Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Two new releases

This Sunday (October 4th), Nine Arches Press launches its first two full-length collections with a special event - Contemporary Poets in the English Landscape - as part of the Warwick Words Festival.

Poets Peter Carpenter and Matt Nunn, whose new volumes After The Goldrush and Sounds In The Grass are being launched, will be discussing their unique perspectives on the English landscape with poet and Director of the Warwick Writing Programme, David Morley, at the Kozi Bar, Market Square, Warwick, from 1pm.

Full reviews to follow in the next few weeks...

Monday, 28 September 2009

BBC Wildlife success

My poem Lullaby has been named runner-up in this year's BBC Wildlife Poet of the Year competition.

It's about swifts. When I was a kid, I wasn't at all keen on them, because of that screaming sound they make on summer evenings (thinking back, it's probably just because when you're little, you resent having to go to bed when it's still light outside, and they were a reminder of that). Now, though, they're one of my very favourite species, I think because they're such uber-birds - once they leave the nest, they might not land again for years. But anyway, a friend's young daughters were telling me earlier in the year that they didn't like the screaming noise, either, and the poem just came from that. Unusually for me, I wrote it very quickly.

I won't post it up here just now (because then you wouldn't buy the mag, would you?!), but the judges - last year's winner Chris Kinsey, Poetry Please executive producer Sara Davies, Poetry Please senior producer Tim Dee, poet Philip Gross, BBC Wildlife editor Sophie Stafford, and performance poet Sarah Williams - said: "The sensitive paradox in this poem is that while seeming to offer homely comfort, it comes as an expanding vision of nature and weather that does, as it says, throw the window open on the world".

I'm highly delighted because it's the second time I've managed second - in 2007 Hares In December, which appeared in my collection Troy Town, occupied the same place.

The winning poem, A Murmuration, by Heather Reid, is excellent, I think. It's concerned with flocking starlings, quite a common image in a lot of poetry (and songs) these days, but I really like the way the poem itself shifts pace and shape in imitation of its subject. A worthy winner.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Tethers, by Carrie Etter

Carrie Etter’s debut collection, The Tethers, was published by Seren earlier this year. Originally from Normal, Illinois, Carrie Etter now lives in Bradford on Avon and teaches creative writing at Bath Spa University.

I interviewed her by email about the book, her writing and teaching, and her future plans. Read on to find out more (there's also a couple of sample poems too)...

The Tethers
struck me as remarkable for its maturity – it feels far more rounded and focused than most first collections. How long were you honing these poems for?

Thank you, I’m pleased to hear that. I started collecting poems under the title Cult of the Eye in the autumn of 2002, so the book’s been evolving since then, with five poems pre-2000. I suppose the book’s maturity derives partly from the amount of time the book itself was evolving and partly from the amount of time I’ve been writing – I’ve been serious about poetry since my teens and I turned 40 this year.

I guess readers and critics must immediately be drawn to your transatlantic background in talking about your poetry (and I’m not going to be any different, sorry!). I’d be interested to know if you feel it’s allowed you to sit happily between some of the more entrenched camps in UK poetry?

I think the pluralist attitude to poetry of my generation of American poets has led me to pursue in both reading and writing a broad spectrum of poetries, and to wish there was less prejudice here, especially in regard to more experimental work. I don’t know how happily I’m sitting between camps, but I do what I can to get them to talk to one another, so to speak, and feel my position as a reviewer is helpful toward that end.

I’ve worried about the great difference among my first three books – The Tethers; Divining for Starters, a more experimental collection; and Imagined Sons, a strongly thematic collection consisting of prose poems and catechisms, but finally decided that I have to pursue my work, my desire to become a better poet, wherever it leads, regardless of response. That’s not to say I won’t pay attention to that response – I have so much to learn – but that I won’t let it narrow my options. A great part of the joy of poetry lies in its wild possibility, and that should be cultivated rather than tamed.

It’s had an obvious effect on your subject matter, too, but another thing I really enjoyed about the collection was your ability to slip between, and document a certain tension between, the urban and the rural. Do you feel you belong in one or the other?

I am heartened to hear that this issue is apparent in the book, as it’s integral to who I am. The answer to your question is that I feel I belong in both, I need both. Tonight, on a visit to my hometown in Illinois, I took a night walk, to the sound of cicadas and crickets, with my 12-year-old nephew Brandon; heading in the direction of my parents’ house meant that we were heading toward the fields. I took so much solace in that walk, in the easy conversation along the way and the noisy quiet surrounding it. At the same time, I crave the stimuli that comes with the urban, with its abundance of specificities and push for quality.

Could you tell us a bit about the process of publishing with Seren? What kind of editorial input did you receive?

I didn’t receive a great deal of editorial input, but I don’t know whether that is the norm at Seren. The poetry editor, Amy Wack, differed with me most on some of my syntactical constructions and on my use of dashes. On the former, I resisted because I felt the revisions would have normalized the syntax in a way that was untrue to the poems; on the latter, some of my dashes stayed, others were not instituted. All in all I’ve been happy in my experience with Seren, and I’m especially glad to be on a list stronger for the presence of a number of younger, intelligent women poets, Kathryn Gray, Zoe Skoulding, and Tiffany Atkinson among them.

