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.