Sunday 28 February 2010

Troy Town review

In the Winter 2010 issue of Leicester Poetry Society’s magazine, The Stanza, Charles G Lauder Jr’s review of Troy Town appeared. I really enjoyed reading it, and I’m grateful to Charles for such a thoughtful and perceptive assessment of the book. Here it is.

There is a pulling in Matt Merritt’s Troy Town, between poems about wildlife and those taking you on a tour of the Americas, and poems that lurk indoors, staring out at the world through a closed window, where what is pertinent is off-camera, a point on the horizon of lurking danger or darkness, the decision being whether to look at it straight on.

The opening poem, First Draft, poses that question when a seagull, an unseen landfill tip, and the start of snow are spied in this fashion: “It’s either that or go downstairs / and waste the best of the morning / raking out the ashes of a fortnight.” Hares In December awaits death (“their moment / still months away”), while The Morning Of The Funeral deposits its two stanzas either side of the visit to the crematorium. Curtains and Show, Don’t Tell speak of barriers to prevent the night from breaking in: “After dark, nothing got in or out” and “the night, raw and gaping / hammering, hammering on the skylight.”

It’s as if Merritt is building up courage to will himself out into the world, to take on the Sierras, the Andes, and even Sex After 36:

It’s different. They must have changed the rules
while you were off chasing

other interests…

When history is imagined in the poems, one can’t help but wonder whether we ever left home or are more part of a fevered dream: the fifth century setting of Federati, the seafaring delirium of Calenture, the delusions of grandeur secession from Australia of Hutt River Province. This reaches its peak in the title poem, which calls to mind not only the historic city, but English turf mazes, and the bewildered state of one’s own mind:

To put aside all thoughts
of dead ends, blind alleys, mental maps.
To put aside all thoughts.
Yet here we are,
on hands and knees again, penitent,
bent on special pleading to whatever
it is lies at the centre, certain only
there’s but one place this is heading.

Given the trips to Tahoe, Cotopaxi, and Hacienda Cusin, we do realise we have gone somewhere, and like the poet in the sonnet Revisited, return to an empty house in the same state as we left it:

The bicycle in pieces on the kitchen floor.
A mess of plastic carriers in the rucksack
on the door. Yesterday, today, tomorrow.

This is a quiet collection of poems, perhaps too quiet at times – purposely silent to hear the planet’s hum (Hummadruz, A Conspiracy Of Stones), or to observe the Paradise Tanagers, Red Knots, Redstarts and other birds wonderfully described throughout the book:

And they’re airborne again,
only now they’re more
a shimmering shoal of sand eels,
dissipated in a second, disappearing momentarily,
a stubborn collective thought of explosive energy.

Saturday 27 February 2010

The Anthologist

Earlier in the week I finished reading Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist. To be honest, it struck me as an intriguing and always fascinating essay on poetry, rather pointlessly dressed up as a novel.

In brief, the anthologist of the title is Paul Chowder, a middle-aged US poet who is supposed to be writing an introduction to the anthology he has put together. He’s not getting far, though, as he keeps putting off actually starting to write it, and to make matters worse his girlfriend has left him.

And there, I suppose, was my problem. The story and characters just weren’t involving enough to make me really care – I found myself plodding grimly through those parts and waiting for the bits where he digresses into his own theories of poetry.

That part of the book is excellent. Even when I didn’t agree with him, Baker made a great case for his ideas, but some of his theories, especially on rhythm, seemed to make perfect sense.

Which is all a long way of saying that any poet will probably find something to enjoy in this book, but they might also find themselves wondering why Baker chose to frame his ideas in quite this way.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Subscribe to HappenStance

I’ve said it before, and I am of course biased, but HappenStance is one of the UK’s most consistently interesting poetry presses. I’m in awe of quite how one-woman publishing team Helena Nelson manages to maintain such a high-quality and increasingly prolific output, but she does, and it shows no signs of stopping in 2010.

Among the chapbooks coming out are Jon Stone’s Scarecrows and one from Tim Love, plus a debut chapbook from Matthew Stewart is due next year. The back catalogue, of course, includes pamphlets from Alison Brackenbury, Mark Halliday, Ruth Pitter, Michael Mackmin, Andrew Philip, James Wood, Rob Mackenzie, Gill McEvoy, Tom Duddy, Frances Thompson, Marilyn Ricci, Patricia Ace and Eleanor Livingstone (plus many more, including yours truly), and a really fine full collection from DA Prince.

