Wednesday 31 March 2010

National Poetry Competition

Poet and novelist Helen Dunmore has won the £5,000 first prize in the National Poetry Competition with The Malarkey, having entered at the last minute "on an impulse".

You sometimes hear the view that poets who have "made it" shouldn't be entering competitions like this, that they should be reserved for bringing new poets to wider attention. I don't have a problem with it at all - I'd imagine very few poets or novelists in the UK have "made it" to the extent that they can afford to ignore the possibility of a £5,000 prize. And anyway, surely all entrants want to compete against the best.

That said, I was a bit dismayed by the comment from Ruth Padel that when they discovered who it was by, they "threw their hats in the air". It makes it sound as if they wouldn't have been just as pleased if it had been by a complete unknown (I'm sure that's not what she meant, but it doesn't sound good).

But anyway, I like the look of what I've read of the shortlisted poems so far, especially those by Jon Stone, Ian Pindar and Sam Riviere. It looks like a really strong, energetic list to me. The winner itself is growing on me too, although I think it does err on the side of being a bit too prosey in parts.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Shindig! in Leicester

It's that time again - the next Nine Arches Press Shindig is on Monday, April 12th, with readings from 7.30pm, at the Looking Glass, 68-70 Braunstone Gate, Leicester LE3 5LG.

The featured readers this time around are Myra Connell, Lydia Towsey and Simon Turner. It's another varied and very entertaining bill, I think - we're lucky to have three such talented poets in town together.

Lydia Towsey is a poet and performer. Commissions include: Freedom Showcase in 2007 and Beyond Words in 2009. Residencies include two weeks with Theatre Royal Stratford East and years inside Leicester’s coffee shops... Lydia has performed with John Hegley, Jean Binta Breeze and Keorapetse Kgositsile, the South African Poet Laureate. Her latest publication is within The Great Grandchildren of Albion (a forthcoming project of Michael Horovitz). She comperes and coordinates WORD! the longest-running East Mids poetry night ( and in 2009 was the Artistic Director of The Lyric Lounge ( She’s doing an MA in Writing and putting together her first collection. She drinks a lot of tea.

Simon Turner was born in Birmingham in 1980. Heaventree Press published his first collection, You Are Here, in 2007. His poems and reviews have appeared in a number of publications, including Tears in the Fence, The Wolf, Horizon Review and The London Magazine. With George Ttoouli, he co-edits Gists and Piths, an experiment in blogging dedicated to the publication and discussion of contemporary poetry, which has been up and running since 2007. He lives and works in Warwickshire.

Myra Connell’s first collection of poems, A Still Dark Kind of Work, was published by Heaventree Press in 2008. Her poems have appeared in various magazines, and her short stories in two collections from Tindal Street Press, Her Majesty and Are You She? Her new collection, From The Boat, is just out from Nine Arches. She lives in Birmingham and has two grown-up sons.

Entry is absolutely free, and you can sign up on the door for the open mic.

I should add, by the way, that Simon's new Nine Arches collection, Difficult Second Album, might even be out by the time of the reading. I loved his first book, but at the reading in Leamington the other week, he warned not to expect a re-tread, saying that there was a 'Zen Arcade' feel to the new book. Now, anything that in any way recalls Husker Du's classic double-album is OK by me, so I'm more eager than ever to see the collection.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

'Ard wok? Yeah, but worth mekkin' the effort, me duck

Still on a historical theme, I read this at the weekend.

I'm always wary of Hollywood versions of Robin Hood (well, I'm wary of pretty much any adaptation, be it TV or film or whatever), but I really can't wait to see this film now. Honestly. It'll be good to hear an attempt at an East Midlands accent. In the past, on the rare occasions that a TV programme has been set in the region, everybody's spoken like Brummies (Steve Coogan's Saxondale is the honourable exception). The prospect of England's greatest folk hero greeting his outlaw band with a gruff "ay up, me ducks" is too good to miss.*

I am sightly baffled by some of the pronunciations they mention. 'Corp' for 'cup'? No, and 'Noddinham' doesn't sound right, either. More like 'Nottnum', I'd have said. Still, 'tekking' is dead right, and hopefully they'll remember to drop their aitches and shorten all their vowels to ridiculous extremes. 'Wok' for work.** 'Oss' for horse, etc. And of course, they'll have to refer to their ill-gotten victuals as their 'snap'. Kudos to Crowe for even trying, though. I'll be first in the queue to see it.

* The comments thread, predictably, gets into the old Nottinghamshire vs Yorkshire debate. But we all know he was really from Leicestershire, don't we?