I’m interested to know how teaching creative writing affects your own writing, both in purely practical terms (does it leave you enough time?!), and in terms of there being an ongoing exchange of ideas.

I believe teaching poetry makes me more alert in the process of writing and revising poems, as the precepts I’ve been teaching will be that much more present, consciously or unconsciously, as I work. Practically speaking, I find it impossible to write when I’m marking; something about the process of explaining to others the strengths and weaknesses of their writing inhibits my own ability to create. As far as time goes, I’m on a fractional, 0.7 contract, which means money is tighter than I’d like but I have more time to write. The exchange of ideas in teaching writing has been extraordinary; it keeps me thinking and questioning and reconsidering. I wouldn’t do anything else. The ultimate test, the lottery test, works here: if I won the lottery, I’d still teach, just less so as to allow more time for other activities.

Could you tell us a bit about your future publishing plans? I understand you’re going to be pretty busy.

Remember I’ve been writing, reading, and publishing for over 20 years before bringing out my first book, so there’s something of a backlog. Next month Oystercatcher Press will publish a pamphlet, The Son, that draws on my third book manuscript, Imagined Sons. I hadn’t planned on bringing out another pamphlet so soon, but Oystercatcher’s editor, Peter Hughes, asked me to submit, and I knew this was the work I wanted to show next.

In early 2011 Shearsman Books will bring out Divining for Starters, my second book. A draft of my third, Imagined Sons, has been by a couple poet-friends, but needs a little expansion, I think, and a final overhauling revision, before publication. The manuscript I’m actively writing, focusing on family, identity, one’s relationship to a home environment, etc., will presumably be my fourth book, The Weather in Normal. Suffice it to say I’m rarely wanting for something to write about!


Forced to apologise
for the dirty sheets, he looks

proud in his shame.
I left that bed years ago

and have returned to collect
a forgotten book, a favourite blanket.

He knew the names of trees better
than makes of cars, but neither well.

He remembers which sister
I like least and asks

how she is doing.

Americana, Station by Station

At our lowest price today only
vote Appelman for the school board
the Lakers beating San Antonio by 39 points
your sins will be forgiven

on mattresses all your favourite brands
because as a teacher he knows
in the fourth quarter a few minutes to go
so long as you accept Christ as your lord

name-brand comfort at a great value
what students need and parents want
yet another rebound - let's see that again
you are saved, I tell you, you are saved

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Two Poems

I've got two new poems, Uchronie and Variations On A Theme By J A Baker, over at the glorious treasure trove of poetry and criticism that is Gists & Piths.

J A Baker, for those who aren't familiar with the name, was a librarian who wrote a book, The Peregrine, that still stands in a class of its own where nature writing is concerned. Published in 1967, it's pretty much an extended prose poem on the Essex coastal landscape, the British winter (remember that?), obsession, and of course the birds of the title. Robert Macfarlane's piece on it here pretty much says it all, really, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

The book is still available, either by ordering that NYRB version on Amazon, or by scouring secondhand bookshops for the original or the various later editions that followed in the late 60s and 70s. Baker did write a follow-up, The Hill Of Summer, and while it's not at all bad, it doesn't really live up to the expectations created by his masterpiece.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Lee Harwood

Lee Harwood: Not The Full Story – Six Interviews by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman)
The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, edited by Robert Sheppard (Salt)

Shearsman’s publication of Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems in 2004 kickstarted a new wave of interest in a writer who, in truth, should never have been off the radar in the first place. Harwood’s unique position as a direct link between the New York School and non-mainstream British poetry should have been enough, on its own, to keep him in the eyeline of anyone with an interest in contemporary poetry, but these two books help confirm his stature as a major figure.

The Shearsman volume here, published to coincide with a Selected Poems released earlier this year, takes a broadly chronological approach to Harwood’s career, with Kelvin Corcoran leading Harwood gently through his collections.

One of the things that makes it so enjoyable a journey is that Corcoran, himself a fine non-mainstream poet (and like Harwood, one whose work is wonderfully multi-layered but rarely deserving of the dreaded adjective ‘difficult’), eschews too journalistic or academic an approach. Instead, the whole thing reads very much like the relaxed discussion of two friends (which I’m sure it is), and in taking such a casual tack, Corcoran gets as close to the heart of the matter as you suspect anyone might.

Harwood sheds plenty of light on his writing methods, the background to much of his poetry (particularly the contraction and dissolution of the British Empire, obliquely referenced in much of his earlier work), his (thoroughly professional) approach to readings, and his connections to the US avant-garde scene.

Two things struck me. One is that Harwood rarely seems to have thought in terms of the binary division of British poetry that so often gets talked about. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have something to say about how certain sections of the mainstream have ignored or sidelined certain sections of the avant-garde, but he seems acutely aware that both the two main camps are subdivided into countless smaller groupings, and to have seen his own poetry as being exactly what it is, and no other, carrying connections to all directions. When, on one or two occasions, Corcoran does aim a jab or two in the direction of famous mainstreamers, it comes across as unnecessary sniping, not least because Harwood doesn’t get drawn into it.

