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.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Words in the Weald

Just a quick reminder that I'll be reading at Poetry in the Pub, as part of the Chiddingly Festival in East Sussex tomorrow night.
It all takes place at the Six Bells, Chiddingly, with doors open at 7.30pm for an 8pm start. Tickets are £7. The other readers are David Swann,whose collection The Privilege of Rain (Waterloo Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry; and Maureen Jivani, whose book Insensible Heart (Mulfran Press, 2009) was shortlisted for the London New Poetry Award, plus host Clare Best, whose collection Excisions is just out from Waterloo Press. I saw it on Saturday at the Free Verse book fair, and like everything else I've seen from Waterloo so far, it's a thing of beauty. I look forward to reading it.
You can book online here, or call 01825 872 401 (between 7pm and 9pm, or book by post, enclosing a cheque to 'Chiddingly Festival Committee' mailed with SAE to Chiddingly Festival Box Office, Chauntlers, Chiddingly, Lewes, E Sussex BN8 6HD.
Further details on the evening, and the festival generally, are available here.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Indian summer

The end of summer (I, of course, consider that this coincides exactly with the end of the cricket season) is supposed to be a time of quiet melancholy. Leaves turning brown, evenings drawing in, a chill in the air. You know the routine.

So why did the weekend just gone feel like the diametric opposite (we'll ignore an England batting display of such breathtaking incompetence I had to double-check that our previously all-conquering heroes hadn't been replaced by a troupe of circus clowns. Or Australians)?

The first reason, on Friday night, was the launch of Salt's The Best British Poetry 2011 at the Betsey Trotwood, in London. Quite apart from anything else, it all ran like clockwork (due mainly to compere Roddy Lumsden), despite there being 30-odd readers to cram in. On top of that, it's a great book (I know, I know, I would say that, but you'll just have to believe me), and it's always good to get another perspective on a poem by hearing it read aloud. 

Favourites included Mike Bannister reading Satin Moth, Mark Burnhope (Twelve Steps Towards Better Despair), Oli Hazzard (Sonnet), Katherine Kilalea (Hennecker's Ditch), Chris MacCabe (Kingfisher), Kate Potts (Three Wishes), Jon Stone (Mustard), Chrissy Williams (Sheep) and Michael Zand (on a persian cairn), but there was much else to admire.

It was good to catch up with Mark Burnhope for a chat, too, having previously only 'met' him online, and nice to meet Giles Goodland again. Thinking about it, Giles didn't read his poem from the book, Waves. A shame, because it's one of my favourite two or three pieces in there. 

I can only admire the sheer energy and enthusiasm of Salt supremo Chris Hamilton-Emery, who was also present despite having just registered as a student at UEA. I bought a copy of another anthology, The Salt Book Of Younger Poets, and very good it is too. I'll be returning to it on here soon, with a detailed overview.

The second reason for feeling suddenly buoyant came the following morning, just around the corner at Exmouth Market, at the CB Editions Free Verse poetry book fair. I'm not sure exactly what I expected, but the sheer volume of people who came through the doors, and more importantly who bought books, was genuinely uplifting. 

Presses such as Arc, Shearsman, Enitharmon, Penned In The Margins, HappenStance, Donut, Carcanet, Reality Street and of course Nine Arches were all present (I think Jane Commane did pretty good business throughout), and as well as offering the opportunity to put faces to names, it was also a great chance to browse books that, however easy they might be to find on the internet, you'd never get a chance to try before you buy otherwise, unless you happened to go to a reading by the poet in question. 

I was reading along with fellow Nine Arches poet Ruth Larbey, who performed her work both very well, and entirely from memory, and managed to catch readings by Tom Jenks, and by HappenStance poets D A Prince, Clare Best, Jon Stone, Kirsten Irving, Peter Daniels and Lorna Dowell. Unfortunately I got next to no chance to talk to Helena Nelson, but that was a mark of how busy she was kept throughout the day, talking to customers and poets, so that can't be a bad thing.

And again, half the pleasure of such an event is meeting new people, seeing Facebook friends made real, and renewing old acquaintances. Step forward Simon Barraclough (I'd just bought his excellent limited edition Penned In The Margins pamphlet Bonjour Tetris, funnily enough), Katy Evans-Bush, Tim Love and Tom Chivers, among others. Other books I bought were Steve Spence's Limits Of Control, and Ross Sutherland's Twelve Nudes, both from Penned In the Margins, and both of which I've had my eye on for a while, plus Peter Riley's The Derbyshire Poems, and David Sergeant's Talk Like Galileo, both from Shearsman.