For just £7.50 (in the UK, £12 elsewhere), you can subscribe to HappenStance for the year. For that, you get a chapbook of your choice and the latest instalment of The HappenStance Story, plus a discount on other books, and advance notice of and invitations to launches. You also get the satisfaction of supporting a great poetry publisher. Give it a try…

Tuesday 23 February 2010


Where to start? Well, the latest issue of Tears In The Fence arrived on Saturday. It's pretty much my favourite poetry mag these days - there's always a good range of poetry and a really extensive review section, so it takes weeks and weeks to get through, in the best possible way. It's still small enough to slip into a coat pocket, though - ideal for browsing in spare moments.

I've only skimmed it so far, but have enjoyed work by Simon Turner, Carrie Etter, Chris Torrance and Jackie Litherland. Still loads of stuff I haven't even touched on, though.

The latest issue of The Stanza, Leicester Poetry Society's in-house mag, also arrived. There's a generous review by Graham Norman of the reading by Pam Thompson, Lydia Towsey and myself back in November, and also Charles Lauder's equally generous and very perceptive review of Troy Town. I'll post it a bit later in the week.

Which reminds me, Graham Norman is one of the readers at the Members Night at LPS this Friday, along with Caroline Cook and Carol Leeming. It's at the Friends Meeting House, Queen's Road, Leicester, at 7.30pm.

Finally, there are some great pics of the Short-eared Owls at Cossington Meadows over at The Leicester Llama and at Soar Valley Birding.

Friday 19 February 2010

Coming soon...honest

I've not got round to writing that much of substance about poetry on here recently, for one reason and another, but I promise to do better over the next few weeks.

I'll have reviews of Michael McKimm's Still This Need, George Ttoouli's Static Exile, Karen Solie's Pigeon, and a number of chapbooks, and I might even manage to finally finish a piece I was writing about poetry on the page as a sort of musical notation for poetry read aloud. You'll be begging for mercy, I warn you...

Thursday 18 February 2010

The race is on again

After last year's rather unseemly brouhaha (I've been dying to use that word - you can tell, can't you?), the contest to find the next Oxford Professor of Poetry is back on.

Of those mentioned in the Guardian article, I think I'd like Anne Stevenson to get it - she's one of those poets who seems to transcend a lot of the divisions in the poetry world. I wouldn't be unhappy with Geoffrey Hill, though, but I hope that's not Clive James angling for someone to beg him to stand. I should probably give his poetry a fair chance, but his crimes against TV are too many to mention.

Small presses in the spotlight

I've been meaning to post something about this event, flagged up here by Alan Baker. I think Nine Arches Press are going to be there too. Sounds well worth a look.

A cricketing Eden

When I was a kid, in the days when there was absolutely no cricket coverage in the winter (except occasional highlights programmes during Ashes series), I fed my cricket obsession in the winter by reading every cricket book in the local library.

My favourites were Christopher Martin-Jenkins accounts of various England tours. Two in particular stick in the mind. One was the story of their disastrous 1974-75 Ashes tour, and the other covered England’s 3-1 win in India in 1976-77, when Tony Grieg's young and improving side surprised everyone.

The bit that really sticks in the memory was the Second Test, at Calcutta (as it then was), when India started the last day just minutes away from a second consecutive defeat. Despite that, the Eden Gardens ground was packed almost full, roaring on the local heroes. I remember deciding there and then that one day I had to watch a test match at that venue.

So the Second Test at Eden Gardens that’s just finished, with India beating South Africa with minutes to spare, was another reminder that the death of test cricket may have been exaggerated. The atmosphere throughout was absolutely electric, so although limited overs and 20/20 cricket may reign supreme elsewhere in the subcontinent, Kolkata has evidently retained its appetite for the longer form of the game. And it’s rekindled my desire to go out there – I’m not bothered if it’s for an England test.

Monday 15 February 2010

Leamington Spa Shindig

I'm delighted to be reading at the next Nine Arches Press Shindig, at Wilde's Wine Bar, The Parade, Leamington Spa, on Sunday, March 14th.

It's the Leamington launch for Myra's new chapbook From The Boat, and as if that's not enough there's the added attraction of Luke Kennard, whose collections, including The Harbour Beyond The Movie and The Migraine Hotel, have met with critical acclaim and impressive sales. There are open mic slots available too (sign up on the night).

The Shindig schedule is now into full swing, alternating between Leamington and Leicester on a monthly basis. The next Leicester event is at The Looking Glass on Monday, April 12th - the line-up's almost confirmed, so watch this space.

