Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Best Of 2009

OK, it's time once again for my rather slapdash round-up of the year. There's nothing particularly structured about it, and I can't claim to have read very many of the year's 'big' releases, but here goes anyway.

Let's start with single collections. I don't think I bought a great deal by big-name poets, but Hugo Williams' West End Final and John Burnside's The Hunt In The Forest were both fine, although competent retreads of what they've done better before, I think, rather than anything particularly new.

That left the way clear for some less well-known names, though. Mark Goodwin's Else (I think it was actually released in 2008) was terrific, effortlessly straddling the mainstream/alternative and urban/rural divides. Siriol Troup's Beneath The Rime used form, character and narrative to very good effect, and Carrie Etter's poised, extremely mature The Tethers thoroughly deserved the attention it got. She's been pretty prolific, too, so I'll be looking to catch up with her other work in the New Year.

That tendency to slip across the perceived divides of the poetry world was also evident in a number of the other collections I read, including Peter Carpenter's enjoyable, thought-provoking After The Goldrush, perhaps a sign that those divides aren't so obvious once you get into the world of the smaller presses. Rob A Mackenzie's The Opposite Of Cabbage was another book which fell into that category, using whatever styles or subjects were needed to create a very entertaining and satisfying whole. Sian Hughes' The Missing was a fine book, too, and one which I expected to receive greater recognition in the prize shortlists. Accessible, yet also utterly serious, it's an excellent collection. Tim Wells' Rougher Yet might have been titled Best Yet - it built on the considerable strengths of the London poet's previous collections and added several new layers of resonance, while Tom Chivers' How To Build A City was a hugely promising debut, rich with historical depth alongside linguistic invention.

There are also quite a few collections I've only just finished, or am still in the middle of reading. Pam Thompson's The Japan Quiz (from 2008) and Michael McKimm's Still This Need (also 2008, I think) are both worthy of much greater attention, once I've re-read them a couple of times, so I'll come back to review them at length later. But two collections made a late run for the top spots. One, George Ttoouli's Static Exile, shouldn't really have come as a surprise to anyone who's seen him read, but maybe it was the fact that he combines satire and the sort of political sensibility that's rare in modern poetry while being laugh-out-loud funny at times that was really so refreshing. Damian Walford Davies' Suit Of Lights was another little gem - it's got one or two stylistic tics that might start to annoy, but it was always unafraid to try new things, within a very readable, entertaining style.

So, to my top three. Well, Matt Nunn's Sounds In The Grass struck a superb balance between the furious and the hilarious - it's the sort of book you'll want to reading bits aloud from to whoever happens to be in the room. Claire Crowther's The Clockwork Gift was another collection that made rather a nonsense of categorisation - it's subtly innovative, thought-provoking, and it sent me back to check out her first collection, Stretch Of Closures. Finally, there's Andrew Philip's The Ambulance Box, a debut collection that built on his fine HappenStance pamphlets and finally soared way beyond them - technically assured, quietly inventive, very moving, and suffused with unexpected flashes of light.

I read a lot of chapbooks, of which the highlights were Tom Chivers' The Terrors (a great idea, brilliantly executed), David Morley's The Night Of The Day, Jane Holland's The Lament Of The Wanderer (maybe that was 2008, but it was a fine new version of the great Anglo-Saxon poem), and Frances Corkey Thompson's lovely The Long Acre (again, maybe 2008, but I only read it this year).

Favourite retrospectives were John James Collected Poems (still not finished this, but it's superb) and Jeremy Hooker's The Cut Of The Light. The latter is another of those poets who rather defies categorisation, but I particularly enjoyed his landscape poems. I finished Geoffrey Holloway's Collected Poems, too - again, someone who's been rather overlooked simply because he doesn't fit a convenient pigeonhole. I also finally plugged the Michael Donaghy-shaped hole in my poetry knowledge by reading his Collected Poems, and was left in two minds. When I liked it, I absolutely loved it, but when I didn't, I absolutely didn't.

I loved Not The Full Story, six interviews between Lee Harwood and Kelvin Corcoran, and that's about it. I don't seem to have read much else in the way of prose all year, so maybe that's a resolution to make.

But anyway, a very Happy New Year to all readers of Polyolbion, and here's hoping 2010 makes it just as hard for me to pick a best of.

In brief...

Last night's reading at the Quaker Meeting House was a real pleasure - at about 11pm the previous night I'd been worried it wouldn't even take place, as the snow arrived in earnest. Amazingly, it was all gone by the morning.

But anyway, it was lovely to meet LouAnn Muhm and her partner, Steve, and to show them a bit of Leicester beforehand, and the reading itself was excellent. Jane Commane's Bronte-inspired poems were superb, and I always enjoy her love poem to the Ordnance Survey. Pam Thompson was excellent as always (I'll be posting some reviews of her book, The Japan Quiz, and pamphlet, Hologram, on here soon), and I read half a dozen poems (Prelude for Glass Harmonica, High Lonesome, January, Hares In December, Another and Happiness).

LouAnn's reading was the real highlight - I've been enjoying her book ever since it came out, but it was great to hear the poems out loud, and to understand more about the stories behind some of them. All in all, just what was needed in between Christmas and New Year.

Birds, Culture and Conservation

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to the Birds, Culture and Conservation Symposium at Oxford, which aimed to bring together poets, writers, artists and others with an interest in using the arts to raise the profile of conservation issues.

I don’t think any of us really knew what to expect, but as it turned out it was enjoyable, extremely thought-provoking, and far too short.

Helen Macdonald’s talk on urban Peregrines was excellent, along with John Barlow’s on haiku, but the highlight for me was probably Tim Birkhead’s stint during the afternoon, which managed to cram an astonishing amount into 20 minutes. But there were no real disappointments – I’ve spent the last fortnight following up on all sorts of things that came up.

Hopefully, this is just the start of something – at the very least, there’ll be another symposium, with a view to creating a bigger, more inclusive event in the future. In the meantime, it's intended to keep the blog going, so take a look…

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Breaking The Glass, by LouAnn Muhm

Loonfeather Press, $11.95,

I first came across LouAnn Muhm’s poems in her fine pamphlet Dear Immovable, and the graceful lyrics in this first full-length collection build on its considerable strengths.

So, there’s the same economical, hard-won language, alongside the same willingness to allow real emotion and vulnerability to seep through. It’s a hard balance to strike, but it’s to LouAnn’s credit that she very rarely allows a poem to topple over in either direction.

Instead, she makes a virtue of brevity and understatement, extracting quiet significance from everyday moments by her very refusal to flag up that significance. A poem like Shoveling Out presents a seemingly straightforward domestic situation, but you’re left to draw your own conclusions as to whether a sudden snowfall is indeed “a gift, / a day / maybe two if you’re lucky, / of clean white forgetting”, or the “terrible weight” it has become by the last line.

This pared-down, almost Zen-like style (and spirituality is another concern here) is used to present a loose emotional and narrative arc, in which the above-mentioned forgetting (or the impossibility and undesirability of doing so) is a key theme. The poems gather in life in all its complexity, with the whole journey ultimately assuming more importance than the destination, so there’s no attempt to jettison any part of the past. It works wonderfully in poems such as Waitress, where the effect is ultimately uplifting, joyous even.

The longer collection also allows her to spread her wings further. The final section, Archetypal, steps outside the narrative arc somewhat, although the concerns are the same. For example:

"The Lady of Shalott / could not weave the world / and live in it, / just as I can not write a thing / that is here."

That reiteration of absence as a major theme is interesting, because it’s only here that it’s made explicit. Elsewhere, it’s implied and inferred, but none the less affecting for all that.

This is a fine first collection, far more than just a ‘best so far’, and what comes next will be well worth looking out for.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Another reminder... if you needed it, that US poet LouAnn Muhm will be reading at the Friends Meeting House, Queen's Road, Leicester, at 7.30pm on December 30th, along with Pam Thompson, Jane Commane and myself.

There'll also be a few open mic slots, plus mince pies and other festive fare, so come along and enjoy the evening. LouAnn, I should add, hails from Minnesota, so will be utterly undaunted by the sprinkling of snow we've had.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

This is just to say...

...that occasionally you read a poem that really blows you away. I've been enjoying John James' Collected Poems a great deal in general, and I've been reading it in chronological order, but earlier I skipped ahead a little and, picking up again at random, read a poem called The Conversation. Amazing, exhilirating, and genuinely uplifting. Read it, even if you read nothing else by James (although you really should!)

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Current browsing

Wandering aimlessly around the backwaters of the internet earlier today, I came across this rather intriguing site. It looks like a great idea, although I can’t get everything to work properly on the browser here at work. I’ll try again tonight at home.

