Tuesday, 22 December 2015

'Map' among the year's best

Nice end-of-year list here from the Poetry School, featuring Map: Poems After William Smith's Geological Map of 1815, edited by Michael McKimm and published by Worple Press. Admittedly, I do have a vested interest, as I've got a poem in it, but it really is a superb book.

Simon Barraclough's Sunspots and Greta Stoddart's Alive Alive-O are also well worth seeking out, and would certainly make it onto my own list.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

How iffy is If?

Interesting essay here on Rudyard Kipling's If, voted the nation's favourite poem back in 1995, and no doubt still popular today.

I'm no great fan of it, for some of the reasons listed in the essay, but it set me thinking about Kipling more generally. I've enjoyed many of his short stories, from The Man Who Would Be King to the strange and rather chilling The Wish House. I liked Kim, although I haven't read it in 20 years now, and remember thinking it was rather more complex than many critics would admit. And some of his poems (although I think Kipling himself insisted they were merely 'verse') have stayed with me.

In particular, three of his Boer War poems – Chant-Pagan, Lichtenberg, and Bridge-Guard In The Karoo. The latter, especially, is an old favourite of mine (and a great poem to learn by heart).

I also came across this, on Lichtenberg. I've always supposed that the "small wet drizzling down" was a deliberate echo of Westron Wind, and I'm just disappointed it doesn't make a little more of "Ah Christ! My country again" – Kipling often sounds like he's trotting out a rather 'stage' version of different accents, but that sounds perfectly Australian.

Friday, 11 December 2015

RF Langley's Journals

This has been my recent reading. I don't know Langley's poetry that well, although I've enjoyed what I have read, but you really don't have to know it to get an awful lot out of this terrific book from Shearsman. Langley's eye for the tiniest details of the natural world, in particular, make it constantly surprising.

There's little doubt that keeping the journals must have fed into Langley's poetry-writing process too, though, and it's made me think of keeping one myself. At the moment, I scribble notes down constantly, and I do keep a sort of nature journal, but it's haphazard. I think my New Year resolution, of sorts, will be to make time to write a little in it every day.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Jack Gilbert

Someone posted a link to this poem on Facebook earlier – I thought I'd share it here. I don't know enough of Gilbert's work. I must read more.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

52 - the book

It provided a year's worth of poetry writing prompts, hints and tips, and now you can get it in book form.

52 was a project that ran throughout 2014, and the new volume from Nine Arches Press anthologises those prompts, from Jo Bell and a team of guest poets, including myself, alongside some fine poetry ranging from John Donne to Kei Miller.

Read more about the making of the book here, or order it here.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Try The Nightwatchman

The Nightwatchman, the cricket quarterly of a decidedly literary bent, will be posting some of the best pieces from its first three years here.

There's also a Select XI of essays from issues 1-11 here, so you can get a taste for this fine publication. And remember, The Nightwatchman is always on the lookout for cricket-related essays, poems, and other pieces of writing.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Daniel Sluman, Cora Greenhill & Stephen Payne, 16.11.15

On Monday night, I was at the last Nine Arches Press/Crystal Clear Creators Shindig of the year, at The Western in Leicester.

As usual, the open mic readers were both varied and of high quality, and it's particularly good to hear pieces of short fiction punctuating the poetry.

The featured readers were all poets whose work I'm familiar with, and all, I thought, shared something in their delivery of their work. They're undemonstrative yet expressive, they pace both the individual poems and the whole set beautifully, and there was always a slight tension underlying their readings, a result, I think, of their ability to create a stillness in the room, a feeling that something is about to happen.

Cora Greenhill's The Point Of Waking is a collection that I've returned to a couple of times over the last year or so, and her reading here will no doubt send me back to it again.

Stephen Payne's Pattern Beyond Chance is recently out from HappenStance, and it's full of collisions between poetry and science, reflecting his day job. Above all, they're poems that constantly ask questions, both about their subject matter and the means of expressing it, and that curiosity is infectious - you start asking the same questions, too.

Finally, Daniel Sluman's the terrible is his second collection from Nine Arches. Judging from what we heard here, it builds on the many strengths of his debut by managing to be even more starkly honest. The result is both harrowing, at times, but also full of astonishing tenderness. The title poem, in particular, was stunning. It's a very difficult balancing act to pull off, but he does it beautifully, and I can't wait to read the book.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Map reviewed

Over at London Grip Poetry Review, there's a review by Martin Noutch of Map - Poems After William Smith's Geological Map of 1815, edited by Michael McKimm and available from Worple Press.

He has kind words for a lot of the poets involved, including myself, for which I'm very grateful. Most of all, though, it's another chance to draw attention to a very fine anthology about a remarkable man and his work. Give it a try.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Nine Arches / Crystal Clear Creators Shindig

Daniel Sluman, Cora Greenhill and Stephen Payne are the featured readers at the latest Shindig, hosted by Nine Arches Press, Crystal Clear Creators and the Centre for New Writing, at The Western, Western Road, Leicester LE3 0GA, from 7.30pm on Monday, November 16th.

Dan will be reading from his new Nine Arches collection the terrible, while Stephen also has as new book out, Pattern Beyond Chance, from the ever-wonderful HappenStance.

