Tuesday, 30 June 2009


Shame that Happenstance didn't get the Michael Marks Award in the end, but it was still a hell of an achievement to have been shortlisted, just reward for Helena Nelson's tireless efforts. And Oystercatcher are a really interesting press too - if you trawl through their titles, there's plenty of good stuff, not least that Kelvin Corcoran pamphlet.

But it's too hot for serious thought today. I just came across this on the BBC news site (scroll down to the story at the bottom). There used to be a similar pub in Hay on Wye, just next to the bridge. I can't remember its name, but it was basically a front room, stacked high with newspapers, and a couple of barrels of beer and cider. Last time I was there, it had been modernised. Sad.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Polyverse Poetry Festival: CAD to appear!

I've mentioned it before, but now Polyverse Poetry Festival has secured the new Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, for a reading, question-and-answer session, and book signing session on the evening of Saturday, July 25th.

The festival (which runs July 24th-26th) takes place at Loughborough University, and will also feature critically-acclaimed drama, readings by a large number of published poets, free workshops, and book signings, plus the opportunity to talk to publishers and editors.

I'll be reading (date and time to be confirmed), and I'm also running a workshop on Poetry and Place between 2pm and 4pm on the Sunday (26th).

Tickets are now on sale - £20 covers the whole festival, including all events and a workshop. Alternatively, you can buy a £10 ticket for Carol Ann Duffy and the Dreams of May show - both are included in the price.

All ticket enquiries should go to Helen Relf, on 01509 222 967, between 9am-5pm, or by e-mail to: h.l.relf@lboro.ac.uk

Friday, 26 June 2009

Poetry sales boost

Just came across this piece while web browsing. I had my misgivings about various parts of the BBC Poetry Season, but it's good to see that it's had some effect.

Interesting, though, that the big sales boosts mentioned there all refer to dead poets - one of my slight gripes about the season might have been that there was relatively little on living, active poets. Still, if it means more people are reading George Mackay Brown, I'm all for it.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Coren meets his match

Oh look! That nice Giles Coren (yes, the sensitive soul whose weekends are ruined by sub-editors who don't get his hilarious jokes, but who can't tell a stressed syllable from an unstressed), is at it again. This time it's poetry he's on about.

What's most disappointing is that when, once or twice, he touches upon an interesting angle, he quickly buries it under a load of badly argued (or not argued at all) generalisations. There are the usual lame attempts at humour, and thinly disguised sneering at anyone not fortunate enough to have enjoyed his own advantages (the most notable of which was a father with the right contacts in the media).

You'll have noticed that Mr Coren really gets my goat, and I was quite ready to explode into furious blogging action. Fortunately, a few minutes browsing revealed that Katy Evans-Bush has already posted a far more temperate, thoughtful and characteristically elegant response (see how she's used a bit of context in there, Giles? Try it sometime.). My only argument with Katy might be her description of him as a journalist. He's a bloke who writes in a newspaper, and that's quite different, I reckon.

Still, that does point up one of the newspaper industry's main problems nowadays - the fact that very often, 'name' columnists are outshone by high-quality bloggers out there. Read back through Katy's blog over the last six months (or however long), and you get a real idea of the vibrancy, range and relevance of poetry (and all sorts of contemporary literature, for that matter). Read back through his columns, and you get a real idea of his one interest - Giles Coren - which is why, in the end, he equates his not giving a toss about poetry with everybody else being similarly indifferent.

STOP PRESS: Just noticed that the chaps at Gists & Piths have picked up on it too. The comments are excellent. I think Jane Holland's dead right to point out that people not caring about poetry (we'd probably differ on how many people, and how much) is what liberates it to do things that other artforms often can't (that's what I meant about him failing to develop the interesting angles). Alan Baker, too, points out the usual bizarre inconsistency in newspaper coverage of poetry (poetry is dead and rubbish / poetry is the new rock 'n' roll), and also says the same sort of thing as I did - what exactly is the point of this type of column nowadays? And George Ttoouli hits the nail on the head, for me. As a writer, you might subscribe to Coren's views. As a reader, why would you care?

Cake corner

Martin Figura sent these photos of last week's The Birds and the Trees event at Norwich Arts Centre.

There's Mark Cocker and Katrina Porteous reading (and looking suitably passionate and inspiring).

It won't surprise anyone who knows me well, though, that I'm pictured holding a large dish of cake (a lovely moist lemon, rosemary and olive oil confection that Helen Ivory had made). I'm pretty sure that was a second helping, too.

Wet my lips

Things have been so busy the last couple of weeks that I've done very little birding. It is a quiet time of year anyway (although autumn migration has already begun - how depressing is that?), but I was still starting to get withdrawal symptoms.

