Wednesday, 31 December 2008

2008 in brief

It's been a strange sort of Christmas. I was away in Northumberland helping host our Readers' Christmas Holiday on the big day itself, which was great fun. Plenty of good food, a few drinks, quizzes, some poetry, and of course lots of birds. On Boxing Day, we watched a few sites along Druridge Bay, and among other highlights got great views of a dog Otter and a Bittern.

Unfortunately, since getting back, I've been struggling badly with a cold, but it has at least allowed me to get on with plenty of reading and writing. And of course, I've been fine-tuning my Best of 2008 lists.

As ever, they're far from comprehensive, due to me having a less than reliable memory, and the fact that there are quite a few books that I bought this year that I'm only now getting round to reading. But for what it's worth, here they are:

Best new poetry collections (some might be 2007 books)
The Bestiary - Sam Meekings
A Winged Head - Graham Hartill
You Are Here - Simon Turner
The Yellow Studio - Stephen Romer
Breaking The Glass - LouAnn Muhm
Singing In The Dark - Alison Brackenbury
Backward Turning Sea - Kelvin Corcoran

Best chapbooks
Inextinguishable - James W Wood
Lady Godiva and Me - Liam Guilar
Rebuilding A Number 39 - Marilyn Ricci
Paper Run - Jim C Wilson
Lament of the Wanderer - Jane Holland
Persephone In Hades - Ruth Pitter (a new edition from HappenStance)

Best Collected/Selecteds (of those I've read this year - they're not necessarily recent)
Selected Poems - Michael Hofmann
Selected Poems - Bernard O'Donoghue (as mainstream poets go, undeservedly overlooked and underrated, I think)
Magpie Words - Richard Caddel
Collected Poems - Lynette Roberts
Gyrfalcon Poems - Colin Simms (a sort of Collected on a single theme, I suppose. One for the birdwatcher, maybe, but excellent)
Collected Later Poems - RS Thomas

Best anthology
In Person: 30 Poets (Bloodaxe) - not perfect, but a great idea, well executed, and for £12. A format we'll be seeing a lot more of, I think.

Best 'back catalogue' books
Almost - Oliver Reynolds
A Robin Hood Book - Alan Halsey

Best fiction
The Dig - John Preston
Engleby - Sebastian Faulks

Best non-fiction books
Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge In Anglo-Saxon England – Richard Fletcher
The Man Who Went Into The West – Byron Rogers
Poetry Wars - Peter Barry
The Peregrine - J A Baker

Oh, and best bird of the year? Well, I think it's a toss-up between the Red-footed Falcon at Ingleby at the end of May, or the migrating Black Redstart that appeared just outside my front door earlier in the spring.

So, here's to a happy and peaceful 2009 for everyone. I'll be back in 2009...

Friday, 26 December 2008

Common Yellowthroat

This superb picture of a Common Yellowthroat was taken by Belgian birder and photographer David Monticelli on Corvo, in The Azores, back in mid-October.

It was one of a number of American vagrants that were turning up on the tiny mid-Atlantic island at the time, and David searched patiently for it to get this shot, in the meantime finding a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and helping the rest of us uncover another Common Yellowthroat.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas!

No sign of any snow (a couple of weeks back a white Christmas was looking a good bet here), but who cares? It's well and truly holiday time, so I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, that you all get exactly the presents you wanted, and that none of you has to eat any more sprouts than a human being can reasonably be expected to.

Friday, 19 December 2008

How had I never heard of him?

Merritt (with this particular spelling) isn't a very common surname in the UK (although it seems much more widespread in the USA), so I've always struggled hard to find anyone famous or just prominent in a particular field who shares it.

There's Stephin Merritt, mastermind behind The Magnetic Fields. And then there's country star Tift Merritt, who I once interviewed for a local paper. But how come I'd never heard of this bloke?

I feel duty-bound to go out and try to find some of his records now.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Brittle Star online

You can click here to read and hear the contents of Issue 19 of Brittle Star, including my poem Treaty House. Lots of good stuff in there - enjoy!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Rom coms ruin your life

Nothing entirely surprising in that conclusion, but there's nothing like overstating the results of a single, not especially scientific study, and I can't help feeling that the researchers failed to follow up on a second, much more interesting point.

We're told: "As part of the project, 100 student volunteers were asked to watch the 2001 romantic comedy Serendipity, while a further 100 watched a David Lynch drama. Students watching the romantic film were later found to be more likely to believe in fate and destiny. A further study found that fans of romantic comedies had a stronger belief in predestined love."

What I'd really like to know is, were the students who watched the David Lynch film later found to be more likely to believe in extraordinary revelations made through surreal nightmares involving backwards-talking dwarfs? I know I am.

They're here!