As always, entry is free, and you can sign up for an open mic slot on the door.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Poem at Rogue Strands

Thanks are due to Matthew Stewart for choosing to feature a poem of mine - Comeback - on his blog Rogue Strands. It's from my first chapbook, Making The Most Of The Light, which came out just over 10 years ago now. As Matthew says, it is now out of print - I thought for a while I'd even lost the copy that I use at readings, but thankfully i turned up the other week as I was packing to move house.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Alternative realities

A couple of weeks ago I came across this feature online, and only got round to reading it yesterday. All very intriguing, but I'm such a layman, scientifically, that I really need someone to explain a few things to me. 

For starters, how would it be possible to prove mathematically that these many interacting worlds exist (as the article seems to to suggest could happen)? I suspect that the answer is very hard to boil down to a few short paragraphs, although don't let that put you off trying!

Thursday, 29 October 2015

For or after

I've been writing a poem that takes as its inspiration, or at least its point of departure, an album by a favourite songwriter of mine. He's not exactly a household name worldwide, but he's still pretty well-known.

Thing is, I don't want to use his name in the poem's title (because I already have a good title), but I think I do need to give the reader a pointer as to who it's about, because as I've said, he's not so famous that they automatically know.

So how do you do it? Making it "for..." doesn't seem right, given that I've never met the bloke or had any sort of contact with him. I'm not sure, though, that "after..." does either, because although a few words of his lyrics appear in the poem, it isn't really that closely connected to any of his songs. So is there another way? Advice very welcome.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Poetry plagiarism

Really rather good take on the whole poetry plagiarism issue by Channel 4 News here – Ira Lightman comes across really well, I think.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

A winning formula

Come on, writerly types, you can admit it to me. While 'working from home', 'waiting for inspiration', or 'doing research', you've watched a ridiculous number of episodes of Murder She Wrote, haven't you? As an aid to procrastination, it's right up there with emptying out the toaster's crumb tray, or rearranging your CDs in alphabetical order.

Well, a gentleman called Tom Francis has come up with the formula for the stock episode of the gentle whodunnit, and it's right on the money. Thing is, funny as it is, it does also highlight how TV audiences tend to like to know what they're getting.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Sleep paralysis

I read this in The Guardian earlier, although I haven't seen the documentary that it talks about. I used to get sleep paralysis on a regular basis, and it could be terrifying at times, although other times it was merely weird, and once or twice funny.

What's interesting, I suppose, is that SP has spawned such a range of folkloric explanations across the world, as well as playing its part in creating the whole alien abduction phenomenon.

I'd be interested to know if anyone knows of any poetry that deals with sleep paralysis - I've written one or two unpublished pieces myself, but it's hard to find the right tone, because however frightening it can be, briefly, it doesn't really have any lasting effects.

Incidentally, I haven't had an episode for about four years - avoiding falling asleep lying on my back seems to have helped, as does simply getting more sleep.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Forward Poetry Prize 2015

I have a lot of doubts about 'prize culture' in poetry generally, but in recent years, the Forward Prize shortlists have become a great deal more diverse, and they deserve a lot of credit for that. Anything that gets a wider range of poetry and poets into the public eye has to be worthwhile. So, congratulations to all Monday night's winners - plenty of future reading for me to do.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Autumn Poetry @ Upstairs at The Western

There's a special one-off event celebrating new poetry with Nine Arches Press and the Centre for New Writing at the University of Leicester, on Monday, 5th October, 2015.

It takes place Upstairs at the Western, Leicester's only pub theatre, at the Western, Western Road, Leicester, LE3 0GA. Doors open at 7.30pm for readings by poets:

Alistair Noon was born in 1970 and grew up in Aylesbury. Besides time spent in Russia and China, he has lived in Berlin since the early nineties, where he works as a translator. He has published poetry, including translations from German and Russian, in nine chapbooks from small presses, a collaboration with Giles Goodland (Surveyors' Riddles) and Earth Records (Nine Arches, 2012, short-listed for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize). The Kerosene Singing is his second full-length collection.

Myra Connell grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives in Birmingham where she works as a psychotherapist. Her stories are published in various places, including the Tindal Street Press anthologies, Her Majesty and Are You She? Her poems have appeared in Under the Radar, Obsessed with Pipework and The Moth. Her first pamphlet was A Still Dark Kind of Work (Heaventree Press, 2008), and her second, From the Boat (Nine Arches, 2010). Her debut full collection is House, also just published by Nine Arches Press.

Jonathan Davidson’s new collection: Humfrey Coningsby - poems, complaints, explanations and demands for satisfaction (Valley Press, 2015) purports to be a collection of poems written by the 16th Century traveller and other observers, with a curious contemporary ring to it. It may be. It may not. We may never know. What we do know, is that Jonathan Davidson is a citizen of Coventry and a poet and writer of radio dramas

Rennie Parker comes from West Yorkshire but now lives in Lincolnshire, a county which influenced the poems in her latest collection, Candleshoe (Shoestring Press, 2014). She is currently writing towards a booklet, The Complete Electric Artisan, and recently released two short novels as Kindle e-books, Trust and A Perfect Vicarage Affair.

