Thursday, 30 June 2011

Just arrived

My copy of Geraldine Monk's Lobe Scarps & Finials arrived from Leafe Press this week. So far, I've only had chance to read the opening sequence, Glow in the Darklunar Calendar, but it makes a very good case for Simon Turner's blurb - "Monk is more attuned to the physical heft of words than any other poet working in English today".

In the past I've read bits and bobs of her work in various places, and have usually enjoyed it, so I wasn't entirely surprised to find myself laughing out loud within half a dozen lines of the first poem (possibly you won't find it so funny if you're a Millwall fan - but I'm not). It's non-mainstream, but it's anything but difficult or inaccessible.

Anyway, I'll come back to it later, once I've read it all, but first impressions are very good.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Polyolbion in Polesworth

I'm delighted to be reading from hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica at the regular Fizz live poetry night, at Polesworth Abbey, on July 19th – you can see the details above.

Of course, as regular readers here will realise, the venue is highly significant, as this blog's guiding spirit, Michael Drayton, poet and writer of the original Polyolbion, was educated there. John Donne also used to stay there, I think, and it's a lovely location anyway.

As if all that's not enough, Polesworth also gets a mention in my favourite Julian Cope song, Reynard The Fox. You can't ask for more than that, can you?

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Nuneaton Poetry Day

This Saturday, July 2nd, is Nuneaton Poetry Day. There's a whole host of activities lined up, that you can read about in much more detail here.

Nuneaton's a town with a literary pedigree, of course, being the home of George Eliot, and it's also perfectly placed for straddling the West and East Midlands poetry scenes.

If you're anywhere nearby at the weekend, why not drop in?

Sunday, 26 June 2011

It's Shindig time again

There's a great line-up for the latest Nine Arches Press Shindig, at The Western, on Western Road, Leicester, tomorrow night at 7.30, with Luke Kennard, Simon Perrill, Joel Lane and Lydia Towsey reading, plus plenty of open mic slots (you can sign up when you arrive). Entry is free. See you there...

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Catching up

Thursday night saw the launch of Birdbook 1 at the Phoenix Artists' Club, in London. It was great to be able to be there (and reminded me that I really ought to get down to more London events), and to catch up with the likes of Jo Bell, Simon Barraclough, Roddy Lumsden, Derek Adams, and, of course, Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving, the poetry dynamos behind Sidekick Books.

I really enjoyed the readings, especially as the accompanying art was projected behind the stage. There's so much good stuff in the book that it's hard to pick out favourites, but some of the poems that kept coming back to me later included Great Tit, by Emily Hasler, Green Woodpecker, by James Wilkes, and Edward Mackay's Tacc Tacc, Blackcap. Also, several of the poems that took more oblique approaches to the birds - Chrissy Williams' Redstart, Simon Barraclough's Pied Flycatcher, and Roddy Lumsden's Daredevil (which manages to connect Scottish Crossbills and Evel Knievel). Anyway, there's a lot of high-quality poetry and art in there, so buy a copy.

In other poetry news, I was delighted to see that Kona Macphee won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize with her collection Perfect Blue. I've mentioned before that it was one of my favourite collections of last year.

Finally, there's a lovely review of hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica by Julia Bird in issue 50 of Magma, along with David Morley on Romani poetry, some Magma memories from previous contributors, and poetry from the likes of Tim Turnbull, Helen Ivory, Penelope Shuttle, AB Jackson and Michelle McGrane. 

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The unforgiven

I've just bought the DVD of the excellent Fire In Babylon, a documentary film looking at the all-conquering West Indies team of the late 70s and 80s. It's a wonderful reminder of just how good they were - for all their lack of spin bowling, and very occasional fragility against good spinners (well, one great spinner, Abdul Qadir) themselves - I'd still back them to have beaten the more recent great Aussie team, or the Pakistan team of the early 90s spearheaded by Wasim and Waqar.

As a cricket fan at the time, of course, it wasn't always comfortable viewing, with England suffering some catastrophic hammerings at the hands of Lloyd, Richards, Greenidge, Haynes, Holding, Marshall, Garner and co. But, perhaps because so many of them played for long periods in county cricket too, they occupy a special place in my cricketing affections. The fact that they played such an exciting, attacking brand of cricket helped, too.