At last, the promised Waxwing invasion has reached north west Leicestershire. They've been reported in good numbers along the UK's east coast, but had seemed determined to skirt my patch, resolutely staying just a couple of miles outside.

Today, though, a couple were occasionally visible but very elusive down at the Gracedieu end of Thringstone, and another two were much more obliging on trees alongside Sileby Road, Barrow-on-Soar. So, more of a reconnaissance than an actual invasion, but at the latter site, I noticed a tree not far down the road absolutely dripping with berries, so maybe more will follow.

UPDATE: Apparently there's now (Thursday the 18th) a dozen or so in the Castle Park / St Nicholas's Circle area of Leicester City Centre. That's more like it!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Shindig!

Well, despite my fears that the miserable weather and the attractions of late-night shopping would keep people away, there was a really good turnout at last night's reading at the Friends Meeting House, on Queen's Road in Leicester. Several familiar faces, from Leicester Poetry Society and elsewhere, including HappenStance poets DA Prince and Marilyn Ricci.

Jane Commane kicked things off, but unfortunately I missed most of her set. Matt Nunn, one of the other poets reading, had got lost on one of the more unfathomable bits of Leicester's road system, so I had to try to guide him in on the mobile. The audience response was very good, though, and her poems in Under The Radar 2, which was being launched, are really excellent.

I read next, and thoroughly enjoyed myself, which is always a good sign. I tried a couple of new, or at least new-ish poems, and they seemed to go down well, which was encouraging.

After the interval, we had an open mic slot, and very possibly the performance of the night came from a Nottingham poet called Chris (I've forgotten his surname, stupidly - drop me a line if you read this, Chris!), who read from memory and was absolutely electrifying. Several people afterwards said just how much they had enjoyed his reading, and I hope I'll be seeing him again round Leicester or Nottingham soon. There was Mark Goodwin, who's been published by Shearsman and whose work I've enjoyed in a number of magazines over the years; Caroline Cook, another small press mag stalwart and whose poem Sex With Larkin proved popular; and Colin Derrick, who bravely read his first-ever poems, very well.

Matt had arrived by then, and a good thing too. He's very, very funny, and yet at the same time always utterly serious. There's anger and poignancy in there too, and his delivery is, I think, spot-on. He's got a new collection coming out next year - keep an eye out for it.

Finally, Jane Holland read from her new Salt collection, Camper Van Blues, plus one poem from On Warwick. It was a good way to round things off, because CVB seemed to touch on quite a few strands that other poets had brushed up against earlier in the evening. And everybody seemed to go home pleased with what they'd seen and heard, so I hope it will be the first of a series of similar events. I've spent most of today writing for work and watching England surprise everyone in Chennai, but I'll get moving with organising a follow-up ASAP.

Oh, and of course, here's the set-list:
The Meeting Place
At Home
Scorpio Over La Selva
Things Left In Hotel Rooms
Troy Town
At Gedney Hill
The Memory Of Water
January
Midstream
Window Seat
Raining, Craswall, Evening

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

A final reminder...

Just to mention (yet again!) that there'll be live poetry and an open mic at the launch of Issue 2 of Under The Radar magazine, at Friends Meeting House, Queen’s Road, Leicester, at 7.30pm tomorrow.

Jane Holland, editor of Horizon Review, will be reading from her latest collection, Camper Van Blues; Matt Nunn, one of UTR's editors and a very funny man, will read from his forthcoming collection, Sounds in the Grass; UTR's other driving force, Jane Commane, will read a selection of her recent work; and I'll be reading from Troy Town and one or two newer pieces. It's all free, and open mic slots are available, so turn up early to register for a place. We're not allowed alcohol in there, sadly, but there will be soft drinks and a few nibbles.

More information at www.ninearchespress.com

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Oliver Postgate

I know banal and repetitive reminiscences about 1970s childhoods are a staple of stand-up comics, novelists and TV talking heads these days, but I couldn’t let the death of animator extraordinaire Oliver Postgate, aged 83, go unmarked.

Never mind what the actual animation was like – in those days long before Pixar, we didn’t care anyway, and I can’t help feeling that these days, it’s too often the be-all and end-all (see, didn't take me long to start sounding like my dad!). Postgate concentrated on story and mood, and was completely unafraid to let his imagination roam freely and trust young viewers to keep up. Noggin The Nog, for example, definitely had a sinister side to it, while Bagpuss used to throw bits of folk songs into the very strange stories. Ivor The Engine would even stray into Dylan Thomas territory.

One of the reasons Postgate is being remembered so fondly, I think, is the realisation that programmes of that sort just wouldn’t get made today, even at the BBC. Not that there’s not good kids’ TV programmes around, just that (and this is probably true of adult TV too) the viewers are rarely trusted the same way these days.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

John Clare

If you didn't tune in to Radio 3 on Tuesday night to listen to The Essay, in which Alison Brackenbury talked about John Clare's influence on her work, you still have four days left to catch it here.