Perhaps it helped that it was a beautiful, balmy afternoon - my moods seem to be absurdly dependent on the weather - but as I made my way back to St Pancras, I felt more optimistic about the British poetry scene than I have for ages, this summer just gone having been a thoroughly difficult one. With poets, publishers and, most importantly, readers brought face to face, you were reminded of what's actually important (getting good poetry out there to be read), and of how much time and energy gets wasted drawing up binary or even balkanised models of the poetry world. Here's hoping CB Editions will take their fair around the UK.

NB. Coming soon on Polyolbion, I'll have interviews and poems from Mark Burnhope, Simon Barraclough and Isobel Dixon.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Derwent Poetry Festival 2011

Having mentioned Clive Allen's poetry yesterday, I received details of this year's Derwent Poetry Festival, held at Masson Mills, Matlock Bath, on November 11th-13th, and noticed that he's reading on the Saturday.

It's a great little festival, run by Templar. I went to the first a few years back, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but have been away for each one since. The diary looks all clear this year, though, so I should make it to the Saturday, at least.

Quite apart from the festival's attractions, and the natural beauty of the Derbyshire countryside, there's the wonderful Scarthin Books just round the corner in Cromford, too. 

Friday, 23 September 2011

Snail Explains

Excellent little discussion here, on the New Walk Magazine website, of CJ Allen's poem Snail Explains. I found myself agreeing with pretty much everything Nicholas Friedman says, and also thinking that one of the things I like most about the poem is that superb opening stanza. I'd be terrified, writing a poem about snails, of struggling to escape the shadow cast by Thom Gunn's towering Considering The Snail, but that first verse marks out its own territory beautifully.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Life and how to live it

I don't suppose many people were entirely surprised when REM announced yesterday that they were jacking it in for good. Recent albums had been thoroughly underwhelming (everything since New Adventures In Hi-Fi, I reckon, and that was, what, 1996?), and there was just a sense that the music world had moved on without them.

But (and I warn you, I'm about to start sounding very "It were all fields round here when I was young") it's impossible to overstate just how important they were back in the 1980s, and early 1990s.

I can't claim to have been in there at the beginning. When their first single, Radio Free Europe, came out in 1981 I'd have been 11 or 12, and their debut album Murmur would have passed me by completely. When I was in the sixth-form, though, sometime in 1987 I reckon, I kept noticing their name in both the US singles and albums charts that they used to publish on Teletext (remember that?). In the absence of the internet, I had no idea what they were actually like, but I bought the compilation Eponymous the following year purely out of curiosity.

This was a time when 'indie' music, in the original sense of independently produced and released music, was almost unheard of in the UK charts. There was The Smiths, of course, and the Jesus and Mary Chain and New Order both occasionally flirted with mainstream success, but that was it. So, those 12 songs were a total shock to the system. Musically, the nod in the direction of The Byrds and late 60s folk-rock was easy enough to get your head around, but Michael Stipe's lyrics, by turns both funny and menacing, and always elliptical and buried low in the mix, were truly the stuff of poetry. "I believe in coyotes, and time as an abstract", anyone?

Within a few months, they were in the UK charts too, with Orange Crush, the standard-bearer of the album, Green, that really propelled them into the bigtime. I'm not as huge a fan of it as some REM fans I know, but when it's good (the aforementioned single, Pop Song 89, World Leader Pretend, You Are The Everything) it's very good indeed. And seeing them on the likes of Top of the Pops, with Stipe singing through a megaphone, was huge. Indie kids all over the UK felt, rightly as it turned out, that the Stock, Aitken and Waterman-manned walls were coming down, although we're probably all less enthusiastic now that 'indie' has too often come to mean generic, jangly anaemic guitar music.

By this time I was at university, playing that compilation to death while working my way back through all their albums up until that time. Among those, Life's Rich Pageant was my favourite, and remains, I think, their best album, although the first four tracks of Fables of the Reconstruction are also pretty great, being unfortunately let down by large parts of side 2.