Entrance is FREE, but you should book tickets to be sure of entry - click here or visit https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/autumn-poetry-upstairs-at-the-western-tickets-18631285677

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Become an Eyewear micro-patron

I recently signed up to become an Eyewear micro-patron - for £10, you get two of the press's titles, 40% off other titles, and exclusive news and invites. I was keen to buy Andrew Shields' book anyway, so it was a bit of a no-brainer - great value. They are, it should be pointed out, really nicely designed books, too. I look forward to reporting back on them soon.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Richard Skinner on Geoffrey Hill

Terrific blogpost here by Richard Skinner, on how he came to appreciate the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, and also about the joy of discovering a much-sought volume in a secondhand bookshop. Hay-on-Wye, of course, is the best place in Britain for such happy accidents, and the Poetry Bookshop in particular is an absolute treasure trove. I'm long overdue another visit.

My own discovery of Hill's work was somewhat similar. I read a handful of poems, including parts of Mercian Hymns, in a university textbook of my sister's, then read the whole of that collection when I was at university myself – I was trying to dig out stuff for an essay on the 8th century Mercian church, and the computer suggested it in the search.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Corbyn and the anthem

Good blogpost here on why Jeremy Corbyn should be applauded for not singing the national anthem - he'd have been a hypocrite to do so, he showed all the respect appropriate to the occasion anyway (which is more than some of the singers did), and thirdly, it's a lousy and absurd anthem anyway.

The real debate, of course, ought to be why we can't have an anthem that isn't offensive to Scots, Catholics and republicans, but I don't suppose we'll have that any time soon. The right-wing press, who have generally had a strange way of showing how much they respect the monarchy in the past, have their own very obvious agenda here. Incidentally, I wonder how many of their 'journalists' and photographers were singing? I wonder, too, how many of those who have criticised Corbyn could sing the anthem in its entirety?

Monday, 14 September 2015

Brian Close, 1931-2015, RIP

"How can a ball hurt you? It's only on you for a second". Not sure if that, like so many other remarks attributed to Close, is apocryphal, but it certainly sums up his attitude.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


"Oddly pointless...but utterly lovely". I think that's probably a fair assessment of Stuff Like That There, Yo La Tengo's new album, which attempts to recreate the laid-back, semi-acoustic vibe of their classic 1990 record Fakebook. Not that pointlessness ever worries me too much where pop music is concerned - I don't mind someone trying to change the world with a song once in a while, but first and foremost, it's supposed to be entertainment, isn't it?

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Leicester Shindig, September 21st, 2015

The latest Nine Arches Press/Crystal Clear Creators Shindig takes place at The Western, Western Road, Leicester, LE3 0GA, from 7.30pm on September 21st – guest readers are Richard Byrt, Robert Peake, Sarah James and Rosie Miles.

As always, open mic slots will be available on the door, and entry is free. And also as always, it's a good idea to get there early to get a good seat.

Monday, 7 September 2015

PJ Kavanagh

Nice obituary of the poet PJ Kavanagh here – I had no idea that he had played the Nazi priest on Father Ted! Possibly my favourite episode of all, and that's saying something when talking about such a consistently great programme.

Interesting to read about his meeting with the poet Patrick Kavanagh, too. They're both poets whose work I like a lot, although it doesn't sound as though the older man would have been a barrel of laughs in person.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The importance of county cricket

Excellent piece on CricInfo today about why the administrators of our cricket should stop meddling with the structure of county cricket - it actually works pretty well. It also touches on the way that the richer counties, those with test match grounds, carry too much clout, despite their often poor record of producing international players.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Primers - a final reminder

The Poetry School and Nine Arches Press  are delighted to announce the arrival of Primers, a new annual scheme creating a unique opportunity for talented poets to find publication and receive a programme of supportive feedback, mentoring and promotion. The scheme will select three poets whose work will feature together in the first volume of Primers, a book showcasing short debut collections of work.
The Primers scheme aims to provide an important platform for emerging poets who are seeking to develop their writing and build towards a full collection of poems. With the involvement of Jane Commane (Nine Arches’ poetry editor), Kathryn Maris (poet and guest editor) and the Poetry SchoolPrimers’ intention is to nurture and support new talent that may otherwise not find an outlet. It also aims to provide an important opportunity for poets to develop their skills, work on their poetry practice, and find audiences for their work. Following editing and mentoring with Kathryn and Jane, the Primers collection will be published by Nine Arches Press, and a further series of live events will showcase the three chosen poets at festivals and shows around the country.

Primers presents a really exciting opportunity; for poets it will offer an excellent first step, with the full support of Kathryn Maris, the Poetry School and myself. I am already looking forward to seeing the new writing that will be submitted. It also enables Nine Arches to do more of what we like doing best; nurturing talent, working closely with poets to support their creativity, and keeping our finger on the pulse of contemporary poetry’
Jane Commane, Nine Arches Press
‘The Poetry School has a long history of working with poets to develop their creative talents. Primers is the next stage in this work, taking poets out of the classroom and onto the bookshelf and the festival stage. We’re very excited about the new poets and poems that are going to emerge from this scheme.’
- Ollie Dawson, The Poetry School
 ‘Primers is, potentially, a more meritocratic take on anthologies and other introductory platforms for which the usual procedure is the hand-picking of writers already known to an editor. By contrast, the poets to be included in Primers will be chosen from anonymous submissions, so poets need not have a proven track record of publication nor ‘visibility’ within the poetry world.  There is so much strong work being written by poets of all ages who have not yet had their first break, so I expect the decision-making will be difficult. But I look forward to the process, and I’m delighted to be involved with Nine Arches, a press that consistently delivers attractive books by first-rate poets.’
- Kathryn Maris, poet and guest editor