** Essential in terrible joke usually only intelligible to people from Whitwick (Johnny Wong's is the Chinese takeaway in the Market Place)...
"Have you heard? They're laying people off at Johnny Wong's."
"Yeah, they've got no wok."

Hoard saved for nation

Glad to see that the Staffordshire Hoard will be staying in the West Midlands after the £3.3 million purchase price was met with the help of a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Exactly where it'll be is another matter. There'll probably be a lobby for it to be in Staffordshire itself, but I'd have thought that the logical place, in terms of security and ensuring it's accessible to as many people as possible, is Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Still slightly disappointed that it was Dr David Starkey who was being interviewed about it on every TV and radio news report I heard last night. I'm sure he's very good when it comes to his own specialist area, but couldn't they have found an Anglo-Saxonist?

Monday 22 March 2010

Suit Of Lights - Damian Walford Davies

Seren Books, 2009

Sometimes, writing a review, you struggle to find a way into it, a place to start. Not so here - by the end of the first line of the first poem, Bee, Walford Davies has given you a major talking point, one that you find yourself returning to again and again in the course of an always entertaining and thought-provoking book.

Let's have a look at the first two lines:

Bumble or honey? I couldn't tell, not be-
ing an apiarist...

See what I'm talking about? Walford Davies breaks the line halfway through 'being', turning what might otherwise be a mundane sentence into a pun. It's a device he repeats at regular intervals throughout this collection, and I still can't make up my mind how effective it is.

On the plus side, I have to admire a poet with the panache and sheer guts to do that on the first line of the first poem of his first full collection. And initially, it works. There's the pun already mentioned, and later in the same poem he breaks the word 'weight' between lines. Almost impossible to read, you might think, but in fact it works well in the context of working with something fragile, tiny, "a fraction of an ounce".

There are times though, later in the book, when it starts to feel like something of a tic, an attention-seeking gimmick, even. At best it can seem pointless ("depart-/ment", in Plague, for example), at worst irritatingly distracting. It's not necessarily going to be a deal-breaker, a Marmite factor (it wasn't for me - as I say, I'm still undecided about it, but I liked the book a lot), but you will find yourself thinking hard about it. And that, to be fair, might be reason enough for Walford Davies to use it.

For the most part, he's a broadly mainstream poet, usually at his best when dealing with subjects drawn from history, landscape or art (some of the more domestic pieces felt a little underwhelming, or at least less essential). Two things, I think, really set him apart from the pack, though.

One is the way that, despite most of his poems being on the short side (and even the longer ones tend to use short lines, always giving them an airy, light feel), his language is satisfyingly rich, dense with allusions and, yes, more puns. It goes without saying that a poet ought to relish the sound, the shape, the weight of words, but it's not always as obvious that they do as it is here. The result is extremely readable - while Walford Davies is coming from an academic background, and is never shy of using his enviably wide knowledge, this is poetry that's anything but difficult. On the contrary, it's the sort of book you might find yourself reading in one sitting, alternating between chuckling and furrowing your brow.

Secondly, there's the fact that Walford Davies seems to be a very patient poet, one who's willing to take time to build up a cumulative effect. That's especially evident in the many sequences - Kilvert, The Ideal City, Salt Islands and Aerial were all particular favourites - and in recurring images, such as the "suit of lights" of the title, linking disparate scenes and characters.

So forget my initial reservations about the line-breaks. Walford Davies deserves kudos for trying something different. He deserves even more for a collection that's as rich and well-achieved as any I've come across in a while.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

New poem

A new-ish poem of mine, The Limits, is up at Ink, Sweat & Tears. There's loads of good poetry and prose on the site, so have a good browse...

Monday 15 March 2010


Last night’s Shindig at Wilde’s, Leamington Spa, turned out to be a great way to round off a weekend of writing.

It’s a lovely venue, for a start, which always makes a difference, but it’s the poetry that really matters. Myra Connell launched her new Nine Arches Press book, From The Boat (full review coming soon), and read beautifully. At one stage, she mentioned her interest in dreams, and the poems I enjoyed most were those in which you seem to flicker from wakefulness to a dream state. It’s subtly done – you never got the feeling that she was forcing the poems to go anywhere they weren’t meant to go, and yet they did go to some strange places.

The open mic readers were as consistently good as I can ever remember. Partly that was due to the fact that several of Luke Kennard’s students got up and read – he’s clearly teaching them well – but there were fine poems from elsewhere too. Always nice to hear people read someone else’s poems at an open mic, too, so I enjoyed both Simon Turner and George Ttoouli’s stints.

I was pretty happy with my own set, just after the interval – just one slight stumble! It was largely made up of newish poems (well, post-Troy Town, anyway), and it’s always nice to see what response they get. Pretty good, on last night’s evidence, which is encouraging.

