Monday, 29 September 2008

Busy, busy, busy

I was a bit surprised to receive my copy of The Forward Book Of Poetry 2009 this morning (I’d sort of assumed they’d hand them out at the launch, or post them out after that). Anyway, it’s pretty exciting and a little bit unreal to find my name in there among a host of well-known and justifiably lauded poets, and I was intrigued to see which of my poems they’d picked. It turned out to be Holiday, 1939, which you can read here (and scroll down further to find my comments on it).

At the weekend, it was good to hear Jane Holland, Simon Turner, Matt Nunn, Jane Commane, George Ttoouli and Tony Walsh read at Atherstone – a variety of styles, from Simon’s modernist urban pastorals, to Tony’s polished and thought-provoking slam poetry. But it was all excellent, and it was nice to put some faces to names, too. I bought Simon’s book, You Are Here, from Heaventree Press, and what I’ve read so far is extremely impressive. Very nicely produced, too, with an eyecatching cover.

Finally, I got two poems accepted by Under The Radar magazine – A Fixer-Upper, and St Beuno Meets The English. Oh, and I seem to have lost my voice.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Deva (not diva)

I’m ashamed to say that until Monday, I’d never been to Chester before. Not properly, anyway, just zoomed past on the way to Liverpool, or North Wales, or wherever. So, it’s always good when a poetry reading allows you to fill large gap in your knowledge, and it won’t be the last time I visit. For starters, it was surprisingly quick and easy to get to, now that there's a quick cut-through from the M1 to the M6.

More to the point, it’s a lovely small city. No surprise there, really. Roman ruins, a medieval street layout including almost intact city walls and gateways and plenty of half-timbered houses (although a lot of these are actually Victorian). What’s not to like?

The main business of my trip, though, was to read as guest poet at the Zest! Open Mic, at Alexander’s Jazz Theatre Bar. Zest! is a monthly event, run by fellow HappenStance poet Gill McEvoy (her pamphlet Uncertain Days is highly recommended, and she has a full collection forthcoming from Cinnamon Press in 2010).

Alexander’s is a terrific venue. Tucked just below the city walls, it’s intimate enough that you feel part of a tight-knit group, but large enough to accommodate audiences of 70-80. I’m not sure how many were in on Monday – maybe 40-50?

Anyway, there was a good mix of young and old, and a fair few got up to read poems too, whether their own or other people’s. And read them very well, for the most part. Among the highlights were a chap called Miguel’s heartfelt and animated recitation from memory, Len’s beautifully scanned elegy, Aled’s use of Welsh, and (I think) Phil’s excellent poem on Klimt. Oh, and Gill read two fine pieces, and her Zest! colleagues Leih and Caroline also read very well.

There was also Chris Kinsey, whose name I know of old from countless magazines and whose Ragged Raven collection Kung Fu Lullabies I must get hold of (not least for that great title). She read very well, and when I got to work this morning I flicked through the new issue of BBC Wildlife and found that she’s the winner of this year’s BBC Wildlife Poet Of The Year award – fully deserved, too, because her The Morning After The Clocks Went Back, in the space of 12 short lines, manages to observe nature acutely, remain beautifully understated and poised, and still spring a surprising image on the reader.

I’ve already posted my set-list, but it was interesting that chatting to people afterwards, the one poem that people kept mentioning as a favourite was Knots. I’m glad, partly because it’s always intriguing when people pick out less obvious pieces, and partly because I always worry that it’s a bit too bird-y. And I sold a few books and pamphlets on the back of it, which is a bonus!

The following day, I was out at Ness Marshes by just after 9. There are wide grazing marshes overlooking the Dee Estuary, and although it’s a bit early in the year for most of the waders and wildfowl, there were good numbers of Lapwings and plenty of corvids and small passerines around the path. Ravens gronked over at intervals, two Buzzards and a handful of Kestrels hunted close to the road, and then things really hotted up, with a female Hen Harrier quartering the fields, a Peregrine perched on one of the fenceposts, and a male Merlin on another until it was chased away by an irate Crow.