Meanwhile, there are loads of interesting posts over at the Birds, Culture and Conservation blog, including poetry, art, prose pieces, photos and films. It promises to be a very interesting day tomorrow, and I'll report back sometime soon.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Armchair birding again

I did a fair bit of birding over the weekend, as the rain generally held off long enough to make some long hikes possible. Not a huge amount to report - plenty of Golden Plovers and Lapwings around Wanlip Meadows, plus a scattering of Goosanders around Watermead Country Park. The males of the latter are subtly beautiful birds, and seem to lift any murky winter afternoon. I missed the Black Redstart in Bradgate Park, though if it hangs around I may well go and see it.

Last night, though, I was sitting watching the Australia vs West Indies test match from Adelaide. Now village cricket grounds can be great for birds, but international matches less so. Nevertheless, for years I've kept an eye out to see what's flitting around in the background, and occasionally, usually in matches from the subcontinent, there's something worth seeing. In Britain, it's just Starlings, Feral Pigeons, and the odd Pied Wagtail.

Adelaide's a venue that usually gets plenty of Silver Gulls on the outfield, though, and last night, it went one better. A Magpie-lark (pictured) was strutting around at backward point, narrowly escaping being dismembered when a Chris Gayle square-cut flew its way. It flew off into the crowd, and Gayle continued on his merry way.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Bird poetry anthologies

I was going to review these two new books today, but I think I'll leave that until a bit nearer Christmas. In the meantime, it's just worth saying that both these books make great Christmas presents for anyone with an interest in poetry and/or birds.

The Poetry Of Birds, edited by Tim Dee and Simon Armitage, is a chunky hardback from Viking, and lists the poems by bird species, imitating the layout of the average field guide. There's a good notes section at the back, too, offering a little background on some of the poems, and some of the birds for that matter.

Now some of the selections surprised and pleased me, such as Colin Simms, Helen Macdonald and Peter Reading (always glad to see his work - he seems to have slipped off the radar in recent years), but I do have one or two criticisms. One is that there still seems to be far too much of the usual suspects. It's not that I don't enjoy John Clare, or Ted Hughes, say (any regular readers here will know that I'm a big fan of both), it's just that I suspect a lot of potential readers will have the poems featured already, in other anthologies if not in collections of the individual poets' work. I'd have liked a bit more from outside the UK and the USA, and a few more surprises, I suppose.

Don't get me wrong, though - it's great for a bit of browsing, and a very nice complement to the Collins Field Guide and Birds Britannica in any home library.

Bright Wings is an illustrated anthology from the USA, edited by Billy Collins and with paintings by David Allen Sibley. A lot of the poets here were fairly unfamiliar to me, although that's in part because I've not read anything like enough US poetry, but quite apart from anything else it's a really nicely produced book, with the illustrations setting off the poems very well.

It's sent me off following up quite a few leads in terms of reading more by the poets involved, and as that's what I generally want most from an anthology, it's done its job very well.

Anyway, I will come back to these very soon, but check them out on Amazon if you think they sound up your street.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

LouAnn Muhm

If you're in or around Leicester on December 30th, there's the chance to hear the fine US poet LouAnn Muhm reading at the Friends Meeting House, Queen's Road, Leicester, starting at 7pm.

I've talked about LouAnn's pamphlet Dear Immovable and collection Breaking The Glass on here before, but it doesn't hurt to say once again that they're both really excellent, so come along and hear her read and buy a copy or two.

I hope to have Leicester poet Pam Thompson also reading, and there'll also be room for a few open mic slots.

It's all free, and there'll be mince pies a-plenty. Hope to see you there.

NB: I've just realised that I never actually posted the full review of Breaking The Glass - it's been staring me in the face on my hard drive for about the past year, and I've been subconsciously thinking I'd put it up here. I'll post it a bit nearer Christmas, as a taster for the reading.

Crash, bang, wallop

I still have no doubt that Viv Richards is the best batsman I've ever seen (or am ever likely to see), and of current players worship the sublime genius of Sachin Tendulkar, but has there ever been a more exciting batsman than Virender Sehwag?

Even following his innings on Cricinfo's text commentary this morning has been exciting. I can hardly wait to see the highlights tonight.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Pushcart Prize

I was delighted and not a little surprised to be informed, earlier this week, that my poem Stanislav Petrov is one of Umbrella's six Pushcart Prize nominations for this year.

I'm not entirely sure what the process is from here on in - I assume the Pushcart editors narrow the field down to a final selection, but I'm over the moon just to have got a nomination.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Lists, lists, lists

Good piece by Todd Swift over at Eyewear, talking about the usual glut of year-end book lists. I tend to agree with a lot of what Todd's saying, although it is fair to point out once again that I'm always a bit underwhelmed by Don Paterson. I bought Rain the other day, along with John Burnside's The Hunt In The Forest, and although I will take time to digest and re-read them, I'd have to say I prefer the latter. As usual with Paterson, I find myself thinking "it's good, but is it really that good?"

Meanwhile, Peony Moon is featuring mini-lists from a wide variety of poets. They make very interesting reading, and it's good to see Andrew Philip's wonderful The Ambulance Box and Clare Crowther's The Clockwork Gift cropping up with such regularity. I found it very difficult to narrow things down to three books, because I get the impression it's been a pretty strong year.

With that in mind, I'll be doing my usual round-up of favourite books some time after December 25th, but in the meantime, look out later this week for reviews of Simon Armitage and Tim Dee's anthology The Poetry Of Birds, and the similarly themed US anthology Bright Wings, edited by Billy Collins.

Current reading includes John James' Collected Poems, George Ttoouli's splendid Static Exile, and a selection from Francis Kilvert's diaries (I'd been looking for a cheap paperback of the latter for ages, and found one for £2 in Leicester on Friday).

Birds, Culture and Conservation

At the end of next week, I'm off to Oxford for the Birds, Culture and Conservation Symposium, which will look at ways of encouraging people into supporting conservation projects using the arts.

It will feature writers and poets such as Mark Cocker, Jeremy Mynott, Dominic Couzens and Helen Macdonald, plus visual artists, academics and more. I'm going to be there both in a work capacity and out of personal interest, and over the next couple of weeks, the blog I've linked to will include material on the subjects up for discussion.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Brief interlude

Still need a Christmas present for the (male) birdwatcher in your life? These should do the trick nicely!

Monday, 23 November 2009

Birdwatching goes mainstream?

Interesting article about birdwatching in The Observer, here, and nice to see my boss, Bird Watching editor Sheena Harvey, quoted. One of our columnists, David Lindo, makes some interesting comments, too, and another of our regular contributors, the tireless Ian Barthorpe, of Minsmere RSPB, gets a mention, too.

I'm not sure I agree with Tim Dee's comments, though, about men in particular being drawn to the hobby "as a way of organising the world". I daresay there is some of that, particularly from the more obsessive listers, but even for most of them, I would have thought, one of birdwatching's great appeals is quite the opposite - it's something we can't control, a reminder of the randomness and variousness of the world.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Poets on fire

Last night, it was straight down the A46 to Royal Leamington Spa for the launch of David Morley's The Night Of The Day, from Nine Arches Press.

A couple of hecklers, one of them particularly persistent and totally irrational, could have spoiled things, but David was unshaken and gave a very energetic, celebratory reading that was an absolute pleasure to hear. There was excellent support from Myra Connell, Matt Nunn, George Ttoouli and Simon Turner, too, and some good open mic-ers. I bought copies of David's pamphlet (a limited edition version, in fact) and of George's new collection, Static Exile (from Penned In The Margins), and both made me think about how much better poetry books look these days, even before you get to the contents. I feel a long blog post coming on, but it will have to wait until another day.

Today, the new issue of Sphinx arrived, and a real cracker it is too. So far I've only had chance to read the interview with Tony Frazer of Shearsman, which is worth the cover price alone. Shearsman have being going from strength to strength these last few years, and there are quite a few of their books that I'd number among those volumes I always like to have to hand, so it's great to hear just how Tony has managed such a prolific, and high quality, output.

Also today, a woodcock flushed almost from beneath my feet in Cademan Woods, another flying across the road at Copt Oak, and owls, owls, owls at Cossington.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Edward Woodward

Sad news that Edward Woodward has died, aged 79. I'd guess that, in the UK at least, all the talk will be of Callan, The Wicker Man and The Equaliser, but here he's pictured in what, for my money, was his finest moment, Breaker Morant.