I’ve heard Luke Kennard read before, and the same thing strikes me every time – above all, he never forgets that poetry is there to be enjoyed. That’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of depth to his poetry – there is, and it bears repeated reading or listening – but he’s always thoroughly entertaining (how can you not like someone who orders a bottle of wine mid-set, can’t find enough change, and downsizes to a glass?).

He’s doing a book with Nine Arches early next year, but in the meantime, I’ll be going back to his Salt collections. He’s engagingly modest about the many laurels heaped upon him, but they’re really thoroughly deserved.

I had a chance to talk to Jane Commane and Matt Nunn about my own second collection, due to come out through Nine Arches late this year. It’s all starting to come together well, and I’m busy trying to finish a few poems and revise a few more this week. We talked about possible titles, too. I’ve got one in mind, which Jane pointed out sounded rather like it ought to be an album by The Fall – never a bad thing, in my book.

What else? Well, Under The Radar 5 is out, with poems by the likes of David Morley, Rupert Loydell, Claire Crowther, Mark Goodwin and Sophie Mayer, as well as Myra Connell. I’ve enjoyed reading the reviews, too – Matt Nunn’s thoughtful assessment of Tony Williams’ book is excellent, and Jane Holland is good on HappenStance chapbooks by Alison Brackenbury, Rose Cook and Sally Festing.

Oh, and finally, my set list:

The sea at Ashby de la Zouch
Prelude for Glass Harmonica
The Memory Of Water
The American version
Fantasia for Glass Harmonica
Meeting Place
Hutt River Province
Worst Case Scenario

Thursday 11 March 2010

Myra Connell - From The Boat

As I mentioned earlier in the week, Myra Connell is among the readers at this Sunday's Nine Arches Press Shindig at Wilde's Bar, Leamington Spa. The others, as if I'd let you forget even for a minute, are Luke Kennard and myself, and there'll be open mic slots available to sign up to on the night.

Myra will be launching her chapbook (a very substantial one, too) From The Boat. I've been enjoying reading it this last week - it's allusive, often elusive poetry, showing a refreshing lack of fear of taking risks or, when the occasion demands, communicating simply and honestly.

Anyway, I'll have much more to say about it soon, with a full review, but in the meantime let's just say that I recommend it very warmly.

There's plenty more of interest in the Nine Arches catalogue, too, and some great new releases to come very soon (I've been awaiting Simon Turner's second collection very eagerly, and Mark Goodwin's chapbook sequence Shod also promises great things, judging by what we heard at the Leicester Shindig at the end of January).

But anyway, if you'd like a signed copy of Myra's chapbook, there's only one place to be on Sunday evening.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Leamington Spa Shindig revisited

Just a quick reminder that the next Nine Arches Press Shindig is at Wilde's Wine Bar, The Parade, Leamington Spa, this 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. I'll be reading a full set, and there are open mic slots available too (sign up on the night).

The next Leicester event is at The Looking Glass on Monday, April 12th - Simon Turner and Myra Connell will be joined by Leicester's own Lydia Towsey - hope to see you there.

PS. I'll be posting more about Myra's chapbook later in the week, and also hope to post a little flurry of reviews next week. They're all sitting around on my hard drive - they just need tidying up a bit.

Robin Hood - loan shark

Well, that's how one of the radio news bulletins billed this, but the truth actually looks a lot less interesting. Can't really see anything particularly contentious in this, whether or not the author has interpreted the ballads correctly, and as you'll have noticed in the past, I'm a compulsive defender of RH's reputation.

Monday 8 March 2010

Jean Binta Breeze

Just a quick reminder that you can celebrate International Women's Day at the Y Theatre, Leicester, tonight. See Jean Binta Breeze interviewed live on stage by Dr Jane Dowson, then hear her read from her forthcoming collection, Cutting A Lime. Expect new and collected work that moves seamlessly from the personal to the political. Expect intimacy and energy, celebration and community, glitz, glamour and a global premiere all wrapped up in an orange headscarf and filmed beautifully, by the good people of Bloodaxe.

It all starts at 7pm, and tickets are £8 or £5 for concessions. Call 0116 255 7066 for more details, or book at

Migration watching

There are two sides to visible migration. One is the hard slog – standing on a windswept hilltop, freezing cold, getting a crick in your neck as you try to log huge numbers of Sky Larks, Meadow Pipits, geese or whatever passing overhead.

Despite all that, the rewards are enormous. There’s no better way to get an idea of just how many bird movements go on in these islands, even among species we often think of as essentially sedentary.

