Friday, 31 October 2008

So Here We Are 18

I've been pretty poor at posting anything just lately, although for once it's been because I've actually been getting on with some proper writing.

But anyway, here's the latest of poet and Tears In The Fence editor David Caddy's So Here We Are letters. I'll be having a careful read of it over the weekend, because he touches on a few things close to my heart. One is John Clare, of course, but another is the whole idea of the forest in this country, bound up as it is with the Norman Conquest, Robin Hood, and so on. Over several years, I've been piecing together a sequence of poems about Leicestershire-based Hood inspiration Roger Godberd, and this might give me a bit of new impetus to get on with it and finish it.

He also touches on enclosures - although he's talking about events that took place in the 19th century, it was something that had been going on since at least the end of the 16th century, and was the main cause of another of my historical hobby-horses, the Midlands Revolt of 1607. So, read and enjoy, and expect a flood of historical poems from me some time around 2012.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Vote now!

If you've ever looked at the results of a poetry competition and thought "that's all wrong", then here's your chance to influence the outcome of one. The shortlisted poems in this year's Times Literary Supplement Poetry Competition are here, and you can vote for your favourite. I've had a quick scan through, and already have an idea which one I favour, but I'll read them all a few more times before I make a decision. Enjoy!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Back in Blighty

I’ve just come back from a week in the Azores, where I went to write a couple of articles – one about the archipelago as a birding location generally, and the other about the Priolo Life project, which has been fighting to save the Priolo, or Azores Bullfinch, from extinction.

After a brief stopover on Sao Miguel, it was off to Corvo, the smallest and most westerly of the islands, seven square miles of extinct volcano with just enough flat land for a runway and a village. Like the rest of the Azores, it’s covered with lush vegetation, with lots of small cow pastures between thickly wooded valleys and ravines.

In between some torrential rain, we found a Red-eyed Vireo high up on the mountain, but things really took off just after a large container ship had passed the island.

First, Belgian birder David Monticelli found a Common Yellowthroat in a patch of scrubby bushes close to the village. He couldn’t find any of us to tell us until breakfast the next day, so we headed back to the same spot at first light praying it hadn’t disappeared.

It hadn’t. We thought we heard it call once or twice, and then I found it flitting around a patch of maize in the company of some Blackcaps. Later, David found another (or more likely, his original). As we were waiting, though, he also spotted a chunky, strongly marked passerine, and we both got great views of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

It’s well-known that a lot of rare transatlantic vagrants hitch a ride part of the way, and here it was in practice. Unfortunately, I had to fly back to the main island, Sao Miguel, at this point, but the others have since found a variety of North American birds of Corvo.

After a slightly hair-raising night drive along the fog-bound, rain-lashed coast road from Ponta Delgado to Nordeste, I met up with the Priolo Life people. The idea was to get stuck in as a volunteer, to give our readers an idea of how to combine a birding holiday with a bit of practical conservation. So, I spent my time high up in the mountains, clambering up and down steep, muddy trails and getting ripped to shreds by brambles while surveying the native plants the Priolo needs if it’s to survive. And of course, we saw plenty of the birds themselves. They’re not, you’d have to say, as colourful or striking as the European Bullfinch, but they’re a fine sight all the same, and thanks to the project, their future looks a little brighter.

Finally, driving back to Ponta Delgado airport, I stopped on a headland along the coast to stretch my legs and tried to tune into BBC Radio 4, to get the India vs Australia cricket score. Instead, I got Start The Week, and by a strange chance the first voice I heard was of poet Jane Holland!

The pictures show (from top): Corvo; Belgian birder David Monticelli trying to photograph the Common Yellowthroat on Corvo; the north coast of Sao Miguel; and Nordeste.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

You Are Here - Simon Turner

You Are Here - Simon Turner
(Heaventree Press, 2007) £7.99

Birmingham gets a raw deal, if you ask me. For far too long, the mere name of the city has been a byword for industrial decline and an urban landscape embodying the worst of post-war town planning and architecture.

