopeless against spin bowling, just because he'd struggled against Shane Warne, but then who didn't?

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Springsteen albums, ranked

The other day, ahead of the release of his new album Western Stars, The Guardian ran this piece ranking all Springsteen's albums.

First thing to say is that, much as I love Springsteen, I think there are absolute stinkers on pretty much all his albums. Great as Darkness On The Edge Of Town is, for example, it contains the almost unlistenable Streets Of Fire, and the not much better Something In The Night.

I'd have Devils and Dust and Magic higher on my list, Born To Run would be ahead of Born In The USA on the strength of Thunder Road and the title track alone, and I'd have The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle at No1, even though it's hardly one of his more typical albums. But yes, I'd have to have Darkness... very high on the list too.

But I'm glad the writer put Tunnel Of Love well up there. Springsteen rarely seems to play much from it these days, presumably because it was born out of the break-up of his first marriage, but I love it. Subtle country and Orbison influences, and some great songs, not least Brilliant Disguise.

I haven't listened to it much for a few years, mainly because I went on a press trip to Croatia during which the driver of the minibus played it on a continuous loop for five days. You can have too much of a good thing, as it turns out.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Hugo Williams: Lines Off


This is out any day now. I don't suppose Hugo Williams will ever be the height of poetry fashion, but he always strikes me as something of a one-off, wringing the maximum effect out of deceptively simple-looking poems. I look forward to all his collections, and this one is no exception.

Friday, 24 May 2019

And another thing

I don't want to give his execrable book any more publicity than it deserves (ie., none), but I read another damning review of Jacob Rees-Mogg's The Victorians this morning. OK, the New Statesman was never likely to be that appreciative of the walking anachronism's hurriedly completed homework assignment (presumably the dog ate the original manuscript), but they do do the reader the favour of quoting some of the author's laborious and tedious prose.

The one part of the review I would immediately take issue with is "The one non-Westminster discussed is the cricketer WG Grace, included mainly because 'as Every Englishman knows', more than any other sport, 'cricket at its best captures the soul of the nation. Fair play, etiquette and gentlemanly behaviour.' Not much of the latter is evident in the modern game, but Rees-Mogg's perceptions, here as elsewhere, are myopically rooted in the past."

The reviewer appears to have missed the point about WG just as much as Rees-Mogg has. Dr Grace was undoubtedly a great player, a man who revolutionised batting technique in particular, but he really didn't give much of a damn about fair play, etiquette or gentlemanly behaviour. Reading about his career, it's hard to escape the conclusion that even David Warner and Steve Smith might have baulked at taking the field with such a master of gamesmanship (well, more like straightforward cheating), so the dig at the modern game is unwarranted. Nor, it should be noted, was WG alone in that respect.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Oxford Professor of Poetry

Interesting piece in The Guardian about the election of the new Oxford Professor of Poetry. Of the three candidates, I think I'd probably go for Alice Oswald, although I can also see that Andrew McMillan would be an excellent choice. As for Todd Swift, well, you can follow the links in there to see why his candidacy has caused disquiet. You can also read this "statement from an observer" on his blog. You might be able to take a shrewd guess at who the observer is.

Mike Brearley on Cricket

I know you're not supposed to say it, but one of the most disappointing cricket books I've ever read (possibly one of the most disappointing books, full stop), is Mike Brearley's The Art Of Captaincy.

When I bought it, 15 years ago or so, I expected to find it full of all sorts of arcane insights into cricket leadership. Brearley, after all, is considered one of England's best-ever captains, the architect of three Ashes triumphs, including the miracle turnaround of 1981. He was tactically innovative and always thoughtful, and his man management skills were legendary. A trained psychologist, he was described by admiring Aussie fast bowler Rodney Hogg as "having a degree in people".

But I felt at the time that it simply stated the obvious. I came away from it with no more idea of how Brearley achieved what he did than I had at the start. Shorter articles on captaincy, from the likes of Ian Chappell, revealed far more.

But he's more than made up for it with On Cricket. It's wide-ranging and diverse, taking in controversial issues such as ball-tampering and the Basil D'Oliveira affair as well as Brearley's opinions on some of the greats of the game, and on his own career.

