Thursday 31 May 2007

Remarkable things

I’ve just finished reading Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things, and liked it a lot. I enjoy the passages of prose-poetry, I like the way the author slips seamlessly between them and some very matter-of-fact sections, and I like the fact he resisted the temptation to thicken the plot, or draw the characters more thoroughly. Normally the latter might be a problem with a novel, but I think the whole point is that the characters are supposed to stay vague, half-known, like the people in your own street who you see every day but never really know.
There are plenty of people writing reviews of it on Amazon who disagree, mind you, although I’m slightly at a loss as to why people actually feel angry that a book has ‘wasted their time’. If you loved everything you read, wouldn’t life be slightly boring? I'm also baffled as to why one calls it appalling and says she could write better herself, and then still gives it three stars out of five!
I’m trying to work out where the book’s supposed to be set. A couple of reviewers suggest Nottingham (McGregor’s from there), but it doesn’t feel like it to me. I was guessing at Sheffield or Bradford. Not that it matters…

Try, try again

Rob Mackenzie posted this at his Surroundings blog earlier – it’s enough to give any writer hope. It’s not a novel I’ve read yet, but I might give it a try now.
I got a rejection letter myself yesterday, from The London Magazine, but never mind. Nothing ventured and all that.

Wednesday 30 May 2007

A mountain out of a molehill

You don't expect common sense from FIFA, but this takes the biscuit.
If they were really concerned about possible ill-effects on players' health, they'd ban internationals in all manner of extreme conditions, but they've happily played several World Cups in sauna-like temperatures, and at the hottest times of day, to maximise their TV income. Oh, and usually while preventing players from taking on water during the game (remember USA '94?). Interesting that the maximum altitude is set just high enough to allow Mexico City to carry on as a venue - too big a market to alienate, I presume.
No, this is about stopping the countries concerned gaining a so-called 'unfair advantage', although no one explains how it's not also unfair when the players of, say, Ecuador, have to travel to some steamy, low altitude smog-basin to play. It's about making life easy for the big boys of world football, because they've suffered the odd embarrassment at altitude in the past.
Let's face it, what FIFA really want is the same relatively few nations battling it out all the time. Don't dress it up as concern over players' health.
There, conspiracy theory rant over!


Things are a bit quiet at the moment, but I enjoyed reading this post on Ros Barber's Shallowlands blog yesterday. I wish I could get my thoughts similarly organised once in a while.

After the rain

Various things, mainly the rain, have conspired against me in recent weeks to reduce my birdwatching to a minimum. So, last night, with the skies finally clear for a couple of hours, I thought it was time to get back out there.
I made my way down to a local nature reserve where Barn Owls have bred regularly in recent years, hoping that the break in the weather might have encouraged them to hunt. As I arrived, though, there were only plenty of Swallows and Sand Martins to be seen, plus an encouraging number of Reed Buntings and Whitethroats, with the small birds seemingly as glad as me that the weather had taken a turn for the better.
Surprise number one came as I walked past the little pools, screened by earth banks, towards the second hide. The twittering of the hirundines suddenly reached a crescendo, and as I turned to look, a Hobby appeared from behind the bank, sweeping round in a wide circle before disappearing behind a treeline. Even before I had time to take in the Swift-like shape, the red 'trousers' were noticeable in the late sunshine.
Delighted, I made my way into the hide, and opened the first flap. There, less than 50 yards away, perched in a low bush, was a raptor-like silhouette, which took on a bluish tone as I looked closer. Merlin? Surely not at this time of year. A slightly small Sparrowhawk or Hobby? No, a Cuckoo, completely unperturbed by my presence. Even as I rather noisily opened my scope's tripod, it only shifted position by a few feet. I've seen plenty of Cuckoos in flight, but never so close, for so long, and perched.
After I left the hide I saw it and what was presumably its mate again, but as things got unseasonably cold and the light failed, I started to make my way home. Then, there it was, flying directly towards me, with a hapless vole in its dangling talons. I held still, waited, and only when it was around 15 yards away did the Barn Owl suddenly seem to spot me, screeching loudly and veering away sharply, before coming round in a wide circle towards its nest-box.
It'd have been hard to imagine a more rewarding hour's birding, a reminder that the period just after a spell of bad weather is often the most productive time to go looking. Mind you, it's chucking it down again now. Looks like a night in watching The Apprentice.