How to Submit
Download Primers’ rules and regulations here … Primers Submission Guidelines. Submissions will only be accepted online, via Submittable, to keep administration costs as low as possible.
The important dates to note are …
  • Submission deadline: 1 September 2015
  • Shortlist announced: late October 2015
  • Final selection announced: late November 2015
  • Publication of Primers Volume 1: April 2016
Good luck with your submissions! For more details, contact John Canfield at coordinator@poetryschool.com

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

More on Lee Harwood

I came across this excellent piece on Lee Harwood last week - it sums up many of the things that make his poetry so special for me, in particular what is says about him using the techniques of modernism to recover a directness of address in poetry.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Hen Harrier poems

At the weekend, the Guardian ran this review of Colin Simms' Hen Harrier Poems, from Shearsman, to rather neatly coincide with Hen Harrier Day.

Any extra publicity that it gives to Hen Harrier Day, and to the shameful persecution of these birds by shooting interests, is very welcome, but it also shouldn't be allowed to obscure the brilliance of Simms' poetry. I recommend any one of the volumes of his work that Shearsman have been bringing out - his is a highly individual and rigorously exact nature poetry that is a world away from the stereotype of the genre that's sometimes decried.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Sean O'Brien on Jack Underwood

There's been a very interesting thread over on Jon Stone's Facebook page, about Sean O'Brien's review of Jack Underwood's book Happiness.

I'm going to repeat what I said there, so apologies to those who have already read all this. I don't know Jack Underwood's work well enough to be able to make an informed judgement on what O'Brien says - I've no idea if he really does slip into "a kind of indie house style that can be read (and perhaps more significantly, heard) almost anywhere at present...".

Some of the criticisms of O'Brien's review are that he has paid insufficient attention to the poets that have emerged in the last decade or so, and that he ends up sounding like a father bemoaning his offspring's taste in music. The problem for me, though, and with so many reviews in the broadsheet press, is that he's paid too much attention to other poetry - surely if you're going to engage with the more casual reader of poetry, you need to assume that they haven't already read a lot of similar-sounding poetry (and as I say, I have no idea if Underwood is part of a wider trend). I'm not saying you need to take each collection in absolute isolation, but equally it's unlikely that any individual reader has had the chance to become quite so jaded by what's out there as the professional poet/reviewer. Unless, of course, you're assuming that the only people reading are other poets, which is worrying in a whole different way.

I don't think this is a problem peculiar to poetry reviews, incidentally. It seems to happen in most fields these days - reviews too often rely on comparison to other examples of the artform, genre, or whatever.

Anyway, O'Brien's more positive comments only reinforce what I'd already felt about Underwood's poetry - that it's well worth checking out. In that sense, it's a good review, because it has only piqued my curiosity.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Lee Harwood, 1939-2015

Very sad to hear that Lee Harwood has passed away, at the age of 76. I can't think of many writers in the last 20 years whose work I've enjoyed more, or re-read more often.

I can't remember who introduced me to his work, but I bought his Collected Poems, from Shearsman Books, back in 2006 and read it cover to cover again and again, so much so that all my memories of that summer are linked to that book. If you haven't already got it, I can't recommend it highly enough - Harwood manages to be both open to the influences of numerous American and European poets, and yet distinctively himself, and distinctively English.

Two other things distinguish his poetry. One is a warm humanism that often focuses on the small details of everyday lives that don't otherwise get written about (or at least, not with dignity). The other is a willingness to embrace joy and wonder when the occasion demands.

But I've said more than enough, given that I never met the man or even heard him read. Here's a piece by the poet and author John Harvey, who did both, and published him.

Sunspots on tour

Simon Barraclough is taking his recent collection Sunspots on tour - details here. I'll try to catch it in Nottingham or Oxford.

And if you need any more convincing, read this conversation with Simon from earlier this year.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Summer reading

Every year, the broadsheet daily and Sunday papers publish features on what various literary luminaries are going to be reading on the beach this summer. I nearly always read them, but I don't generally end up following many of the recommendations.

This year, though, I was short of something to read on various long journeys, so I followed the suggestions of one particular article (in The Telegraph, I think) and downloaded a couple of novels, Michael Frayn's Towards The End Of The Morning, and RC Sherriff's The Fortnight In September.

The former is excellent, and a must for anyone who has worked in newspapers, although the sort of Fleet Street world it describes was already long gone years before I ever set foot in a newsroom.

The latter is also a fine book - I'm about halfway through at the moment - and conceals considerable depth within its disarmingly straightforward style. Essentially it's an account of a family's annual holiday in Bognor in the late 1920s, early 1930s, but it has a lot to say about class and social attitudes, as well as family life.

One gripe. The iPad version has been extremely badly formatted, with lots of typos, usually with the last letter of one word being attached to the start of the following word, like this: lik ethis. You can usually work out exactly what's meant (although in a few cases there's a word missing altogether), but it does feel pretty slipshod. Electronic versions should be more than just text files flowed haphazardly into the pages.