So, on the way home last night, I thought I'd go looking and listening for the Quail reported near Groby Fishing Lakes. They used to be a species that I heard regularly each summer, but one of the best sites for them locally is now an opencast mine, so it's become rather hit or miss. I thought that I'd probably have to return to the site last thing at night, or first thing in the morning, but reckoned it was worth giving it a try at 6.15 on a Tuesday evening, even with the A46 and A50 in full, noisy flow just a few hundred yards away.

I walked past the lakes (busy with anglers) and started up the public footpath towards Anstey, and stopped at a stile to get my bearings and check the map, when quite close at hand a male obligingly called, an utterly distinctive, three-note call traditionally rendered as "wet my lips".

Seeing the birds is a different matter, so I edged into the field, along the footpath, stopping now and then to look down the tractor tyre trails in the hope of seeing a Quail dashing across them. I didn't, so I tried imitating the call. That involved all sorts of experimentation that would have made me appear a lunatic to anyone passing by, so it was just as well there was no one else in sight. And I had some success, getting at least two birds to call back, except that the longer it went on and the dryer my lips got, the worse my calls became (trying it again this morning, I can't even get close). In the end, the Quail clearly concluded either that I was a particularly weak and feeble-minded member of their species, or more likely that I was an idiot in a striped t-shirt who should have known better. They fell silent, and I went home to wet my lips, with gallons of strong tea.

It all set me thinking about the way birdsong gets written down (generally, field guides try to approximate the rhythm above all else, I reckon), so I'll return to that subject sometime soon. There's another one for the growing backlog.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Northern (high)lights

Back to work today, after a wonderful weekend in Edinburgh. The reading at Word Power on Saturday, with James Wood, Rob Mackenzie and Andrew Philip, was an extremely enjoyable affair. As so often seems to happen, despite having made our choices wholly independently, the poems we read clustered round a couple of definite themes – an illustration of the poet as social barometer, as James suggested.

It was good to catch up with Helena Nelson, and to meet Eddie Gibbons and Colin Will there, the latter in full highland dress and unquestionably the most smartly dressed man I’ve ever seen at a reading, a consequence of him officiating at Kevin Cadwallender’s wedding the same day (apropos of nothing, Cadwallender is a fantastic surname, isn’t it?). It’s not like anyone else looked too shabby, either, but Colin raised the bar for the rest of us to try to follow. He's a fine bird poet, too, which always gets my vote.

Afterwards, Andy and Rob headed off to do two more readings, and James and I took a more leisurely tour of the city, taking in all manner of architectural and real ale delights, and talking poetry all the way. A huge amount of ground – both literal and literary – was covered, and great fun it was too.

On the way back home yesterday, it struck me that I’ve got umpteen unfinished blog posts that I really need to get cracking on this week. So, coming very soon, expect pieces on The Salt Companion To Lee Harwood and Not The Full Story: Six Interviews With Lee Harwood, an appreciation of the splendid ONE magazine (go and appreciate it yourself in the meantime, at great length), and much more. Claire Crowther and Siriol Troup’s new collections arrived at the weekend, so they’ll feature too, and there are a few other books I’ve been itching to write about. Oh, and there'll be a few thoughts on the poetry business itself, and on selling your collection, in the light of the outstanding success Andy and Rob have had (Andy is already on the third print run of The Ambulance Box - most 'name' poets would be more than a little proud of that).

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Word Power!

Word Power, at 43-45 West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, plays host to a free feast of poetry this Saturday lunchtime.

Starting at 12noon sharp, I'll be reading along with fellow HappenStancers James Wood, Andrew Philip and Rob Mackenzie.

Rob's chapbook, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005. His first collection, The Opposite of Cabbage, was published by Salt in March 2009.

Andrew has published two poetry pamphlets with HappenStance - Tonguefire and Andrew Philip: A Sampler. The Ambulance Box, his first full-length collection, was published in March by Salt.

James W Wood’s pamphlet, The Theory of Everything, was published by HappenStance in 2006, and Inextinguishable by Knucker Press in 2008.

More information is available by following the link, but all you really need to know is that all three are very fine poets (and if you've been reading here for any length of time, you'll know why). We'll all have books available to buy, of course, so drop in.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Birds and the Trees

On Sunday I read at Norwich Arts Centre as part of The Birds and the Trees, an event organised by Café Writers. The sun shone, the turnout was excellent, and it was all a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, Paul Farley was ill and unable to make it, which meant a bit of a last-minute rejig, so Katrina Porteous and myself read two 15-minute sets each in the afternoon, then, after a very nice picnic out in the garden, we read for about 10 minutes each before Mark Cocker’s talk. To finish off, there was a brief Q&A session.