I can remember my dad taking me to see a Sunday League game at Leicester in the early 80s, against Somerset. From what I remember, Leicestershire won, with their own West Indian, the great Andy Roberts, leading the way. But the real thrill was afterwards, seeing Viv Richards and Joel Garner at close quarters. Both, I remember, seemed huge. Richards had the build of a heavyweight boxer, so you could see why bowlers tended to get intimidated by him even before they started their run-up, while Garner was just impossibly tall. Softly-spoken and charming, he quickly persuaded all us autograph-hunting ankle-biters to line up quietly while he signed everyone's book or programme.

Cricket's not yet undergone the separation between players and fans that has affected football, but it still seems slightly unreal having seen such sporting gods in the flesh. Richards remains the greatest batsman I've ever seen or expect to see. Malcolm Marshall, who died of cancer tragically young, was the greatest quick bowler, but Garner would be somewhere up there too.

But if Fire In Babylon is a celebration of the Caribbean's golden age of cricket, this excellent article on CricInfo highlights a forgotten side of West Indian cricket in the 80s. When you hear black South Africans (including Nelson Mandela) speak about how vital the sporting boycott was to changing attitudes, it's hard if not impossible to argue, but it's equally difficult not to feel an awful lot of sympathy for those West Indians whose lives were wrecked by their misjudged decision to try to earn a living.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Birdbook launch

I'm off to the launch of Birdbook 1 in London tomorrow night - if you're anywhere near the Phoenix Arts Club on Charing Cross Road at around 7.30pm, it'll be well worth a couple of hours of your time, with a large and varied line-up of poets reading from Sidekick Books' splendid publication.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Shod takes top award!

I was delighted to see on Twitter last night that Mark Goodwin's Shod, published by Nine Arches Press, has won the East Midlands Book Award.

The worthy winner was announced by Ian McMillan, one of the judges, at the Lowdham Book Festival, with Shod chosen from this strong shortlist.

The book's very different from what you might expect from Mark if you've only read his (also excellent) Shearsman collections - I haven't seen any comments from the judges yet, but it's a book that rather transcends genres, a real one-of-a-kind.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Now it's even easier... buy Nine Arches Press books. The new online shop is up and running, meaning you can directly order copies of Under The Radar magazine, short stories by Joel Lane, or poetry from the likes of David Hart, David Morley, Roz Goddard, Luke Kennard, Myra Connell, Claire Crowther, Ruth Larbey, Simon Turner, Mark Goodwin, Peter Carpenter and myself.

You don't need a PayPal account (no bad thing, given the problems I've had getting my account to work lately), and postage is just £1 per item.

There are also seperate pages for each publication now (here's the one for my collection, hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica), and a sneak-preview of some of Nine Arches' forthcoming publications.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

An interview with David Briggs

One of my favourite poetry collections of 2010 was David Briggs’ debut The Method Men, from Salt. I was lucky enough to review it for Magma 48, in which I ended by saying that it was a book that gave the impression of the arrival of a poet almost fully formed.

Re-reading it recently has only confirmed those early impressions for me, so it was a pleasure to be able to interview David about the book, and to post a couple of poems from the collection, as part of his Method and Madness virtual tour.

MM: One of the things I enjoyed most about The Method Men was the use of folklore (and maybe invented folklore) to set up a way of looking at the world more generally. Has this been a long-term concern in your poetry?

David Briggs: Yes, I think it’s been there throughout. My English degree included a large dose of Old and Middle English lit., and I’d been a folksy singer-songwriter before I turned to writing poetry, so there are some influences from those two strands.

As I see it, folklore provides narratives and methods for dealing with the world that are typically oppositional to the dominant institutional narratives of how we should live, or of what events in our lives mean. Often, they’re entirely irrational – superstitions, divinatory practices, etc. – yet, they’re also strangely potent, especially in providing signs and symbols, and have served cultures (for good and ill) across the world for aeons. If I can explain my terrible day in terms of having seen one magpie on the way to work that morning, rather than in terms of complex institutional and economic forces I’m powerless to change, I may be throwing in my lot with the chaotic forces of chance (and irrationality), but I might see two magpies tomorrow morning, and that might put a spring in my step that causes me to have what I regard as a much better day. That may be a silly example, but I’m convinced a similar (if more complex form) of folkloric irrationality is at work in us all the time, to varying extents, even in a scientific age. Folklore has a much longer half-life than radioactive material: it lingers on in the culture. It seems to work in a similar way to language, in that coinages and new-minted slang eventually find their way into the dictionary.