Tuesday 29 May 2007

Cover story

My old friend Mark Howard Jones' story The Ice Horse is the cover story for the latest edition of
Midnight Street magazine. I haven't read it myself yet, but I think you can expect all manner of weirdness.

Friday 25 May 2007

The font of all wisdom?

LouAnn Muhm sent me this link. I know, I know, I'm in danger of becoming a publishing geek (becoming?), but years of worrying about different fonts and point sizes on newspapers has made them a bit of an obsession. I can, and have, spent hours in the past trying out poems in different fonts, for no other reason than to amuse myself.
On the subject of poetry, I had a poem - The Other Kind - accepted yesterday by The Interpreter's House. I'm on a bit of a roll.

Limited edition

When I first got into music, Stiff Records was ultra-cool, partly by virtue of not being cool at all. By that I mean they never seemed to have a house style, or a leaning towards a particular kind of music, just a liking for all sorts of highly individual acts who emerged in the years immediately following punk. In doing so, they were trail-blazing for many of the great indie labels of the 80s.
Anyway, the list of artists who recorded on Stiff is impressive. Elvis Costello, Madness, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, The Damned, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, The Pogues, Kirsty McColl, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and the wonderful Devo. Now you can add to that Leicester's own The Displacements. They've got a limited edition vinyl single (1,000 copies only), Frontline Hearts, coming out soon, and you can pre-order it by going to the Stiff website.
It's good, very good, and they're a band you're going to hear an awful lot from in the years to come, so here's your chance to say you were in there right from the start.

Thursday 24 May 2007

Dios, patria y libertad

Today's the 185th anniversary of the Battle of Pichincha, in which patriotic forces led by Antonio Jose de Sucre defeated the royalists and effectively won independence for the Presidencia de Quito. Eight years later, it and the provinces of Guayaquil and Cuenca would secede fom the Republic of Colombia to form modern Ecuador.
It's interesting that a unit of British volunteers (The Albion - see the link?) fought on the Patriots' side, although their motives may have had little to do with idealism and more to do with a proliferation of Napoleonic War veterans hungry for employment, adventure, loot and land, or all four.
I was lucky enough to spend some time in this wonderful country this time last year. Although it continues to have its political and economic troubles, it's an optimistic, vibrant place, with an eminently sensible attitude towards race and immigration (the majority of the population are mestizos, that is, of mixed European and Indian ancestry) that one of our guides summed up as "we're all incomers here".
Anyway, to my friends and correspondents over there, I hope you have a great holiday, and many prosperous, happy times ahead.

Not even thinly-disguised self-promotion

It's perfectly understandable that it sometimes takes a long time to get a response to submissions to a poetry magazine. For a start, editors are generally doing the job pretty much for the love of it, so ploughing through mountains of poems in their spare time can take a while. Secondly, it must depend on when in the magazine's 'cycle' you send.
It's nice, though, to get a quick response, and even better when it contains some acceptances. Yesterday, no more than a week since I sent them off, I got three poems accepted for next March's issue of The Frogmore Papers. I heard the editor, Jeremy Page, read at a Magma launch last year, and he was excellent, and it's always good to know you've hit the target with someone whose work you know and like (although that's true of the editors of most of the mags I submit to, I think). Good too, to be in such illustrious company - the current issue contains all sorts of good stuff.

Wednesday 23 May 2007

More ramblings

I spent yesterday at a gloriously sunny Rutland Water Nature Reserve, testing binoculars for work. Strange as it might seem, testing days are not always great for actually watching birds, because you get so caught up in the technical aspects of the kit, but we did see a lone Tree Sparrow, and marvel at the sheer range of Sedge Warbler songs (and the energy of said warblers - they kept up an almost unbroken chorus all day).
On the way home, I paused briefly at Manton bridge to watch one of the breeding Ospreys tucking into dinner, and stopped in Uppingham to get stamps. Inevitably, I got drawn into one of its two fine old secondhand bookshops, and bought Elaine Feinstein's biography of Ted Hughes for under a fiver. Another to add to the "awaiting reading" list.