Still, don't let that put you off. I'm surprised both these books aren't much better known - give them a try.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Words and Ears reading

A week on Thursday (July 30th), I'll be the guest reader at Words and Ears, in Bradford on Avon. The regular event, which includes open mic slots, takes place at the Swan Hotel, starting at 7.30pm, and entrance is £3 on the door.

I'm looking forward to it very much, having heard nothing but good things about Words and Ears from both readers and audience members. Here's poet Josephine Corcoran's take on it.

It'll also be nice to get a chance to look round Bradford. I seem to remember that there's a very distinctive Anglo-Saxon church there, and although I've been to nearby Bath many times, I've never got round to seeing it.

Monday, 13 July 2015

The habit of writing

I recently completed the manuscript for a book I've been commissioned to write. It's described as a "birding memoir", and looks at some of Britain's greatest avian spectacles.

Now I've worked as a journalist for the last 23 years, so I'm no stranger to writing great chunks of prose, but this was something else again. It amounts to 70,000 words, written and rewritten and edited and, hopefully, honed to something readable.

I'd have to say that Google Drive was a huge help, allowing me to write passages on my work computer, before and after hours, or during lunch, or on my iPad in spare moments elsewhere, without having to remember to take a memory sticks or discs everywhere. If I had, I suspect I'd still be a long way from finished.

For the year or so I've been doing the actual writing (rather than the research), I haven't written a great deal of poetry at all, but getting into the habit of writing every day, and setting targets, has been a huge help, I think, and now I find myself returning to poetry with renewed vigour. I also feel like I can tackle another prose project I've often thought of having a go at. It's going to be a busy winter.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Go Set A Watchman

So, who's running out to buy it straight away? Who's going to offer the first opinion on it? Is it another masterpiece, or a cynical milking of Harper Lee's unpublished work by her agent?

I'm waiting for a while, mainly because I'm already in the middle of two other novels, both recommended in one of those 'what to read this summer' articles in national newspapers, both exceptionally good.

Monday, 6 July 2015

The summer of Steele

Ahead of the start of the Ashes this week, here's a bit of cricket nostalgia, in the form of a great BBC article on David Steele, surely one of the most unlikely sporting heroes this country has ever seen. His story is the stuff of fiction, really, and you wonder if the same thing could happen today - probably not.

My earliest cricketing memories are of that summer of 1975. Encouraged by my dad, and my grandad, I must have started watching bits of the BBC coverage, and I was certainly outside with bat and ball in hand whenever I got the chance. It was a great summer, too, overshadowed a little by the drought of the following year, so those chances were plentiful.

Obviously, being five years old, I didn't understand most of the intricacies of test cricket, but I was hooked nonetheless. Three things stick in the memory. One is Alan Knott and Tony Greig batting together, Little and Large, with Knott in patched-up kit and Greig sporting one-piece gloves that he promoted for someone (Stuart Sturridge, perhaps). Another is the abandonment of the Headingley test, as a result of the digging up of the pitch.

And third is Steele. Whenever I watched a few minutes of play, Steele seemed to be batting. Even as a 5-year-old, I remember thinking it strange that a completely grey-haired man should be playing professional sport. He quickly became a favourite, though (helped by the fact that his brother John played for Leicestershire, who at the time were on their way to their first-ever Championship title), and I can remember feeling surprised and aggrieved the following year when he was left out of the team to tour India, despite having repeated his successes of 1975 against the 1976 West Indies tourists.

Whatever happens, we'll need a bit of his sort of grit if we're to win this Ashes series. I'm not confident, to be honest, but I do feel we have a better chance now than a couple of months back.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Two readings at Stratford

Last year, I was lucky enough to be asked to get involved in 52, Jo Bell's online poetry group. Along with a number of other poets, I supplied one of the weekly prompts for the thousands of writers taking part.

There's now a book out, gathering together some of the best of the work that resulted, and a number of the poets will be reading their work as part of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival, a week on Saturday (July 11th). Full details of where and when, and how to get tickets, are here.

The previous day, Jo will be launching her own new Nine Arches collection Kith as part of the Festival, reading with Sally Goldsmith. You can find full details here.

So, two good reasons to travel to the town of the Bard next week. Don't miss out.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Overlooked UK poets

Over on Twitter, Ian Duhig and a number of other poets drew my attention to this article in Partisan magazine, highlighting the 11 best UK poets you never heard of.

Glad to see RF Langley and John Riley among them. Riley's Selected Poems is a book I go back to again and again – I can't remember exactly where I found it in a secondhand bookshop. Second Fragment (you can read it by following the link that Ian provides) is absolutely exquisite.

I'd be interested to hear further suggestions for poets who might have made the list. Who wants to start?

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Considering Curlews

On the way home last night, I stopped off to check on the progress of the Curlews that breed near home. As I got out of the car one of them, the female, was in the air calling, and there were answering calls from what I suspect were the young birds - they sounded weaker and subtly different. The grass in the four fields I see them in is now long enough that it hides even the adult birds completely as soon as they land, so the youngsters can stay hidden very easily.

At that point, five Lesser Black-backed Gulls drifted over. I'm not sure if they were actively looking for food, or just heading towards Cropston and Swithland Reservoirs, where they roost. But anyway, they started to take a keen interest in the field them Curlew was circling, causing her to fly at them and make more noise than ever.

