Monday, 19 December 2011

An interview with Simon Barraclough

I'm enjoying trying to come up with some Best of 2011 lists, with the usual agonising decisions about what to leave out and what to include. One collection that will definitely make the poetry list, though, and which I would imagine will figure on many a list by lit journos, bloggers and readers, is Neptune Blue, by Simon Barraclough. I talked to him about it, and poetry in general...

Neptune Blue struck me as being a product of the polar opposite of ‘second collection syndrome’ – it’s absolutely jam-packed with ideas and diverse sources of inspiration. Is that a result of being a very active poet, in terms of doing readings, writing for commissions, organising events, etc?

That’s nice to hear. ‘Second collection syndrome’ sounds ominous. I think there’s truth in what you say: the more involved and engaged I am with events, commissions and other writers the more stimulated I’m likely to be and possibly the more likely I am to come into contact with new ideas or themes. But I’m also quite lucky in that I always seem to have several ideas on the go at once and many projects I’m always trying to find time for. This may not last forever but for now the ideas, subjects and sequences continue to vie for attention.

Following on from what you were saying about having a lot of ideas going on simultaneously, I was wondering about how the book came together (or your first collection, for that matter). Is it a case of identifying what you feel are going to be pretty central poems early on, and then letting the rest of the collection coalesce around them, or is it a more strictly planned process?

The growth of a collection is quite mysterious I think: maybe a bit like how a planet or solar system is formed. There’s a certain amount of matter, dust and poetic gas floating around and then it cools and shrinks and gravity begins to heat all the particles up again. After Los Alamos Mon Amour I got quite a lot of commissions and published 17 of them in the mini-book Bonjour Tetris, which gave me a small core of new poems to work around. So I took 6 or 7 of those for whatever the next book would be and before I knew it I'd started two sequences around the same time: the planet poems and the ___________ Heart poems. The planets was something I realised I’d always wanted to do in response to my love of Holst’s planet suite and the Hearts came out of an odd little dream in which my heart had been replaced by a starfish. It was a very vivid, tactile dream: quite disturbing, and it kicked off a whole chain of odd little poems about Hearts. Finding a title for the book came down to a tussle between the hearts and planets but Neptune Blue won out as I just liked its simple music and Neptune is probably my favourite of the planet poems.

So that was 9 planets (I retain Pluto with a mild touch of irony), 11 Hearts, plus the 7 from Tetris, making up about half of a new book. I then blended in other poems I thought were good enough and loosely related to some of the themes I’d already written and then, as happened towards the end of Los Alamos, I had a bit of a writing spurt that produced around 6 new poems I thought would fit in well. I also wanted one closer to cap off the collection and that came in the form of Sol, my poem written from the point of view of the Sun, looking back from her perspective on all the planets I’d written about earlier.

That final poem has propelled me down another path and since Neptune Blue came out, I’ve written about 20 Sunspot poems and have a crazy plan to write 121 of them. This is to do with the 11-year sunspot cycle. Bit nerdy, but I like to have these buried structures when I write.

I like the astronomical analogy, and I think you've answered my next question, too, about the Heart and Planet poems. You've touched, too, upon the ‘buried structures’ you use in writing sequences or putting together a collection. Within individual poems, form seems to work very much in the same way for you – would that be fair?

I’ve always enjoyed using and reading form but I think I use it less often these days. At least, I don’t think I adhere to a strict form throughout that many single poems unless the subject really demands it. I tend to use form and formal patterns as a kind of underlying skeleton but I’m quite happy to break its rules for certain passages of a poem if the rhythm, rhetoric, line break, appearance on the page demand it.

I think in that respect the new book is freer than Los Alamos was and changes gears more readily within a single poem. It’s an odd analogy but I like to think of the songs of Frank Black and how tracks like I Heard Ramona Sing seem to have two or three intros and then sudden shifts of structure in the verses. In Neptune Blue, I think the poems Earth and SoBe It have a little of this quality I’m grasping at. But I’m maybe not my best reader and may be well off the mark. And then the shorter Heart poems, I’m thinking mainly of Tapestry Heart, seem almost formless. Is there something in this? What do you think?

I think that’s exactly right! I tend to find myself drawing musical analogies a lot when I’m reading poetry, and Frank Black and the Pixies sprang to mind more than once during Neptune Blue. And of course those dynamic shifts create a certain zoom-in, zoom-out effect in places, which works well with the astronomical themes. It brings me back to your writing processes again – do you have any particular rituals, or ideal conditions? I almost always find myself writing in the evening, even if I’ve had a completely clear day.

I really don’t think I have any rituals. I tend to write at my desk at home, looking out over London (I’m on the 10th floor and am treated to spectacular skies and sunsets almost every day), although I can write in cafes and at airports when I need to. So I suppose the place I write is fairly constant. I can write at any time of day. I love the idea of writing through the night but I’m usually too tired to be effective if it’s really late.

I make notes in longhand but I can only write poems on my computer these days. At some point in the last 10 years my imagination became more comfortable with a keyboard than a pen. It doesn’t help that my handwriting looks quite nice but is 80% illegible to me. Most ideas now go straight into a long .txt file, which gets saved and copied here and there in case I lose my laptop. I used to like writing in pencil because it felt freer and more flexible than pen and now I find the format-less text file is the pencil to Word’s pen, if that makes sense. I don’t write every day and I have no set hours but I do think about writing almost all the time (I imagine that’s the case with you and most poets too)?

I read something about James Joyce when I was a teenager that really affected me. I used to fuss about stationery: the right pen and notebook and so on but then I read how Joyce would write on anything with anything: crayons, bits of torn up paper, whatever was available, and from then on I dropped all notions of ‘the right tools’ or ‘the right ambience’.

Yes, I think I’ve gradually gone towards the same sort of system – Notepad to Word with some occasional scribblings by hand. Ever since I learned shorthand in my mid-20s, though, my handwriting’s been so appalling that I can rarely read it back properly. I identify with what you say about thinking about writing all the time. How does that fit in with your day job(s)? I’m conscious of being very lucky in having a job that involves a lot of time on my own, and in which I’m writing anyway (so I can hammer away at the keyboard writing a poem or notes for one while people think I’m typing up a report).

Well for the last seven years I’ve worked either freelance or part-time, so I have quite a lot of time and space for writing. Doesn’t mean I use the time well, of course, but I do my best. Writing is too solitary an activity, so I like to mix it up with events and collaborations as much as I can. Even when I’m working though, I often have one of those text files open where I can ‘jot’ down ideas and scraps of poetry when they hit.

Going back to Neptune Blue, the Heart poems were a highlight for me, I think partly because they manage to be both extremely playful, and at times, extremely dark. Is that opposition, or balance, something you consciously strive for?

Well, I’m always happy when people think that I’ve achieved that kind of balance. It’s clearly important to me to combine the light and the dark, the painful and the comical. I have an entirely savoury tooth when it comes to food and I think it’s safe to say I have the same when it comes to literature. Samuel Beckett has always been a touchstone for me but it’s his laugh-out-loud moments (often provoked by comic hyperbole, such as when Mrs. Rooney in All That Fall struggles to get into a car and declaims: “Christ what a planet!”) that I love every bit as much as the ditches of despair.