Friday 12 February 2010

Just arrived

I love bookshops, of pretty much any kind, and I do try to make a point of buying there whenever possible. It's not just that I don't want to see them disappear, it's the fact that I like to have a browse through a book first. I also like to see what the book's like as a physical object - it's not a deal-breaker, but it's important.

Still, Amazon is a God-send, meaning that you can get hold of books that you'd otherwise never come across (and in the poetry world, there are a lot of those). This morning, a parcel arrived containing Philip Gross's TS Eliot Prize-winning The Water Table, and Canadian poet Karen Solie's third collection, Pigeon.

I've got her first two books - Short Haul Engine and Modern And Normal - and they're excellent, especially the latter. I sort of missed the publication of Pigeon last year, easily done since Canadian poetry gets even less coverage over here than most, so I'm looking forward to catching up. She's one of those poets who doesn't quite fit easy categories.

I also thought it was time to get a CD version of Dr Feelgood's classic Down By The Jetty - maximum rhythm 'n' blues, from the days when that meant sweaty blokes from Canvey Island cranking out their own high velocity take on the music that became rock 'n' roll. More punk than most punk ever was, and then some.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Special offer

It's turning into a long, long winter. You need something new to read to see you through those evenings by the fireside. So, now's probably as good a time as any to remind you that my first full collection, Troy Town, is still available. It's in hardback, with a glossy cover featuring Tom Bailey's photography, and you can buy it from Arrowhead Press, through Amazon, or direct from me.

I've also still got a very few copies of my chapbook, Making The Most Of The Light - it's sold out at the HappenStance site, but there are maybe half a dozen dotted around the house. They tend to go well at readings, so they won't be around for long.

Until the end of March, you can get them direct from me for £7 and £1.50 respectively, or £7.50 for both. Just email me at the link on the right, or get in touch through the comments box, and I'll send them out to you.

Monday 8 February 2010

Bitten by the Bittern bug

One of the side-effects of the hard winter is that certain birds usually known for their secretive and skulking behaviour can be seen a lot more easily. Woodcocks, for instance, of which I’ve seen more locally this winter than in the last 10 put together, and Bitterns.

There have been several around Soar Valley sites since around Christmas, but I’d managed to miss them every time, even the one at Swithland Reservoir that seemed impossible not to see, so small was the area it was frequenting. So, for a change, I went to the far side of my local patch yesterday, to Willington Gravel Pits in Derbyshire, where a Bittern has been seen on and off since early autumn.

Thing is, once I got there, I rather forgot about it. It’s a big site, and there was plenty else to divert my attention, and anyway the reedbed’s big enough that any Bittern can stay hidden for days at a time. I walked down to the first viewing platform, which overlooks an almost enclosed bay of the main lake, and after a scan of the water and the reedy fringes, started watching the nearby bird table. There were plenty of Reed Buntings, two Willow Tits (easier to find than March Tits in my part of the world), and several Robins and Dunnocks.

At one point, there was the sound of movement in the reeds behind me, but careful scanning revealed nothing, and when a Water Rail started squealing from the same area, I assumed it had been responsible for the whole commotion. I returned to watching the table, which now had a couple of Bullfinches in attendance.

Then there was the sound from the reeds again, and I looked round to see a Bittern flying almost straight towards me. Bizarrely, it seemed not to have even noticed I was there, even though the viewing platform is really rather prominent, and it got to within 15 yards before suddenly veering right then sweeping round in a wide curve, and finally dropping out of sight into a ditch. They’re really glorious birds, and always look more golden than you expect.

After that excitement, anything else was always going to be an anti-climax, so a single Stonechat, four Oystercatchers and a couple of Shelducks were no more than pleasant diversions. But out on the far side of the water, patient grilling of a flock of dozing Pochards produced a pair of Pintail, also asleep with their heads tucked out of sight. They’re not a duck we get very often in the East Midlands, so it was a nice tick.

As it turned out, my regular Soar Valley site, Cossington Meadows, had a Bittern, two Pintail, two Little Egrets and the three Short-eared Owls yesterday, but I’d bet my house that the Bittern wouldn’t have shown if I’d gone there instead!

Poetry miscellany

Friday night, I was at Leicester Poetry Society for a reading by Alex Pryce, a young Northern Ireland-born poet who’s currently a student at Leicester University, as well as running PoetCasting in her spare time.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, not really having heard any of it before, and I’m sure she’s a name you’ll hear a lot more of in years to come. She seems to have a very sensible attitude, though – she’s in no hurry to rush a book or even pamphlet out, even though what we heard suggested she has a lot of strong material.

