Sunday, 29 March 2009

Old Red Eyes is back

There's a Black-necked Grebe, in full, glorious summer plumage, like the one pictured, at Swithland Reservoir at the moment. It's relatively easy to see, but quite hard to get close to, because from the best viewing point, the railings on Kinchley Lane, there's far too much willow scrub in the way to get a decent view. A bit further down, towards the dam, though, it's possible to get long, unobstructed views of it at a reasonable distance, bobbbing around on the choppy waters with a few of the Goldeneyes that are still hanging around.

There was a Black-necked in the same part of the reservoir early last autumn, so I wonder whether this is the same bird, stopping off again on its journey up to its breeding grounds. Whatever, it's a great bird to see on patch, with that bright red eye (in some parts of the country, it used to be known as Old Fiery Eye) standing out even at extreme range. In fact, although I've seen quite a few winter-plumaged birds relatively locally, this is the best summer-plumaged example I can recall.

UPDATE: I think the grebe is still around at Swithland, but the longer evenings mean I can now do a bit of birding on the way home. Last night I stopped at Cossington Meadows - there were two Little Ringed Plovers on Plover Meadow, a couple of Redshanks there, plus four Lapwings, and a fine male Wheatear on the scrubby area at the top end of the main track. Oh, and a male Blackcap in the hedge opposite the entrance. Migration is well and truly on, I reckon.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Terrors - Tom Chivers

London poet Tom Chivers has a new chapbook – The Terrors – published by Nine Arches Press this week.

It takes as its starting point the Newgate Calendar (which itself appeared partly in chapbook form, appropriately enough), with Chivers writing emails to some of the mad, bad and downright unlucky who ended up in the infamous London prison in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

He handles the obvious anachronism well, using the email device not as a gimmick, but to move rapidly back and forth between past and present and allow the reader to make up their own mind about the similarities between our own society and the one of 200 years ago. It’s very much a case of showing rather than telling, and it’s very effective.

That’s not to say that this is stodgy social comment, though. A real pleasure is the fact that the poems allow you, as you read, plenty of space to create your own back stories to the characters within (sometimes a mere name is enough to spark if off). For all my enjoyment of the history, it’s this aspect that’s the most appealing part of the work, I think, requiring as it does imagination on the part of both poet and reader.

The emails take the form of prose poems (without getting into that old debate about what a prose poem is). Another of the things I enjoyed most was the tension between the compressed, shorthand form of the typical email, and the poet’s instinct to wax lyrical. It results in a sense of language only just being kept under control (and at times it glimpses freedom and explodes into all sorts of unexpected allusions and associations). That tension, of course, mirrors the knife edge on which the gaol’s inmates are treading.

I've said before that I'm a sucker for most poetry/history crossovers, but this is one of the more successful I've come across, not least because Tom Chivers never loses sight of the fact that he's a poet. If he can win over a Londonphobe like me, what are you waiting for?

There's a launch reading for the book this Sunday - full details here.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Current reading

A couple of bits of non-poetry reading from the last few weeks...

Firstly, Blood And Roses, by Helen Castor. It looks at the famous Paston Letters, correspondence between members of a minor noble family in Norfolk in the 15th century. It's not exactly 'history-lite', but it's certainly not a dry academic text either, as Castor uses well-chosen excerpts from the letters to drive along a horrendously complex but very compelling narrative. She lets the characters of the family members come through, with the brave, indomitable Margaret and the patient, easy-going John III being particularly engaging. Above all, she foregrounds the surprising similarities between our own society and lives and those of 15th century England, without ever making any comparisons or labouring her point. Highly recommended.

Secondly, I've rediscovered this fine website, From Watford Gap To Camelot, after a few years away. It's a ramble across the middle of England, taking in all manner of historical and folkloric diversions (Fairport Convention even come into it, and that's never a bad thing). Again, well worth a few hours of your (employer's) time.

Friday, 20 March 2009

A date for the diary

On Sunday, June 14th, I'll be reading at Norwich Arts Centre as part of an event called The Birds and the Trees, staged by Cafe Writers.

I'm on at 3pm, with Katrina Porteous, who I've enjoyed hearing reading on the radio in the past, and whose sequence of poems about the foot and mouth outbreaks (the title escapes me just now) I particularly liked.

Later in the day, at 6.30pm, acclaimed poet Paul Farley will be reading with Norfolk-based nature writer Mark Cocker, whose magnificent Birds Britannica I've sung the praises of on here many a time. I saw Paul Farley do a John Clare-themed reading a couple of years back, and he was excellent, so I'm looking forward to hearing him again.

So, if you're anywhere around Norwich that day, some along and listen. I'll be reminding you ad nauseum when we get nearer the date, but then you knew that, didn't you?!