This brought the male Curlew in from a couple of fields away, flying very fast and purposefully, and he joined his mate in aggressively mobbing the gulls. A Curlew is not a bad size, of course, but the gulls are considerably bigger, so if it actually came to blows you'd fear for the waders, but there was no contact, and the larger birds were happy to evade the attacks.

Eventually, the two Curlews split up, each leading two or three gulls away from where I think the nest actually is. Both landed at times, causing the gulls to circle low over them, until three of the gulls gave up and flew east. Two of them were more persistent, so the female Curlew kept leading them to the far corners of the field, then landing, until finally they lost interest too.

Throughout this all, I was watching with heart in mouth. Of course, the gulls are only doing what gulls do - they have to eat, too - but it's hard not to root for the Curlews when they're in decline generally, and rare breeders in my part of the world.

At no time did I see any of the gulls take anything from the ground, though, so hopefully the young waders are safe. I called in again first thing this morning, and there was no sign of any birds at all, but that doesn't really mean anything. I'll check again tonight.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Primers - Nine Arches Press

If you're a poet working towards your first collection, then you need to read this - my own publisher, Nine Arches Press, has joined forces with The Poetry School to launch Primers, an annual scheme that will include feedback, mentoring and promotion, plus the opportunity to appear in a volume showcasing short debut collections of work.

You can find full details by following the link above, but this really does look like a chance not to be missed. You've got absolutely nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Robin romps it

So the results are in. The National Bird Vote was easily won by the Robin, very much as expected, although several of the other placings in the Top 10 were surprising, I thought. Barn Owl in second place, for a start, and Puffin as low as 10th. I also raised an eyebrow at Wren making it into fourth - it's pleasing that so many people voted for what is, much of the time, our commonest bird, given that it goes unnoticed much of the time.

Of course there's plenty of discussion going on as to whether it was the right choice. Blackbird (3rd) was predictably popular, no doubt on account of its familiarity and its glorious song, and I wouldn't have minded it winning. There was a strong lobby for Hen Harrier (which came in ninth), in a bid to highlight the illegal persecution of this raptor by shooting interests. I'm glad that the poll has helped raise the profile of what's going on, and the failure of successive governments to take action to address it, but I'm not sure it would have been a suitable national bird.

My own feeling is that it should go to a species that is in some way either particularly British, or culturally significant within these islands. Gannet was one of my choices from the original longlist, because we have such a high proportion of the world's population, and because it has so long been important both as an icon and as a source of food, etc., but all things considered, I'm not going to complain about Robin winning.

One thing you always notice, when you see them on the Continent, is that they're quite different birds there - less bold, less confiding, and very much a typically shy, elusive woodland species, rather than the urban adventurer and gardener's friend we see here. Presumably that's because they have tended to be hunted elsewhere, while here an association with Christmas helped protect them (we have a longer and fuller history of eating some other small bird species than you might expect). So, well done to the Robin, and even more so to David Lindo, whose idea got everyone talking about birds in the first place.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Martin Figura and Helen Ivory at Jazz & Poetry

June's Jazz & Poetry, at the Guitar Bar, Nottingham, features Martin Figura and Helen Ivory, all the way from Norwich. They probably don't need any introduction, to readers of these pages, at least, but you can read more about both here and here - I can recommend hearing them both read very highly.

There are also readings from three up-and-coming poets – Viv Apple, Peter Newman, and Raegan Sealy – plus the usual jazz from 4 In The Bar. The evening starts at 8, but get there early - I'd expect this to be crowded.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Forward Prize nominations

The shortlists for this year's Forward Prizes have been released - particularly nice to see Peter Riley and Kim Moore in there, but they're interesting lists all round. I'll have to try to get hold of a few of the others to read over the summer, but in the meantime, I'd be interested to hear opinions on any of the nominated books and poems.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Birdsong dialects

I don't think I've got anything useful to say about THAT Craig Raine poem that hasn't already been said, so instead, let's talk about bird dialects.

The other night, at a site close to home, I was surprised and delighted to hear what sounded like a Corn Bunting singing. This once-common species has disappeared from large parts of the UK, and in Leicestershire, the only records these days are of a handful of birds around the Warwickshire border, near Twycross.

So, I was determined to actually see the singer, and perhaps my suspicions should have been aroused by the fact that it wasn't immediately visible, even though that distinctive 'jangling keys' song was clearly close at hand. When you see Corn Buntings singing on the continent, for example, they tend to be on very prominent perches - telephone wires, fenceposts, etc.

After checking such spots, and maybe five minutes of stalking around, peering into bushes, I realised that the song was actually coming from a Yellowhammer. This close relative of the Corn Bunting has also declined in recent years, but it's still present in reasonable numbers in my corner of Charnwood Forest. In fact, as I listened to it doing its Corn Bunting impersonation, I could hear another Yellowhammer further down the lane doing the more familiar 'little bit of bread and no cheese' song.

Now, I know that many if not all songbirds have dialects - the local Yellowhammers sound considerably deeper and a little slower than the recording of their song on my Collins Guide  app - but this seemed like something else altogether. Has anyone else come across anything similar?