Perhaps I’m also reacting to the cliché that ‘poetry is all hearts and flowers’. Even if that were the case, who’s to say those flowers and hearts can’t be twisted, painful, funny, fascinating, surprising? I’m not saying mine are, but one tries. And what is more complex, more sunny and yet more benighted than the poor old human heart?

Absolutely. I think another reason they work is the way they blur the lyric "I" so well – you’re never sure as a reader whether you’re dealing with a multiplicity of hearts, and voices, or the many different facets of one. And I guess that goes hand in hand with the light and dark. Would that be fair?

I think so. When I wrote them I wasn’t sure about those things either. The ‘characters’ of the hearts in question grew out of the imagery and language and developed along their own paths, somehow. They seemed to have their own, speedy, particle-momentum. I think that’s why they’re quite short. There’s a bit of me in each of them but a large proportion of each feels alien to me too. That’s it: they’re alien hearts.

Your Italophilia is a thread that keeps resurfacing in the collection, too. Can you tell me a bit about how that developed (I speak as someone rapidly developing Hispanophilia)?

Ah, enjoy your new philia. I’ve had mine for many years now and I think I can trace it as far back as hearing Rossini in the cot. Something like that, to be dangerously (and probably mendaciously) romantic. Funny you mention this, as I tend to think it’s less obvious in Neptune than it is in Los Alamos but I could be wrong. It amuses me that, being such an Italophile, so many French words and French references creep into the poems and into my titles. 

I started studying Italian seriously about six years ago after years and years of procrastinating and buying books like Italian in your Lunchtime or Italian Without Italian and all the other quick-fixes that never work. So I hired a private tutor to come to my home twice a week for about 14 months and since then I’ve taken courses, hired a second tutor occasionally, and tend to study a little every day. And I mainly go to Italy when I travel. 

I remember going to Venice in 2003 and only knowing about five words of Italian and being really frustrated and angry with myself. I vowed then I wouldn’t return until I’d put some work in and so my next trip was to Turin in 2005 after three months of quite intense study. It’s inevitable that it should creep into my writing, I suppose, and it’s only going to get worse as I’m preparing to do some translating this year. I just love the country and the people, the climate, the food and the culture but I’m not starry eyed about it. I’m aware of the darker aspects of Italy and I hear plenty about them from my Italian friends, believe me. In a funny way, I think the ‘worse’ Italy becomes, the more friends it needs. Maybe that goes for all countries, all people.

And of course Italian is a wonderfully musical language and being able to read old and new poets, while still difficult at times, is a joy and perhaps helps me with my writing? Not sure. 

Ah, you’ve pre-empted my next question – I was going to ask if you had the urge to translate. Which poets are you going to be working on?

Through a series of happy coincidences I came to befriend the novelist and poet Giuliano Dego and was surprised that his epic historical-satirical poem La Storia in Rima hasn’t been translated into English yet. We’ve agreed that I will make a start on Canto I (there are 10 in total) and, with some input from him, we’ll see how I get on.

It presents many challenges of course, primarily because it’s written in ottava rima (Giuliano has published a fine translation of Canto I of Don Juan and is a huge fan of Byron) and there just aren’t as many rhymes available in English as there are in Italian. But we’re agreed that the new version must have its own English poetry and not follow the original too slavishly. I’ve got so much on that I think the process will be a slow one. But probably all the better for that. Italy is the country of the slow food movement after all...

Your last answer tied in with something I’ve been thinking about a lot this week – how long I take to (a) write a poem, and (b) revise it and send it out to a mag. I’ve been making a conscious effort to be much slower in this, with the result that new poems seem to be arriving ‘complete’ (but not ‘finished’). The danger, I suppose, is that it might stifle any embryonic poems that really demand to be spontaneous, and of the moment. Any thoughts on this?

While the translating is incredibly slow, I find I’m writing new material quite quickly. For that reason I’m just letting it flow for now and I’m going to go back and revise it all carefully later. I think I’m going to have a whole focused book to work on, which is unusual and should be an interesting experience in terms of shaping, organising and setting up currents and patterns within it. So I think I’m being spontaneous with a view to being more methodical later. Best of both worlds? Having my cake and editing it? Then again, a couple of the Heart poems in Neptune must have taken minutes to write, while SoBe It was started 11 years ago...each poem has its own needs I suppose.

Other than the translations, do you have any pet projects, any books within you that you desperately want to write? I’ve been surprised (though probably shouldn't have been) by how many poets have.

Oh, well this Sun book has become one of them for me and my research is taking my mind on a rich and varied journey. I’ve always wanted to write a long poetic account of the loss of the USS Indianapolis in 1945 and even went as far as applying for a grant to support research but wasn’t lucky that time around. I’ve tinkered with a book along the lines of How Laurel and Hardy Can Change Your Life and there’s another much cherished prose project I’m not even going to mention! Superstition.

I’ll ask the same thing that I asked Mark Burnhope recently – which one thing would you do to enthuse schoolkids about poetry (it can be as little as exposing them to a particular poem)?

That’s a good question. Over the last few years I’ve tried all kinds of techniques to get schoolchildren excited about reading and writing poetry. I don’t think one poem or method has been uniquely successful but I do find that some kind of interactive, ludic approach works well. By which I mean things like composing poems according to randomly generated or brainstormed ‘rules’ for each line; physically chopping up a sonnet into 14 lines and asking groups to try and reconstitute the poem ‘correctly’ (many fruitful discussions about form and meaning arise from the ‘incorrect’ versions produced); working with short syllabic forms, such as haiku or Fibonaccis. 

I once presented a class with Giles Goodland’s excellent poem ‘The Bees’ and after reading it together a few times I asked everyone to circle bits of the language that ‘disturbed’ them in some way, be it through pleasure, confusion, rhythm, imagery, nonsensical moments or any other reason, and we ended up having a fascinating discussion about what the poem was doing and how. It was great to hear one kid shoot down a complex metaphor as meaningless only to be challenged by another who had grasped why the metaphor was in fact perfect.

Reading one’s own work and answering questions about how and why you wrote such and such a line can work well too. It helps to demystify the writing process and bring it into the realm of the possible for the students. But for any of this to work, if I had my way, I would issue a wholesale ban on sing-song rhythmic, rhyming poetry in TV adverts. They’re everywhere at the moment and they’re the equivalent of high-fat, high-salt, processed, fast food to my mind. I’ve seen so many good ideas in class ruined by the tyranny of sing-song rhyme and the absurdities of syntax and sense it frequently produces. And I’m not against rhyme at all, when used well. Or a bit of fast food once in a while. But sometimes it feels that this is the only kind of ‘poetry’ that exists outside of educational institutions.