It's a great film, with Woodward in the title role well supported by the likes of Bryan Brown, and it's more relevant now than it's ever been, I'd have thought. Woodward is superb throughout, although my favourite scene is the one where some of the guards are offering him and his co-defendants a chance to escape. One tells him that he could take a horse, ride to Portuguese East Africa. Morant asks what he'd do then. "Get on a ship. See the world," comes the reply.

"I've seen it," says Morant, and Woodward's delivery of the line wrings maximum value out of three small words.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Friday night live

Despite the howling gales and the rain bucketing down (I found myself having a Cardiff flashback there and wanting to say tamping down, which sounds so much better), and despite both my headlight bulbs giving up the ghost during the course of the day, necessitating a last-minute dash to Halford's, last night's reading at Leicester Poetry Society was a success.

A good roomful (including HappenStancers DA Prince and Marilyn Ricci) had braved the storm, and a very attentive audience they were too.

We read in alphabetical order, which meant I went first. Always a good thing. It's not so much that I get nervous, but more for the same reason that I prefer to open the batting when playing cricket. If I've got too much time to think about the 7ft fast bowler/untested new poem (delete as appropriate), I get very tempted to start completely overhauling my technique/rewriting things on the hoof. Far better to get in there straight away and face the (chin) music.

It also means I enjoy the other poets' work more. Pam Thompson and Lydia Towsey were both excellent (I swapped books with Pam at the interval - her pamphlet Hologram has a fantastic hologram of David Bowie on the front) - confident and assured but in contrasting styles. I particularly enjoyed Lydia's snail poem and Pam's canal poems, but there was an awful lot to like.

Books were bought, sold and swapped, and a thoroughly good time was had by all. Oh, and my set-list was:

The Memory Of Water
Hutt River Province
The sea at Ashby de la Zouch
The Meeting Place
The American Version
Under Cotopaxi
Worst Case Scenario
Troy Town

Thursday, 12 November 2009

A reminder

Just to mention again, I'll be reading with two other Leicester poets - Pam Thompson and Lydia Towsey - at the Friends Meeting House, 16 Queen's Road, Leicester, at 7.30pm tomorrow (Friday, November 13th).

It's a Leicester Poetry Society event, so come along and support poetry in the East Midlands. Books will be on sale. Hope to see you there...

Ouroboros Review Issue 4

The new issue (No.4) of Ouroboros Review is now live, and can be read in its entirety here. As always, it looks really wonderful, so you can buy a print version here if you want to actually get your hands on it or keep it for posterity.

There's plenty of excellent poetry in there (so far I've particularly enjoyed some of the work by John Walsh and Sophie Mayer), plus a good piece by Louisa Adjoa Parker on black and minority publishing in the UK, among other prose pieces.

I've got three poems - Corvo, Gossamer and Jubilee - in there. Hope you enjoy it all.

EDIT: I've had a proper look through now, and there's all sorts of good things in there. I really enjoyed the poems from Arlene Ang and Michelle McGrane, but there's plenty of other great stuff.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Buy one, get one free!

Christmas is coming, and, err, I’m getting fat. With that in mind, and before doing anything silly like eating less or exercising more. I’m trying to create more room in my cramped house my rationalising my bookshelves.

A while ago, I bought some books at the closing down of a bargain bookstore. They’d always sold a lot of remaindered poetry from the likes of Faber, Cape, Picador and Bloodaxe, and there were quite a few volumes worth having, but you basically had to buy a box at a time, for a fiver. So I did. Trouble is, there were also quite a few books in there that I already had, and a few more that I didn’t really want.

So, until Christmas, anyone buying a copy of Troy Town through this website (£9, including postage and packing) can also have one of the collections absolutely free - I'd like to think they were going to a good, poetry-reading home. I’ll send you the full list of what’s available when you enquire, but some of the poets include Don Paterson, Neil Rollinson, Jean Sprackland and Ruth Padel.

Email me at the link shown on the right, or just post a comment below. Oh, and don't worry if it takes me a while to get back to you - I'm going to be all over the place for the next couple of weeks.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Currently distracting me from work...

I've kept going back to this poem by Sharlene Teo, at Gists and Piths, in the course of this week. Very intriguing, very enjoyable.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Hometown reading

I'll be reading with two other Leicester poets - Pam Thompson and Lydia Towsey - at the Friends Meeting House, 16 Queen's Road, Leicester, at 7.30pm on Friday, November 13th.

It's a Leicester Poetry Society event, so if you can, come along and support poetry in the East Midlands. If you're a regular reader here, you know more than enough about me, but here's a bit more background on my fellow readers...

Pam Thompson has been writing and performing poetry in the East Midlands for a number of years. She is part of the steering-group of and was artistic producer of the Lyric Lounge week at The Y Theatre, Leicester, in July 2009. Pam is widely published in magazines and pamphlets. Her first full collection is The Japan Quiz, published by Redbeck Press in 2008

Lydia Towsey comperes and coordinates WORD! and in 2009 has been the Artistic Director of The Lyric Lounge ( She has performed alongside John Hegley and Jean 'Binta' Breeze and is soon to be published in POM, an anthology of new voices, co-edited by Michael Horovitz, John Hegley and Melanie Abrahams.

Books will, of course, be on sale. Hope to see you there...

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Early morning

There's a superb piece of nature writing here - as someone says in the comments box, well worth the long wait.

Here in the Midlands, we're at that time of year when birds should be on the move everywhere. And they are, but I've been far too lazy at chasing after them just lately. I’m not good at getting up early, you see. Never have been. I made the effort this morning, though, after Dave Gray had reported a couple of Short-eared Owls hunting at Cossington Meadows last night. They’re not a bird we see locally very often, so I was there by just after 5.30 to see what I could find.

It was still pretty much dark then, and SEOs hunt in half-light or even full daylight, but I wanted to be in place well ahead of time. It helped that it’s very warm at the moment, so standing around in the dark wasn’t the freezing experience it usually is in the UK in October (well, in pretty much any month, for that matter), and I stood there looking out across the meadows, straining my eyes for any sign of life.

Of course, it’s in such situations that your hearing becomes your most vital sense, and once I’d learned to filter out the occasional sounds of movement from the cattle moving around in the next field, I started to pick up bird songs and calls from all directions.

Robins are never shy of making themselves heard, even in the middle of the night, and sure enough one soon started up from the nearby bushes, quickly followed by a more distant Blackbird and finally, as the sky started to grow light, by Greenfinches and Goldfinches passing up and down the hedgerows. Birdsong has a pretty uplifting effect at any time, but first thing in the morning that’s amplified. The birds are announcing their survival of the cold and dark – to their mates, to the other birds of their flock, to themselves, and to anyone else who cares to listen.

There was still only the faintest glimmer of dawn in the east at this stage, but something was moving out there. First one, then two Barn Owls faded into view somewhere near the centre of the meadow, ghostly against the murk as they quartered the grass with buoyant wingbeats. As I mentioned last week, they often seem to become so engrossed in their hunting that they’re oblivious to humans, and while I stayed statue-still, one came to within 10 yards, only finally lifting his intent gaze from the ground to notice me, and veering sharply but easily away. I watched them for another 15 minutes or so, until the increasing light and the arrival of some dog-walkers persuaded them to head for home.

Barn Owls are (not surprisingly) one of those sights guaranteed to draw hushed, awed tones from birdwatchers of all types. Wigeon, on the other hand, are one of those underrated, and largely understated, pleasures of the British winter. They’re lovely-looking ducks, for starters, but the male’s wheee-oooooo whistle is both evocative and exhilarating, and by now tight little groups of them were whizzing over from the pools towards the lakes nearer Leicester. A few Shoveler, too, with their oversized bills a dead giveaway in silhouette.

Finally, just as I began to give up hope, another shape started moving above the now recognisably green meadow. A Short-eared Owl, without doubt, with the orangey areas on the primaries visible, but I'd hardly had time to get the scope on it before it dropped into a fold in the ground, presumably having found a vole. Good news for the owl, bad news for the rodent and me. I hung around as long as I could, but it didn't reappear before I had to leave for work.

In all likelihood these birds are just passing through on the way from their upland breeding areas to the coastal marshes where they spend the winter, but some do occasionally hang around. Some of the former opencast mines near here I live have attracted them in the past, as in the early stages of their restoration they tend to have wide expanses of grassland, plus small conifers for roosting in. There's also a site in eastern Leicestershire, near Eyebrook Reservoir, that tends to get them every winter, so maybe we'll be lucky and these will stay.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Sounds in the Grass, by Matt Nunn

Nine Arches Press, 2009

All passions spring from the same well, they say, but the great joy of Matt Nunn’s poetry is that in it, all passions seem to exist in the same place, simultaneously.

