Friday, 31 January 2014

European Hoatzins?

The Hoatzin, found in the Amazon and Orinoco rainforests of South America, is one of the world's more bizarre creatures, a bird with the digestive system of a cow. This gives it a rather unpleasant smell - the locals where I saw them, in Ecuador, called them 'stinking turkeys'. The youngsters also have claws halfway along their wings, adding to their distinctly prehistoric appearance. Anyway, an interesting article here suggests that they may originally have come from Europe.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Frances Corkey Thompson

A few years back, Frances Corkey Thompson brought out a superb chapbook - The Long Acre - with HappenStance Press. Among other highlights, it contained one of my favourite bird poems, Stonechat, a piece that manages to pack a huge amount into a few brief lines.

She now has a website/blog here, at which you can find out more about her writing, as well as contact her for feedback on your own writing.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

New look for Nine Arches

Nine Arches Press has a new-look website, which is the perfect excuse to remind you that you can buy my latest collection, The Elephant Tests, here.

There's also a wealth of other individual poetry collections, the magazine Under The Radar, short story collections, and the anthology Maps and Legends, which is a great sampler of the best of Nine Arches' poetry output in the last five years. Have a browse, and I hope you'll find something there to ancourage you to dip your hand in your pocket.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Don't get me wrong

Several initially unconnected trains of thought have come together this week, and now I'm going to subject you to my efforts to string them together.

I tend to like poetry that leaves itself open to the reader's own imagination*. I don't mean deliberately ambiguous or obscure, or so vague as to defy any attempt to impose meaning, but poetry that doesn't set out to shepherd the reader down one particular route. It isn't the old mainstream/alternative divide, I don't think, because looking down my bookshelves I can find good examples of this in both camps.

So, I also like it when, in a review, say, my own poetry gets read in a way that hadn't occurred to me, or that at least hadn't been the initial driving force behind the poem. This happened recently with Roy Marshall's review of The Elephant Tests in Hinterland - his reading of a couple of the poems makes more sense, now, than what I had assumed would be the 'obvious' reading.

I was thinking about this at Monday's Shindig, and afterwards. I enjoy hearing poetry read or recited a lot (at least, when it's being read by the poets themselves), but do I like to be able to read the poems later too, if at all possible, because there are always going to be nuances that you miss (my hearing isn't the greatest, either, which doesn't help).

Then yesterday, I started thinking about pop songs that, even after years, continue to be misinterpreted, no matter how often journalists or their writers point out the 'real' meaning. I don't mean misheard lyrics, but things like Ronald Reagan's attempt to co-opt Springsteen's Born In The USA as a patriotic flag-waver, rather than the outburst of disappointment and disgust that it is, or the way that Every Breath You Take is trotted out as the sort of romantic 'our tune' that gets played at weddings, rather than the stalker-ish creepfest that it is. In both those cases, and several more, the song's huge commercial popularity probably depended to a great deal on being misunderstood, although neither make any particular effort to hide their true 'meaning'.

So I started wondering a couple of things.
1 Whether there are any poems that have become popular in a similar way (in as much as poems ever become popular these days)?
2 Why there's the difference between poets and songwriters in this respect. The former generally say they want their work to remain open to the reader's interpretation, while the latter are more prone to pointing out the real 'meaning', yet the latter seem to get misinterpreted more often (partly, of course, because most of us don't sit down to read song lyrics very often).

* There are exceptions. Some of my favourite RS Thomas poems (and there are few poets I like better) seem to me to do an awful lot of telling, rather than showing. By rights, I oughtn't to like them, but I do.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Leicester Shindig, 20.01.14

Last night's Shindig at The Western was a slightly unusual one, from my point of view, in that the featured poets were, largely, new to me, although I've always enjoyed what I've read from Cathy Grindrod, and Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson's open mic spots at previous Shindigs have always been worth hearing.

I'll certainly seek out more from both after last night's readings. Both were quietly assured and nicely paced, no mean feat when, during Lindsay's set, there were a certain amount of slightly comic interruptions.

After the break, Charlie Jordan was perhaps more obviously polished in her presentation, but none the worse for that, while Joe Coghlan built momentum almost hypnotically from a slightly nervous start. He recited two long poems, and it would be interesting to hear and read a greater variety of his work, but this was a fine introduction to a writer and performer I suspect we'll hear a lot more from.

The open mic spots were of their usual high quality. Rebecca Bird's poem was a highlight for me, as was Caroline Cook's, and Martin Malone read what might be the best football poem I've ever heard, partly because, of course, it was far more than a football poem.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Poets On Fire - a new look

Over the past six months or so, I found less and less time to update Poets On Fire, so late last year I looked for someone to give the blog a good home.