I’d heard Katrina read on the radio, but she’s one of those poets who can still surprise you every time with the power of her performance, and the depth of her material. She was genuinely hypnotic at times, especially in the poems which involved Northumbrian dialect, and she was ably assisted by Martin Figura (who had organised the event) on one piece which required two voices.

Mark’s Birds Britannica is, as I’ve said on here before, one of my favourite books, but this time he wasn’t reading from it or from the equally highly-praised Crow Country. Instead, he turned his attention to trees. One of the things I like most about his writing is that it’s sort of telescopic – it zooms in on very fine details and back out again, and in doing so of course makes all sorts of unexpected connections – and that was much in evidence here. I’ve been thinking since about a lot of the things he mentioned, and I’ll write more about it and how it applies to poetry and birding over the next few weeks. Oh, and Robin Hood even got a mention, too, and you know how much I like anything to do with that particular legend.

Finally, it was lovely to meet all sorts of new people, including Michael Mackmin, Aoife Mannix, Katrina and Mark, of course, and last but certainly not least, Martin Figura and Helen Ivory, who very generously put me up. I hope I’ll have the chance to reciprocate sometime, perhaps later this year when Martin’s book comes out with Arrowhead.

My set-lists, for anyone interested, were:

The Creek
Sevenling (“High on the windward hills”)
Scorpio Over La Selva
Troy Town
The Memory of Water
At Gedney Hill
Hares In December

Ringing Redstarts
Paradise Tanager
Yellow Wagtails
Another Bloody Poem About Birds
Raining, Craswall, Evening

The Meeting Place
West Leicester Lullaby

Oh, and I did a bit of birding along the North Norfolk coast on the way back yesterday, but the wildlife was rather overshadowed by an absolutely incredible thunderstorm. I was lucky that I wasn't caught out in it, so could just enjoy a real spectacle.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Keeping busy

Current reading
The Missing - Sian Hughes
Only just started, but it's excellent.
The Cut Of The Light - Jeremy Hooker
I'm still dipping in and out of this, and enjoying it a lot. His re-creation of landscape relies on cumulative effect, rather than memorable individual poems.
Collected Poems - Michael Donaghy
I've not read a great deal of his work in the past, but thought it was about time I checked him out more thoroughly. And I'm still undecided - when I like his work, I really like it, but when I don't, I really don't, if that makes sense.

Current listening
The Wanting Comes In Waves - The Decemberists
My favourite track off the awesome The Hazards Of Love album. Utter genius.
Underdog - Kasabian
I know, I know, derivative lad-rock, but I like it. They might even give Showaddywaddy a run for their money as Leicester's greatest musical exports.
Born In 69 - Rocket From The Crypt
I've just rediscovered their 1995 album Scream Dracula, Scream. It's great, and any track on which the backing vocals consist of "whooo...yeah" can't be bad.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Poetic Justice

US poet Annie Finch and UK poet Jane Holland have started the website Poetic Justice, which is described as "an activist website devoted to organizing actions for gender justice throughout the English-language poetry world". Follow the link to find out more...

Friday, 12 June 2009

Another reminder

Yes, yet another plug for this Sunday's reading at Norwich Arts Centre, along with poets Paul Farley and Katrina Porteous, and nature writer Mark Cocker. The Cafe Writers event starts at 3pm, with me and Katrina. Paul and Mark will read at 6.30pm.

Mark Cocker is the author of the wonderful Birds Britannica and Crow Country, Paul Farley you probably know all about (he popped up on A Poet's Guide To Britain this week), and Katrina Porteous is a voice familiar from the radio. I'll be reading a heavily nature-slanted set.

If you'd like to come along, bring a picnic. Drinks from the bar only until 11pm. Tickets for the first reading are £4, for the second £6, and for both, £8, and more details are here.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Review: Rougher Yet, by Tim Wells

Donut Press, 2009, £10

There’s a story, I think told by Simon Armitage, in which he turns up to do a reading at a school and is warned by the headmaster that “we don’t like poems with language in them”.

God knows what he’d make of Tim Wells, then, because Rougher Yet is crammed full to brimming with the stuff.

I don’t mean just the four-letter, Anglo-Saxon stuff, although there’s enough of that to frighten off any passing Ofsted inspector. No, it’s the way that Wells pulls off the trick – much attempted since Frank O’Hara, but a lot harder than it looks – of appearing to be noting down the stuff of everyday life as it happens.

In fact, even to say “noting down” is misleading, because it’s more like wandering down some high street in east London in that hour just after the shops close but before the pubs fill up, while Wells gives you a running commentary on his mobile.