When I was a schoolboy, it was a couple of poems by Hughes and Auden that blew me away. And all it took was to be presented with the work and given time to read, re-read and think about it. Sometimes you just need to present a great poem to a class. One, some, and maybe all will get it.

I like that idea of getting them to reconstruct poems, but I think you also touch on an even more important point about being given the time to read, re-read and think. So I wonder if you think that poetry’s compact nature, the fact that it can be slotted into the gaps in everyday life, is its secret weapon in the battle to grab attention?

Hmm, that would seem logical wouldn’t it? Although a good lyric poem is a bit like the Tardis. It’s much bigger inside than it looks and you can squeeze through its door never to be seen again as you wander its corridors and chambers. People often claim they have no time to read (poetry, or at all) and I routinely say that it takes a minute or two to read a poem. But it’s not about the real time of reading, it’s the time the mind, the ears, the breath take to savour and explore it fully.

And that’s just lyric poetry; once you’re onto Paradise Lost or The Changing Light at Sandover you can’t appeal to brevity or quick digestibility any more. The thing is to recalibrate life so we all have a little more time and space to read and think. Sounds idealistic. Probably is. Having said all that, dwelling on a Dream Song over lunch is a good start. Eighteen lines, one hour: not a bad ratio.

To buy Neptune Blue, click here.

Three poems from Neptune Blue

SoBe It

If I fall in love, and I think I will,
I may have to leave Miami first.

Who wuz it now wiv whom I wuz in wuv?

All those charter boats, art deco sunsets
and waitresses I tried to hit upon
in Biscayne des-per-a-tion
cling to the windshield of my Flydrive mind.

Crawling through your tome, Bret Easton,
trying to pretend the week apart to make up both our minds
had not made up her mind the very second she suggested it.
You dick.
Angler of occluded hopes, those sunburnt optimisms.
Block them, factor 451.

Are you going out in those shorts in this cold?
I've got a fishing trip. Have read my Benchley and my Junger,
got the hunger for a day's sea breeze,
some finny kills, the macho tackle,
accessories, success stories. I get no bites.

But the skipper and a baby blue shark
connect; on deck the Lindy Hop of death.
Swiss army knife of evolution, trying
all his blades, his tools, his gizmos,
carving esses in the air, winding down.

That mournful mouth. Turn your frown upside down.
The hatch to the hold's yanked open and our shark,
still twitching's kicked on down, takes the longest time
to drown.


God's gobstopper:
first mouthed to be last swallowed,
blue-green baubled gobsmacker.

Without the lunar counterweight,
the grave embrace's tidal tug,
we'd pop our dislocated poles
and shudder like a shook snow globe
and every shook snow globe on Earth
would synchronise and stormy flakes
would regulate themselves and lovely chaos
might abate. And then where would we be?

Somewhere someone's daughter asks,
'If the world is round, why is a frozen lake flat?'

This is the planet of daughters and sons,
the noisy neighbour, noise polluter,
party thrower, troublemaker,
incubator, hibernator, estivator, terminator.

Such sights. Where to start? Where will it all end?
Deep in the belly of the old star mother?
The blown red placenta, the giving one's all.


You're so                                   blue
you probably think that Jarman's Blue
is about you.

You're the source of all blue,
of Edwin Morgan's 'Little Blue Blue',

bluemungous, ur-blue.
Earth blue held up to you
is muck ball brown and grass stain green,

our oceans but a drop,
a dust of moth,
a mote of you.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Promises, promises

I've been pretty tardy about posting on here just lately, for one reason and another, but I plan to spring back into life next week - the holiday's going to consist of little other than reading and writing, if I have anything to do with it.

There'll be an interview with Salt poet Simon Barraclough, talking about his splendid collection Neptune Blue, among other things. There'll be my usual rather slapdash end of year lists. There'll be a a piece on colour in poetry that I've been meaning to finish for ages. Likewise, I plan to add the finishing touches to two or three reviews that have been gathering dust for a while. There'll be a look at a couple of pieces of nature writing I've been enjoying recently (and one of them is a truly extraordinary book). Oh, and there'll also be an interview and poetry from another Salt poet, Isobel Dixon.

There - that's what the Radio Times would have called a bumper Christmas and New Year package.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The pamphlet process

I've been catching up on Leicester poet Roy Marshall's account of putting together his debut poetry chapbook, Gopagilla, due out from Crystal Clear Creators in March next year. I'm always intrigued by the process of putting together collections, and I agree wholeheartedly with what Roy says about input from an editor - I've always enjoyed having to argue the case for some poems, or for certain passages between them.

I can identify, too, with what he says about laying all his possible poems out on the floor, to work out which ones fit with each other. I'm just tentatively starting the process of doing that with some new poems myself, although more with a view to deciding which might make up the core of a subsequent collection than to coming up with any kind of finished line-up. It makes the house look even more of a mess than usual, of course, but it's surprising how often you notice something new about an old poem when you read it while you're ironing shirts, or peeling spuds.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

More reasons to buy Morrison

Interesting review of Alan Morrison's Captive Dragons / The Shadow Thorns, over at Stride. It sounds like another in a growing list of fine collections from Waterloo Press - political engagement and an unflinching take on real life issues are fast becoming their hallmark, although never at the expense of musicality or readability. I can't help also being delighted that the book contains a poem referencing one of HP Lovecraft's stories - high time, too.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

HappenStance happening

I was away at the Hula Valley Birdwatching Festival in northern Israel last week. It was really excellent, but my one regret about going was that I missed the HappenStance reading in Nottingham at the weekend. As Matthew Stewart and Maria Taylor have written, it was clearly an event to remember. Next time, I hope...

Poetry at the Flying Goose

The Flying Goose Cafe in Beeston High Road, Nottingham, hosts a reading on Tuesday, December 13th, from 7.30pm, with the featured readers Emily Hasler, Shaun Belcher, JT Welsch and Adrian Slatcher. It's an open reading, though, so if you want to take a poem along to read, feel free.

It's staged by the Nottingham Poetry Series and Nottingham Trent University. Entry is free, but donations of £3 are welcome.

I'm not sure if I'll be able to get along that night, but past events have been excellent, and the cafe sells some splendid cakes, so it's definitely one for the diary.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Speech Bubble

Interesting open mic night in Loughborough next Monday - there's a growing number of places to read at in the East Midlands all of a sudden. I'm supposed to be at a meeting that evening, but some diary-juggling may be possible.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Derwent Poetry Festival - some thoughts

I was only able to pop into the festival on Saturday afternoon, but I had enough time to see readings by Christopher James, Kathleen Jones, Clive Allen, Susanne Ehrhardt and Jo Bell, as well as to buy a couple more of Templar's beautifully produced books (Clive's collection Violets, and the 2011 anthology, Bliss), and chat with Wayne Burrows and Roy Marshall.

I'm pushed for time, so I won't attempt any genuine review of the readings (they were excellent, though). But here's three thoughts that occurred to me...