After that it was back into Chester to soak up a bit of history, and of course to search the bookshops. Bluecoat Books, on the city walls just next to Alexander’s, was excellent, so I bought Robin Robertson’s Swithering for £4, to replace a copy I lent to someone. It’s reminded me what an excellent collection it is. In the little Waterstones in town, I bought Bernard O’Donoghue’s Selected and a history of the Spanish Civil War. I’ve been meaning to get the latter for a while, because my knowledge of it is very sketchy – at university, I remember realising in horror the day before my Industrial Europe exam that it was one of the mandatory subjects, and spending 12 hours reading a book on it from cover to cover in an only-just-successful attempt to avert disaster.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008


Just back from Chester after reading as the guest poet at the Zest! open mic last night - very enjoyable indeed. It's a really vibrant monthly event, and there were plenty of really good poets and poems on show.

Anyway, I'll post about it properly later in the week (I also managed to do a bit of birding and a lot of rummaging through bookshops), but for now, here's my set-list.

Set One
The Meeting Place
Probably The Ponzo Illusion
Poem ("Today we haven't stopped to think...")
The Memory Of Water
Scorpio Over La Selva
Troy Town

Set Two
At Home
Show, Don't Tell
To A Flame
Ringing Redstarts
The Mad Mile
Raining, Craswall, Evening

Friday, 19 September 2008

Coming soon...

Just a quick reminder - I'll be reading as part of the Zest! Open Floor Poetry Night, at Alexander's Jazz Theatre Bar, Chester, at 8pm on Monday (September 22nd). There's also an open mic spot, so you can bring along your own or a favourite poem to read.

The venue is in Rufus Court, off Northgate Street, and entry is £3/£2. See you there.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

And another review

The latest issue of Iota (No82) was waiting when I got home last night. It's the last one produced by the current editors, Bob Mee and Janet Murch, who have turned it into a really good small press magazine, IMHO. Sometimes the poetry is a little hit or miss, but to be honest I think that's what I want from a magazine. It means there are always surprises, and that's not always true of some rather more feted publications.

From next issue, it's going to be produced by a new editorial team, and published and distributed by Bluechrome Press, so there's every chance it will go from strength to strength.

Anyway, I had a new poem, St Martin's Summer, in No82, plus there was this review of Troy Town, by Bob Mee, which was a pleasant surprise. Good to see Adrian Buckner's collection Contains Mild Peril reviewed extensively and positively too - it's on my To Buy list, and not just because it contains a section of cricket poems.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

A walk in the country

A couple of yards from my desk in the office, the good people of Country Walking magazine go about their business. Speaking as someone partial to yomping round the Peak District on a regular basis, it's a magazine I've always enjoyed, but the new (October) issue is particularly good.

It's a Yorkshire special, and contains a fine piece by editor Jonathan Manning about Ian McMillan. There are a couple of newish poems included, and as ever, McMillan is good company.

It strikes me that, should he be interested, they could do a lot worse than McMillan as the next Poet Laureate, because he seems completely lacking in self-consciousness about mixing populist and less accessible poetry. A couple of years ago, for example, I bought one of those issues of The North in which the poems are presented anonymously, and you have to turn to a key at the back to find out who wrote what. There was a really fine poem from McMillan in there, and at the time I'd never have guessed that it was from him, so far was it from the rather lighter stuff you often see and hear from him on TV and radio.

The same issue contains my own article about walking on Ilkley Moor with Yorkshire and England fast bowling legend Matthew Hoggard, and all the usual features. Oh, and it recommends Timothy Taylor Landlord, Black Sheep and Sam Smith's Bitter - surely three of the finest beers ever to be supped.

