Monday, 31 March 2008

Larking about

I’d hazard a guess that Sky Larks have inspired more poetry than any other UK bird (although maybe our old favourite the Robin would come close, as Andrew Lack’s excellent Redbreast – The Robin In Life And Literature attests).

Anyway, last night I went for a stroll around Sence Valley Forest Park. Saturday had been all wind and rain, but the official start of British Summer Time seemed to bring with it a fresh start in terms of weather. Admittedly it took me the best part of the day to come to terms with losing an hour’s sleep and catch up on various jobs, but it was still gloriously sunny and warm as I went out at about 6pm, even if a spectacular electrical storm was away over the Trent Valley in the distance.

Sky Larks were everywhere in the sheep fields on either side of the bridle path. It’s the display flight and song, of course, that gets them noticed, but it was interesting scanning the scope over the hillsides and picking out one bird after another on the ground, all of them betrayed by their white-sided tails.

Further on, a male Curlew was bathing on one of the scrapes, and when I stopped to look for Sand Martins, a Kingfisher dashed down the little stream and across one of the lakes. They’re fairly regular at Sence Valley, but they always make you catch your breath a little bit.

But getting back to the poetry. When I arrived home, a male Blackbird had taken up his usual position on the peak of the factory rook opposite my house, and was singing away. And, however much I enjoy Sky Larks singing, I don’t think they can touch our commonest garden songster, surely the most musical of all British birds. They’re maybe under-represented in terms of being written about, with the Song Thrush tending to get more attention where the thrush family is concerned, but when I checked The Herald’s excellent poetry blog this morning, the day’s selection redressed that balance a little bit.

Finally, I had a couple of poems – Yellowhammers and The American Version – accepted by The New Writer.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

If you only ever read one football book… could do a lot worse than search out a copy of Tim Parks’ A Season With Verona. English-born but living in Italy long-term, novelist Parks followed Hellas Verona home and away throughout their 2000-2001 season, as they battled to stay in Serie A. It’s genuinely gripping (assuming you don’t already have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Italian football), but it also takes in all manner of other subjects, including poetry, literature more generally, racism, politics and, of course, Italy. It’s generally even-handed, and although there are a couple of annoying moments where Parks (a Man Utd fan) seems amazed by the most banal aspects of supporting a largely unsuccessful provincial team, on the whole it’s an entertaining, engaging read. I now find myself strangely drawn to adopt and follow Hellas Verona as they bid to recapture former glories.

Birding update

With the wind having finally died down outside, I spent Monday afternoon dashing round the local patch in search of birds. I started at Swithland Reservoir, where a first-winter male Lesser Scaup had been reported, and it was easy enough to find and see well, given that the dam was packed with birders training their telescopes on the transatlantic visitor. They’re not the most exciting looking ducks you’ll ever see, but still very nice, if only because they allow you to use the word vermiculations to describe the wavy grey bands on their backs.

There was a little bonus in the form of a Wheatear that perched on the observation tower just as I was setting up. It looked like it had just arrived, and within 15 minutes it had gone again, no doubt to complete its migration to who knows where.

Then it was on to Watermead Country Park, to look for the female Scaup that had been reported there. Unfortunately I don’t know the site that well, so just spent a couple of hours wandering round the many lakes, without any luck. Not that it was a waste of time – still plenty of Goosander, Shoveler, Teal and Wigeon around.

I walked back through Wanlip Meadows. The pool had contained only ducks and geese when I passed by a couple of hours previously, but now, even with the naked eye, I could see a largish wader out in the deeper water. A quick scope view revealed it to be a Black-tailed Godwit, and after a few minutes it even obligingly flew to the far side of the pool, allowing me to confirm the ID on account of its white wing bars. Of course, for some birders Blackwits are ten a penny, but it’s a while since I saw one on my patch, so this was almost more satisfying than seeing a real rarity like the Lesser Scaup.

Finally, stopping off on the way home, I ticked a couple of Ruddy Ducks. I won’t say where, because I don’t want to see them fall victim to the cull, although I expect most locals can guess anyway.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Snow joke

Happy Easter! High winds and even snow over the holiday weekend have put big holes in my plans to spend the four days chasing waders and other migrants all over the East Midlands. I haven't even got over to Watermead Park to look for the female Scaup yet (will do this afternoon, I think).

Early on Friday, I drove over to Willington to look for waders and a Rock Pipit at the gravel pits. It was a fruitless search, mainly because the wind was so strong it made using a scope impossible. Even standing up straight using bins was difficult, come to that. I did hear my first singing Chiffchaff of the spring, though, and on the journey there and back, I listened to that free CD of great poets of the 20th century given away with The Guardian last week. I enjoyed TS Eliot and Ted Hughes most of all, I think, but they were all fascinating to hear (Sassoon, Larkin, Plath and Heaney were the others).