It was excellent, I thought, and I especially enjoyed hearing the poem The Cuckoo. And it all set me thinking about Clare. He's very difficult to get away from here, around Peterborough where I work, because his name gets attached to all sorts of public buildings, streets and even businesses. And it was when I lived over here in the late 90s that I first really got into his poetry, out of curiosity more than anything, I think. I lived in Bourne, and used to get the bus to and from work, and it wound its way past Helpston, where he was born and raised, and through Northborough, to which he was moved, unhappily, later in his life.

While both villages have so far resisted being swallowed up by the city, the countryside is pretty unrecognisable from the one Clare wrote about, intensive agriculture having put paid to it. Emmonsails (now Ailsworth) Heath, for example, subject of one of my favourite Clare poems, is now pretty much farmland, and elsewhere roads and gravel pits have carved up the landscape.

And that, I suppose, is why Clare has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, and a critical reappraisal. It's not merely nostalgia for an imagined England of days gone by - it's the fact that in his exact and first-hand writing about the natural world, he was making the now extremely relevant point (without ever trying to hammer home 'a message') that no one part of it exists in isolation.

Finally, I just found this article on Clare, particularly interesting for what it says about how well read he was.

Friday, 5 December 2008

HappenStance blog

To my great shame, I've only just noticed that HappenStance now has a blog. Have a browse and learn a bit more about the world of poetry chapbook publishing.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Godiva rides again

Last night, I went to Coventry's Herbert Art Gallery and Museum for the launch of Lady Godiva & Me, Liam Guilar's new chapbook from Nine Arches Press. In fact, chapbook is selling it short - it's 50 pages of poetry that uses all sorts of voicves, including the iconic figure of Godiva, to explore the history of Coventry (Liam's home city, although he now lives in Australia). He read very well, confirming the point he made himself, that a genuine sequence (and this is a very well constructed one) allows you to try things that just aren't possible in a collection of more or less standalone poems.

Despite arriving late because of the traffic (I had 25 miles to travel, Liam had to come from Queensland, guess who was there first) I read a few poems myself as the warm-up. They were:

Troy Town
Knots
To A Flame
Poem
Show, Don't Tell

Afterwards we adjourned to the cafe bar next door, and I chatted with Liam, Matt Nunn and Jane Commane of Nine Arches, and some of the other Coventry regulars. They included Barry Patterson, who's not only a fellow birder but also a fellow Julian Cope enthusiast! I swapped books with him - his, Nature Mystic, is from Heaventree. I only had time to read Brandon Marsh Winter Light last night, and it's excellent.

Oh, and I picked up a copy of Issue 2 of Under The Radar (to be launched next Thursday at a reading at Friends Meeting House, Leicester). It contains poems by the likes of Mario Petrucci, David Hart, Jane Commane and myself (A Fixer-Upper and St Beuno Meets The English), and reviews including Jacqui Rowe on Marilyn Ricci's Rebuilding A Number 39 and Simon Turner on Geoffrey Holloway's Collected Poems (and any review which mentions JA Baker's The Peregrine, as this does, is OK by me. There's a short story competition too, so buy a copy.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Brackenbury on Clare

Alison Brackenbury tells me that she has a short talk on John Clare being broadcast on Radio 3 next Tuesday (December 2), at 11pm. A bit late, but I like a bit of radio last thing at night. Far better that than in the day, too, when it's difficult to listen.

The talk contains extracts from a poem called The Cuckoo, and the great storm scene from The Shepherd’s Calendar.

The programme will also be available (during the rest of the week) on Listen Again, at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/bbc_radio_three
(Look under E for The Essay).

The other Essays during the week also sound excellent. They are:
Monday, 1st December: Michael Symmons Roberts on David Jones.
Wednesday, 3rd December: W N Herbert on Edwin Morgan (including a recording of Morgan performing his Loch Ness Monster poem).
Thursday, 4th December: Menna Elfyn on T Gwynn Jones.
Friday, 5th December: Fred D’Aguiar on Wilson Harris.

Enjoy!

The next laureate

As I was driving home last night, there was an item on the Radio 5 news about Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, specifically the fact that he would like to see the public have a say in who succeeds him in the post next year.

They had Ian McMillan on to talk about what the successful candidate would need, and he not unreasonably identified a combination of a popular touch and the ability to write poetry that also works on a number of other levels. He also said he'd like to see the term reduced to five years, and I'd agree - that seems a good compromise between the current 10 and the much shorter terms they have in the USA.