Titchwell update

Here are some of Mike Weedon's wader shots from Monday's big day's filming, over at Weedon's World Of Nature. Love the phalarope, and it's alwaays nice to see Turnstones.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Titchwell time

We were over at the RSPB reserve at Titchwell yesterday, taking advantage of the good weather to crack on with filming of the next Bird Watching DVD. It's good fun, whispering to camera David Attenborough style and fighting the urge to shout excitedly every time a good bird comes into view.

We quickly found the juvenile Red-necked Phalarope that had been reported there, and although it flew off to the far side of the lagoons for a while, it gradually worked its way back during the day, until we were able to get good views of it behaving in typical phalarope fashion - swimming frantically in tiny circles to stir up food, and jabbing at the water with its needle-thin bill.

There was a Pectoral Sandpiper, too, although only fairly briefly, but we did get great views of four Little Stints that fed only a few yards from the path along the bank. Plenty of other waders, too - Avocets, Curlew, Curlew Sandpipers, Lapwings, Redshanks, Greenshanks, Ruff, Bar-tailed Godwits, Turnstones and Oystercatchers.

We had a quick trip to the fen hide, and saw a male Redstart (my more patient colleague Mr Weedon hung around longer and was rewarded with good views of a Bittern, plus two Whinchats), then picked up an early male Hen Harrier hunting over the saltmarsh and fields just outside the reserve, over towards Thornham.

As I prepared to do a piece to camera scanning over the lagoons, virtually every wader, gull and goose on the reserve rose into the air making a huge clamour, a sure sign that a raptor was around, and sure enough a Peregrine dived into the heart of the flocks, although it seemed to come up empty-taloned. It was truly spectacular, though.

And the thing is, Titchwell is set to change over the next few years, as the sea encroaches. The policy of managed retreat means that some of the freshwater marsh will inevitably disappear. In the meantime, if you have any interest in birds and happen to be around north Norfolk, go and enjoy what is still, in my opinion, the RSPB's best reserve - accessible, compact, family-friendly and always packed with superb birds.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

On the Horizon

The first edition of Horizon Review, Salt Publishing's new online magazine, is now live. Edited by Jane Holland, it includes poems by, among others, Alison Brackenbury, George Szirtes, James Midgeley, Rob Mackenzie, Andrew Shields, Andrew Philip, Zoe Brigley and Katy Evans-Bush, plus art, fiction, reviews and articles. It looks a great read - ideal for a quiet Sunday afternoon.

I also received the new Tears In The Fence yesterday and have been dipping in and out of it since. So far I've liked Julie Lumsden's poems, and enjoyed Tom Chivers' regular column and a review of a book by Elisabeth Bletsoe. I like the look of her poems a lot, and will have to get hold of the volume in question.

Finally, Poetry Nottingham arrived in the week. I've got a poem, Troglodyte, in there, and there's loads of good stuff by the likes of DA Prince.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

New review

It was a very pleasant surprise to find a full-page review of Troy Town, by Ewen McDonald, in the autumn edition of The Leicestershire Magazine. I've put it up over at my Troy Town blog, so you can read it in full there.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Forward Poetry Prize

Earlier today I got an invitation to the presentation of the Forward Poetry Prize, and the accompanying launch of The Forward Book Of Poetry 2009. Joanna Boulter, of Arrowhead Press, had already tipped me off that one of the poems from Troy Town, and one from fellow Arrowheader Peter Howard's Weighing The Air, were to be included in the anthology, but it's really very exciting to actually have the invitation card in my hand. And of course, the chance to go and sip wine and eat cheese footballs with the great and good of the poetry world is too good to miss, so I'll be there in Fitzroy Square on October 8th.