Consolations have been plenty of sport (England back on top in the test, thanks to the admirable Ryan Sidebottom; Leeds destroying Bradford in the Superleague; Tigers winning a great EDF semi against Wasps yesterday; we won't mention City), a lot of reading and a lot of writing. I've more or less finished a short sequence of poems about the Midlands Revolt of 1607, and now have to start revising, honing and generally messing about with it.

In between, I enjoyed reading George Szirtes' review of Michael Hofmann's Selected Poems. I've only got one Hofmann volume, Acrimony, but I've read it again and again, and it's time I read more, I think.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Mystery versifier

Rogue 'poet' on the loose in Downing Street - except, isn't that verse just an updated version of one long since penned about somebody else, by somebody else? My memory fails me, so maybe someone out there can help out with the details...

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Round and about

I’ve been a bit lazy about posting lately, so here are some edited highlights of the last week or so.

Richard Herring, at the Y Theatre in Leicester on Saturday, was terrific. Unfortunately, the place was only about half-full, but it didn’t deter him from doing a long set. On the surface, his on-stage persona and act come across as much less intellectual than his erstwhile comedy partner, Stewart Lee, and indeed he cheerfully describes his job as “being puerile and offensive on stage”. In fact, though, he ploughs a very similar furrow to Lee, with this particular show focusing on the fact that he’s reached 40 and feels that he’s wasted his life, not a world away from the territory Lee visited in his 41st Best Stand-up Ever show. Like Lee, too, his comedy is predominantly about (or at least, hinges on) the use and abuse of language – pedantry has rarely been so entertaining.

The rest of the weekend was a bit of a washout, but that did at least mean that I had plenty of time to do some work on a sequence of poems I’ve been writing about a hidden corner of 17th century history. The plan is, eventually, for Tom Bailey to do some photographs to go with them, and then…well, we haven’t got much past that point yet.

Yesterday I was out testing binoculars at Rutland Water. It’s always the way of such days that you don’t actually do much bird-watching, because you’re so busy worrying about stuff like depth of field and eye relief, but it was good to see a few flocks of Sand Martins arriving, plus good views of Sparrowhawk and Buzzard. On the way home, I called in at Swithland Reservoir for a quick look. I’d begun to get worried about the Peregrines, but one sped over the woods and landed on their favourite tree just as I was leaving, and the long-staying drake Smew was well worth seeing again. No sign of the Great White Egret resurfacing, though. I saw it for five minutes at Watermead Park on Thursday, but it hasn’t been refound since.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Cold comfort

I know this is going to sound like banging on about the same old point, but what on earth is this about? The poor poet and his work don't get a look in.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Weekend reading

Saturday’s Guardian review was the best in a long while, I thought. Partly because there was plenty of poetry-related material, although the long article on Carson McCullers was probably my favourite piece, having long been a fan of Ballad of the Sad CafĂ© and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.

This piece from Sean O’Brien was thought-provoking – it has certainly sparked debate at the Poets On Fire forum. I think the main thrust of his argument is pretty much fair enough, but I do wonder about that intro.

Elsewhere Nicholas Lezard chose Simon Armitage’s version of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight as his paperback choice. I suppose it feels less essential to me at the moment because I’ve already got three versions – by Tolkien, O’Donoghue and someone else whose name escapes me at the moment – but I’ll get round to buying it eventually, after a glowing recommendation like that.

There was a mini-review of the fine magazine The Dark Horse, which I notice features work from Irish poet Tom Duddy. His HappenStance chapbook is well worth £3 of anyone's money.

And last, but certainly not least, there was this fine review of Alison Brackenbury's new Carcanet collection, Singing In The Dark. I'd probably agree that the Nick Drake poems lack some of the tautness that characterises the rest of the book, but it's good to see a review that makes constructive criticisms, and it's a book that I'd recommend very highly.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Sphinx 8

Issue 8 of Sphinx arrived on Saturday, and a very good read it is too, with Gill McEvoy writing about her excellent, and now sold-out, HappenStance chapbook Uncertain Days, and a look at the increasingly impressive Cinnamon Press, among other goodies.

The emphasis is moving more towards articles on poetry chapbooks and chapbook presses, with most of the reviews now appearing straight on the website. I reviewed another enjoyable batch this issue, with my particular favourite being Jim C Wilson’s Paper Run, but there’s plenty for all tastes. Buy or subscribe now.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Troy Town - out now!

I'm delighted to be able to announce that my first full poetry collection, Troy Town, is available now from Arrowhead Press (well, the publication date is actually March 1st, which pleases my Welsh half no end). It's an 80-page hardback book, priced £8.99, and is available by following that Arrowhead link, or by emailing me here if you'd prefer.