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

A conversation with Simon Barraclough

Photo by Josh Redman

Simon Barraclough is originally from Yorkshire and has lived in London since 1997. His debut collection, Los Alamos Mon Amour was a Forward Prize finalist in 2008. In 2010 he published a pamphlet of commissioned poems, Bonjour Tetris (Penned in the Margins) and his second full collection Neptune Blue (Salt Publishing) followed in 2011. Simon has collaborated with artists and writers on a number of events and publications including Psycho Poetica (Editor, Sidekick Books 2012) and The Debris Field (with Isobel Dixon and Chris McCabe, Sidekick Books 2013). He has contributed regularly to BBC Radio’s The Verb and The Film Programme, as well as to The Long View. In 2014, Simon was writer in residence at UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey. His new collection, Sunspots, is out now from Penned In The Margins.

I'll start with the rather obvious question – how long has Sunspots been in the making, and what was the original point of inspiration?
Sunspots has been condensing since the last poem I wrote for Neptune Blue in 2011. Sol is written from the point of view of the Sun looking over the solar system and its wayward, troublesome, offspring. Some kind of switch was flipped in my brain and I quickly wrote around 20 further Sun poems in various styles and I just knew that the next project would be a large-scale treatment of this new obsession. Neptune Blue launched in July and that summer (which I think was a pretty hot one by our standards) had the perfect ambience to deepen and expand my fascination with the subject.

 Yes, I wondered whether that had been the beginning of it. Did you envisage it becoming such a wide-ranging collection? One of the pleasures of reading it, for me, was the sheer scope of the subject matter you've brought into it.
That's gratifying to know. I twigged early on that Sunspots would be more focused and more 'epic' than my previous books. The strength of my interest, the symbolic force of the Sun, and the extensive scientific aspects of our local star guaranteed this. Also, the Sun is immense: physically, poetically, and in terms of its importance to us. It may also be the most written about object in human history. This was a huge challenge to me: how to write at length about it and yet, hopefully, keep it interesting, fresh, and enjoyable for readers.

One of the ways you’ve kept things very fresh and enjoyable, I think, is by juxtaposing some very disparate tones – self-consciously poetic, conversational, scientific, and so on. I think that's something you’ve always done in your work, and done well, but here it feels more fully realised than ever. Would you agree?
I certainly hope so. I think as well as using these kinds of juxtapositions, the book has an accumulative effect as themes and voices recur and develop along the loosely plotted arc from the birth to the death of the Sun. It was very important to me to balance tone and length and style without the whole feeling too ordered. or too similar. I remember having conversations with myself along such lines: “I think the book is too light and playful...but hang on, haven’t I just written a poem in which babies are cooked and eaten on the road? OK, maybe that balances the tone a little!” Like the Sun, which is a mass of forces and behaviours we don't fully understand yet, I think the form of the book permitted me to follow many different avenues and develop many themes and yet reverse or alter my approach whenever it struck me as effective.

Were you writing other, occasional poems during the period Sunspots was being put together, or did it become all-consuming?
I did manage to write maybe a third of another possible, unrelated, collection. I've also been working with scientists at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory on work unrelated to the Sun, and some poems came out of that project, along with the expected ‘occasional’ poems. It’s not good for the eyes to stare at the Sun for too long.

How did the scientists react to the presence of a poet in their midst, and to the work you did in response to their own work?
I got the full spectrum of responses. Some ignored me completely, some expressed a wry interest, some came to a few of my sessions, some came to every session, some were very excited to have me there and wrote about two dozen new pieces! Overall, I had a wonderful, committed, and entertaining ‘core’ through the year. I didn’t actually write about their work: I saw my job as mainly getting them to write about their own work. I wrote about my experiences of visiting the lab and I co-wrote the collaborative piece called Observatoratorio. All this work will be available soon in the anthology I've edited called Laboratorio (Sidekick Books).

I’ll look forward to seeing it! Is it something you'd like to do more of? My own brief experience of writing a poem for the William Smith anthology, with the input of geologists, has given me all sorts of ideas for crossovers between poetry and science (not that there really should be any divide to be crossed).
I'd love to go back and do more, or engage with a different discipline or department. Right now I’m looking forward to a little more ‘introvert’ writing time. 2014 was an incredibly ‘extrovert’ year for me, which was wonderful, but I feel a strong need to balance that with a little bit of ‘down time’. I have a deadline for a short story, so I’m going to exploit that for some interiority (cue readings, events and rampant socialising...).

I was going to ask about the ‘public’ side of being a poet, the need to do readings, have an online presence, and so on. It seems to be accepted as a given these days, and I have to say I enjoy that side of things, but is it something you'd prefer to be able to dip in and out of a bit more?
I think I probably have the balance about right most of the time. I like to hide away but it’s not long before I’m itching to get out and about again. Technology has made it easier for us all to have more of a public presence, which takes a lot of the strain out of it. I have some shows coming up based around Sunspots, and I’m going to try and blog more than I do. I’m too retentive when it comes to blogging! I need to loosen up a little. I’m fairly chatty on Twitter, though, although every few days I need to swim back into my cave. I’ve said it many times before, but one of the best parts of being a poet or a writer is meeting people at gigs and events and hearing ‘new’ people read for the first time. For example, this week I read at the inaugural Poetry Pavilion at the London Book Fair, and I really enjoyed the mix of voices and talents.