This is a furrow Ian Duhig’s been ploughing for some years; but, yes, it’s something that informs how I write. The psychology of why we go to folklore (in the broadest sense of that word) and what we take from it is something that lies behind the title poem to the collection. In that poem I try to suggest that there’s something almost as arbitrary, as chaotic, as the significance I ascribe to a lover’s first words in the morning (words being merely another type of sign), as there is in the divinatory significance ascribed by Carson et al to a westward flutter of swifts, or a swung pendulum. And it’s certainly present in poems like HistoriaOccultica, Twenty Below Zero and
Woodland, with Two Figures. Some of these pieces seem to happen in an indeterminate historical setting, and that’s reflective of the process I’ve tried to articulate here remaining the same, regardless of time or place. Even poems like Snow touch on this, because the particular meme of ‘Eskimo words for snow’, despite being erroneous (as Stephen Pinker points out), has taken on a life of its own, become folkloric, and that sort of thing provides a lot of room for play and invention. In the case of The Ghosts of Highgate Cemetery, there seemed to be something of a psycho-geographical conjunction between the proximity of the Fleet running as an underground river near a cemetery for public figures, and then on down towards Fleet Street, with all of its former journalistic associations, that was too good to resist.

MM: I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about the music, then. Was it a case of songwriting slowly becoming poetry, or did the two strands gradually draw together?

DB: I think it was more of a case of realising my limitations as a musician, coming to the hard place of realising I didn't have the skill to write the kind of songs I wanted to write. I'd found writing words the easier part of the equation anyway, and when what I wanted to do with words felt restricted by the range of forms and styles I possessed musically, the musical accompaniment began to recede. 

But I do see my work falling broadly within the lyric tradition, so rhythm, metre, sound and euphony has always been an important element in what I'm trying to do. The long poem Bloomsday, towards the back of the collection, has (to my ear at least) a strong rhythmic pulse, and that was very much a part of its composition. Derek Walcott has spoken about finding the rhythm of a poem in the first line-and-a-half, and then riding that cadence, like a wave, to the end of the poem's composition. That's definitely my experience of writing Bloomsday. You've mentioned the Anglo-Saxon influence on the metre of Seafaring in your review of the book, and I think there's a similar song-sound in poems like Winter Music. So, I think once I hung up the old guitar, any musicality I did possess found its way into the poetry.

With songs, as with poetry, there's the piece you want to write, the one in the far corner of your consciousness, of which you only get the briefest, most tantalising, glimpse. Even though you can't get your hands on it, you sense enough of it to get excited. But then there's the piece that actually comes out when you sit down to write. Often, it's a disappointment. It doesn't have that feral smell and energy of the imagined piece. I think I found I got closer to those Platonic pieces when I tried to write poems than when I tried to write songs. In the end, you go with what works.

MM: One of the things that struck me very forcefully about your collection was how coherent it feels, especially compared to most debuts. While both the folkloric themes and the musical element must have helped with that, could you tell us a little bit about the process of putting the book together?

DB: I was fortunate to get some very good advice from people like Roddy Lumsden and Matthew Caley. I have a tendency to think that any poem I've managed to place in a good magazine or competition must, by virtue of that placing, be a good poem, one that ought to go in the collection. But Roddy and Matthew counselled me to work on the sequencing and the structure of the book as a whole, and that sometimes involved excluding previously published poems, and waiting till the book as a whole came into focus. For example, of my 21 Gregory submission poems, only a handful made the final cut.

The title poem hinges on the idea that all those characters, Carson et al., have become reliant on a set of idiosyncratic, sometimes irrational, mental tics and habits. Once I realised that nearly all the characters in the poems I was writing at that time shared a similar condition, and that some of them had been forced by circumstance to recognise that their methods needed to be jettisoned for a new way of thinking, that it was time for a paradigm shift, I had a thread with which to stitch the poems together.

After that, the poems grouped themselves together fairly easily. Some folkloric pieces, including the title poem, set out some of the themes and ways of thinking, early on. They provide a lens through which to read the pieces that follow. Then you get little runs of two and three that hopefully speak to each other: a rain poem followed by a drought poem; a run of graveyard poems that end with one set in the underworld; a poem about clearing the attic in my mother's house sets up a short series of pieces about childhood memory; a self-portrait introduces the album sonnets; then, a run of wintery folkloric poems; finally, the book ends with a poem that sees a method man finally learning to abandon his method, to inhabit a moment. In that way, there's a sort of partial narrative arc running through the book.