1 Introducing one of his poems, To Read The Relationship between the Residents and the Surfers in Newquay, Clive mentioned that he had never surfed, or been to Newquay, but that he saw no reason why that should stand in the way of him writing the poem. Increasingly, that's how I feel. Not that there's anything wrong with facts finding their way into a poem sometimes, but it probably gets a bit overdone, and we probably all know the feeling you get where you try to cram all that research into the poem. Far better to wing it now and then, I think.

2 St Guthlac seems to find his way into contemporary English poetry more than any of his fellow saints, and should be declared the patron saint of English poetry forthwith. He cropped up in one of Christopher James' poems (a really fine one about fen-skaters), I've seen him mentioned in another within the last few weeks, he cropped up in Tom Chivers' How To Build A City, and he was in one of my poems in Troy Town (which, alarmingly, I've completely forgotten the title of, and I haven't got it to hand to check). Guthlac spent a large part of his life as a hermit on the fen island of Crowland, driven half-mad by the isolation, hunger, the ague, the effects of eating hallucinogenic plants, and regular visits from a whole tribe of demons. You can decide for yourself whether that makes him more or less suitable for the post.

3  Clive Allen also, in the introduction to another poem, described poetry as "a complicated way of being ignored". That might be my current favourite definition of poetry.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Night of HappenStance

Six HappenStance poets from as far away as Spain will be gathering for a reading downstairs at Lee Rosy’s in Nottingham (17, Broad Street, NG1 3AJ – opposite the Broadway cinema) on 26th November, from 7.30pm. Entrance is £4, or £3 for concessions.

Helena Nelson (editor of HappenStance Press), Ross Kightly, Marilyn Ricci, Robin Vaughan-Williams, DA Prince, and Matthew Stewart (who will be in the country to launch his new pamphlet, Inventing Truth) are the readers.

That's six really fine poets, and I only wish I could be there to hear them – I'll be away because of work. 

Helena will also be adjudicating the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition at 2.45pm at the Mechanics Institute (at 3 North Sherwood Street, Nottingham, NG1 4AX).

Monday, 7 November 2011

New Walk reading / Grace Nichols & John Agard show

Ian Parks and Alan Jenkins are reading as part of the Literary Leicester Festival this Thursday at 6pm, in the Ogden Lewis Seminar Suite in the University of Leicester's Fielding Johnson Building. Entry is free, but you need to book tickets - details are here.

Straight afterwards (well, at 7.30), you can get along to the Peter Williams Lecture Theatre in the Fielding Johnson Building for Grace Nichols' and John Agard's joint performance show Sunris and Man To Pan, which look at two iconic Caribbean metaphors of transfiguration – Carnival and Steel Pan. Further details are here.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The waiting game

I've been thinking hard about the writing process this week. After hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica came out last November, I wrote very little poetry until April, when I did NaPoWriMo. From then until the start of September, I did little more than revise a few of the poems written during that month.

It wasn't exactly writer's block, though. I don't think I've ever exactly rushed to get poems out there - I tend to revise a lot and the last book, for example, contained some poems that had their origin six or seven years ago - but I had decided that I'd really take my time before sending anything out to magazines, e-zines, etc.

In the last six weeks or so, though, I've started to write some new material alongside the continuing revisions, and rather to my surprise most of the poems seem to have been arriving 'complete'. That's not to say finished, but whole poems, rather than fragments (at other times I've often had beginnings and endings with no middle, or middle sections in desperate need of something to bookend them). I've resisted the temptation to send any of them out there yet, but it has had me wondering about how much of the process of composition takes place before you ever pick up pen, or keyboard. I have, I realise, been slowly writing these poems in my head for the last 12 months - it's only now the urge to get them down on paper has become irresistible.

Then, at Monday night's Nine Arches/Crystal Clear Creators Shindig, I was going to read a poem called Azul at the open mic. I started writing it about three years ago, and I'd read it a couple of times previously, at the Colour Conference at Warwick University earlier this year, and at the last Nottingham Shindig. I'd always felt that it needed more tweaking though, and as I sat there on Monday night, I suddenly realised what. I changed things around when I read it, rewrote it when I got home, and I think it's now a much stronger poem. Again, I wonder if the rewriting's actually been taking place each time I've read it, each time I've looked at it in frustration and bafflement.

So, the waiting game seems to be working for me at the moment. The problem, of course, is knowing when to trust first impressions and go with something the moment it hits the page. But that'd be a nice problem to have.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Fizz 10

Polesworth's well-established poetry reading and open mic night, The Fizz, welcomes three poets from Cork - Afric McGlinchey, Colm Scully and Jennifer Matthews - on November 3rd, as part of the Coventry-Cork Literature Exchange.

It's worth pointing out that it's on a Thursday night (not the usual Tuesday) and at the Tythe Barn on Bridge Street, rather than in the Abbey Refectory as usual. It all starts at 7.30pm, and there'll be open mic slots available, as well as refreshments. See you there...

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Full house

Last night's Shindig at The Western might have been the best yet, courtesy of a great line-up of featured readers, the usual high standard of open mic contributions, and a large and generous audience.

Mal Dewhirst, of Polesworth Poetry Trail fame, kicked off the readings in the first (Nine Arches Press) half of the night. I particularly enjoyed his piece inspired by Pooley Country Park, but all of what he read had a strong sense of place, and he's not afraid to take unusual approaches to his subject, either - I'd like to see a lot more of the archaeological 'dig' poem he read from.

It was good to be reminded of just how good a poet Nine Arches co-editor Jane Commane is, too, with her reading touching on areas as diverse as music, racehorses and maps (the latter being a subject I always find irresistible). Her bypass poem, too, was one I'd like to hear again and again.

The second half of the night, run by Crystal Clear Creators, first featured Charles Lauder Jr. I enjoyed his poems a lot - there was just enough of a transatlantic flavour to them to make them constantly surprising. I'll look forward to seeing his pamphlet from CCC next year.

Finally, Wayne Burrows, editor of Staple, read from a variety of new work. I think his apple-inspired sequence (the green things, I mean, not the Steve Jobs empire) was my favourite section, but the loose translations of Czechoslovakian pop songs from the 60s ran it pretty close.

Loads of excellent open mic readings - Mark Goodwin's poem about climbing Cader Idris with his daughter was as perfectly balanced as you'd expect, and it was nice to hear Catullus get a look in, thanks to Graham Norman. What I enjoy most is that the open mic readers are really starting to work off each other - each Shindig now seems to throw up certain themes which the poets just naturally fall into step with.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Best British Poetry 2011 - a sample

I've not got round to posting anything from Salt's Best British Poetry 2011 yet, but over at Michelle McGrane's Peony Moon today, there are poems from Kayo Chingonyi, Abigail Parry and Jon Stone, plus links to them reading the poems. Enjoy...

Monday, 17 October 2011

A date for the diary

The latest Nine Arches Press/Crystal Clear Creators Shindig takes place at The Western, Western Road, Leicester, next Monday (October 24th) from 7.30pm.