One lunchtime, I came back from lectures to find a note on my door from a girl in one of the adjoining halls. As we were both in the habit of wearing REM t-shirts (far from common then), we'd chatted about the band previously. She wrote that she'd heard REM's UK tour announced on Peel's show the previous night (note, I'd missed Peel - that's how massively far from cool I was), had gone straight down to City Hall in the morning and bought tickets, and did I want one? I flew across the quadrangle to her room.

The date of the gig, May 26th, 1989, is still etched on my memory. In the morning, I had my first 1st-year exam (Europe since the Second World War). Afterwards we went to the union, had pizza and beers in the blazing sunshine, played football at the back of Newcastle United's St James's Park ground (you could have a kickabout right up against the stand), then made our way down to City Hall - me, Gaz, JB, Mark, Kirsten and John the Gooner.

Now, I'd have to say, the support act, The Blue Aeroplanes were pretty great. A singer who was a cross between Lou Reed and a beat poet, a dancer (before the Happy Mondays thought of it), umpteen guitarists, and a bunch of great songs (Weightless and Jacket Hangs, for starters - I think the awesome Colour Me came a bit later).

They were nothing, though, compared to what followed. I can't remember how long the set was, except that it seemed just right, but throughout it the band were exactly what you hoped they'd be. Stipe, enigmatic and utterly charismatic. Peter Buck, goofily and knowingly throwing rock-star shapes. Mike Mills, earnest, down to earth and simply a great all-round musician. Bill Berry, solid and reliable. Peter Holsapple filled in on second guitar and occasional keyboards, but Berry, Buck and Mills also swapped instruments with astonishing regularity and facility.

Stipe had his face daubed with paint, and regularly introduced songs with acapella snatches of other bands' songs (I can remember Gang of Four's We Live As We Dream, Alone featuring). He sang superbly, especially on You Are The Everything and a personal favourite of mine, I Believe, and a version of Gershwin's Summertime was memorable for having him on piano. Not playing it. Just on it, standing on the top, back to the audience. Other highlights included a great, sprawling version of Feeling Gravity's Pull.

I still don't think I've seen a better gig. I know my perspective is fogged by nostalgia and sentiment - one of the friends I went with is dead, others I've lost touch with for years now - but it was still as near to perfect as I can imagine a gig being. The band were harder and edgier than I'd expected, and yet more embracing and welcoming too. This was very definitely, at that time, right at the cutting edge of the 'alternative', but there was never any posing, of any sense of the band setting themselves up as smarter, or cooler, than us out there in the audience. Instead, you felt like you were being let in on a wonderful secret, a great movement in its embryonic stages, one that would grow and grow.

And it did. Out Of Time was huge, poppy and mainstream, yet still full of more invention than most bands muster in a whole career, and Automatic For The People cemented their position as superstars. It's not perfect - Everybody Hurts still annoys the hell out of me - but I think it's stood the test of time well.

After that, well, I find it easier to pick out individual songs. What's The Frequency Kenneth? might have been their best single, and New Test Leper opens with a great lyric, but by 1996, they'd just become less essential to me. Hey ho - it happens.

What remains is memories not only of great records and gigs, but of an attitude that shouldn't ever go out of fashion. You sometimes used to hear the band express their political philosophy as "think global, act local", and that sounds like pretty good advice to me, but their example is better than any slogan. I can't think of any band in my lifetime that has reached such a wide audience while still retaining their principles, and a sure, solid connection to their roots. I wish them all the best, and I hope their influence continues to be felt for a long time.

* Want discussions of REM song lyrics? This website is pretty excellent.
** Want to see that memorable 1989 tour? Tourfilm is the best seven quid you'll ever spend.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

A London launch, and a bookfair

On Friday night I'll be at the London launch of The Best British Poetry 2011, Salt's new anthology - all are welcome to the reading, at the Betsey Trotwood, on Farringdon Road. I'm looking forward to it a lot, not least because there'll be the chance to put faces to some familiar names from the world of poetry magazines.

The next day, I'm reading with fellow Nine Arches Press poet Ruth Larbey at Free Verse, CB Editions' poetry book fair, at Exmouth Market, London. We're on at 12.30pm, coincidentally just after a reading by a number of HappenStance poets. It looks like a great event all-round, with a wide variety of poetry presses featured.