So, he doesn’t slip from raging storm to dead calm via all points in-between – instead, they’re never more than a heartbeat apart, meaning that while his poetry is rarely less than very funny, it’s also satisfyingly true to the peaks and troughs of human consciousness.

This effect is achieved partly by his use of seemingly runaway but actually beautifully controlled long lines, and the sheer relish with which he uses language. It occasionally reminded me of 1980s-era Peter Reading, or what Mark E Smith might have sounded like had he ditched The Fall and moved to West Bromwich, but such comparisons really don't do it any justice (although on the latter, Nunn does write a lot, and well, about music).

It also means that the poetry on the page is an accurate transcription of what you get if you hear Nunn read it, machine-gun delivery and all. There’s very little lost in translation, and that’s a pretty hard trick for a poet of any ilk to pull off.

So where do we start? Well, the beginning’s as good a place as any, and frankly there’s more wit, invention and innovation in the list of titles than a lot of us manage in a whole book.

From there, Nunn gets stuck straight into some of his major concerns, with What’s it about? kickstarting an ongoing debate about the tension between observing and documenting society as a poet, and the need to remain engaged within that society, as well as exploring society’s response to anything deemed intellectual. Try this, for starters:

So I, swarming with the visceral truth of sunrise
and extreme eggheadness,

told him I’d come to the park to float amongst strange congregations,
to measure the faith in the lush abundance of chirping Dickies
and the toning-up of morning

before later getting hooched-up on the taste of warring factions
then banging a dog dead to feel
the glorious buffoon buzz of a pointless thrill,

just to work out if I prefer it more
to this crap lark of gawping at cor blimey spectral vistas of beauty.

It’s a theme that runs through the collection, and Nunn doesn’t offer any easy answers, It’s an awful lot of fun, though, running through the questions with him.

He’s quite capable of changing the pace when he needs to, and another thread that emerges is the occasional snatching of peace and even joy from out of the urban landscape (in fact, that’s becoming something of a unifying characteristic with Nine Arches poets). Early on, there are the lines “In our little bit of lovely we don’t get do-lally / searching for the blessing of silence. / It is all around us. It is in us.” There’s a bruised but clear-eyed romanticism at work there, and it sets off the more in-your-face pieces superbly.

I’ll admit to being swayed in my praise for this book by the fact the poet keeps celebrating some of my favourite things – Two Tone, the late Grant McLennan of Aussie band The Go-Betweens, the M50 (Britain’s quietest motorway) and even the word “flobbed”, which I thought was long gone into the obscurity of the 80s but which re-emerges in the glorious Long Mynd, New Year’s Day. And while I’m at it, let me quote that last one in its entirety.

No, there ain’t no god to fix us,

so we drift, chewed up and flobbed out
from between the jaw-line of battering weather
and flaming expletives swirling abusively
down from the angry Black Mountains,
pausing only to pull moonies into the void
and for you to sprinkle erratically,

until we trip over ourselves, kiss
the high sky of sheep and fall
onto our muck-splattered throne
to feel our bonces, gone rotten with booze,
blast off over the valley

and watch cloud moods clear smoothly, daubing
oozes of sun onto people awakening
to the fabulous shades of hope gathering.

This could be a fucking brilliant year.

Come on – what’s not to like about that? It encapsulates all that makes Nunn’s poetry unique, and it’s a lot of fun to read aloud.

This book sees the poet reaching out into new territory, I think, in terms of both subject matter and style, but it remains as individual, and as enjoyable, a collection as you're likely to read this year. Just remember that you're likely to need to engage all areas of your brain...

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The TS Eliot Prize

The shortlist has been announced, and The Guardian ran a lengthy piece about the runners and riders here.

They seem to have spread the net a bit further than the Forward did (although their shortlist is twice as long, to be fair), but I think Simon Armitage might be slightly overstating the case when he says that the list reflects the "scope and breadth" of contemporary British poetry. Still, it's good to see someone like Philip Gross (a really underrated poet, IMHO) in there, and Alice Oswald, and Christopher Reid.

I am slightly baffled by what they say about Hugo Williams, mind you. Now I absolutely love his books, going way back, but one of the reasons I love them is precisely that he seems to be forever rewriting the same poem, trying to perfect it. West End Final's a really fine book, but I can't honestly see it as a great leap from Dear Room, or Billy's Rain. Good to see him there, though.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

'The owls are not what they seem...'

Yes, the giant warned Agent Cooper in early 90s cult classic Twin Peaks, and I'm here to tell you that he was right.

Last night, I was driving home from Nottingham, at about 11.30pm. It was rainy and windy, and I’d got about two miles from home, on a straight, downhill stretch, when I saw a Tawny Owl standing upright at the side of the road.

I slowed right down and managed to avoid it, and pulled to a halt a little way further on, hazard warning lights blazing, before going back with a torch. To my surprise, it was still there, and didn’t fly away even when I got to within almost touching distance.

Now I was worried. I assumed it must be injured, so I started trying to work out ways to pick it up without hurting it, and without suffering severe injury myself (the wildlife photographer Eric Hosking famously lost an eye to a Tawny Owl). Quite where I’d have taken it, I’m not sure, there not being any all-night owl surgeries in the vicinity. I went back to the car, found a padded photographer’s case to put it in, donned gloves, and prepared for the difficult part.

It had gone, thankfully. I had a good look around the area, drove back up and down three or four times, but it had clearly flown away rather than just hopping into the ditch.

Thing is, this is the third time something like this has happened to me. The first, ten years ago, was on a similarly lonely stretch of road near Bourne, where I was living at the time. That time it was a Long-eared Owl, which was stood in the centre of the road, stock still. I only saw it late and was terrified that I’d hit it, but when I got out to walk back, it watched me part of the way, then flew easily away.

Just a couple of months after that, the same thing happened with another Long-eared Owl (odd because I don’t know of any breeding locally) just about a mile from where I saw last night’s bird.

So, I’m baffled. Roads must be great places to catch voles, etc, as they emerge from cover, but I can only assume the owls get rather dazzled by headlights and are unable to fly away from approaching cars. I’m trying to get an owl expert to explain more, but I'd love to know if anyone has had a similar experience.

PS: I incorporated one of the above incidents, very fictionalised and with some extra drama added, into a poem, The Mad Mile, which appears in Troy Town (the road’s known as the Mad Mile because it’s long, very straight, and includes one rollercoaster-style dip).

Thursday, 15 October 2009

After The Goldrush, by Peter Carpenter

Nine Arches Press, 2009

You think you know someone, and then…

That thought kept occurring to me as I made my way through Peter Carpenter’s thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining fifth collection.

Partly that’s because, in many of the poems, he concerns himself with probing the layers of mystery surrounding people, whether they be ageing relatives, former schoolmates, strangers observed in day to day life, or even historical figures such as the long-since disappeared body from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

Sand Person, which deals with the latter, concludes:

Now I’m a shadow curve.
Then people knew my name.
Make me out. I challenge you.

It’s a challenge that Carpenter lays down again and again, not to indulge in intellectual game-playing, you suspect, but instead out of a desire to enable the reader to participate in the difficulties, the ambiguities and, yes, the excitements, of creating or recreating these lives.

The thought also returns when you start to consider Carpenter himself. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on him as a fairly traditional lyric poet of the type that forms the backbone of the UK small press scene, he wrongfoots you with a subtle shift of tone, technique or subject that sets you wondering all over again.

Towards the end, for example, there’s an elegy for his father, called Nightwatchman. I like it, and I hope not just because it describes the sort of low-level club cricket situation I’ve found myself in again and again. But although this is far better realised than most of its type, plenty of poems of this sort get written and published all the time.

It’s immediately followed, though, by a poem called Beautiful Game, which on the face of it carries on the sporting theme, but quickly moves into rather odder, slightly surreal territory – a footnote reveals that it’s based on a dream recounted by the artist James Cockburn.

Or there's the excellent False Oat Grass – A Figure Of Eight Walk, which uses repetition, near-repetition and a structure only half-grasped (by the reader) to turn what could have been a run of the mill piece into something far more intriguing.

It’s a book full of surprises of those sorts – unshowy but expertly deployed, so that things never get predictable.

Beyond those half-glimpsed lives I mentioned, Carpenter is also a fine poet of the urban pastoral. In some pieces, such as the lovely To A Pipistrelle ("...full tilt Billy / Whizz, gut-curving bullet dive, liquorice sheen,/ an even giggle and then back on up…"), or In Brief, with its:

.........those transmission
towers above
.........Crystal Palace

that do for me
and over again

it’s celebratory and even transcendent. Others, such as Settlers, paint a grittier picture, with the chicory which is colonising waste ground inviting “study, scuffed kicks, hurled stones sometimes”, and concluding with the gloomy “You lot might just make it through to September – / a gang-mower and shaven heads the standard fate.”