It's a great line-up, with readers Wayne Burrows (poet and editor of Staple magazine), Charles Lauder Jr (American expat poet whose debut pamphlet will be out from Crystal Clear next year), Mal Dewhirst (poet and film-maker and the driving force behind the Polesworth Poets Trail), and Nine Arches' own Jane Commane (recently featured in Best British Poetry 2011).

As usual, there'll be plenty of open mic slots (you can sign up on the door), and it's all free.

Monday, 10 October 2011

An interview with Mark Burnhope

Mark Burnhope was born in 1982 and studied at London School of Theology before completing an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University. His work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications. He currently lives and writes in Bournemouth, Dorset with his partner, four stepchildren, two geckos and a greyhound, and his first chapbook, The Snowboy, was recently published by Salt.

I talked to him about it, poetry in general, and much much more…

How much of an influence is your background in theology on your writing? One of the things I liked most about The Snowboy was the way it made me look afresh at religion, and specifically Christianity, in terms of metaphor.

That’s very kind of you. Yes, my first degree was in theology, and you could say it’s been a lasting influence, especially some progressive and liberation theologies like Nancy L Eisland’s The Disabled God, and various things written from within the L’Arche Community. In poetry, though, I try to avoid exploring those abstract concepts in a way which divorces them from life (‘No ideas but in things’ and all that). I’m a fan of the Metaphysical poets; as well as being serious explorers of faith, they were irreverent satirists. In Donne’s early work there’s this confusion, self-doubt, the personal tension of needing to write honestly while still honouring God, and that kaleidoscope of feeling, mingled with a range of aesthetics, often amounts to something very funny. My poem The House, the Church and Fisherman’s Walk is a slightly farcical metaphysical conceit where I pit two Christianities’ pictures of disability against one another. It has some of the ecstasy of Hopkins, and the comedic side of Dylan Thomas.

I try not to write narrowly ‘religious’ poetry, but I’ve found threads in the poetry I’ve loved and pulled them together: the Romantics, landscape and nature, Confessional poetry, which grabbed me in a big way as a teenager, and hasn’t let go. I love strong, blunt feeling. Emoliage, with its flower that can never be black enough, plays with that stuff. If my poems have ‘God’ in them, I hope it’s by way of motifs, metaphors and symbols which add up to an impression of him/her/it. I’m usually more interested in open-ended symbol than metaphor. RS Thomas saw words as vessels which embody, or signs which point towards, ‘something other’, rather than just descriptors. His poems have that sacramental / incarnational approach. I see it in current poets like Michael Symmons Roberts and Andrew Philip. I try to make that part of my writing. Thomas often used ‘The Poet’ for ‘God’, which is symbolically suggestive, not prescriptive. I’ve used ‘The Man Upstairs’ in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, playing with the story of the seamstress that Schopenhauer allegedly pushed down the stairs (and to whom he’d owed money for 20 years). God backs me up in my demand to see buildings made accessible, but there’s this suggestion that maybe he metaphorically pushed me (or us) down the stairs, and is shifting responsibility. So it’s not all overly serious. In other poems, God is situated in a landscape or relationship. I want to leave space for the reader to interpret things for themselves.

Ah, I didn’t want to mention RS Thomas, because I’m such a fan, I tend to worry that I see his influence even where it’s not! I think in talking about ‘The Man Upstairs’, you touched on one of the other things that’s most impressive about the chapbook – its very pragmatic, realistic engagement with political concerns, most notably disability. My own impression is that this is something that’s gathering real momentum in UK poetry (thank heavens) – do you think that’s the case?

I really hope so. I remember discovering Zbigniew Herbert years ago; his deadpan, caustic wit in dealing with difficult and public subjects like the Nazi occupation in Poland, and received religious and poetic meaning. I wanted to see people doing similar now in the UK. It cemented my view that poetry is as diverse as visual art, so political and near-the-knuckle subjects should be encompassed and encouraged. There’s only so much pure wordplay I can take. I hear talk about ‘poetry for poetry’s sake’, and I know what it’s getting at, but nothing can be written in a vacuum. There are always cultures, viewpoints, theories buried in the words. Word-choice and form can carry a political and public message as much as, or better than, any soapbox.

Maybe the biggest clue that we don’t sniff at political / social activist stuff anymore is that Blake is back in fashion (was he ever out of fashion?). There’s great queer poetry being written in the UK at the moment, John McCullough’s The Frost Fairs and others. Lots of stuff which isn’t UK-centric: Vesna Goldsworthy’s Crashaw prize-winning The Angel of Salonika, just out from Salt, is partly based in her ‘vanished Balkan homeland’, Communist Yugoslavia, but also speaks about learning to write poetry in English. I’ve only read a sample, but there seems to be an undercurrent about resituating ourselves, finding freedom in language then having to take that freedom back when old ways are lost to memory. That makes me think about reforming language in a political sense, to speak about things which we apparently can’t or shouldn’t. I recently reviewed two first collections by David Swann and River Wolton. They cover prison life, war and political exile consecutively. There’s that social element again, the urge to prove Auden wrong, and see that poetry does make something happen.

The other thing I’ve noticed recently is sheer variety, the blurring of boundaries like ‘light’ and ‘serious’, ‘mainstream’ and ‘experimental’. Poems are multilingual, multi-worldview, infinitely pliable in structure, respectful of ‘tradition’ and given to linguistic anarchy. Katy Evans-Bush’s Egg Printing Explained has a kaleidoscopic approach where no worldview, school or aesthetic is given precedence. Jonty Tiplady, Anthony Joseph, Benjamin Friedlander (and so many others) are pushing that pretty far. Some have called this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach ‘post-lyrical’. I don’t know the term, but to me it amounts to a political act; or at least, it reflects where we are as a culture: a desire for diversity, inclusion, equality. That’s a good landscape for poets to deal with those difficult public subjects, I think. I’ve found so little poetry being written from within disability in the UK. In America there’s a fledgling movement some have called crip poetry, comparable to queer poetry in that it’s trying to redress tradition, a very able-bodied one in this case; trying to take back and redefine vocabulary (‘crip’ as a term of endearment, for one). My interest in that happened by accident. In compiling my poems, I realised that lots of them had this disability, prejudice and discrimination thread running through them. I’m happy to join the conversation, if there is one. It seems arrogant to think I’m starting one; I just want to write more poems. Incidentally, I’ve just heard of an anthology of American disability poetry coming out in September, called Beauty is a Verb. Really excited about that.

One question I always find myself asking poets is how their collection came together. Did you set out writing with a definite plan, or was it more a case of allowing ‘occasional’ poems to coalesce around the themes that emerged?