Secondly, Harwood talks about his dislike of the poet intruding into the poems too much (both when he’s writing and reading them), and indeed his knack of removing himself from centre stage is, I suspect, one of the things that appeals most to readers about his poetry. He mentions the use of personas and multiple points of view to do this, but nevertheless you are struck by how much the Harwood of the interviews resembles the Harwood that you imagine from the poems – deeply humane, incurably curious, quietly humorous, and thoroughly good company.

That’s not to say, by the way, that he’s unsuccessful in taking himself out of the poems – far from it. In fact, I think it just shows how subtly the trick is done, and how deceptively easy he makes it look.

Poems particularly relevant to a number of the interviews are dotted throughout the book, plus a few photographs that largely absolve Harwood of the crimes of fashion and coiffuring that might be expected of a poet whose career stretches back to the early 60s, but for the most part this book does just what it says on the cover, and does it very well.

The Salt volume, on the other hand, collects together an interview with Harwood plus 12 essays from a variety of critics and fellow poets. They all tackle different, sometimes radically different, aspects of Harwood’s work, so while there’s a certain amount of overlap, each is self-contained enough to make this perfect for dipping into.

I won’t even attempt to encapsulate everything that’s here, but I particularly enjoyed Robert Sheppard and Geoff Ward’s essays, the former for its tracing of a Puritan/Cavalier tension in Harwood’s work, the latter for its look at the opposition between wide-eyed innocence and a more knowing, self-consciously literary approach.

Andy Brown’s eco-critical reading of Harwood is probably the highlight for me, though, as he attempts to get to the roots (pardon the pun) of the poet’s relationship with a wider community and with the natural world.

Again there’s an opposition, this time between the city and the country, but Brown also touches upon how Harwood’s poetry often subliminates the self into the landscape. He also set me thinking about how (and I’ve mentioned this before) Harwood often seems to use nature and the rural landscape to remind himself of just how various the world is. While Sheppard, earlier on, talks about Harwood enjoying the “seductions of puritan enumeration” in his listing of bird calls within a poem, you get the feeling that there’s more to it than satisfying a cataloguing impulse.

What else can I say? Nothing really, other than to make the obvious point that if you’ve enjoyed the poetry of Lee Harwood, you’ll also enjoy both these books a great deal, providing as they do a long overdue setting of his work in a wide context.

STOP PRESS: Just before I posted this, I was searching on iTunes for Julian Cope albums. For some reason, the search also turned up Writers At Warwick, from which you can download lengthy interviews and readings from the likes of Lee Harwood, David Morley, and Ann Stevenson. So I did.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Heads up 2

Tom Chivers will be uncovering the truth about Barry McSweeney on a programme for BBC Radio Four this Sunday, at 4.30pm. You can click here for more on the life of a man who was a leader of the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s, and whose reputation seems to be going from strength to strength. I bought Bloodaxe's excellent career summary Wolf Tongue last autumn, and have enjoyed it a great deal, going back to it again and again. It's not necessarily the sort of poetry you're going to be directly influenced by, simply because it's so utterly individual, but it's an absolute must.

Heads up 1

HappenStance poet Gill McEvoy, whose pamphlet Uncertain Days I've sung the praises of in the past, has a blog, here.

Gill has a full collection, The Plucking Shed, forthcoming from Cinnamon Press next year, but in the meantime have a browse.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Back at Brixworth

As I mentioned previously, I was over at Brixworth, in Northamptonshire, last week, to see the seventh century church (I think there’s some historians who feel that it might date to the latter part of the eighth century, but whatever, it’s really pretty impressive).

Now I know next to nothing about architecture of any period, including early Anglo-Saxon, but even at first glance the church of All Saints is hugely imposing. Imagine it without the spire, and the tower, and you have a pretty fair picture of how it would have appeared in, say, the reign of Offa, King of Mercia. There’s a real basilican feel to it, a reminder of the huge influence that Rome continued to exert, through the Church, right through the so-called Dark Ages. Now I live close to the Anglo-Saxon church at Breedon on the Hill*, and while it scores high for its dramatic location and its superb sculpted friezes, Brixworth leaves it some way behind for sheer grandeur. Some detect the hand of St Wilfrid, a man much given to grand gestures, behind it, and if you accept the earlier building date, that’s quite possible, as he served as a bishop in Mercia for many years (and is, I think, buried at Oundle, not too far away).

There’s also a sunken ambulatory, or ring-shaped crypt, thought to have been used to allow worshippers to view relics, possibly those of St Boniface (and Anglo-Saxon missionary to Germany, martyred in Frisia).

While I was there, I bought a number of pamphlets containing some of the annual Brixworth lectures, on a variety of subjects relating to the church and its Anglo-Saxon past. In one, it mentions that some of the stone used in the building comes from here in Charnwood Forest, possibly having first been used in some of the buildings of Roman Leicester, notably the Jewry Wall. Recycling, seventh century style.

NB: Breedon, someone once told me, actually consists of two word-roots, both meaning 'hill'. I may have mentioned this before - I just noticed that this is the 500th post I've made on Polyolbion, so possibly I'm beginning to repeat myself.