Flat Earth News

I've been meaning for a while to link to this post by fellow journo and poet James Wood, at I Am One magazine. It's as good a look at Nick Davies' book, Flat Earth News, as I've seen, and raises quite a few points that I'll follow up on in a couple of weeks.

The newspaper industry, in England at least, is very much in a state of flux at the moment, with titles disappearing almost daily, and some companies using the excuse of the current economic situation to settle a few scores with unionised employees. But the trouble is, as James suggests, journalists are often too prone to looking back at some mythical golden age in which 'the truth' was the only objective. Now I'm not saying things haven't got worse, but things have never been as clear-cut as some, including Davies, might suggest.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

More from the Philippines

I'm far too poor a photographer to take any worthwhile photos of birds, although I might post a few landscapes from my recent trip. But one of my fellow travellers, Bill Thompson III, editor of American magazine Bird Watcher's Digest, has been posting quite a few pics over at his blog, Bill of the Birds.

The falconet was a great bird, but the bee-eaters even better. To see a whole colony of them at such close quarters was a real treat, but keep an eye on Bill's blog, because there are plenty more to come.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Horizon Review

Issue Two of Horizon Review is available now by clicking here - it contains a veritable cornucopia of poetry, fiction, translations, art, interviews and other articles, with contributors including Daljit Nagra and Fiona Sampson, among others. It looks like building on the high standards set by Issue One, so have a look.

I haven't had chance to read much of it yet, but I enjoyed Simon Turner's review of Geraldine Monk and Tim Atkins, particularly his point that sometimes it's only because people tell you that a certain poet's work is difficult that you think of it as so. Come to it without any preconceptions, and you might never know. It's a good point, and one that I'll come back to on here in the near future, I think.

Oh, and I've got three poems - English Literature; January; and Dio Boia - in there. Hope you enjoy them.

The Smoking Poet

The Spring 2009 issue of The Smoking Poet is out now, and contains a couple of my poems (A Name For It and Live At The Hope & Anchor) among the usual variety of good new work. Have a read...

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Don't miss!

If you watch nothing else this week, make time for Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, on BBC2 at 10pm on Monday, the first of a new series.

It's been quite heavily written up in the papers over the past few days, with several of the writers wondering, as I have for years, why Lee has been off our screens for so long, but good on the BBC for seeing sense at last. I'd guess that the long absence has something to do with Lee's style - a distinct lack of actual gags, and a reliance instead on superb structure, timing and repetition - as much as his often controversial subject matter. But anyway, make the most of it.

Funnily enough, when I got back the other night, I went to see Lee's erstwhile comedy partner, Richard Herring, on his new tour, The Headmaster's Son. He's probably a more conventional comedian than Lee, but equally unafraid to tackle difficult subjects, and equally willing to trust his audience's intelligence. Like his last show (Oh F*ck I'm 40!), this one actually manages to be quite poignant in parts, but most of all, it's very funny.

Back home

I've been away in the Philippines for the last two weeks, on a 'fam' trip for work, and hugely enjoyable it was too. Very hot, lots of spectacular locations, very friendly people, and of course plenty of great birds, of which more later this week when I've had a chance to go through my lists. The only American member of our party, Bill Thompson III, has already posted a few pics here, at his excellent blog. I can be seen on one of them, complete with Tilley Hat, looking suitably baffled by something flitting around the forest canopy.

Never having been birding in Asia previously, most of the species we saw were new to me, with only a handful of familiar birds cropping up here and there. Among them were Yellow Wagtails (albeit a diffferent subspecies to the one we see here), which were common around the edges of paddyfields.

As it happens, they're the subject of this poem which appears in the new issue of Shit Creek Review. Have a browse through what's another fine issue.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Cricket poems

Reading through Tears In The Fence the other day, I found that SJ Litherland's poem was 'about' England batsman Ian Bell (well, he's just been dropped, but I'm sure he'll be back).

Now I know that some readers are going to be immediately turned off by the thought of cricket poems, and given that the game is one of those Marmite-style things that you either love or hate, that's fair enough. But me, I've got a soft spot for them, especially when they're good, as this one is.

Litherland also wrote a whole book of poetry, The Homage, concerned with ex-England captain Nasser Hussain, and it's great. Again, it probably helps if you're a fan of Nasser (I am - I liked him as a player and captain, and like him even more as a hopelessly partisan commentator), but it's the quality of the poetry that really makes it worth a look.

I reckon I've only written four cricket poems myself, the best, I think, being one about Yorkshire left-arm spinners Wilfrid Rhodes and Hedley Verity, but I daresay there'll be more at some stage.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Spring is sprung!

Well, OK, possibly it hasn't quite, but it is, thankfully, a lot warmer than a couple of weeks back, and the Spring issue of Umbrella has gone live - follow that link now to see it in all its tasteful glory. It includes the usual fine selection of poetry. One of my poems, Stanislav Petrov, is in there.

Oh, and of course, Happy St David's Day!