But, and this is the crucial bit, the use of slang and colloquialisms always sounds natural. Perhaps that’s a consequence of Wells being a fine performance poet, but perhaps not – I tend to think a good poet is a good poet, full stop.

Whatever, I like the sound he makes. In London In Peace, “dippers fleece the crush”, while in Comin’ a Dance, “her bloke’s in a pony suit / and drek trainers”. There’s much more, but Wells trusts the reader to make of it what he will, the same as when he slips in snatches of patois and even Asian languages that reflect the intensely multicultural scenes he’s describing.

Where subject matter is concerned, it’s that vibrancy, that determination to celebrate life in all its dubious glory, that’s most appealing. A poem like Keep The Faith, celebrating the pleasures of his beloved reggae, ska and R&B, closes with the refreshingly unironic:

Nine-to-five drudgery,
Pain and heartbreak pounded out
On a powdered killing floor.

Fighting isn’t about hitting
it’s about getting hit.

This joy in my heart is the best revenge I have.

Music figures large, as do the delights of the greasy spoon caff, and if I have a complaint it’s that he’s so good at drawing significance and feeling out of seemingly mundane situations (you get the feeling that Wells knows that to write about London plainly and truthfully will inevitably touch on most things that matter) that one or two more self-consciously ‘serious’ pieces feel, well, self-conscious.

I’m going to undermine my own point, though, with the superb Now the Gate Fly. Here it is:

And what is left
when all this lust
sweats down to nothing?
A love, so subtle.
A love which has reached

its extreme. A love
become immaterial,
become the air
you breathe out
and I breathe in.

What’s that if not a serious, straightforward love poem? So, enjoy the humour, the tragedy, the absurdity and the poignancy (see closing poem There’s A Ghost In My House), and thank God Tim Wells isn’t afraid of a bit of language.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Norwich Cafe Writers Reading

Just another reminder that I'll be reading, along with poets Paul Farley and Katrina Porteous, and nature writer Mark Cocker, at Norwich Arts Centre next Sunday (June 14th).

The Cafe Writers event starts at 3pm, with me and Katrina, and after a suitable break for refreshments, Paul and Mark will read at 6.30pm.

There's a birding theme to the day, of course. Mark Cocker is the author of the wonderful Birds Britannica and Crow Country, so I'm looking forward to hearing him. I've seen Paul Farley talk about John Clare and read his own work before, and it was excellent, and Katrina Porteous is a voice familiar to me from the radio, so it promises to be a good day. My own set will be heavily weighted towards poems with a nature theme, too.

If you'd like to come along, bring a picnic (and your binoculars, if you like - you'd curse yourself if you missed a flyover Honey Buzzard, wouldn't you?). Drink from the bar only until 11pm. Tickets for the first reading are £4, for the second £6, and for both, £8, and more details are here.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009


Poets, eh? Never happy, are they? Having moaned for years about the lack of (serious) poetry programmes on TV, I’m now going to whinge that there’s too many for me to keep up with. The problem with the BBC’s Poetry Season is that it has coincided with the first decent spell of summer weather in about three years, the Cricket 20/20 World Cup, and Springwatch. OK, so I can try to catch up with things using iPlayer, but the download speeds are slow and if I’m not careful I just never get round to watching stuff.

It’s not a serious moan, but it would have been nice if they’d spread the programmes over a much longer period, I think.

But anyway, I’ll make the time to download and watch this week’s Poet’s Guide To Britain, which I was rather surprised to see was about Lynette Roberts. Pleasantly surprised, that is – I thought she was a bit too left-field to have made it on there. Good on Owen Sheers and BBC Wales for spreading the net a bit.

I did stay up, too, to watch Michael Wood’s programme about Beowulf. When I was a kid, Wood’s series and book In Search Of The Dark Ages played a big part in getting me interested in the Anglo-Saxon period. There then seemed to be a bit of a backlash against him (presumably on the grounds that he was making history too accessible), but I think that’s nonsense. His more recent book, In Search Of England, is really excellent, and I much prefer his take on the Anglo-Saxons to that of Simon Schama.

Highlights last night were Julian Glover’s one-man show of the poem (not sure I’d actually want to dress up as an Anglo-Saxon to hear it, mind you), and some of the more obscure byways he went down, such as the suggestion that the Black Shuck of East Anglian legend is none other than Grendel in another guise. Seamus Heaney was a bit underused, but on the whole it was good to see poetry and Anglo-Saxon history both getting a good crack of the whip, and Wood’s comments about the poem’s relevance today were spot-on. I’ll be re-reading Heaney’s translation soon.