There was no plan initially, I was just collecting together what I thought were my best poems. But I wanted the book to cohere in some way, not just be a random collection of jottings. They had to talk to each other. I’d had vague ideas before: one of those was to respond to Blake. I had a couple of poems which did, but not enough reasons to force the Blakean idea on the whole pamphlet. I had poems about the sea, and at one point I thought I’d have a sea pamphlet. But then that seemed too one-note for me, even though I’d seen others do it well. I had these epistles to fictional characters, and chose three of the best ones. I hadn’t been consciously writing about disability or faith at the time; they were both things that I wanted to do, but I considered them blind spots (apart from two or three poems which spoke of disability explicitly; they were a fluke, I thought). But collecting them together, I found that I’d used these images of the body – sea, land, constructed things, buildings, puppets, machines, monuments. I’d written poems where prejudice tended to pop up, those prejudices which religion has tried to excuse, to do with the body, sexuality, nationality. I wanted The SnowboyThe Snowboy was a good central poem to encompass the whole. I got used to that idea pretty quickly. That’s when I had my title. in there but it was a while before I saw it as an emotional focal point, being born out of the miscarriage my partner and I had grieved a couple of years ago. Ira Lightman was looking at the manuscript, and one day he said that

That seems a good point to ask about influences and mentors. I think I was very lucky when I started writing and publishing that the internet was just starting to make it easy to get feedback and support from all over the place, and that seems to be even more the case now. Or have you been part of a more traditional ‘scene’, centred on a local group, for example?

In some ways, I’d love to say I’ve been part of a ‘scene’ or a local group. I’ve seen these mentoring schemes and always slightly envied anyone who did them. The truth is, I did my creative writing MA, but I didn’t write much poetry as part of the course. I’m not sure what it’s like now, but at the time it was very much focussed on fiction, and to say I’ve written very little fiction since would be the understatement of the century. No, I’m definitely a product of the Internet generation. I’ve been a member of the online poetry workshop PFFA for a few years, and that’s where I’ve learned so much of my craft. The opportunities the Internet gives you to meet other writers either at a similar stage as you, or a little further forward, is staggering. PFFA allowed me to learn the technical basics, to interact with a few writers I didn’t know who were going through the same baptism of fire as I was, as well as a few I’d already read and respected. Around the time I was published in Magma last year, I was reading about the need to have an ‘online presence’, so I started blogging, feeling the fear but doing it anyway. Shortly after that I joined Facebook. I didn’t know how to network, but I said hello to various poets one after the other. Some of them have become good online friends, and haven’t been shy about critiquing and offering advice. So I feel as if I’ve had lots of mentors. There are so many poets I’d thank for their advice, criticism, correction and support over the last year or much more, if only I could get them all in the same chat room.

And how about the next step? Are you working towards a full collection?

Well, first things first: I have The Snowboy to promote. I have a poem in Roddy Lumsden’s new anthology The Best British Poetry 2011 (Salt), which is doing well I think. I have poems in two other anthologies coming up, the details of which will be released fairly soon. I have vague ideas about what a first collection might look like. But I’ve only been publishing poems for just over a year. I’ve got a way to go, I’m in no rush. I have a couple of new pamphlet ideas, one of which might go to The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, if I can get it up to scratch. I’m excited about pamphlets; they’re realistically inexpensive, a good introduction to a poet’s work, and a great way for a writer to practice collecting together poems on a larger scale. I’m happy to stay in that territory for a while. Other than that, I’m going to just keep writing poems, and reviews. I hope to end up with enough stuff for a full collection, eventually.

Yes, the revival of chapbooks in the last decade or so is something I like a lot, and a lot of younger poets, or new poets (Helen Mort is one who immediately springs to mind), seem to be using them really imaginatively to try different approaches before moving to a full collection. I want to ask now about readings – do you do them, and is it something you enjoy?

I’m fairly new at reading my poems, and the only major readings I’ve done so far were at the Magma 48 launch last year, and the Best British Poetry launch in September. But I plan on doing more, yes. I have a couple of readings coming up for the Salt Modern Voices Tour, in Oxford (24th Oct) and London (28th Nov). Part of the problem is my lack of funds, a car, and the lack of disabled access in so many of the venues where poetry is read. I’ve not found a reading venue without a staircase (or with a lift) yet. There’s an infinite amount of loopholes preventing many cultural heritage sites, arts venues and stuff, from becoming accessible. So there are those barriers. Lack of disabled access is possibly a big factor in why there aren’t more physically disabled people on the circuit. But yes, I’m looking to do more readings whenever I can, and based on the Magma 48 launch, I can say that I really do enjoy the live event. I have this uncomfortable mixed feeling: I think poetry really does belong on the stage (and if it was seen in more public performance venues, maybe it would get wider recognition) but that as long as readings are held in cellars and lofts, it’s excluding some of us. That complaint isn’t exclusive to poetry: I was in a band for 10 years or so, and the problem of finding gigs at accessible venues was the same. As a way of counteracting all that, I’ve been looking at alternative ways of providing readings online, all of that viral marketing stuff. I don’t think the Internet has been fully mined yet, in terms of the opportunities it might present to those with similar difficulties in ‘getting out there’.

I think that’s a good point – I’m not sure poets and people staging poetry events always think hard enough about just what audience they’re trying to attract. It’s interesting that you mention a band – what did you play? And did your involvement in poetry and music ever cross over?

I was in a rock band, yeah. I played drums. We formed (if I remember rightly) in ’97, when the grunge / alternative scene was still a huge deal. At that point we were called Hollow. I don’t think my musical heart has ever really left Seattle, to be honest (I’ve never been to Seattle, but in terms of that early-mid 90’s music scene). We changed our name to The Witness Reel much later on, when one of our friends joined as a fourth member, our style was changing quite a bit, and there was a trend of having ‘The’ at the start of your band name. Shortly after that, we all lost touch for various reasons, and now we’re all living in different parts of the country. I miss the gigging, actually. If I could go back, I would definitely try to involve my poetry in some way. I really believe in all the projects people are doing to fuse the artforms, or just have them work alongside one another. That synthesis is really important. Poetry started with that, didn’t it? The word ‘lyric’ gets thrown around today, but its original intent has largely been lost. Anyway, when I was playing in my band, I hadn’t fully settled on poetry as a main priority. I did try and get a few songs written, but I don’t play guitar, so the most I could do was to write lyrics and give them to Jon, our guitarist and songwriter, to see what he could do with them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Besides, you’ve heard all the jokes about drummers who think they can write songs? Needless to say, mine never became live staples.

Finally, one question slightly out of left field – which one thing would you do to enthuse schoolkids about poetry (it can be as little as exposing them to a particular poem)?

I’ve only taught young adults, and in a charity workshop capacity rather than school. But based on the little experience I have, the first thing I think is that we can’t force enthusiasm. It seems to me that kids need to know that their own response is OK. Very often our own response is all we have as a bridge into a poem. Something about training kids to answer questions ‘correctly’ in order to pass exams etc. seems paradoxical (if not antithetical) to teaching poetry, because all that stuff tricks kids into thinking they should always be aiming for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers. The one thing they’re not being asked is ‘What do you think?’ There’s always a fear that they will say ‘I hate it; it’s rubbish.’ Why are we scared of that? We could be saying ‘OK then, tell me why it’s rubbish.’ There’s a massive learning opportunity there; and when we’re encouraged to delve in and find out why we don’t like a poem, we often realise that we actually do. This piece of writing we once thought had nothing going for it is actually extremely exciting. That’s exactly what happened to me years ago with The Red Wheelbarrow.