In brief

I don't enter many competitions, but I did have a go at BBC Wildlife Magazine's Poet Of The Year competition yesterday, because (a) I had a suitable poem sitting around doing nothing; and (b) It was free.
Actually, I say suitable, but in fact I haven't got very high hopes for it. It's not that I don't think it's any good (I'd have liked a bit more time to work on it, but I was pretty happy with what I managed), it's just that it consists of ten rather short lines. I'm not sure, but I always get the impression that judges are reluctant to give prizes to very brief poems, or at least when they're neck and neck with meatier fare. I'm not really sure why this should be so, but I suspect I'd be the same. Fortunately, when I was one of the Plough Prize judges last year, I was choosing the winners in the Short section, in which nothing was over ten lines.
I won't say anything about the poem I entered for now, except that it wasn't about birds.

Monday 21 May 2007

Future reading

One book I've been saving for a while, and didn't quite get round to starting, was Mike Stocks' White Man Falling. If I'd finished the McGregor book quicker I would, but I got sidetracked after reading the Twain biography into finding out more about the aftermath of the American Civil War. It's an exciting life I lead.
Over the weekend, though, it got an appreciative review in either the Daily or Sunday Telegraph (can't remember which, or find it online), so I'll save it for a long train journey (always my favourite place to read).
Mike is the editor of excellent pocket-sized, anonymous submissions poetry mag Anon. I'm not sure if it's on hold at the moment, but the back issues are worth a look.

Recent reading

I had the last week off work, and the wet weather meant I caught up on an awful lot of reading. All sorts too - poetry, novels, biography, history and, inevitably, cricket. I'm thoroughly enjoying Jon McGregor's If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things, and loved Ron Powers' Mark Twain: A Life.
I also read the latest issue of Acumen pretty much cover to cover, and very good it was too. Different poetry mags offer different things, and its strength is the breadth of material (poems, prose, reviews, discussion and a good letters section), plus an openness to all 'schools' and styles of poetry. It means there's stuff there you'll probably hate, but stuff you'll love too, and that's no doubt what gets the discussion going.
I don't tend to subscribe to mags so much now, preferring to buy single issues of a wider range of mags, but I'll certainly be going back to Acumen.

Wednesday 16 May 2007

Bad guys

I've been away from the PC all week and, despite the rain, trying to get out and about.
A couple of times, while birding, I've heard people talking about the decline of various songbirds, and blaming it on the crow family, and Magpies in particular.
It worries me, because all the recent research points to the fact that where Magpie numbers are high, so are songbird numbers, and vice versa. But, according to some (and these people all seemed to be pretty keen birdwatchers), the fact that corvids take eggs and young is wiping out some of our best-loved species.
Well, it's true that Magpies, Carrion and Hooded Crows and Jays do take eggs and nestlings at times, but because they are all native species, and have lived side by side with the songbirds since the year dot, such losses are effectively 'factored into' Nature's calculations. Large numbers of eggs and young do fall prey to predators, accidents, and so on, which is why most songbirds have two to three large broods a year. The Magpies, for their part, are highly omnivorous, so have no need to concentrate on a single food source.
The bit that worries me is that again it seems to be an example of humans trying to brush the damage that we do under the carpet. Pesticides, herbicides, and the rise of gardens consisting mainly of decking and gravel are far bigger reasons for the decline of songbirds, because they remove their main food sources - insects, seeds, and worms.
I'm also not so sure about the decline of all songbirds, anyway. Blackbirds seem to be doing phenomenally well (despite the fact that it's their nests you often see Magpies picking on). Even in a very small garden like mine, it's not uncommon to see three or four yanking worms out of the patchy lawn.

Friday 11 May 2007

Got it!