Above all, it's beautifully written. Packed with detail, yet clear, concise and very readable, and Brearley's own character comes through on every page. Not in the sense that he puts himself at the centre of things, just that he approaches every subject with the same inquisitive, open-minded, tolerant and thoughtful way.

And that, I realised, probably says a great deal more about the art of captaincy than anything. As a player, how could you not want to perform well for a captain like that? One who, you could be confident, would treat every team member fairly, and never put his own ambitions above the team's. Brearley may or may not be England's greatest ever captain, but he's certainly the most interesting thinker about cricket writing today.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

The early Simon Armitage

Over at David Belbin's website, there's this interesting piece on new Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, and specifically his early chapbooks and his first full collection, Zoom! David has reposted his original review of them, from the excellent Slow Dancer, and it's hard to take issue with his excellent review. I've not been so keen on a lot of Armitage's more recent work, but there's still a lot to like in those early books.

Monday, 20 May 2019

'Staggeringly silly'

It's fair to say that Jacob Rees-Mogg has suffered a critical mauling for his book The Victorians. Dominic Sandbrook's comment that it wouldn't have been published had it been written by anyone else is rather redundant. Of course it wouldn't – it's just an attempt to cash in on his fame/infamy, with no regard to the quality of the writing or the historical research. Rather like with Boris Johnson's biography of Churchill. I tried to read some of that, but it was really pretty awful.

I almost want to read this to see if it is as bad as they say, but I think I'll take AN Wilson's word for it. He's hardly a raving leftist, so has no particular political axe to grind, and he has himself written a generally well received and readable history of the Victorian era.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Digging up the past

WARNING! I've slipped into early medieval history nerd mode for this post – if you're looking for ill-informed poetry ponderings, anything remotely ornithological, or cricket geekery, please come back in a few days.

You can go months without coming across anything to do with Anglo-Saxon England in the mainstream media, and then two stories come along at once. You'll probably have already seen this story, which raises all sorts of questions about the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, even if they're right about the burial being that of  Seaxa, who had a family connection to a Christian Frankish princess.

But earlier today I also came across this, concerning the 'Great Heathen Army'. Essentially, it explains why previous finds at Repton, between Derby and Burton, weren't the whole story, and how finds at the nearby hamlet of Foremark suggest part of the army wintered there in 873-74.

It's an area I know well, having walked the path alongside the river many times. In fact, I saw a Red-footed Falcon there about 10 years ago (oh, there you go, knew the birds wouldn't stay out of things for long). One of the poems in my second poetry collection, hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica (my first with Nine Arches Press, back in 2010) – Dreams From The Anchor Church – was inspired by the caves along that stretch of the Trent, and by the area generally. You can still get the collection by following the link above, direct from me, or on Amazon.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Les Murray, 1938-2019

Very sad to hear of the death of the great Australian poet, Les Murray over the weekend.

I've probably mentioned on here before, but back in the late 80s and early 90s, he was one of the first contemporary poets I read. That was because this poem, The Widower In The Country, was one of the inspirations for the song New Year's Greetings, by The Triffids (and if you're a regular visitor here, you'll know that they're one of my favourite bands of all time). Loving the song, I was curious enough to seek out the poem, then couldn't get enough of Murray's work.

I also recently read his book Killing The Black Dog, which is excellent – unstintingly honest, and yet warm and generous. He'll be very sadly missed.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

The Ugly Australian

Superb article here by Jarrod Kimber, on the ongoing fallout from 'Sandpapergate'. He makes some very good points, not least about the tendency of Aussie cricketers to claim persecution as soon as someone reacts to their sledging, or mental disintegration, as they prefer to call it.

Also interesting that he points out that Australia have always been the most successful Test Cricket side, even in the days when they weren't known for such antics.

I'm not claiming that any other team in world cricket is made up of angels, but the Aussies do seem to have got away with things ludicrously easily. David Warner had, I suspect, been ball tampering for at least a couple of years, and the extent to which it all happened at the instigation of the coaching team also seems to have been underplayed.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Saboteur Awards

Voting is open now in this year's Saboteur Awards – you can see the nominees and cast your vote here.

In the Best Reviewer of Literature category, one of the nominees is Maria Taylor, Reviews Editor of Under The Radar at Nine Arches Press. She's posted a very interesting blog piece about reviewing here.