It hardly needs saying that the resonance of a poem like that goes far beyond botany, but Carpenter is far too good a poet to feel the need to point that out to the reader.

Let’s finish by going back to what I was saying earlier, about Carpenter initially seeming like a typical small press poet. In fact, I think this book helps make the point that there is no such thing, with Carpenter eventually coming across as a subtly distinctive traveller across the various factional boundaries, in the same way as someone like Geoffrey Holloway.

Far from pushing every poet into a homogenised, workshopped middle ground, then, perhaps the scene is allowing poets like Carpenter to find their own niche and flourish quietly. Well that's my theory, and you'll find few better arguments for it than this book.

Coming next week: Full review of Matt Nunn's Sounds In The Grass.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Autumn's here

Despite the glorious Indian summer weather, the last week or so has seen the year tip over decisively into autumn, ready for the downhill run to midwinter.

The leaves are turning every shade of gold and brown, of course, and birds are on the move. On Monday night, it was a flock of Golden Plovers skimming over the A1 just after I left work, and yesterday, a much larger cloud of them close to home. On the way to work yesterday, my first Fieldfares of the autumn, and then last night the thin calls of Redwings going over on their nocturnal migration.

I hate winter with a passion these days, I really do, but the journey towards it takes some beating.

Monday, 12 October 2009

And I thought I'd been a bit hard on Don Paterson...

Issue 3 of Horizon Review is jam-packed with all sorts of goodies, and a fairly brief trawl through it at lunchtime was nothing like long enough to do it justice.

I put the poems themselves on hold for now, and the podcast on West Midlands poetry, and turned instead to the interviews. There's a really good piece on Hugo Williams, always a favourite of mine. I love what he says about line-breaks, especially that last line about the broken thermometer. Carrie Etter and Claire Crowther's piece is good too, as you might expect if you read the interviews with them both on these pages earlier this year.

And then there's Vidyan Ravinthiran's interview with Craig Raine. Among other things, he has some pretty harsh words to say about Don Paterson, words I'd struggle to agree with, despite my previously mentioned lukewarm response to most of Paterson's work. I think there's quite a bit of 'previous' between the two, though, and it's probably safe to assume that that's where all this coming from.

There's one thing Raine definitely gets wrong, though. No one decides to support Leicester City arbitrarily. Why on earth would you, on a whim, decide to subject yourself to a lifetime of gallant, underachieving mediocrity, punctuated by an all-too-brief golden era and not-so-occasional periods of grinding misery?

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Not entirely surprising...

So, Don Paterson's collection Rain won this year's Forward Poetry Prize, as was widely predicted, while Emma Jones' The Striped World took Best First Collection, and Robin Robertson's At Roane Head Best Individual Poem.

I don't want to slag off individuals, and I'm not a believer in some great poetry conspiracy, but those choices do seem entirely predictable. Obviously any competition comes down, in the end, to the subjective views of the judges, but I think they could have shown a bit more imagination, with the shortlists as well as the eventual choices.

I have to admit Paterson leaves me rather cold. I've got all his collections up to this one (although some were bought from remaindered stock, or in charity shops), and although I can see how well crafted they are, they don't really excite me or move me much. Again, personal taste, but the same thing keeps happening as did with Elvis Costello after about 1981 - with each new release, I listen to the flood of critical praise, decide that this time it must be the real thing, go out and buy it, and end up rather disappointed.

Elsewhere, the BBC's poll to find the nation's favourite poet did spring a surprise, for me at least, although perhaps that says something about me. TS Eliot won - I suppose I expected someone more, I don't know, accessible. I've seen it suggested that Cats had something to do with his popularity, but anyway, I found it quite heartening that such a major poet is actually held in wide public esteem.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Tom Leonard

Glaswegian poet Tom Leonard is Leicester Poetry Society's guest reader at the Friends Meeting House, Queens Road, Leicester, this Friday (October 9th), starting at 7.30pm.

Now Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University, his work has attracted praise and controversy in equal measure. His Intimate Voices: Selected Work 1965-1983 was banned from Central Region school libraries in the same year that it shared the Scottish Book of the Year Award. Definitely one not to be missed.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Bird poetry

It's always good when poetry and birding collide - have a look over at Gists & Piths, where a series of David Morley's bird poems are appearing as part of the Midlands poets season.

Poetry in Polesworth

To mark National Poetry Day (this coming Thursday), the first poem in the Polesworth Poets Trail is to be installed this week.

Jane Holland's The River Anker has been etched into copper plate and fixed to five large pieces of Mancetter stone, donated by Tarmac at Mancetter Quarry, and have been sculpted by Planet Art. The stones will also include Michael Drayton’s poem, To the Ancor, and will be placed on the riverbank in Abbey Green Park, close to the footbridge.

It's the first of 10 contemporary poems that will be installed over the coming weeks - two commissions and eight pieces chosen from a national competition. As I've mentioned before, I'm always delighted to see anything that raises the profile of this blog's guiding spirit, so I'll be going to have a look ASAP, and I'll come back with photos. Perhaps I'll combine it with a run all the way into Birmingham to have a look at the newly-discovered Anglo-Saxon hoard.

Project Director, Malcolm Dewhirst said “This is the culmination of a lot of hard work from a dedicated team of people who shared the vision of bringing poetry back to Polesworth. We hope that the poetry trail will attract poets from all over the world to come to Polesworth and that this will be the first of many poetry events to be held in this literary town, which saw the greatest poets of the 16th century meeting at Polesworth Abbey.”

Friday, 2 October 2009

Margaret Griffiths

When I finally started taking the writing of poetry a bit more seriously, and looking to get work published in magazines and webzines, I was lucky enough to stumble across The Works (originally the Pennine Poetry Works, I think). Poems were workshopped by email, and its great strength was that it had a lot of good poets and perceptive critics to point you in the right direction.

Foremost amongst these was Margaret Griffiths, better known online as Grasshopper (and sometimes just as Maz). She always managed to be scrupulously honest, to push you to revise and hone your poems again and again, without ever giving offence, always a difficult thing to do in a poetry workshop (and even more so online, when the tone of remarks can so easily be misinterpreted).

Very sadly, she died, aged just 62, a couple of weeks back, and was buried this week. The full story is here.

It's heartening to see, both on the comments after the story, and at Eratosphere, that she's so fondly remembered. She was a really fine writer of both formal and free verse, but spent far more time and effort helping improve other people's poetry than trying to get her own published, so it would be great if her work could eventually be collected and published.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Two new releases

This Sunday (October 4th), Nine Arches Press launches its first two full-length collections with a special event - Contemporary Poets in the English Landscape - as part of the Warwick Words Festival.

Poets Peter Carpenter and Matt Nunn, whose new volumes After The Goldrush and Sounds In The Grass are being launched, will be discussing their unique perspectives on the English landscape with poet and Director of the Warwick Writing Programme, David Morley, at the Kozi Bar, Market Square, Warwick, from 1pm.

Full reviews to follow in the next few weeks...

Monday, 28 September 2009

BBC Wildlife success

My poem Lullaby has been named runner-up in this year's BBC Wildlife Poet of the Year competition.

It's about swifts. When I was a kid, I wasn't at all keen on them, because of that screaming sound they make on summer evenings (thinking back, it's probably just because when you're little, you resent having to go to bed when it's still light outside, and they were a reminder of that). Now, though, they're one of my very favourite species, I think because they're such uber-birds - once they leave the nest, they might not land again for years. But anyway, a friend's young daughters were telling me earlier in the year that they didn't like the screaming noise, either, and the poem just came from that. Unusually for me, I wrote it very quickly.

I won't post it up here just now (because then you wouldn't buy the mag, would you?!), but the judges - last year's winner Chris Kinsey, Poetry Please executive producer Sara Davies, Poetry Please senior producer Tim Dee, poet Philip Gross, BBC Wildlife editor Sophie Stafford, and performance poet Sarah Williams - said: "The sensitive paradox in this poem is that while seeming to offer homely comfort, it comes as an expanding vision of nature and weather that does, as it says, throw the window open on the world".

I'm highly delighted because it's the second time I've managed second - in 2007 Hares In December, which appeared in my collection Troy Town, occupied the same place.

The winning poem, A Murmuration, by Heather Reid, is excellent, I think. It's concerned with flocking starlings, quite a common image in a lot of poetry (and songs) these days, but I really like the way the poem itself shifts pace and shape in imitation of its subject. A worthy winner.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Tethers, by Carrie Etter

Carrie Etter’s debut collection, The Tethers, was published by Seren earlier this year. Originally from Normal, Illinois, Carrie Etter now lives in Bradford on Avon and teaches creative writing at Bath Spa University.