Out on the very windy Nene Washes, we thought we'd missed our chance to see the female Wilson's Phalarope. As we arrived, another birder told us that it was tucked away out of sight, behind a hedge, and our hearts sank. But we scanned and scanned the pool for it, in the hope it would emerge, and at least found a nice little flock of Dunlin, in breeding plumage, plus a Wood Sandpiper.
Then suddenly there it was, picking its way through the shallow water, feeding as it went. It didn't, unfortunately, do its swimming in circles trick, but it's a fantastic bird in every respect. Like all phalaropes (and unlike most other bird species), the female is more colourful than the male, but it's not just the markings that stand out. Its whole shape and manner is distinctive, and even though I'd seen plenty of good photos of it beforehand, it managed to surprise. It's altogether more delicate than I expected, and, well, just different to anything I've seen in Britain.
A handsome drake Garganey rounded things off nicely, just before the rain set in for the weekend.

Getting twitchy

I'm not generally a proper twitcher, which is to say someone who dashes off around the country at the drop of a pager to see rare birds, but I'm going to be breaking that rule tonight.
This fantastic Wilson's Phalarope, a vagrant from North America, turned up near Peterborough yesterday, and as it's only about 15 minutes from the office, it would be a shame not to go and have a look for it after work.
For starters, it's a great looking bird, very boldly marked compared to most waders.
For another, I think it's important to celebrate any creature that can spin round and round in frantic circles without disappearing with a pop.
There are some more good digiscoped pics of it here, on my colleague Mike Weedon's blog. Enjoy.

Transatlantic feedback

It's always nice to get a good review, so I'm very grateful to American poet LouAnn Muhm for this lovely write-up on her MySpace site. It's brightened up a very damp Friday morning for me no end.

Wednesday 9 May 2007

New technology!

David Caddy, editor of the always enjoyable Tears In The Fence, passed on this link to his first programme for MiPOradio: So Here We Are. The text is here.
It's a nice idea - I'll be downloading it to listen to in the car, the A47 to and from work being a bit of a trial at the moment.

Not my type

It's probably a sure sign that I have far too much time on my hands, but I found this article fascinating. I do find it amazing quite how much a font can affect our responses to a piece of writing, but it's true. Poetry mags and books generally tend to steer well clear of Helvetica and Arial style fonts, but there might be people out there who'd love to see them used more. Are you one of them?
My current favourite for manuscripts and submissions is Garamond, although I quite like Georgia too. But I wonder what an editor would think if they received a genius poem in Comic Sans, or Cooper Black?

Monday 7 May 2007

Lou Ann Shepard Muhm

A couple of weeks back, I promised a little more on LouAnn Shepard Muhm's Dear Immovable, the chapbook I recived in the recent Poetry Superhighway Great Poetry Exchange.
As I said at the time, I like her best when she's writing in a really stripped-down, spare style, and there are really very few poems in the book carrying any excess weight. Here's one I liked a lot:


The eagle flew
with me as I drove,
long enough to show
its tail's yellowing edge.

As I touched the brake
to prolong the moment
it curved away,
like anything

Dead simple, only of course it's not. I like the minimalism - it seems to suit the wide-open spaces of the Mid West and Great Plains, where all this is set (Muhm is from Minnesota), and it helps build one of the book's themes, that anything worth having is likely to be hard-won.
There are also, as I mentioned before, both highly personal moments and humour in there, but she resists the temptation to overdo either, and the result is a collection that hangs together well, with a glimpsed rather than spelt-out back story.
Here's another poem, which pulls a few of those things together.


My mother's name is Hester,
as was her mother's,
and her mother's mother's.

I asked her once
why she didn't carry
the tradition through
and she answered,
"I wouldn't do that to you."

I was grateful.

Surely, I would have been teased,
as she was,
though not for the same reasons.
I mean,
nobody really reads anymore.

But here I am
in the back of this pickup truck with you,
fulfilling my destiny

All good stuff. I haven't got the chapbook details to hand just now, but I'll add them tomorrow - it's a book that's well worth a look and a fiver.

Mimesis - out now!