Naturally, I'm absolutely thrilled, and I'm very grateful to Roger Collett and Joanna Boulter at Arrowhead, whose hard work made it possible, to Alison Brackenbury and Tom Jenks, who kindly read the manuscript for me and provided mini-reviews, to Tom Bailey, who provided a splendid cover pic, and to everyone else who has encouraged and helped me along the way.

The title, by the way, refers to one of the turf mazes that crop up here and there, usually on village greens, throughout the UK. Their layout was supposed to be based on the walls of Troy, although they were often known by other names, such as Julian's Bower. No one's exactly sure what the mazes were created for, although it's more likely they were there as part of the May Day games than for any ritual or religious purpose. But whatever - the term also came to mean a state of pleasant confusion, and perhaps that's the angle that most strongly appealed to me.

Finally, I've decided to create a temporary satellite blog, imaginatively titled Troy Town, to deal with all manner of news, reviews and background material relating to the book. Polyolbion, meanwhile, will continue on its meandering way.

Lighten up!

Light verse gets a pretty raw deal, I think, so it’s good to see the first issue of Lighten Up Online go live. It’s the brainchild of Martin Parker, whose work I recommend highly – it’s genuinely funny, beautifully constructed, and frequently much darker than it might appear at first sight.

The e-zine has got some excellent contributors on board – Helena Nelson, George Simmers, Matt Harvey and DA Prince, to name a few – so it’s well worth a long look. Expect it to go from strength to strength...

All change

I got my Poetry Superhighway Great Poetry Exchange ‘draw’ yesterday – my own chapbook is going to be heading to Tom Berman, on a kibbutz in Israel, while I’ll be getting Thawed Stars, by Alice Pero. I have to admit, I’m quietly excited, because her book comes highly recommended by no less a figure than Kenneth Koch, my favourite of the New York School poets. It’s also 140-odd pages long, which would make it quite the largest chapbook you’ve ever seen.

Umbrella Issue 6

Umbrella is one of the best-looking, and most readable online poetry mags around, IMHO, and the Spring 2008 issue is no exception. There's loads of great poetry and prose in there, and I'm delighted to have a poem - Show, Don't Tell - featured in the Milestones section.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Quakes, books, etc

It's been quite an eventful few days. Wednesday morning, I was woken at 1am by the earthquake. At 5.2 on the Richter Scale, pretty small fry by global standards, but certainly a bigger deal than the last one I remember, which arrived on a Sunday afternoon and barely rattled the glasses in the Pump and Tap. This one rumbled and shook the house properly, rattling wardrobe doors and shaking shelves and furniture.

I've also been over in Wales (and by the way, a belated happy St David's Day to all), although to be fair Hay on Wye is only a couple of hundred yards over the border. It is, of course, a town that carries great dangers for anyone who already has a huge mountain of Books They Mean To Read. Still, in between a bit of birding (Buzzards and Dippers, mainly), and some hill-walking, I bravely walked straight into bookshop after bookshop in search of bargains. And my haul?

Collected Poems - RS Thomas (as I said a little while back, it's time I got a decent overview of this wonderful poet's work)
Later Collected Poems - RS Thomas
A Robin Hood Book - Alan Halsey (I have, of course, a Robin Hood fixation, and this strange little book is excellent. It's poetic prose, I suppose, blurring fact, fiction, politics and history in a highly readable fashion).
Skevington's Daughter - Oliver Reynolds (I bought Reynolds' The Oslo Tram years ago in a secondhand shop, and remain rather fond of it, so this was a no-brainer at £1)
The Player Queen's Wife - Oliver Reynolds (ditto)
Rounding The Horn: Selected Poems - John Stallworthy (I don't know much of Stallworthy's work, but this looked a must-have at £3)
Ill Met By Moonlight - W Stanley Moss (an account of real-life escapades in German-occupied Crete. The author's comrade in all this was Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose books I've probably raved about before)
The Twelve Days - George Malcolm Thomson (a 1960s account of the immediate lead-up to the Great War. It's superbly written, and what comes across especially is just how much imprecise use of language contributed to a crisis snowballing out of control)
God's Englishman - Christopher Hill (excellent biography of Oliver Cromwell which I read at school and again at university)

OK, so the last thing I need is more books, but given that only the Halsey book was full price, I was pretty pleased with that lot.

In between times, I went up to the Gospel Pass and down the Llanthony Valley, which is the kind of place that rightfully belongs in fairy tales and fantasy novels. It would be terrible if vast hordes of tourists did discover such a secluded, unspoiled spot, but if you're ever in the area, make sure you have a look.