I interviewed her by email about the book, her writing and teaching, and her future plans. Read on to find out more (there's also a couple of sample poems too)...

The Tethers
struck me as remarkable for its maturity – it feels far more rounded and focused than most first collections. How long were you honing these poems for?

Thank you, I’m pleased to hear that. I started collecting poems under the title Cult of the Eye in the autumn of 2002, so the book’s been evolving since then, with five poems pre-2000. I suppose the book’s maturity derives partly from the amount of time the book itself was evolving and partly from the amount of time I’ve been writing – I’ve been serious about poetry since my teens and I turned 40 this year.

I guess readers and critics must immediately be drawn to your transatlantic background in talking about your poetry (and I’m not going to be any different, sorry!). I’d be interested to know if you feel it’s allowed you to sit happily between some of the more entrenched camps in UK poetry?

I think the pluralist attitude to poetry of my generation of American poets has led me to pursue in both reading and writing a broad spectrum of poetries, and to wish there was less prejudice here, especially in regard to more experimental work. I don’t know how happily I’m sitting between camps, but I do what I can to get them to talk to one another, so to speak, and feel my position as a reviewer is helpful toward that end.

I’ve worried about the great difference among my first three books – The Tethers; Divining for Starters, a more experimental collection; and Imagined Sons, a strongly thematic collection consisting of prose poems and catechisms, but finally decided that I have to pursue my work, my desire to become a better poet, wherever it leads, regardless of response. That’s not to say I won’t pay attention to that response – I have so much to learn – but that I won’t let it narrow my options. A great part of the joy of poetry lies in its wild possibility, and that should be cultivated rather than tamed.

It’s had an obvious effect on your subject matter, too, but another thing I really enjoyed about the collection was your ability to slip between, and document a certain tension between, the urban and the rural. Do you feel you belong in one or the other?

I am heartened to hear that this issue is apparent in the book, as it’s integral to who I am. The answer to your question is that I feel I belong in both, I need both. Tonight, on a visit to my hometown in Illinois, I took a night walk, to the sound of cicadas and crickets, with my 12-year-old nephew Brandon; heading in the direction of my parents’ house meant that we were heading toward the fields. I took so much solace in that walk, in the easy conversation along the way and the noisy quiet surrounding it. At the same time, I crave the stimuli that comes with the urban, with its abundance of specificities and push for quality.

Could you tell us a bit about the process of publishing with Seren? What kind of editorial input did you receive?

I didn’t receive a great deal of editorial input, but I don’t know whether that is the norm at Seren. The poetry editor, Amy Wack, differed with me most on some of my syntactical constructions and on my use of dashes. On the former, I resisted because I felt the revisions would have normalized the syntax in a way that was untrue to the poems; on the latter, some of my dashes stayed, others were not instituted. All in all I’ve been happy in my experience with Seren, and I’m especially glad to be on a list stronger for the presence of a number of younger, intelligent women poets, Kathryn Gray, Zoe Skoulding, and Tiffany Atkinson among them.

I’m interested to know how teaching creative writing affects your own writing, both in purely practical terms (does it leave you enough time?!), and in terms of there being an ongoing exchange of ideas.

I believe teaching poetry makes me more alert in the process of writing and revising poems, as the precepts I’ve been teaching will be that much more present, consciously or unconsciously, as I work. Practically speaking, I find it impossible to write when I’m marking; something about the process of explaining to others the strengths and weaknesses of their writing inhibits my own ability to create. As far as time goes, I’m on a fractional, 0.7 contract, which means money is tighter than I’d like but I have more time to write. The exchange of ideas in teaching writing has been extraordinary; it keeps me thinking and questioning and reconsidering. I wouldn’t do anything else. The ultimate test, the lottery test, works here: if I won the lottery, I’d still teach, just less so as to allow more time for other activities.

Could you tell us a bit about your future publishing plans? I understand you’re going to be pretty busy.

Remember I’ve been writing, reading, and publishing for over 20 years before bringing out my first book, so there’s something of a backlog. Next month Oystercatcher Press will publish a pamphlet, The Son, that draws on my third book manuscript, Imagined Sons. I hadn’t planned on bringing out another pamphlet so soon, but Oystercatcher’s editor, Peter Hughes, asked me to submit, and I knew this was the work I wanted to show next.

In early 2011 Shearsman Books will bring out Divining for Starters, my second book. A draft of my third, Imagined Sons, has been by a couple poet-friends, but needs a little expansion, I think, and a final overhauling revision, before publication. The manuscript I’m actively writing, focusing on family, identity, one’s relationship to a home environment, etc., will presumably be my fourth book, The Weather in Normal. Suffice it to say I’m rarely wanting for something to write about!


Forced to apologise
for the dirty sheets, he looks

proud in his shame.
I left that bed years ago

and have returned to collect
a forgotten book, a favourite blanket.

He knew the names of trees better
than makes of cars, but neither well.

He remembers which sister
I like least and asks

how she is doing.

Americana, Station by Station

At our lowest price today only
vote Appelman for the school board
the Lakers beating San Antonio by 39 points
your sins will be forgiven

on mattresses all your favourite brands
because as a teacher he knows
in the fourth quarter a few minutes to go
so long as you accept Christ as your lord

name-brand comfort at a great value
what students need and parents want
yet another rebound - let's see that again
you are saved, I tell you, you are saved

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Two Poems

I've got two new poems, Uchronie and Variations On A Theme By J A Baker, over at the glorious treasure trove of poetry and criticism that is Gists & Piths.

J A Baker, for those who aren't familiar with the name, was a librarian who wrote a book, The Peregrine, that still stands in a class of its own where nature writing is concerned. Published in 1967, it's pretty much an extended prose poem on the Essex coastal landscape, the British winter (remember that?), obsession, and of course the birds of the title. Robert Macfarlane's piece on it here pretty much says it all, really, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

The book is still available, either by ordering that NYRB version on Amazon, or by scouring secondhand bookshops for the original or the various later editions that followed in the late 60s and 70s. Baker did write a follow-up, The Hill Of Summer, and while it's not at all bad, it doesn't really live up to the expectations created by his masterpiece.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Lee Harwood

Lee Harwood: Not The Full Story – Six Interviews by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman)
The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, edited by Robert Sheppard (Salt)

Shearsman’s publication of Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems in 2004 kickstarted a new wave of interest in a writer who, in truth, should never have been off the radar in the first place. Harwood’s unique position as a direct link between the New York School and non-mainstream British poetry should have been enough, on its own, to keep him in the eyeline of anyone with an interest in contemporary poetry, but these two books help confirm his stature as a major figure.

The Shearsman volume here, published to coincide with a Selected Poems released earlier this year, takes a broadly chronological approach to Harwood’s career, with Kelvin Corcoran leading Harwood gently through his collections.

One of the things that makes it so enjoyable a journey is that Corcoran, himself a fine non-mainstream poet (and like Harwood, one whose work is wonderfully multi-layered but rarely deserving of the dreaded adjective ‘difficult’), eschews too journalistic or academic an approach. Instead, the whole thing reads very much like the relaxed discussion of two friends (which I’m sure it is), and in taking such a casual tack, Corcoran gets as close to the heart of the matter as you suspect anyone might.

Harwood sheds plenty of light on his writing methods, the background to much of his poetry (particularly the contraction and dissolution of the British Empire, obliquely referenced in much of his earlier work), his (thoroughly professional) approach to readings, and his connections to the US avant-garde scene.

Two things struck me. One is that Harwood rarely seems to have thought in terms of the binary division of British poetry that so often gets talked about. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have something to say about how certain sections of the mainstream have ignored or sidelined certain sections of the avant-garde, but he seems acutely aware that both the two main camps are subdivided into countless smaller groupings, and to have seen his own poetry as being exactly what it is, and no other, carrying connections to all directions. When, on one or two occasions, Corcoran does aim a jab or two in the direction of famous mainstreamers, it comes across as unnecessary sniping, not least because Harwood doesn’t get drawn into it.

Secondly, Harwood talks about his dislike of the poet intruding into the poems too much (both when he’s writing and reading them), and indeed his knack of removing himself from centre stage is, I suspect, one of the things that appeals most to readers about his poetry. He mentions the use of personas and multiple points of view to do this, but nevertheless you are struck by how much the Harwood of the interviews resembles the Harwood that you imagine from the poems – deeply humane, incurably curious, quietly humorous, and thoroughly good company.