The full nominations are:
Jamie McKendrick - Crocodiles & Obelisks (Faber)
Sujata Bhatt - Pure Lizard (Carcanet)
Mick Imlah - The Lost Leader (Faber)
Jane Griffiths - Another Country (Bloodaxe)
Jen Hadfield - Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe)
Catherine Smith - Lip (Smith Doorstop)

Simon Barraclough - Los Alamos Mon Amour (Salt)
Andrew Forster - Fear of Thunder (Flambard)
Frances Leviston - Public Dream (Picador)
Allison McVety - The Night Trotsky Came to Stay (Smith Doorstop)
Stephanie Norgate - Hidden River (Bloodaxe)
Kathryn Simmonds - Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Seren)

Seamus Heaney - Cutaways
Christopher Buehlman - Wanton
Catherine Ormell - Campaign Desk, December 1812
Don Paterson - Love Poem for Natalie 'Tusja' Beridze
Kate Rhodes - Wells-next-the-Sea
Tim Turnbull - Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn

My own choices of winners (and I haven't read all the nominees by any means), would be Catherine Smith, Kathryn Simmonds and Tim Turnbull, but I suspect it may pan out rather differently. Still, they're all worthy nominees, so it will be fascinating to see who does win.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

HappenStance launch

Yesterday I went to the launch of two of the latest HappenStance publications - Marilyn Ricci's chapbook Rebuilding A Number 39, and DA Prince's first full collection, Nearly The Happy Hour - in Leicester.

It was good to meet Marilyn, and to see Davina and HappenStance publisher Helena Nelson again, and the excellent turn-out on another day of foul weather was testament to a strong grass-roots poetry scene in Leicester.

Both poets read very well. It's interesting that a couple of Davina's poems concern swans, because her poems remind me of that old thing about appearing serene and elegant on the surface, while all sorts of things are going on just out of sight. It's all far more complicated than it first appears, but she uses the rhythms of everyday speech very well, so it's never difficult. She also writes very good light verse - an underrated skill, in my book. I should also point out that we both went to the same school, years apart, so it's good to be able to cheer her success.

Marilyn's writing is often grounded in family memory, and both she and Helena pointed out that, while that sort of thing is sometimes derided by poetry critics, there's no reason why it should be, when it's done well. It was here - for a start there's plenty of character in the poems, with everyday (Leicester) speech well captured*. There's also a sparingly used surrealism, which gives several of the poems an element of surprise. And finally, you're plunged right into the middle of the memory so that, I suppose, it's rather like recalling them yourself, rather than being told them by somebody else.

* One poem, Yakking, uses the title word in a sense that is, in my experience, exclusive to Leicester and its environs. To 'yak' means to throw, usually quite violently, and although a lot of local dialect words seem to be passing out of use, this is one I still hear (and use) regularly, not least on the cricket field. It's always been a source of annoyance to me that our accent and dialect gets so badly represented in the media. On the rare occasions that a TV programme is set in Leicester, for example, they generally use a Birmingham accent, but the reality is quite different. You can hear a huge difference between Nuneaton, on the Brum side of Watling Street, and Hinckley, only three or four miles away on the Leicester side of what I've always thought is a big linguistic divide, almost certainly down to the fact that we were part of the old Danelaw. In fact, we were more heavily settled by the Vikings than just about anywhere in England, as evidenced by all those Leicester surnames like Kettle, Herrick and Askill.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Hare care

This discussion of Charlotte Mew’s The Farmer’s Bride has been going on at the Guardian books blog this week. It’s a fine poem, I think, and well worth a close reading. I don’t share the reservations of some about the attempt to capture the farmer’s speech, and I don’t think it goes too far towards pathos. But I was interested too by some of the other directions the discussion takes – hares and their mythological connections (they're my favourite British mammal*, although it was only fairly recently I read that the Brown Hare is non-native - it was the Mountain Hare the Celts were thinking of); the wonderful folk song The Bonny Black Hare (I've written about Fairport Convention's version before); and Ian Duhig's equally fine poem The Lammas Hireling - it's all worth reading.