My copy of the first edition of Mimesis arrived the other day, and I've been able to read it thoroughly over the weekend. It's excellent, really excellent. I like the fact that all the poets get at least three pieces in there, giving them a chance to spread their wings a bit and the reader an opportunity to form a more considered judgement about their work than might be the case with single poems.
Favourites were probably Taylor Loy's Letter To The First Poet On Mars and How Silk Is Made, and Rob Mackenzie's Flashbacks and City, but there's enough diversity on show (with a good international flavour to it all) that some pieces will probably be slow-burners.
The interview with poet and Smiths Knoll editor Michael Laskey can only really be criticised on the grounds of brevity, and the whole magazine is very attractively packaged (perhaps it shouldn't matter so much, but I do love it when a magazine or book looks the part and really demands to be read). Have a look for yourself.

Friday 4 May 2007

...and on a lighter note...

Popped into Wanlip Meadows on the way home yesterday, and saw my first Swift of the summer, plus loads of Swallows and House Martins. There were a couple of Sedge Warblers too, several Little Ringed Plovers, Redshanks, two Common Sandpipers, and two beautiful Greenshanks, which I've never seen on my patch before. It takes the patch list up to 115, and the year list to 142.

Dark days

I'm still in a state of shock over the fact that two BNP councillors have been elected to my local authority, North West Leicestershire District Council, including one representing my home village, Whitwick (it's a three-member ward). When you look at the results, it's easy enough to see how he managed it, as Labour, the Liberals and the Tories put up three candidates each. Their votes were accordingly split, and he made it in, but I still find it astonishing that 900+ people actually voted for such a party.
I'd find it pretty astonishing anywhere, in fact, but Coalville and Whitwick are hardly obvious BNP territory. They've both fought back pretty well from losing their main industry - coal mining - in the 80s, and although the jobs that have come in aren't so well paid as the pit was, there's low unemployment and a general feeling that the area is on the up. There's certainly nothing even approaching racial tension, which the BNP usually try to stoke and feed off. So how have they done it?
Apathy, I suspect. Apathy on the part of the local mainstream parties, who have been content for years to carry on playing party politics in the council chamber, rather than really tackling local issues (thus allowing the BNP to mount an intensive 'we care' door-knocking campaign), and apathy on the part of mainstream voters. You can bet that pretty much every BNP voter in the ward DID vote, and it proved just enough.
I'm clinging to one ray of hope. I've never believed in gagging or outlawing the BNP, because that would just give them the martyr status they want. So, now they have two councillors, whose work and every public utterance is hopefully going to be reported, I'd like to think the emptiness, dishonesty and downright unpleasantness of their true nature will emerge.

Tuesday 1 May 2007

Done it!

Well, I survived! I surprised myself by managing 30 poems in 30 days for NaPoWriMo2007. In fact the month seems to have flown past, so I must have enjoyed it a lot.
I reckon I've got an awful lot out of it. Some of the poems, I think, will be worth working on and revising and eventually releasing into the wild, but quite apart from that, there's all sorts of fringe benefits.
For starters, you get to see a lot of excellent poetry from the other participants (and I'll be spending the next few weeks catching up on that).
Secondly, I found actually writing a complete poem (however imperfect) every day a big mood-enhancer. Whenever I 'finish' a poem I get up the next morning feeling the same way I used to as a kid on Boxing Day morning - desperate to get straight back to playing Subbuteo, or whatever my Christmas present was. Having a whole month of Boxing Day mornings is highly recommended.
Thirdly, and connected to that, it'll probably make me change my method of writing a bit. In the past, I've often written poems a bit at a time, piecing them together. This challenge makes you fill in what would otherwise be gaps, and although you might change them later, I've found that having something on the page, seeing the poem as complete (even if it isn't really) has concentrated my mind better on what needs to be done.
Finally, it's got me into the habit of guarding my writing time more jealously, and using it more wisely. And however much you love writing, that's essential.
Anyway, May's here, and with it the cricket season (cricket in April never quite feels right). Juggling time gets that bit more difficult for a few months, but I'm not complaining.