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Fizz 9, with Anthony Owen

Tomorrow night (September 20th) sees the latest Fizz poetry evening at Polesworth Abbey, with the featured reader being Anthony Owen. There are open mic slots available too, and I recommend it highly - excellent poetry in beautiful and historic surroundings. I'd love to be there myself, but have to be at a registration evening for a Spanish course I've signed up for, so it'll have to be next time.

Keeping busy

I spent the weekend zipping up and down the M42, or rather down and up.

On Saturday, I was at the Pow Wow Litfest 2011, at the Prince of Wales, Moseley, Birmingham, for a reading. It's a terrific venue - an old-fashioned and roomy pub with a good beer garden - and there was an excellent audience for the various performances (I particularly liked the capoeira demonstration).

Joel Lane also went down well, reading one of the pieces from his new Nine Arches Press short story chapbook Do Not Pass Go, as well as a number of poems that built on some of the themes from his last poetry collection, The Autumn Myth.

I had to leave earlier than I'd have liked, but the organisers ought to be proud of such a wide-ranging and well-attended event.

Yesterday, I headed north instead, for the latest LeftLion/Nine Arches Shindig, at the Jam Cafe in Nottingham. It's a superb venue, too, just about the perfect size and comfortable, and as ever the open mic readers were very varied and pretty much uniformly excellent. Wayne Burrows' poem, Zeropolis (I might have got that wrong) was a highlight for me, and Aly Stoneman's The General's Horse, but there was plenty more to enjoy. I read a couple of poems - Azul, and a new (I wrote it on Friday) untitled one that takes its lead from a line from The Sopranos (from Patsy Parisi, in fact), and they seemed to go down well.

Joel Lane again read well, and I bought his chapbook. I've only had time to read the first story so far, but it's excellent - noir-ish crime stories with a West Midlands setting.

Angela France's reading, from her new Nine Arches chapbook Lessons In Mallemaroking, highlighted all her poetry's strengths. She's interested in seeing where unusual words or phrases take her, and in creating back stories to them. She's also, I'm pretty sure, the only poet ever published in the Sunday Sport - the poem in question, Hide And Seek Champion Found Dead In Cupboard - was a highlight here.

Tom Warner already has a really fine chapbook out as part of the Faber New Poets series, but his reading also suggested that there are great things to come. He was back on home turf, effectively (he lives in Norwich, but is from Mansfield originally), and poems that touched on subjects such as the Miners' Strike struck plenty of chords, especially after last week's tragedy in South Wales. I wish I'd had longer to talk to him afterwards, but I'll be keeping an eye out for future work from him.

It was a lovely way to round off the weekend, anyway - the carrot cake and Bundaberg ginger beer helped, too.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Voices for Nature

For the last couple of years, a month or so before Christmas, I've gone along to a gathering of writers, artists, poets, musicians, historians, scientists and film-makers, all of whom have one thing in common – they draw some or all of their inspiration from the natural world.

The first event was at Oxford University, and last year's at the BTO's Thetford headquarters - both were by invitation only.

This year's symposium, however, under the banner of Voices for Nature, is open to all, and takes place at Stamford Arts Centre on Friday 18th and Saturday 19th November. It's organised by New Networks for Nature, a recently-founded alliance whose goals are to challenge the low political priority placed upon wildlife and landscape in this country and to celebrate the central roles played by nature in our cultural life.

Voices for Nature will run over two days, and the first features talks from the likes of poet and novelist Ruth Padel, Pete Cairns (founder of the 2020 Vision photographic project), and the author Richard Hines, who trained the kestrels used in Kes, Ken Loach's classic film. There'll also be presentations by sound recordist Geoff Sample and Professor Tim Birkhead the author, academic and co-founder of New Networks for Nature.

On the second day, Voices for Nature will shift just down the road to Helpston Church, in the home village of John Clare, for another day's events in association with the John Clare Society. Speakers will include poet David Morley and the celebrated artist Carry Akroyd, much of whose recent work has been inspired by her exploration of 'Clare Country'.

I'll certainly be going to the Friday's events, and hope to be there on the Saturday too, but that will depend on the travel arrangements for a trip I'm going on the same day.

If you wish to attend one or both days the charge is £30 inclusive. Bookings will be handled by the Stamford Arts Centre, on tel: 01780 763 203, or by clicking here.