* I don't see too many, although the wide, rolling fields around Blatherwycke in Northants always seem to turn up a few when I'm out Red Kite watching. But earlier this year, as I was driving along the narrow lane from Eyebrook Reservoir towards Stockerston, a young Hare was sitting in the road. It showed no inclination to move, and I wondered if it was injured. But it finally slipped through the fence, and then waited as I pulled alongside, and was able to watch it from a few feet away. Eventually, it proved its rude health to my satisfaction by exploding into a lightning fast dash across the field to cover.

Sterna hirundo

I dodged heavy showers to do a bit of birding on the way home last night. Cossington Meadows was quiet, with no sign of the Whinchats that have been around, and only relatively few Lapwings, plus two Green Sandpipers.

I stopped for a quick scan on the dam at Cropston Reservoir, too, and as well as a couple of Little Egrets along the shoreline, there was a family of Common Terns hanging around the observation tower. The parents were swooping and diving, and occasionally coming up with fish, which they then fed to two youngsters perched on the rails of the walkway out to the tower. These young terns looked fully as big as their parents, but their plumage lacked the neatness of the older birds, with a gingery barring on their upperparts and ‘dirty’ heads.

I’d guess that they’ll be off on their mammoth migration to the southern oceans any day now, so it was slightly surprising to see the young not doing their own fishing (although both flew strongly at times). But it seems to have been a good year for the local Common Terns – I’ve seen more than usual, I think.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Competition time

I received this from Poetry Nottingham editor Adrian Buckner. Have a go - I've sketched something out, and far from feeling constrained by the imposed beginning, I think it took me somewhere I wouldn't otherwise have gone...

Poetry Competition (with a difference, or two)

1. Your poem must begin with:
She lay on the lounger, watching
the rabbit nuzzle the lobelia
2. There is no line limit
3. Only one entry per person
4. Closing date: 3rd October 2008
5. Entry fee is 66p in postage attached to an unaddressed A5 envelope
6. Entries can be typed or handwritten.
7. Name and address must appear on the manuscript.
8. Entries to: Adrian Buckner, Poetry Nottingham, 11 Orkney Close, Stenson Fields, Derby DE24 3LW

1. Include your entry along with other poems to be considered for inclusion in Poetry Nottingham. (Entry fee still applies)
2. Alter the lineation of the required opening.
3. Inform everyone in your family, creative writing class, writers’ workshop, about this ground-breaking venture/editor’s whimsy and encourage them to enter.

1. The best two entries in the opinion of the editor will appear in the next issue of Poetry Nottingham (winners to be informed prior to publication)
2. The winners will also receive a year’s subscription to Poetry Nottingham or, if already subscribing, a year’s extension to their subscription.

Today's selection

Following on from my post earlier in the week about James W Wood's excellent chapbook Inextinguishable, his poem Afternoon Nap, from that book, is today's featured poem on Poetry Daily. Rob Mackenzie has also posted about it over at Surroundings.

I meant to mention earlier in the week, that I went off to look up the word 'knucker', as in Knucker Press, publishers of James' pamphlet. It's a dialect word for a kind of water dragon, from the Anglo-Saxon 'nicor', which crops up in Beowulf. Apparently there are reputed 'knucker holes' at various places in Sussex.

Now I think about it, I dimly remember, in the 80s, there being a dragon called The Knucker in the story Slaine the Barbarian, in 2000AD comic.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Derwent Poetry Festival

Last year I went up to Matlock for the first Derwent Poetry Festival, run by Templar Poetry, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

This year’s festival takes place over the weekend of October 17th-19th, at Masson Mills, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire. It will feature the launch of 10 new poetry titles from Templar Poetry, including the presentation of the 2008 Templar Poetry Pamphlets Prizes.

It is accompanied by readings from Paul Farley, Tim Liardet, Jane Weir, Pat Winslow, Rob Hindle, Dawn Wood, Siobhan Campbell, Mike Barlow, Angela Cleland, Pat Borthwick, Katrina Naomi and many others. There is a festival bookshop, stands from magazines and an exhibition of paintings by Artist in Residence Karen Isherwood.

