Tuesday, 23 October 2012

TS Eliot Prize 2012 shortlist

The shortlist for this year's TS Eliot Prize has been announced - I suspect all the usual arguments will start, and I don't intend to get involved in them until I've read more of what's on the list. Good to see Deryn Rees-Jones on there, though (I have read her book, and very good it is too), and I've been meaning to get hold of that Julia Copus collection, so this will spur me into action.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Jon Stone on cynicism

Excellent piece by Jon Stone here over at the Magma blog - I find myself agreeing with much of what he's written, although I suspect the comments thread might be a busy one.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Marshall plan

Lovely to see that Leicester poet Roy Marshall will have a debut collection coming out with Shoestring Press next year - his Crystal Clear Creators chapbook Gopagilla is excellent (I'll be blogging about it and some of the other CCC pamphlets soon). Roy has some interesting things to say about the book and the pamphlet here.

Shoestring, run by John Lucas, is a fine little press, too, with excellent production values and, over the years, a varied line-up of poets. I've just enjoyed Gregory Woods' pamphlet Very Soon I Shall Know, from them, for example.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

New Walk 5

The new issue of New Walk magazine (No.5) dropped through the door yesterday, and as usual it's an intriguing mixture of poetry, reviews, fiction, interviews and articles, featuring the likes of Alison Brackenbury, Sinead Morrisey, Alan Jenkins and Sheenagh Pugh.

I've got three poems - Magnetite, Petrichor and Greenshanks At Montijo - in there. It's lovely to be in such good company, and to be in a Leicester-based magazine.

Friday, 12 October 2012


I noticed on Twitter earlier today that this weekend's Independent On Sunday is running a rare full interview with Tony Harrison, marking 25 years since its sister paper The Independent published his poem V. in full.

I can remember the furore that surrounded the poem at the time, with Tory MPs queuing up to condemn it and the plans to screen a film version of it on Channel 4. The reason was the 'obscene language' used, with the protestors predictably missing the point of the poem (if they'd read it in the first place, that is). One MP, Gerald Howarth, said Harrison was "probably another bolshie poet wishing to impose his frustrations on the rest of us", to which Harrison's retort was that Howarth was "probably another idiot MP wishing to impose his intellectual limitations on the rest of us". 

Anyway, I'm not a huge Harrison fan, but the stir that this poem caused helped kindle my interest in poetry at the time, so I'll look forward to reading the interview.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

New at Kumquat

I have a new poem, Once and future kings, published today over at the splendid Kumquat Poetry. As I've mentioned before, there's new work being posted there every day, so keep an eye on it, and have a good trawl back through the archives, too.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Robert Minhinnick

I like the look of this - Robert Minhinnick's a poet (and prose writer, for that matter) who's never less than interesting, and frequently much, much more. Add to that the fact that he has written a lot about a part of South Wales I know well, and it'll be a must for me.

Monday, 8 October 2012

The other Hughes

I spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Mid Wales, for work, although of course birdwatching in bright sunshine and gorgeous scenery isn't exactly back-breaking toil.

In between dashing around Radnorshire, I managed to pop into Hay on Wye for a browse around the many secondhand bookshops (although a couple of the better ones have disappeared since I was last there).

At the Poetry Bookshop, I picked up a copy of John Riley's Selected Poems - I've seen a couple of pieces from it blogged about recently, and really liked the sound of them, so it was a nice book to get hold of for a tenner.

Elsewhere, I bought W S Graham's Collected Poems at a knockdown price, battered old copies of the Child Ballads and Stephen Romer's Idols, and an even more battered copy of Glyn Hughes' late 60s / early 70s collection Neighbours.

Hughes is an interesting poet - several of the pieces that I've read so far seem a bit out of step with the poetry of that era, although he does call to mind Ted Hughes at times (and no, not just because of the name and the West Yorkshire settings of the poems). I'll have to get hold of some more of his work soon.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

A taste of Extremadura

Poetry readings, on their own, can be strange things. It depends entirely on who’s reading, of course, but there’s always the risk that the audience will sink into a bit of a stupor after the first couple of poems.

There are ways round it. Having more than one reader can provide interesting contrasts, as can including open mic slots. As I’ve said before, that often has the interesting effect of producing themes that link disparate readers.

Another way, though, is to marry the poetry to something else entirely. Last night, at Uppingham Theatre, HappenStance poet Matthew Stewart did just that, reading from his new chapbook Tasting Notes, while allowing us to sample the wines that the poetry is concerned with (Matthew's day job is as blender and export manager for the Spanish wine co-operative ViƱaoliva).

The event, run in conjunction with Bat and Bottle Wine Merchants of Oakham, drew a quite different crowd to your normal poetry reading, but you got the impression that most people went away having learned something about wine, and something about their own view of poetry. Non-poetry readers often tell you that they think of it as dry, dusty, academic and seemingly resigned to make the reader look stupid, but here it was concise, witty, and simultaneously gently mocked and quietly celebrated commercial language. Of course, one reason that works is that there's often the same feeling about wine talk - that pretentious and high-flown nonsense is being used to confuse the average buyer.