I’m not sure kids need encouragement to write poetry; create the right environment and they will. They do need teachers who will tell them it’s OK to write poetry – in fact, it’s cool, and fun, and can be meaningful to them. Those teachers need to then cultivate talent when they see it, as one teacher – Mr. Matthews – did for me during my GCSEs. Most kids are worrying about what their friends will think if they pick up a pen and withdraw from the ‘real world’ of video games and football. Again, there’s a balance to strike. We can’t force kids to think poetry is cool. We have to rely on the fact that it just is, and some kids will see that. Some won’t, but that’s alright. Films and music are cool as well. Oh, and we need to be showing kids more contemporary stuff. They need to know that poetry’s still being written. They’re so used to reading stuff which is 30 years old or more. I was at secondary school, anyway.

To buy The Snowboy, click here.


The Ideal Bed

Double bed which shouldn’t look
like this: so skewiff but no one on,
I can’t even stand to smooth its sheet.
I try to circle round it, but my wheels
won’t fit down the right side, the one
which, incidentally, I try to imagine hides
who we were five years ago: you standing
heaving the bed to and fro, trying to catch
our south-facing garden’s light
(the bulbs were always blowing)
and me laughing; then afterwards
us, falling bed-long into this
self-same undividable iron maiden.
My nurse has just replaced our mattress
with a manmade, farcical memory-foam
thing: cures pressure sores faster.
You’d laugh if you could be here.
Remember shopping in IKEA,
wondering what kind of carpenter
constructed, folded, boxed and sold our bed?
Hardly an artist, probably couldn’t
have given an actual fuck, you said.
When we got home the bed refused to stand
up in the room we’d meant for it. In its form,
we saw the ideal parts to shed:
a little off this surface, that corner.
We grew hungry, desperately so
pushed it against the larder door
so neither of us could hoard
when the waves crashed hard. Its back
was flimsy chipboard and would give
out in the year’s most unnewsworthy
quake, if the front of the frame stayed.
So you sanded back for days, weeks,
months; pored over cookbooks,
catalogues and promotions; reclined
on the mattress like an ocean, faced
me and my canvas, and said, Draw!
(But the kitchen bulb was dying.)
Hardness the Lord made then tore:
the one you pushed aside to get past
the fact we never found
the perfect light to lie in.

The Man Upstairs Drafts a Letter to the Councils
obit anus, abit onus

Dear . . . no. My Loving . . . no. None of you
love me; neither should you, really. Look,
we never intended our peaceful landlady
to tumble those twenty steps to her death.

So I am about pay forward the blame,
but do you blame me? Money’s a root
of nearly every evil, don’t you know. Hers
was a house but henceforth, let all places apply:

eatery, train tour, music venue, centre for
the frothing-over of mugs and mouths —
grant yourselves a great favour, raise
every lower surface to its higher. Fit a lift.

Twelve Steps towards Better Despair

Rehearse its salt between your fingers often, vigorously.

Have it amalgamate into your petrol-slick tinted lethargy.

Write of the cormorant’s yellow beak over her black body.

The iceberg: for a sound few seconds, it will stand
for solid material to marvel at. It need not sink your battleship
before you shy away from it. So don’t bemoan its tip, thank it.

Make sure you have shouldered the world for a man who tried
dying — sorry, died trying — to climb a cliff summit,
or summat like it, to find a stronger sunlight.

Write of the good in global warming, icebergs melting, salt.

Recite names of the dead on your fingers often, vigorously.

Have their ashes sown into the stinking spumes of elegy.

Write of the widow’s blonde wig over her black bodice.

Go fearlessly: for a modest seventy years we’ll stand,
most of us men, to be gawped at; never forget that. So choose
your battles, and — if you buy — the best cruiser in the marina.

Make sure you have shouldered rope for a man who tied
skilfully: docked a boat and helped his lover onto the land
for both to stand under the cliffs and observe a cormorant.

Find and write of the good in swiftly dying — sorry, flying.


Underneath the arches

Saturday saw the first States of Independence (west), at Eastside Projects, Digbeth, Birmingham, just along the street from the Custard Factory, as it turned out. Appropriately, given that the viaduct above towered over the venue, the Nine Arches Press stall was the first thing to meet my eyes as I entered, but as with the previous SoI events, at De Montfort University in Leicester, plenty of small presses were present.

I heard Geraldine Monk's excellent and energetic reading from her recent Leafe Press book, Lobe Scarps & Finials*, which lit up the rather murkily-lit reading space, and Jim Caruth's understated but quietly resonant poetry. I heard him a few years back, at the the Derwent Poetry Festival, and enjoyed his debut collection A Stone's Throw, so it was nice to catch up with what he'd done since.

In between times, I ate cake (of course), and spent some money. Longbarrow Press's anthology of readings by poets including Matthew Clegg, Kelvin Corcoran, Jim Caruth, Rob Hindle, Mark Goodwin and Lee Harwood grabbed my attention (very good it is, too), and I also bought Lee Harwood's The Books, a mini-chapbook/CD combo, also from Longbarrow. Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving of Sidekick Books were also there, and I bought their Confronting The Danger Of Art, by Ian McLachlan and Phil Cooper. I got it for my sister, but she might have to wait now until I buy a second copy. It comes complete with a badge, you see, and I can't tell you how much I like that.

It was good to chat with Robin Vaughan-Williams, who was manning the HappenStance stand as tirelessly as ever, and with another HappenStancer, Gregory Leadbetter, as well as with John Lucas, of Shoestring Press (a couple of his titles, and a couple on the Five Leaves Press table next door, really caught the eye, but will have to wait until next payday), Alan Baker of Leafe Press, Geraldine Monk, and last but not least, Salt poet Cliff Yates, whose fine collection Frank Freeman's Dancing School I enjoyed earlier in the year.**

* I was going to post a full review of the collection on here, but I'll be writing a review for the next issue of Under The Radar instead.
** If you're reading Cliff, sorry I didn't catch up with you again later. We got cut off mid-discussion and I had to scoot rather too fast. If I can remember what it was I was just about to say, I'll email you.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Transtromer enNobeled

I was just starting to pull together a few thoughts on last night's announcement of the Forward Prize winners when Twitter started, er... twittering with speculation about who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I'd completely forgotten that the announcement was due.

There seemed to be a strong rumour that Bob Dylan might be in line for it. Now, I'm a big fan (I spent the drive to work this morning listening to Blood On The Tracks, funnily enough), but I can't help feeling this would have been a bad thing. It's not so much that I'd see it as a slap in the face to novelists and poets, as a bit of a half-hearted recognition of his Royal Bobness. After all, if he'd intended his songs to be read purely as poems, he wouldn't have bothered writing the music for them, then playing and arranging it, in the first place, would he?