Me, though, I’ve always liked the place. A lot. The train journey from Leicester to Brum always seemed to involve mile after mile of fragmented, semi-neglected suburbia, and yet it was always exciting. And then the centre, whatever the lack of fit between its Victorian glories and its more recent experiments, was never less than vibrantly alive, yet never managed to attain the sort of glamour or cool that Manchester, for example, has managed.

In the poetry world, though, it does get the celebration it deserves. That’s been down to Roy Fisher, most notably, and in the notes to this remarkably assured first collection, Simon Turner says: “I avoided reading Roy Fisher for a long time, worried that, as a fellow Midlands-based writer, he would come to dominate my style once I had. I was right.”

He’s being far too modest, because while Turner’s poetry does at times bear the trace of Fisher’s relaxed, inclusive modernism, he’s far too good a writer not to let his own voice come through loud and clear.

This is a book in four sections, some relatively lyrical, others dominated by linguistic experimentation, but that fragmented landscape I talked about is a constant presence throughout. It’s there in the nature poems, such as Storm Journal, which choose less obvious subjects than most poets would, and which combine acute observation with a subtle, suggestive language. And importantly, the poet himself is never foregrounded in these works, even when he’s aware of his presence within the scene. The excellent Swifts even references this, being split into the two sections what I say and what they say which wittily rewrite each other from different viewpoints, while in Geographies he even asks: “Why write? These things / are so much themselves.” They are, but his poetry allows for that fact rather than diminishing it.

Turner isn’t afraid to return to the same territory again and again, sometimes within individual poems, but it never gets repetitive because he’s always aware that language has the power to freshen it up each time. The result is a bit like one of those train journeys I mentioned earlier – at times you find yourself moving into a new part of town that looks uncannily similar to where you came from; at others, the passing of time has wrought subtle changes. And so the city is simultaneously ugly and beautiful.

I’ll be honest. A few of the most experimental pieces left me cold, but it’s a good-sized collection and none the worse for taking the opportunity to try things out, take risks. And one of the most impressive features is the way that Turner doesn’t play with language merely for its own sake. Instead, it’s a constant part of the landscape too – crows scry their new alphabet “on the scorched parchment sky”; “the town’s frayed outskirts” become the “furthest edges of speech”; high rise blocks are “a stuttered plea” that the “crazed sky ponders and declines”.

Oh, and one last thing. I’d only come across one Heaventree publication before, Andy Brown’s pamphlet The Trust Territory, but this book confirms the good physical impression made by that. It’s a really nicely put together paperback, with a splendid cover by David Dewis. I know I’ve said it before, but that matters to me.

Of course, it would matter too if the contents didn’t live up to the package, but there’s no problem on that count. Simon Turner is here, to stay I hope.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Why chapbooks matter

Go to Alan Baker's blog, Litterbug, and scroll down to the post for September 21st (there are no titles). He makes what is, I think, a very good point, and one that I touched on earlier in the year - the fact that poetry collections seem to be getting longer, sometimes at the expense of quality, rather in the same way that the advent of the CD encouraged bands to fill every album with 70 minutes worth of music, regardless of whether it was worth recording in the first place.

Of course, it's not always true, and there are plenty of collections of which I'm glad that the poet kept going well beyond the old 64-page mark. But Alan's point still stands, I think. In such times, chapbooks can offer the perfect format for a writer who wants to get work out there in between increasingly chunky full collections.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

So Here We Are 17

More good stuff over at David Caddy's blog - here's the latest of his So Here We Are letters.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Weekend reading

I enjoyed this review of Michael Symmons Roberts' new book, The Half-healed, in The Guardian on Saturday. Roberts is a poet I've not really read enough of, but I really ought to catch up some time soon.

I spent most of the weekend reading in the ridiculously summery weather (someone on the radio this morning said that we'd had the sort of day yesterday "that poets mean when they talk about autumn"), and writing one or two reviews. I even attempted to write some poetry.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Not exactly breaking news, but...

Still a bit bleary-eyed after getting back from London in the middle of the night, having been to the Forward Prize announcement. Not the best of journeys, but even the vagaries of Britain’s railway system couldn’t ruin a really enjoyable day.