That’s not to say, by the way, that he’s unsuccessful in taking himself out of the poems – far from it. In fact, I think it just shows how subtly the trick is done, and how deceptively easy he makes it look.

Poems particularly relevant to a number of the interviews are dotted throughout the book, plus a few photographs that largely absolve Harwood of the crimes of fashion and coiffuring that might be expected of a poet whose career stretches back to the early 60s, but for the most part this book does just what it says on the cover, and does it very well.

The Salt volume, on the other hand, collects together an interview with Harwood plus 12 essays from a variety of critics and fellow poets. They all tackle different, sometimes radically different, aspects of Harwood’s work, so while there’s a certain amount of overlap, each is self-contained enough to make this perfect for dipping into.

I won’t even attempt to encapsulate everything that’s here, but I particularly enjoyed Robert Sheppard and Geoff Ward’s essays, the former for its tracing of a Puritan/Cavalier tension in Harwood’s work, the latter for its look at the opposition between wide-eyed innocence and a more knowing, self-consciously literary approach.

Andy Brown’s eco-critical reading of Harwood is probably the highlight for me, though, as he attempts to get to the roots (pardon the pun) of the poet’s relationship with a wider community and with the natural world.

Again there’s an opposition, this time between the city and the country, but Brown also touches upon how Harwood’s poetry often subliminates the self into the landscape. He also set me thinking about how (and I’ve mentioned this before) Harwood often seems to use nature and the rural landscape to remind himself of just how various the world is. While Sheppard, earlier on, talks about Harwood enjoying the “seductions of puritan enumeration” in his listing of bird calls within a poem, you get the feeling that there’s more to it than satisfying a cataloguing impulse.

What else can I say? Nothing really, other than to make the obvious point that if you’ve enjoyed the poetry of Lee Harwood, you’ll also enjoy both these books a great deal, providing as they do a long overdue setting of his work in a wide context.

STOP PRESS: Just before I posted this, I was searching on iTunes for Julian Cope albums. For some reason, the search also turned up Writers At Warwick, from which you can download lengthy interviews and readings from the likes of Lee Harwood, David Morley, and Ann Stevenson. So I did.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Heads up 2

Tom Chivers will be uncovering the truth about Barry McSweeney on a programme for BBC Radio Four this Sunday, at 4.30pm. You can click here for more on the life of a man who was a leader of the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s, and whose reputation seems to be going from strength to strength. I bought Bloodaxe's excellent career summary Wolf Tongue last autumn, and have enjoyed it a great deal, going back to it again and again. It's not necessarily the sort of poetry you're going to be directly influenced by, simply because it's so utterly individual, but it's an absolute must.

Heads up 1

HappenStance poet Gill McEvoy, whose pamphlet Uncertain Days I've sung the praises of in the past, has a blog, here.

Gill has a full collection, The Plucking Shed, forthcoming from Cinnamon Press next year, but in the meantime have a browse.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Back at Brixworth

As I mentioned previously, I was over at Brixworth, in Northamptonshire, last week, to see the seventh century church (I think there’s some historians who feel that it might date to the latter part of the eighth century, but whatever, it’s really pretty impressive).

Now I know next to nothing about architecture of any period, including early Anglo-Saxon, but even at first glance the church of All Saints is hugely imposing. Imagine it without the spire, and the tower, and you have a pretty fair picture of how it would have appeared in, say, the reign of Offa, King of Mercia. There’s a real basilican feel to it, a reminder of the huge influence that Rome continued to exert, through the Church, right through the so-called Dark Ages. Now I live close to the Anglo-Saxon church at Breedon on the Hill*, and while it scores high for its dramatic location and its superb sculpted friezes, Brixworth leaves it some way behind for sheer grandeur. Some detect the hand of St Wilfrid, a man much given to grand gestures, behind it, and if you accept the earlier building date, that’s quite possible, as he served as a bishop in Mercia for many years (and is, I think, buried at Oundle, not too far away).

There’s also a sunken ambulatory, or ring-shaped crypt, thought to have been used to allow worshippers to view relics, possibly those of St Boniface (and Anglo-Saxon missionary to Germany, martyred in Frisia).

While I was there, I bought a number of pamphlets containing some of the annual Brixworth lectures, on a variety of subjects relating to the church and its Anglo-Saxon past. In one, it mentions that some of the stone used in the building comes from here in Charnwood Forest, possibly having first been used in some of the buildings of Roman Leicester, notably the Jewry Wall. Recycling, seventh century style.

NB: Breedon, someone once told me, actually consists of two word-roots, both meaning 'hill'. I may have mentioned this before - I just noticed that this is the 500th post I've made on Polyolbion, so possibly I'm beginning to repeat myself.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Kreativ Blogger

Thanks very much to Caroline Gill, of Caroline at Coastcard, for nominating me for a Kreativ Blogger award. My task now is to nominate seven more blogs for the award, not an easy task, because I can think of at least twice as many quality blogs that I visit pretty much on a daily basis. So I'm going to give it some thought, and return to it a bit later in the week (I'm aware that my blogging backlog is building up again - I have a post on Brixworth and another on Lee Harwood to finish and post).

In the meantime, go and have a browse through Caroline at Coastcard - it touches on all manner of literary and wildlife matters, has a distinct Welsh flavour to it, and puts bloggers like myself to shame with its regular updates.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Philippine flashback

Over at Bill of the Birds, Bill Thompson III has been blogging about Birdfair and the Philippines. Have a read, and even more importantly, listen to his podcast interview with Lisa Marie Paguntalan. It's a great story - moving and inspiring for anyone interested in conservation.

The picture of us in the Phillippines (I'm hiding under a Tilley Hat) was taken at the entrance to the Subterranean River on Palawan. David Tipling, one of the world's top bird photographers, is lurking at the back, having just fallen into the sea while trying to get out of the boat. Good job it was warm.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Captain Pouch and the Newton Rebellion

Feeling a bit more perky, and with the weather looking up too, I got in the car yesterday and went wandering. First, to Groby Pool, in a vain attempt to track down a Redstart (did see some lovely Spotted Flycatchers, though), but then on into the depths of previously unexplored Northamptonshire.

My target was Brixworth, a village containing what has been called the finest seventh century church north of the Alps.

It's to my great shame that I've never actually been there before, not even back in my university days when I was studying Anglo-Saxon history (the Mercian church was even my specialist subject), but it was worth the wait. More of that tomorrow, though, because on the way back, I couldn't resist a detour to a favourite, and rather less celebrated, historic site.

Newton is a tiny village between Kettering and Corby, situated down a dead-end lane. Its church, St Faith's (pictured above), is in a rather isolated position, down a small track in the middle of horse paddocks, with what's left of Rockingham Forest close by on all sides. Red Kites and Rooks fly overhead, and far away you can hear the traffic dashing past on the dual carriageways, but there's precious little sign of life otherwise.

The church is, in fact, a field studies centre, but the fact it's there at all is down to the efforts of the late JL Carr, novelist and Kettering headmaster, who battled to save it from demolition. That he did was partly because he was aware of Newton's hidden history.

For a few days, in the late spring of 1607, it was the centre of a peasants' rebellion that caused James I considerable concern, and resulted in the deaths of at least 40 villagers. The uprising was led by the mysterious figure of Captain Pouch, and the participants described themselves as levellers and diggers, names that would crop up again later in the turbulent 17th century.

Carr mentioned what happened in passing in one of his novels (The Battle Of Pollock's Crossing - superb, and usually overshadowed by his best-known work, A Month In The Country), and for years I'd assumed that he'd invented it. Only fairly recently did I find out that it was all true, and begin to research what happened.

I've also been writing a pamphlet-length sequence of poems, to accompany photographs by Tom Bailey, on the story of Captain Pouch, the Newton Rebellion, and the final, tragic slaughter at Goosepastures. Both Tom and I still have work to do, and I've been working fairly hard at revising some of the poems this week, but we're hoping that we'll be able to find a publisher at some stage.

But regardless of that, it's a fascinating and very tragic episode in English history. It's impossible not to feel for Pouch and his brave followers, latest in a long line of peasants willing to assert their rights in the face of arbitary rule by monarchs and aristocrats (their story reminds me of that of the villagers of Peatling Magna, not 20 miles away, who in 1265 arrested the king's marshal for "going against the commonwealth of the realm", just days after Simon DeMontfort and his forces had been bloodily scattered at Evesham). You even feel a little for Sir Edward Montagu, forced to suppress the rebels even though he had considerable sympathy for their cause. His family did take the Parliamentary side in the Civil Wars, but rather too late to avert the catastrophe that engulfed Newton and other similar communities.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Mark Goodwin: Else

Over the past year or so, I've seen Mark Goodwin read a couple of times, and he's been excellent on both occasions - entertaining, but also thought-provoking and genuinely enthralling.