Anyhow, turns out that Twitter was barking up the wrong tree entirely, as it's Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer who has scooped the prize (how appropriate, on National Poetry Day). I'm highly delighted about this, although what the evil Decepticons think about it is anyone's guess (oh come on! Everyone is making at least one Transformers joke about this).

My copy of his New and Collected Poems (the New Directions edition from 2006, translated by Robin Fulton), is extremely well-thumbed, being one of those books I find myself going back to on a very regular basis. So, hats off to the judges for recognising a consistently fine body of work.

Going back to the Forward Prizes, John Burnside took Best Collection for Black Cat Bone, Rachael Boast took Best First Collection for Sidereal, and RF Langley, who sadly died earlier this year, took Best Poem for To A Nightingale.

I was a bit underwhelmed by the shortlists at the time they came out, although without having read much of what was nominated. I have rectified that partly now, and I'm pretty glad that Burnside won. I do wonder if there's an element of 'lifetime achievement' in it, because I don't think this is anything like his best work, but still, I can't grumble.

I can't really comment on Rachael Boast's book, because I haven't read it yet - Ahren Warner's the only one on that list I have read thoroughly (and enjoyed, incidentally). In the Best Poem category, I like Langley's poems a lot, so it's good to see him win. I hope it doesn't sound too bitter to say that it would have been nice to see him get more recognition while he was alive.

Monday, 3 October 2011

States of Independence (West)

This Saturday, October 8th, sees the States of Independence (West) book fair, celebrating independent publishing, at Eastside Projects (Gallery), 86 Heath Mill Lane, Digbeth, Birmingham B9 4AR.

It's been born out of the success of the original States of Independence fairs, which take place at Leicester's De Montfort University each March, and runs from 10am to 4pm, with admission free.

You can browse the latest in independent publications, meet publishers, writers and other readers. There will be a programme of events and readings throughout the day, including panel discussions and a wide range of readings, as well as a quiet area to relax with a coffee and your just-bought book.

Publishers who will be present include:
Shoestring Press, Bloodaxe Books, Leafe Press, Cinnamon Press, Penned in the Margins, Five Leaves Publications, Templar, Nine Arches Press, Flarestack Poets, Sidekick Books, Tindal Street Press, Offa’s Press, Ikon, Longbarrow, Flipped Eye, Candlestick Press, HappenStance, Shearsman, Queer Ink, Linux Publishing and more...

Flash Space: Short Readings

11am - Charlie Hill

11.20am - Michael W Thomas

11.40am - Gail Ashton (Cinnamon)

12.00 noon - Simon Thirsk (Bloodaxe)

12.20pm - Tom Chivers (Penned in the Margins)

12.40pm - Kirsten Irving & Jon Stone (Sidekick Books)

1pm - Robin Vaughan-Williams (Happenstance)

1.20 - pm Nick Pearson (Offa’s Press)

1.40 - pm Geraldine Monk (Leafe Press)

2pm - James Caruth (Longbarrow Press)

2.40pm - Jane Weir (Templar)

3pm - Martin De Mello (Flipped-Eye)

Think Space: Short Seminars

10.30am  – Life Writing? Creative Writing? Jan Fortune-Wood discusses 'Stale Bread & Miracles'.

11am  – Brian Gambles talks about how the new Library of Birmingham, opening in 2013, will engage with the region’s writers.

12pm  – Poetry & Dementia: Jacqui Rowe and David Calcutt introduce us to an innovative project.

1pm – Show Me The Money: Jane Commane, Paul McDonald and Roz Goddard talk frankly about making a living out of writing.

2pm - Best Of The West: West Midlands writers read from new work - Caleb Klaces (Flarestack Poets), Joel Lane (Nine Arches Press), Gaynor Arnold (Tindal Street Press) and Dave Reeves (Offa’s Press).

3pm - The Future of Independent Publishing: Bloodaxe editor Simon Thirsk, Linus Press editor Kate Cooper and writer David Belbin discuss.

States of Independence (West) has been produced by the West Midlands Independent Publishers Network, and has been managed by Writing West Midlands and Nine Arches Press. The Network includes Nine Arches PressFlarestack Poets, Cinnamon Press, Offa’s Press, Five Seasons Press, Rubery Press and Tindal Street Press. States of Independence was first created in the East Midlands by Five Leaves Press, who have supported the Network in bringing this event to the West Midlands.

You can follow the twitter hashtag #SoIWestBookFair for any further updates or details.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Sussex by the sea

I'm just back from two glorious days in Sussex, reading at the Chiddingly Festival with David Swann, Maureen Jivani and Clare Best. The sun shone, there wasn't so much as a single cloud, the readings were excellent, the people terrific, and I even did some quality birdwatching yesterday.

The first thing to say is that Chiddingly is a wonderful place to read. The venue, the Six Bells, is exactly what an old-fashioned country pub should be, with good food and beer (I can recommend the Harveys Sussex bitter), and an excellent room for the event itself, complete with bizarre but endlessly intriguing decor (you really need to see it).

There was a good-sized, responsive and appreciative audience, the whole thing ran like clockwork, and it was a pleasure to hear three really fine poets. I knew Clare's HappenStance pamphlet Treasure Ground already, but she also read from her just-published Waterloo collection, Excisions, and the poems are outstanding - direct, lucid, and yet constantly surprising, startling even.

David Swann is also with Waterloo - they really have an impressive line-up of poets for a relatively new press - and his collection The Privilege Of Rain is subtitled Time Amongst The Sherwood Outlaws, a reflection of the fact that it draws on his time as writer-in-residence at Nottingham Prison. I think what's most impressive about the poems is that David manages to bring humour and humanity to the most harrowing of situations, without either trivialising anything or allowing his gaze to be anything other than honest and unflinching. The poem he read in which he effectively remakes that old cliche "at the end of the day" was a favourite, and his between-poems banter is worth the admission price alone.

Maureen Jivani's Insensible Heart was shortlisted for the 2010 London Festival Fringe New Poetry Award, and I can see why. The poems she read were often rooted in her day-to-day work as a nurse, but were unafraid to take imaginative flight and consider a much wider perspective, and there's a lovely balance of delicacy and strength.

We all read two sets - one of 15 minutes and one of five - so I did a more general longer set, and a bird-oriented shorter one, both from hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica. The books sold well, and doing a quick stock-take when I got home last night, I found I have only two copies of Troy Town and four of Making The Most Of The Light left. If you want one, now's the time to say.

I'm very grateful to Clare both for inviting me to read, and for putting me up at her lovely home (a stay enlivened by her seven-month-old whippet, Flint), and then I was able to make the most of the glorious Indian summer weather with a walk around Cuckmere Haven, and later near the Long Man at Wilmington. There were warblers and Redstarts dripping from the bushes at the coast, presumably enjoying this sudden heatwave before flying south, and it was the same story further west, at Pagham Harbour and Bosham.

I'm looking forward to reading all three poets' books this weekend, and I'll be writing more about them in the near future. In the meantime, I've got notes for poems to write up - long drives always start me writing.