I might struggle to make it this time, as I’m scheduled to be out of the country working that weekend, but it’s all a bit up in the air at the moment so if I am at home, I’ll get along. I particularly liked Rob Hindle’s reading last year, but there was plenty of other good stuff and Matlock Bath is a pretty nice place to be on a fine autumn day.

The full festival programme is listed at: or you can call the box office on 01629 582 500.

End of an era

You have sporting heroes for a wide range of reasons. As a kid, my cricketing idol was David Gower, probably precisely because I knew I’d never be able to bat even remotely like him. After all, no one can. He might have infuriated some pundits because of his perceived lack of application (I’d argue that was rubbish, but it’d take too long just now), but he was one of those sportsmen for whom that hackneyed old cliché “poetry in motion” might have been devised. My other (English) childhood hero was Derek Randall, who had none of Gower’s style, but bags of guts and character. You could identify with ‘Arkle’, or ‘Rags’, as he called himself.

This week, another hero of mine and cricketing legend announced he’s finally bowing out of county cricket after 25 years. As Andrew Miller says here, Graeme Hick fully deserves that title, however disappointing his test career was.

It’s all relative, though. Yes, he never developed into the batsman many thought he could be (the name Bradman even got mentioned in his early years, and certainly people thought he might be another Viv Richards). But on the other hand, there were times when, judged by the standards of the other players around him in the England side, he deserved high praise rather than criticism. Quite apart from his batting, his off-spin was underused by captains, and his superb fielding at slip or in the deep was too rarely factored into the equation when he was being made the scapegoat for another England failure. As Miller says, the security of a central contract might have brought the best out of him, because poor man management, especially by Mike Atherton, certainly did him no favours. What Miller says about that incident at Sydney doesn’t tally with Alec Stewart’s recent account of it, which suggested Atherton (I’ll admit, I’ve always thought him overrated, as a captain especially) stitched Hick up. If he’d done it to someone less mild-mannered, he’d still be picking bat splinters out of his back even now.

Other critics have described Hick as a ‘flat-track bully’, or his batting as mechanical. Again I’d argue, because what they saw as mechanical was just a refreshing simplicity, hitting straight and hard wherever possible. And he played plenty of good knocks on less than great wickets, against the best in the world. He just never quite believed in himself at the top level.

Miller makes good points about how Hick was always happiest at Worcester, and perhaps the last of the great old-fashioned county players, and it’s worth remembering how much he contributed to the success of that late 80s Worcester side. But I wish he’d gone on to point out more clearly just why so many English fans hold him in high regard – his honesty, modesty and supreme unselfishness, the latter shown in the way he was shunted in and out of the England side, and up and down the batting order, without a murmur of complaint.

I’ve seen him play loads of great innings over the years (and I’m not a Worcester fan, by the way), but my enduring memory will be of a day in December 2000. England were on the up. Duncan Fletcher, who had discovered Hick in Zimbabwe in the early 80s and then captained him, was the new England coach and gave him another chance. He responded well at first, but by the end of the series in Pakistan he looked like he might be on his way out once and for all.

I was watching on the TV at work as England were chasing 176 to win at Karachi, and it was getting dark. Really dark. Pakistan used delaying tactics to try to salvage a draw, but ultimately just made life harder for their own baffled fielders. Still, when Hick came in, there was plenty left to do. A lesser man might have started worrying about his own place at this stage, playing with one eye on his average. Not Hick. He got stuck straight into the bowling, allowing Graham Thorpe to play the anchor role, and saw England right to the brink of victory. Atherton, Thorpe and others took the plaudits, and two tests later, Hick was gone for good. That was him all over, though – a great team man who was happiest out of the spotlight. As Andrew Miller says, county cricket will certainly never see his like again, and it'll be a poorer place without him. There's rumours that he'll enjoy a last big pay day in one of the Indian leagues, in which case good luck to him - he deserves a good send-off.