I've recently finished reading his Shearsman collection, Else, and it fully lives up to expectations. He falls broadly into the non-mainstream/innovative camp, but what I enjoy about his work is that, while he attempts to stretch language into all sorts of new shapes, his concerns and ideas are always firmly grounded in the everyday, with a particular attention to ecological matters. He's a real master of the urban pastoral, too, or more precisely of documenting that fringe between the urban and the rural.

There's a real physicality to the language that it's impossible not to relish, and at times Goodwin coins evocative, spot-on word compounds that feel almost Anglo-Saxon, or like Old Norse kennings.

I will get round to writing a proper review of the book sooner or later, but for now there's one in the new issue of Tears In The Fence, which I've been enjoying. Other highlights for me so far include poems by John James and Luke Kennard.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Birdfair and more

I was at Birdfair over the weekend, and for the first time in ages it was blessed by three days of good weather. That meant that it was the busiest yet, but in between work and getting increasingly excited about the test match, it was good to catch up with a lot of old friends.

Since then, I've been struck down with the lurgy, so have only managed a brief bit of birdwatching over at Swithland Reservoir on Monday (mind you, there were six Black Terns there, plus a couple of Peregrines).

Staying in, sprawled on the sofa mainlining Lemsips, has allowed me to spend hours browsing The Birds of Leicestershire And Rutland, launched at the Fair. Now I'll admit that I can happily read pretty much any county bird atlas, but of course this one is special because it's my home county, and Rob Fray, Roger Davis, Dave Gamble, Andrew Harrop and Steve Lister have done a really fine job.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Read This!

I forgot to mention last week that there's a special London Poetry Festival issue of Read This magazine out now. Follow the link to find out how to get hold of a copy.

It includes poetry from McGuire, Rebecca Atherton, Joanne McKay, Alex Williamson, Susan and Miles Tepper, Sharon Harriott and Claire Askew. I've also got a poem, Effects, in there.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

It's that time of year again

I'll be at Birdfair, over at Rutland Water, tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, so pop along to Marquee 2 and say hello if you're there too. If I'm not there, I'll probably be hanging around the Peru stand, trying to get my hands on the free pisco sours.

Officially, it's work, but I'd be going anyway (although not all three days, admittedly), and this year we seem to have good weather for it. It does make it rather hot inside the marquees, but better that than a Glastonbury-style mudbath.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Beneath The Rime, by Siriol Troup

Siriol Troup comes from a Welsh family, but was born in Hong Kong and spent most of her childhood and teenage years abroad, in Africa, Germany, Holland and Iran. She read French and German at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and later returned there to teach 19th and 20th century French Literature.

Beneath the Rime
, from Shearsman, is her second collection of poems, following Drowning Up The Blue End, which was published in 2004 by Bluechrome. I interviewed her by email about the book and her writing in general. Read on to see the results, plus a couple of sample poems...

Could you tell me a little bit about your path to publishing your first collection?

I wrote a lot of poetry as a teenager but stopped when I went to university, and didn’t return to writing until after I’d had my four children. I was in the middle of trying to write yet another (terrible) novel, when a frozen shoulder left me unable to sit at a desk or computer for any length of time without being in agony. So I started writing poems again, mainly because they were shorter than novels and I could work on them at odd moments during the day. I sent some off to competitions, won a few prizes, which was very encouraging, and in 2002, I won the Poetry Monthly Booklet Competition, for which the prize was publication of a pamphlet of 25 poems (Moss) – which used up virtually everything I’d written since getting the frozen shoulder. A year or so later, Bluechrome wrote to ask if they could publish a first collection and in 2004 they published Drowning Up The Blue End.

Your own background is very cosmopolitan. How far has that helped you take a rather more oblique and original approach than your average British poet?

I suppose the main advantage of my background – living abroad and, more particularly, studying languages and European literature – is that my reading has been (and still is) very varied and I’ve always had to pay a lot of attention to semantics – the roots of individual words, their context, their connections, the cultural baggage they contain, the ghosts behind them. I once spent a whole afternoon listening to academics and translators discuss the difficulties of translating the German word unheimlich – that’s the sort of thing I find fascinating. I gave my husband the 20-volume OED for Christmas and almost wish I hadn’t – it’s such a distraction.

Many of the poems in the new collection are written in different personas – animal as well as human. Is this a way of tackling subject matter that might be more difficult to approach from a more obviously personal point of view?

Using different personas probably comes from my background in languages. I’ve got used to putting on voices, inhabiting minds other than my own. Getting under the skin of an elephant in the Coliseum or a dog hauling sledges to the North Pole opens up a whole world of possibilities, which is liberating for me as a writer and, I hope, for the reader too. It’s got to be more interesting than always droning on about myself. And as you suggest, it’s a way of approaching difficult subject matter more obliquely – death, sex, politics of gender, the sort of issues that might sound strident or pretentious if expressed in my own voice.

I particularly enjoyed the Infanta poems. Do you approach a sequence like that with a clear idea of how it will be structured, or is it more a case of worrying away at the same itch because you're continually drawn back to it?

Worrying away at an itch describes it perfectly. I’d done a lot of research on the Infanta and her family, and on Velázquez and his painting techniques, and I knew I wanted the sequence to have a loose narrative structure, but I had no idea how many poems I’d need (or be able) to write. I wrote about a dozen, then stopped and went on to other things. But I found I couldn’t get the Infanta out of my head, so I went back and wrote some more. From time to time, I still play around with a couple of poems I left out of the final sequence.

Tell us a little about your writing process – I liked very much the fact that, despite the strong narrative threads in many of the poems, you always allowed language to take centre stage. That seems to me to require a very difficult balancing act between careful crafting and spontaneity.

When I first have an idea for a poem, I try to sit on it for a few days before I start writing. The first draft usually comes quite quickly, then I put it away and come back to it later – weeks or even months later, if possible, so that I can look at it objectively and see what works and what doesn’t work. I rewrite obsessively, often going through dozens of drafts, but I try not to leave the original draft too far behind because those first sparks, although they’re often clumsily or ponderously expressed, are what give a poem its energy. A handful of poems in Beneath The Rime came fairly quickly – Detachment, Caged Elephants, Wall and some of the Infanta poems, for example – but the majority took me years to finish. Even now, I’m still working on poems I started six or seven years ago.

What was the process of publishing with Shearsman like? Was there a lot of editorial guidance?

Publishing with Shearsman has been wonderful. I can’t imagine a better experience. To give you an example: when Tony Frazer took Beneath The Rime, he told me he needed to trim the number of pages in the MS, and he pointed out five possible candidates for exclusion, though he was happy to hear appeals in their favour. If he’d chosen what I considered the best poems in the book, I would have questioned not only my own judgement, but more importantly, his – but the poems he picked out were precisely the ones I had reservations about myself. Throughout the process, he’s been responsive and insightful without ever being overbearing. His cover designs are brilliant, and his commitment to poetry from all over the world is really inspiring.

Country Living

Monday to Friday we’re alone with the rabbits,
Madame and I. Up at dawn with the smell
of wet straw and piss-a-bed, the piebald does
spaced out on ammonia behind the wire.

I slip the bolts, hear them jolt as I enter,
a skitter of hearts and toenails, whiskery hysterics.
Madame smacks my wrist: speak to them gently,
reward them when they come.

She calls them each by name, nuzzles and smooches,
nibbles their loose fur, their dippy tails –
mes biches, mes pucelles, mes allumeuses.
I clean their water-bowls and disinfect their beds.

On Sunday, she blocks her ears and weeps
into the casserole. Monsieur lays down his fork
and strokes her hand, then tucks in with relish,
slurping the thick juice until it trickles down his chin.

Pauvre Geneviève!
I take the afternoon off, light a candle
to St. Gertrude, let a boy in the market-place
stick his fist up my skirt.

The night I leave, I fill the bowls with foxgloves,
ivy, corn-lilies, creeping butterweed.
Push my fingers through the mesh.
Watch them come to me like whores.

Thirst and Slake

End of summer: the earth crackling like bark,
every layer peeled back, keening for rain.

How long it goes on – this see-saw
of dust and water, thirst and slake;
the leafing and unleafing of the trees.

No wind tonight. The moths hang
in the dark like flowers waiting to drop.

What pleasure to feel the whisper
of the mosquito! – his sly harpoon,
the itch of blood and hide, the flooding
of proteins and saliva; to know there will be
nights like this – rich-scented, wanton
with favours; the rustle of limbs
before the rains begin.