So, while it was sometimes hard to throw out poems of which I'd become fond, and to persevere with others until the book did hang together, I'm glad I did. One of the most agreeable things about the reviews was that readers like you, Julia Bird, Steve Spence and others, noticed and approved the structural patterning. I don't think the greatest hits, or rattlebag, approach is wrong (a lot of people read poetry that way, want something they can dip into); but, I think you can add texture if poems are sequenced so as to echo each other, argue with each other, or pick up where another left off.

The Ghosts of Highgate Cemetery

in frowsy, mutton-sleeved grave-clothes,
clockless, cold and sepia
in the bucolic lanes between tombs,

come visiting two-and-two,
bearing guineas and barley cakes,
and they draw together as curtains

at graves of the newly interred.
There are courteous introductions;
calling cards are left to lean hopefully

at the more baroque mausoleums.
You think you might settle into this,
as a toast is raised to cool draughts

from the Fleet, lesser-known river
of the Underworld, whose waters confer
anonymity, distinction or infamy

according to inscrutable principles.


Contrary to popular belief, the Inuit do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English...Counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen.
- STEPHEN PINKER, The Language Instinct

Say there are no words for lawyer
in the Inuit tongue; yet, perhaps, 
a dozen by which to adjudicate

snowfall. Say there is no English word
for the particular spectacle
of aurora-lit snowfall,

while for lawyer we have: barrister,
attorney, brief, solicitor, silk,
advocate, justice, litigator,

magistrate, counsel, prosecutor,
perhaps even jurisprudentia.
And it follows that in the land

where they speak only statistics
there will be a sworn affadavit
against each irregular snowflake.

But you are advised not to impugn 
the government of such climes
for burying truth beneath an icy

deluge of little, whitely-lying words.
Some thoughts will simply fail to settle
in our language, or gather only

in obscure, mountainous regions.
This thought itself may fail to find
the climate necessary to its

survival and, so, melt gently
on the thick muscle of my tongue
as might tla (snow), tlaslo (slow falling snow),

or penstla (merely the idea of snow).

To buy The Method Men, or for further information, click here.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Stealing Fire

There's a good tradition of poets leading second lives as novelists, and in particular as writers of what gets called 'genre fiction' (too often that term is used rather dismissively).

David Harsent and Jane Holland are two current names that immediately spring to mind, and they're now joined by Craig Sterling, better known as Edinburgh poet James Wood.

His debut novel, Stealing Fire, will be published by Leamington Books on 23rd June, and is being distributed at airports by WH Smith/BAA plc, by Blackwell Books and other high street retailers, plus, of course, online from the likes of Amazon.

You can find a website on the book here, a YouTube video on it here, and there's even four bottles of champagne on offer for the best review of Stealing Fire under 250 words submitted before 31st August 2011.

If you're actually in Edinburgh on the 23rd, Leamington Books will be giving away 50 copies at Edinburgh Airport between 8am and 10am, and the launch party will be at Blackwell Books (Edinburgh) at 6.30pm.
Now, Craig/James has said that his sole intention was to create a novel that was fun to write, and hopefully fun to read, too. And it is. I was lucky enough to see an advance copy, and it's the sort of rattling, rollicking read that you're very grateful for on a long train or plane journey. I used to be a big reader of thrillers, although I'd have to admit that I'm more familiar with Jack Higgins/Freddie Forsyth era stuff than the new giants of the genre, and Stealing Fire is a book that does exactly what you'd want it to do. It's pacy, exciting, funny in places, and above all, it grabs your attention and refuses to let go. Get hold of a copy and see what I mean...

Buzzwords Open Poetry Competition 2011

Buzzwords, in Cheltenham, is one of the longest-running reading series in British poetry. Having read there back in February with Luke Kennard, I can vouch for what an excellent audience it attracts - attentive, appreciative, and keen to buy books. It all makes for an entertaining and rewarding evening.

It also makes a point of paying all readers, and its annual poetry competition helps fund that. As you can see here, this year's competition is being judged by Alison Brackenbury, and carries a £600 first prize. Other prizes include one for entries from Gloucestershire. You've got until July to enter, and can pay by cheque or PayPal, so why not have a look at what's required?