For further details or information, you can email or

Friday, 16 September 2011

Pow-Wow Litfest 2011

I've suddenly realised that I've completely failed to flag up that I'm reading at the Pow-Wow Litfest 2011, at the Prince of Wales, on Alcester Road, Moseley, tomorrow. I've been blathering about it on Twitter for weeks, but I'd forgotten that I hadn't mentioned it on here.

I'll be on just after the capoeira, at around 6.45pm, while fellow Nine Arches writer Joel Lane is on an hour or so later.

As you'll see if you click on the link, there's loads of other great stuff too, including comedy, dance, DJs, more poetry and even a 'stand-up philosopher'.

I'm looking forward to the event, and to catching up with a couple of East Midlanders in exile in Brum. We'll be venturing into the Balti belt of Balsall Heath afterwards, to see how Birmingham's most famous culinary product compares with the Gujarati cuisine of Leicester's Melton Road.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Nottingham Shindig revisited

In my last post, I failed to mention that there's even more to this Sunday's Nine Arches/Left Lion Nottingham Shindig than meets the eye.

Before the readings and open mic slots (poetry or prose, 3 minutes each, sign up on the door) begin at 7.30pm, there's a Poetry Surgery from 6pm-7pm. Further information is available by clicking on the link, but basically it's open to all poets, and will involve a Q&A session on the writing and publishing of poetry.

Between 7 and 7.30, there'll be acoustic music from Simon Richie of Hhymn, and of course drinks and cakes are available throughout. Never forget the cakes.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Nottingham Shindig

Angela France, Tom Warner and Joel Lane are the guest readers at the next Nine Arches Press & LeftLion Shindig, at the Jam Cafe in Nottingham, a week on Sunday (September 18th).

Angela France's second collection, Occupation, is available from Ragged Raven Press, she's the features editor of Iota and an editor of ezine The Shit Creek Review, as well as running Cheltenham's excellent monthly poetry café, Buzzwords. She'll be launching her Nine Arches chapbook, Lessons In Mallemaroking.

I met Tom Warner at a reading in Norwich a couple of years ago, and subsequently read and enjoyed as much of his work as I could find. Born in Mansfield in 1979, he won an Eric Gregory Award in 2001 and graduated from the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA with a Distinction. His poetry has appeared in a number of publications and magazines, including The Rialto and Stand, and in 2009-10 he was Poet in Residence for Newark-on-Trent. He currently lives in Norwich where he teaches creative writing.

Joel Lane lives in Birmingham and works as a journalist. He is the author of two novels, three collections of short stories, a novella, a chapbook, and three collections of poetry, the most recent of which is The Autumn Myth (Arc), which I enjoyed a great deal. His latest publication is Do Not Pass Go – a collection of crime stories as part of Nine Arches' new Hotwire short-story pamphlet series.
It all starts at 7.30pm, entry is free, and you can sign up for the open mic on the door.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

New at Nine Arches

Nine Arches Press have just launched their new blog, to complement their existing website. It will give some behind the scenes views, plus news of forthcoming projects, but I also like what Jane Commane has written on there about it allowing them to take new angles on some of their poetry and short story collections. I'm always wary of poets in any way explaining their work, but I think the sort of contextual comment that a poet can provide at a reading can only be a good thing.

And of course, while you're looking at all things Nine Arches, a reminder that hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica is available now, for £9.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Chiddingly Festival

At the end of this month, I'm going to be reading at Poetry in the Pub, as part of the Chiddingly Festival, in East Sussex.

It takes place at the Six Bells, Chiddingly, on Wednesday, September 28th, with doors open at 7.30pm for an 8pm start. Tickets are £7.

The other guest poets are David Swann,whose collection The Privilege of Rain (Waterloo Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry; and Maureen Jivani, whose book Insensible Heart (Mulfran Press, 2009) was shortlisted for the London New Poetry Award. It's all hosted by Clare Best, whose collection Excisions is forthcoming from Waterloo Press this month, and whose HappenStance chapbook Treasure Ground (2009) I can heartily recommend (Clare will also be reading).

You can book online here, or call 01825 872 401 (between 7pm and 9pm, or book by post, enclosing a cheque to 'Chiddingly Festival Committee' mailed with SAE to Chiddingly Festival Box Office, Chauntlers, Chiddingly, Lewes, E Sussex BN8 6HD.

Further details on the evening, and the festival generally, are available here.