She also played several poets from the PoetCasting site, and as it happened they were all (with the exception of Milner Place), poets I hadn’t yet got round to listening to. I particularly liked the truly extraordinary Hannah Silva, and Richard O’Brien, but it was all just a reminder that it’s a great resource, and a good way of getting a taste of new poets that you can then go off and read.

On Saturday, I was at Coton Manor, in Northamptonshire, for Charles Lauder’s Trees and the Imagination workshop. The fog barely lifted all day, but it didn’t really matter. We discussed a lot of tree poems*, walked in the woods, and wrote for a while ourselves, and I left with the makings of a poem that I’ve been trying to write for a while now. Most importantly of all, the carrot cake was exquisite.

For the rest of the weekend, I wrote a bit more (although not nearly enough), and read. The latest issue of Blackbox Manifold is now up – have a browse.

* One of the poems in the little booklet that we didn’t get round to discussing was John Ashbery’s Some Trees. I’m not usually a huge fan of Ashbery (or at least, he’s my least favourite of the New York poets), but I did enjoy reading this several times yesterday. I should probably re-read a bit more of his work.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Alex Pryce and more

Alex Pryce, the driving force behind the very wonderful PoetCasting, is reading at Leicester Poetry Society, Friends Meeting House, Queen's Road, Leicester, tomorrow at 7.30pm. I've not heard her before, partly because she spends a lot of her time dashing around the country recording other poets, so it'll be good to finally catch up with her.

Also, De Montfort University's Cultural eXchanges programme is out (although I don't think you can book until Monday). March 4th has a talk by Chris Hamilton-Emery, of Salt, on the 10th anniversary of the major independent publisher (daytime, unfortunately, but I'll try to take the day off), as well as a later reading by John James, Tom Raworth and Simon Perril. I've raved on here about James recently, so that's an absolute must.

Monday 1 February 2010

Owls, yet again

I'm owling mad, me. No, really - they're among my very favourite birds.

Very poor jokes aside, I spent yesterday trekking round my local patch, attempting to kickstart my 2010 list, and to prevent my increasingly dodgy back from seizing up altogether.

It worked on both counts, with the early highlight being a good look at a lovely drake Smew at Swithland Reservoir. It took a while to find it, watching from the dam, because it was tucked in right underneath the overhanging vegetation along the Kinchley Lane side of the res, so I walked over that way and, as it gradually made its way out into open water, was able to get great scope views of it in all its cracked-ice glory.

Most of the rest of the day was spent mopping up some fairly bread-and-butter birds, but on most of my birding trips this winter, I seem to have been magnetically attracted to Cossington Meadows, and its Short-eared Owls (although there was also the hope that the Bittern found by John Hague the previous day would still be around).

It was a gloriously clear, sunny day, and as I entered the reserve and walked over towards Rectory Marsh at about 3.45, I could see a white shape flitting around behind the trees. As I got closer, it was revealed as a Barn Owl, and a very pale one at that, hunting along the hedgerows and occasionally perching on a fencepost. I watched, along with a couple who’d made the trip over from South Derbyshire, and caught sight of a crow mobbing a large bird high in the distance. To my surprise, it was one of the Short-eareds. Surprise, because for most of the winter they’ve been waiting until it’s almost dark to come out, and because you don’t usually see them at any great height.

So, we trooped round to a position overlooking Swan Meadow, and stood with half a dozen other birders as the show commenced. The mobbing had finished, so the SEO descended to its usual level and started quartering the rough grass. Another Barn Owl appeared, this one much darker and more orangey on its back, and for the next hour, we were able to watch up to three SEOs and three Barn Owls hunting nearly non-stop. It was very noticeable, especially when they glided close in, that there was a considerable colour difference between the Short-eareds, too, with one appearing much lighter than the others.

I finally gave up when I realised I was getting positively dizzy with cold (or was that just with the experience and with having my eyes pressed up to my Swarovskis for so long?). There was a fantastic sunset over Charnwood Forest, with what seemed like every possible colour bleeding into each other, and after 15 minutes thawing out in the car, I drove home, enjoying the extra bonus of a Woodcock in perfect silhouette as it flew across the road between Bradgate Park and Swithland Wood.

Title contenders revisited

Well, my poll on titles for poetry collections has now closed, with a clear preference being shown for wacky or surreal titles, followed by one-word titles, followed by titles on the model of The (Blank).

Not exactly the biggest survey sample, to be fair, but it did confirm what I’ve been thinking – that choosing a title that, first and foremost, makes your book stand out from the crowd of poetry releases might be the best idea.

Thanks to all those who voted.