The other side of it is enjoying the happy accidents. A couple of years ago, I went along to a local reservoir at the end of March to see a Lesser Scaup that had arrived the previous day. As I set up my scope on the crowded dam, I looked up at the observation tower just as a very bedraggled Wheatear alighted on it. For 15, maybe 20 minutes, it sat there, occasionally preening, but mainly just getting its breath back. It visibly revived, before heading on its way further north, perhaps even beyond the UK.

Yesterday was a glorious, clear day, but still probably a week or 10 days too early to realistically expect the first Wheatears or Sand Martins. I went over to Willington Gravel Pits, mainly in the hope of seeing the Water Pipits that have been there in recent days.

After parking in the village, I walked up the green lane as far as the entrance to the reserve itself, when I heard the unmistakeable ‘coor-li’ call of the Curlew. Small numbers are fairly regular visitors here in spring and autumn, but at first I struggled to locate just where the sound was coming from.

I scanned over the valley of the River Trent towards Repton, and finally, between the trees and hedges and fences, picked up some movement in the water meadows there. A flock of 30 or so Curlew were bustling along the riverbank, feeding constantly as they went. Once or twice, they were flushed into the air by dogwalkers, but they quickly returned to the same spot and resumed their lunch, joined now by a pair of Oystercatchers.

Now, I love Curlews anyway, and although we don’t have huge numbers on my inland patch, neither are they particularly difficult to find in the course of the year. This, though, was the biggest flock I can remember for a long, long time, and the sight and sound of them even overshadowed the long-staying Bittern that flapped over the reedbed a little later, or the Whooper Swan drifting through a flock of Goosanders.

I suspect they’ll be gone on their way to their breeding grounds very soon (indeed, they’re probably already gone), which makes the lucky chance of our paths crossing all the more pleasurable.

Friday 5 March 2010

Salt Reading, De Montfort University

It’s been a busy week at work, so I haven’t been able to get to as many of the events at the Cultural eXchange Festival at De Montfort University in Leicester as I’d have liked to.

Last night, though I did go to the Salt reading, featuring John James, Tom Raworth and Simon Perril. It was very well attended, and fully lived up to expectations.

John James read first, and although right at the outset he announced that he wouldn’t be reading The Conversation, a particular favourite of mine, he didn’t disappoint. He reads well, in a slow, measured voice which contains just a hint of his Cardiff origins. I particularly liked Romsey and Romsey, Take Two (it was reading the second of these in Tears In The Fence last summer that got me interested in him and made me go out and buy his Collected Poems), both of which will presumably appear in his next volume, but he’s a difficult poet to pin down. Associated, as he is, with the avant-garde, and especially the so-called Cambridge School, you might expect difficulty or obscurity, but you’d be wrong. He looks back to the New York School, for sure, but beyond that too to the Romantics, and there are times when popular song seems as strong an influence on him as poetry. Above all, his work has a positive and highly sensuous feel to it, something which gives him a highly individual flavour.

I’ve heard Tom Raworth read before, although a long time ago, and I’d forgotten just how much fun he is. Deadly serious, too (quite literally so, given the charged subject matter of some of the poems he read), but very, very entertaining. If I seem to be damning him with faint praise by writing so little about him here, it’s just that I’m not familiar enough with his work on the page to have many meaningful reference points, but I’ll have to put that right. The sheer energy of his poetry made me feel a little breathless - God only knows what it's like for him!

Finally, we had Simon Perril, who teaches at DMU. I’ll admit my heart sank a little when he gave a lengthy introduction to his reading from his new book, Nitrate (long introductions always put me off) but the poetry was well worth the wait. Presented alongside Simon’s own collages, perfectly paced and beautifully read, it worked very well. Again, he comes across as complex but never difficult, the sort of poet you can imagine building a real following. I liked the reading so much that I bought the book, which is written around the subject of early film, and enjoyed seeing some of the pieces on the page during a quick flick-through later.

So, hats off to DMU for putting together such a good line-up – hats off to DMU students for turning out in such good numbers.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

The submissions process

Timothy Green, poet and editor of the always excellent Rattle, has posted this essay about the huge number of poetry submissions to magazines. It makes some great points, and picks up on something I've been thinking about recently.

That is, he points out what should be obvious, really - that even great poets don't write exclusively great poems, but that it's the tendency to assume that they do that can make it hard for new poets to break into established publications. Rattle, I should add, is a magazine that always shows the benefit of Timothy having used the principles he sets out here.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Out now

Just came across this over at David Morley's blog - looks like a really interesting anthology, and the launch is positively star-studded! Not just poets, too, but with Peter Blegvad as MC. I'll have to try to get to it.