You may well have seen by now that Mick Imlah took the Best Collection Prize for The Lost Leader – I’ve only skimmed it so far, but will be taking it with me when I’m away next week for a proper read. I don’t think there’ll be too much argument – from what I’ve read so far, it looks like a worthy winner. It’s terrible to read of his illness, though.

Best First Collection went to Kathryn Simmonds, for her Sunday At The Skin Launderette. That might have qualified as something of a surprise, because I’d guess that most people’s money was on Frances Leviston, but I think this would have been the closest category of all. Anyway, Kathryn’s book was my favourite of those I’ve read, so I was pleased by her win.

Best Individual Poem was won by Don Paterson’s Love Poem For Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze. I think Roddy Lumsden hit the nail on the head by describing it as a ‘Marmite poem’ – most readers will either love it or hate it. I’m not a big fan myself, and would like to have seen Tim Turnbull’s Ode On A Grayson Perry Urn win, but never mind.

Anyway, it was good to finally meet Roddy in person, and to chat with some of the judges, publishers and other poets. Congratulations to all the winners and shortlisted poets.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

New Sphinx

I got home late last night to find the new issue of Sphinx waiting for me. I made the mistake of dipping into it for what was supposed to be five minutes, and ended up reading Rob Mackenzie’s excellent piece on poetry blogging, a fine interview with poet, artist and Stride Magazine editor Rupert Loydell, and Tia Ballantine’s perceptive (and glowing) review of James Wood’s Inextinguishable. Who needs sleep?

There's plenty more still to read, and of course the website contains a wealth of reviews that complement the printed version. Sphinx editor Helena Nelson mentions that it is likely to go totally online in the near future. It’s a shame in some respects, but on the other hand it will give it the opportunity to maintain its high standards without running up huge bills. Stride itself serves as a good example of just how well an independent online mag can work.

Whatever the format, Sphinx remains an essential read for anyone interested in the poetry pamphlet world. Buy one now.

Monday, 6 October 2008

At last!

Well, who'd have thought it? Only a few weeks ago I was bemoaning the lack of honour accorded to this blog's inspiration, Polyolbion poet Michael Drayton, in his home town of Polesworth, and then this turns up in today's Coventry Evening Telegraph. They've wisely decided against spending any of the cash on a one-off recital of his masterwork, but this will do just fine.

It's that time of year again

A few of the Sunday broadsheets featured poetry yesterday, as always happens the weekend before National Poetry Day. Some talked about the launch of a new initiative to encourage children to learn poetry by heart, while one took a more general approach of asking various celebs and literary luminaries what their favourite poem was.

Of course, that set me thinking what an impossible task it is trying to pick out a single poem (I’d managed to reduce my shortlist to 28 by late last night), but it was also interesting that a lot of the responses were in favour of pre-20th century poetry. Tennyson featured more than once, for example. I’m not sure that says anything significant, other than the fact that in the normal course of things, most people aren’t exposed to a huge amount of contemporary poetry.

Against the odds, the one that particularly caught my eye was Jason Donovan’s choice, which was one of the poems of Harry 'Breaker' Morant, which he had learnt as a kid when his dad was playing Morant in the play of the same name. If my memory serves me correctly, Donovan Senior went on to play an Australian general in the film version, where Edward Woodward took the lead. I’ve no idea about Morant’s merits as a ‘bush poet’, but it’s a great film, and it’s high time it was repeated again (it usually turns up on BBC2 at about 12.15 on a Sunday night).

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Day jobs

I came across this piece on the Poetry Society’s website the other day. It would have been nice to see a bit more on each person, maybe, and a wider cross-section of poets generally, but it’s interesting stuff.

There are certainly occasions when I curse the fact that a day job leaves far too little time for writing poetry (not least at the moment), but on the whole I think my attitude probably comes closest to Dennis O’Driscoll’s. Which is to say, however much I think I like the idea of having nothing to do all day except write, in reality I know it would involve a rapid descent into friendless, Crunchy Nut Cornflake addiction in front of repeats of Minder.

On reflection, I think having a day job forces me to be a bit more disciplined in my poetry writing, to make full use of my spare time. Plus, luckily, parts of my job are quite conducive to poetry – long drives, lots of yomping around looking for birds, and easy access to a computer, for example. So what do you think?