That someone is Carl Griffin, and you'll see that he's already beginning to take the site in a new direction. There'll still be news on forthcoming live poetry events, but he's also going to be using it to help build a network of poets, SPIN, offering feedback and support for writers. It's a great idea, and I wish him every success.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Anvil's Prayer, by James W Wood

Ward Wood Publishing, 2013, £8.99
Surprise in poetry, most readers would probably say, can only be a good thing. The surprise of new forms, of words used to create new sounds, new music, or the surprise of original and wholly distinctive subject matter.
There's another sort though, and that's the surprise achieved by all really good poetry, of making you feel that something's been said the only possible way it could be said. The surprise of an effect that's both emotional and intellectual, but that creeps up on you unannounced.
That's how James Wood's poetry works. His technical skill and ear for language are outstanding, but what repeatedly catches you off-guard in this memorable debut collection is the emotional heft that he asks them to carry.
I found that all the more impressive given that I'd seen the manuscript of the book well before publication, and have read and re-read the two chapbooks - The Theory of Everything (HappenStance, 2006) and Inextinguishable (Knucker Press, 2008) - that contribute to its contents.
(I should add, at this point, that another more surprise occurs to me, namely that it took this long for a publisher to offer a full collection).
The book is split into three sections, Hymn, Elegy, and Exaltation, but while that broadly deals with themes of praise, grief and mourning, and celebration, one of its strengths, I think, is that all those elements are present throughout.

Take the wonderful The Craws, from the middle section:

                                                     You were
no prizewinner, sportsman, or great thinker,

just a man like any other, and one
whose life asks us for little grieving.

It's bracingly clear-eyed and honest, and it manages to perfectly balance mourning with recollection of a life well-lived. There's no attempt by the poet to distance himself from difficult or uncomfortable subject matter - the understated precision of the language is trusted throughout to steer clear of the pitfall of sentimentality.
Catherine Wheel, dealing with a suicide, is another good example, asking its questions gracefully and without a hint of melodrama or straining for easy emotional effect.

                                           you were
a Catherine Wheel blazing brilliantly

in a ploughed field at midsummer, a spark
that might have cloaked us all in fire
if only we could have seen it.

We're talking about restraint, here (sometimes abetted by Wood's skilful use of the constraints of form), rather than the sort of buttoned-down politeness of which much mainstream British poetry is often accused. When Wood wants to, he can really put the spurs to the language and positively gallop across the page. A poem like The Theory Of Everything is exhilarating for the way it pulls together a whirlwind of diverse ideas and images to celebrate the sheer variousness of the world (no, the universe), while there's a similar joy in both language and life itself to be found in Fantaisie De Fruits and Buccaneers.
Wood's control of pacing is evident not just in individual poems, but in the structure of the collection, closing with the superb An Fraoch Mor and Departures, both perfectly controlled in their reflectiveness after some more free-ranging excursions just before. The latter is again clear-eyed, refusing to look for excuses or distractions, closing with "So set sail for life, / keep steel in your eyes. Hold hard to your course / and let the storm clouds rise."
The love poems are highlights too, and I'll close by pointing out one further surprise that involves them. I suspect many poets would have kept the opening piece here, The Same Page, towards the end of the book, a sort of pay-off after the difficult journeys that have gone before, what with its potential for a happy ending of sorts. Here, though, it's an interrogation of both the nature of love and of poetry, and the hold it takes on you isn't released until the end of this very fine book.

On the money

Northern Irish poet Sinead Morrissey won the TS Eliot Prize on Monday night, for her collection Parallax. I must say I'd thought Michael Symmons Roberts the likely winner, so this came as something of a surprise, but it's a pleasant one.

I haven't read the book, but I've encountered quite a lot of Morrissey's poetry in the past and have enjoyed it. It's hard to make a real judgement on what should have won, as of the 10 contenders, I've only read three so far (Michael Symmons Roberts, Dannie Abse and Helen Mort). I think either of those last two would have been a worthy winner, although I suspect it might have been seen as a sort of lifetime achievement award if it had gone to Abse.

But anyway, congratulations to Sinead Morrissey - I'll look forward to reading Parallax.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The Elephant Tests reviewed at the Magma blog

There's a lovely review of The Elephant Tests by Katherine Stansfield over at the Magma blog. To be honest, I'm always delighted to get any kind of review, what with all publicity being good publicity and so on, but it's even better when the reviewer makes you think about your own work in a different way, and this one does exactly that (as Roy Marshall's in Hinterland did).

As I mentioned then, you can buy the collection through Nine Arches and Inpress by clicking here.

Monday, 6 January 2014

All change at Sphinx

Sphinx, Happenstance Press's online poetry pamphlet 'zine, has got a new look, and a new purpose in life, too, by the looks of it.

The pamphlet reviews have gone sadly, although there are certainly more journals and magazines reviewing them now than when Sphinx started, something for which it can claim some of the credit. It's now blossoming into a much more wide-ranging poetry pamphlet mag, including features, interviews, news and resources for poets and publishers alike. I recommend it highly.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Reviewed at Hinterland

Roy Marshall's very kind (and very full) review of The Elephant Tests has appeared at Hinterland - I'm very grateful to them and Roy for taking such care and time over the book. If it piques your interest in the collection, there's more about it, including how to buy it, here.

While you're there, take a look at some of the other recent posts, as it's a journal that updates regularly and with a great deal of variety.

Here we go again...

Two days in and not a single New Year's resolution has fallen by the wayside, mainly because I never got round to making any. 2013 was so hectic (largely in a good way, I should add) that it was a relief to stumble drowsily over the line at the end.

I don't really go in for resolutions, anyway, but I do have a few plans for my writing that I intend to put into motion, starting this weekend. If you want to get energised and inspired about writing yourself, in the company of a lot of fine writers, then Jo Bell's new blog 52 is the place to be, with weekly exercises and prompts and an aim of producing a poem every week.