But anyway, if you'd like to sample both the wine and the poetry, have a look at these offers. They could make great Christmas presents.

Oh, and along with the wine, we got to try a couple of cheeses from Extremadura, some of the region's peerless jamon iberico de bellota, and chocolate figs. Very tasty indeed.

Ledbury Festival Competition

I'm delighted to have had a poem - Magnetite - highly commended by judge Ian Duhig in this year's Ledbury Festival Poetry Competition, especially after seeing the three outstanding winning pieces. Have a read of them and see what I mean.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Reckless country soul

As we came out of the Greystones pub in Sheffield on Monday night, my friend remarked on how close the car behind mine was parked. He was right. It was parked in my boot.

When the owner came out, she apologised and said: "I must have forgotten to put the handbrake on". That's not a good idea anywhere, really, but in Sheffield, a city where practically every road is at a 45-degree angle, it's a disaster. Her car had actually been parked on the other side of the road before rolling into mine, so I suppose she could count herself lucky that it had hit mine full-on, rather than careering down to the bottom of the hill and taking out a dozen or so vehicles, plus anyone in its path. She kept saying "It's on a hill", as if this fact had just struck her.

I tell you this not in a bid for sympathy, or as a general moan about the state of modern Britain, but as a bit of context. Because when I finally got home at around 2am, with the prospect of a day of ringing insurance companies ahead, I still couldn't keep the silly smile off my face on account of what we'd seen and heard in the pub a few hours earlier.

I can't remember exactly when I cottoned on to the distilled essence of rock 'n' roll that is Jason and the Scorchers - late 80s, I think, and certainly not when they first came to prominence earlier in that decade. And much as I've loved their records, I'd never managed to see them live, although I've caught up with frontman Jason Ringenberg's solo shows many times.

So, this 30th anniversary tour was always going to be a blast for me. I just didn't dare hope that Ringenberg and guitarist Warner Hodges, fiftysomethings both, would still manage to play with the enthusiasm and energy of a band born yesterday.

Americana, as it gets called these days, has to an extent become its own ghetto. Lots of perfectly good  but ultimately very similar records get made, and there are only two ways to escape this. One is to throw anything and everything into the creative gumbo without worrying too much about spurious notions of authenticity. The other, and this is the route JatS have taken, is to do everything with an utterly un-self-conscious conviction that blows away any doubts.

So, the musical recipe was much the same as ever. Hi-octane, hammer-down country-rock, made up of equal parts Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rolling Stones and punk. Ringenberg is the X-factor - dressed in the same stetson and jacket as graced the White Lies video in 1985, he's capable of injecting a knowing, even sneering tone into the lyrics, but in between songs is as affable and charming as you could wish for. He was in particularly good humour this time, because he was "back in the city named after my own hometown".

It was a mark of their confidence in their most recent album, Halcyon Days, that they were able to deliver three of their biggest punches mid-show with little fanfare or build-up. Their incendiary cover of Dylan's Absolutely Sweet Marie is still pretty peerless, I Can't Help Myself is as joyously celebratory as they come, and Broken Whisky Glass is as hilarious as ever ("here lies Jason, straaaangled by love").

Newer romps such as Mona Lee elicited an equally rapturous response, and they closed a 100-minute set with an extended version of White Lies that encapsulated everything that makers them great. Reckless country souls, indeed.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Moving and memorable

On Saturday, I went down to Warwick to see Martin Figura's one-man-show, Whistle. I've written before about the Arrowhead collection on which it's based, and I'd heard a lot of good things about it, so I was intrigued as to how, exactly, it would be performed.

Essentially, Figura keeps things simple - he's facing the audience throughout, reciting the poems and a small amount of linking material against a backdrop of photographs. These montages worked extremely well, for me - they add to the words, rather than simply illustrating exactly what's being said, and you can dip in and out of them, if you prefer (although they held the attention well). And of course, they're vital to the story, because Figura is a fine photographer himself, and his father was rarely without a camera without which to document his family's life.

The whole thing is very understated - if you're expecting anything remotely melodramatic, you're not going to get it here. The focus is as much on the social history and the small details of a post-war childhood as on the stark central fact of the piece - Figura's father's murder of the poet's mother.

But for me, that made that central fact all the more horrifying. The impact of the show was all the more jarring for the fact that everybody involved was utterly ordinary and recognisable. It also helps you understand the forgiveness that colours the closing third of the show, and ultimately makes it an uplifting experience.

Figura has a knack (unsurprising given that photographic background, of course) of suddenly bringing a particular detail or scene into very sharp focus, momentarily, before slipping back into an almost conversational tone, and that helps bring that central fact into focus too. There's humour, and a reluctance to aim for a sense of easy closure, with questions of redemption left hanging, all adding up to a moving, memorable experience.