Are there any in particular you’d like to highlight? Who are you reading at the moment?
Everyone at the Poetry Pavilion was good but I particularly enjoyed Sarah Hesketh’s poignant and hard-hitting poems from her book The Hard Word Box. Also, the Latvian poet Kārlis Vērdiņš's arresting, darkly humorous poems were a discovery for me. In terms of reading, I've just finished the pamphlet Don Dreams and I Dream by the US poet Leah Umansky. I guess you could call it a meditation on the cultural impact and political resonance of the TV series Mad Men, particularly its lead character. It's much more fun than my academic description and I’m looking forward to re-reading it. In terms of prose, I’m absolutely loving Fosca by Igino Ugo Tarchetti at the moment.

The Leah Umansky pamphlet sounds great. I'll have to look for the Latvian poet's work, too. Going back to Sunspots, and your creative process, I wondered how you created the framework for the collection – was it a case of writing several of the longer poems first, and then working around them, or more haphazard? I always find myself trying to get a few solid ‘pillars’ in place at the start of putting a collection together, and then seeing what they spark off.
Good question. The book started with an eruption of about 30 short poems and I decided to plough on and edit everything at ‘the end’. As I progressed I became more concerned with balancing and contrasting length, style and form, so the picture became a little clearer. A bit like dust and gas cooling down and drawing together gravitationally. Over time, certain ‘set-piece’ poems began to seem essential to the book: the reverse take on Byron, the ‘Richard II’ soliloquies, the long Christopher Smart homage, the Lolita, the Proust — and I wrote these towards the end of the project. I found that all the thinking, reading, travelling and researching I’d done over the previous few years found its place quite naturally. Other ‘light’ structural features of the book are the move from dawn/birth to sunset/death and a growing melancholy on the part of ‘the Sun’ as it ages and becomes aware of mortality. While it’s perfectly fine to dip into the book, I do think it has an accumulative effect.

Yes, I've dipped in since, but initially read it straight through, and I think it works very well like that – the set-piece poems you mention are terrific. I wonder, too, what it has been like working with Penned In the Margins – Tom seems very good at ensuring that new collections become genuine events, rather than just another book hitting the shelves.
Tom is a fine editor: he really gets stuck in and has great suggestions from lopping whole poems to tweaking a bit of punctuation. We worked together on Bonjour Tetris back in 2010, so I knew we had a good relationship. We had a good tussle over the contents of this book because we had such a lot of material to work with (I think there are 40+ Sunspots that we held back). In terms of Sunspots being ‘more than’ another book on the shelves (I love books on shelves by the way!), I had always planned to create a live event with film, music and songs too and I was lucky enough to get support early on from the Arts Council, the Mullard Space Science Lab, the Royal Observatory. As I write this I’m a couple of days away from our launch event at the Planetarium, which is a very exciting and apt place to launch the book. You’re right about Tom working beyond the parameters of the book with all of Penned in the Margin's touring shows and events and the two of us coming together was bound to result in something more expansive I think. In short, working with Penned has been terrific.

That's good to hear, although not a surprise. One final question, then, to be answered when you've recovered from the excitement of the launch – how did it go?
Well, I've just about come back down to Earth. I feel blessed, as it couldn’t really have gone any better. To have Marek Kukula, Lucie Green and my film-making colleague Jack Wake-Walker discussing poetry and science at the Royal Observatory with a warm crowd and no technical hitches was a genuine thrill and a night I'll remember forever. The discussion, the poems, the songs and the films seemed to go down well and I'm glad that the book is now definitively launched. The event ended pretty much at the moment that the probe Messenger created a new man-made crater on Mercury. I've just noticed that crater and create are almost anagrams of each other.

Three poems from Sunspots

You like to think you’re seeing the same Sun
set, although circumstance has set you both
apart. Look up, connect, triangulate,
count off the minutes and the seconds that
illustrate the parallax of your hearts.
The Sun is not the same. Each second sees
the loss of more mass than you can conceive
and even though your skin and eyes deceive
you to think that this doesn’t matter, it’s
spelling out the end, it’s reminding you
that the energy of love you expend
is so much solar wind, which your dear friend
staves off, because it’s all too much for her.
Your love’s a furbelow. An aurora.


One born to be
stared at, consumed by eyes
that I evolved
from dimmest times of patchy pigment
on some slow-responding stalk
caught between
the slime and sloth
that failed to shake off
some barely light-refracting murk,
mistook this chance for progress.

One born to be
beheld by chasm-buried bugs
that felt a particle pass
from warm to cool
and twitched their tiny bulk
from present nook of peril
to a nicer nook of accidental harbour
and cluelessly passed on
half-blind stumblings
to a later slate of same.

One born to be
spied upon and scrutinised
by lucky dimples kneaded into slubs
of epithelial elasticity till they can tell
or think they tell
the angle of approaching threat,
the great and wondrous

One born to be
cabin’d, crib’d, confin’d
within the sluggish jelly
clinging to the cauldron-sides
that conjure up the fevers
and the phantoms they will later
christen ‘mind’.

One born to be
focused, imprismed,
made slave of evidence,
doxy of remembrance,
of false witness, of disseminated
hatred and the pixelated
faces weeping tears of blind Hosanna.
Deliver me.


Neutron stars
are the spin doctors
of the universe,
never neutral,
fairly frugal
with the facts,
it’s wise to weigh
their words:
one syllable
is denser
than every tale
that occurred
shrunk down
to this full stop.