They didn't (and I was surprised at this), name any names in terms of speculating who the leading candidates would be. Me? I wouldn't be unhappy to see McMillan himself get the post, although I think there are plenty of good candidates, and as he pointed out, it would be good to see the job go to a woman for a complete change of perspective (amazing, really, that it hasn't happened before, especially given that the PLs have been writing for female monarchs for large parts of the last 200 years).

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The LBJ

I've just received Issue 1 of The LBJ. The initials, as all you birders out there will know, stands for Little Brown Job (not Lyndon B Johnson), and is sometimes rather dismissively applied to all those less colourful small birds such as sparrows, many finches and buntings and, in Europe at least, most warblers.

Here, though, it also stands for Literary Bird Journal, and is subtitled Avian Life, Literary Arts. It's a handy notebook size, but the full colour picture of the Ovenbird on the cover serves notice that it isn't going to do things by halves. Alongside poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and literary journalism, all of an ornothological bent, it also contains a number of full-colour plates.

I'll post a full review when I've had chance to read it properly, but it's a fine publication, from the Department of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a nice addition to the magazine world for those of us (and there are many) who like to mix our birding and literature.

It costs $9 per issue, and you can find out more about subscribing by logging on here.

Englyns

Also while in Wales, I bought a couple of books of poetry. One was Chase Twichell's Perdido, which I haven't started yet, and the other was Lynette Roberts' Collected Poems, which I've barely put down since.

Roberts is a very interesting figure. She was undoubtedly a modernist, but a highly idiosyncratic one (not surprisingly given her background, born in Argentina to Australian parents of Welsh descent), and much of her work wasn't widely available until quite recently.

She touches on one of my recurring poetic obsessions - englyns. These are a Welsh form of verse, involving very strict rules, but although I can think of quite a few poets who have had a go at them (Gillian Clarke, Richard Caddel, Robert Graves, for starters), I think they often tend to be rather anglicised versions, without adhering strictly to the cynghanned pattern. I might be doing those poets a disservice, though, and must go back to their books to check.

Anyway, I even included a (again very anglicised) version of one in my own book, and I often mess about with them, even if it's just to get me writing. They're satisfyingly compact and punchy, I think.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Ramblings

I was in South Wales at the weekend, and bought a copy of Saturday's Western Mail. There was a (mostly positive) review of Patrick Jones' book darkness is where the stars are, just out from Cinnamon, the launch of which in Cardiff, you'll remember, provoked all sorts of controversy.

Now while I haven't changed my view that Waterstones acted pretty badly in the whole affair, I can't say I'm grabbed by what I've read of the poetry. But the reviewer pointed out that in a recent online search for the top 100 Welsh heroes, Jones made it to No.32, and was top poet behind RS Thomas, Dylan Thomas and Dafydd ap Gwilym, which suggests that his poetry does engage with a wider public than usual.

So, is it a bit churlish of us as poets to complain that too few of our kind tackle real issues and attempt to get the general public interested in poetry, and then complain again when a poet does exactly that, just because the poetry isn't to our taste? No, it's perfectly reasonable, I think, but I can't help thinking Patrick Jones could teach most of us something about marketing.

On the opposite page, there's a column called The Insider by Peter Finch, chief executive of Academi, the literature promotion agency for Wales. His occupation of that role might be seen as giving the lie to the claim that the avant-garde are excluded from all positions of power in the literati, given that he has been, at times, as 'out there' as any British poet. But maybe he's just an exception - whatever, it's a fine column, looking at a number of writers who are turning out fine work in their later years. Among them are Meic Stephens and Herbert Williams. The latter's Come Out Wherever You Are, about a mass German POW breakout from Island Farm, Bridgend, has been reissued. I remember reading it as a kid at my grandparents' house, almost within sight of the abandoned camp, and my mother telling me about seeing General Von Runstedt being marched from Bridgend station to the camp when she was a child. I must get hold of the book again.

Lady Godiva & Me

Next Wednesday, December 3rd, Liam Guilar's new Nine Arches pamphlet Lady Godiva & Me is being launched with a reading at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Jordan Well, Coventry, at 7pm.

You might already have seen some of the poems through the e-mail tasters Nine Arches have sent out - if not, you've missed out, because they've been excellent, going way beyond simply retelling the story of Coventry's most famous daughter. Instead, a whole cast of voices from the city are brought to life by Liam, who's Coventry-born, but now lives in Australia.

The support will come from yours truly - I'll be reading from Troy Town and some newer poems.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Two new links

Scottish poet Eleanor Livingstone has a new website here (and about time too!). There's poetry, links, and even YouTube footage of Eleanor reading, so take the time to have a browse. Eleanor's excellent HappenStance pamphlet, The Last King Of Fife, was launched the same night as mine, and I also read with her last year, and she's always good to hear. Her poems are a lot steelier than they sometimes appear at first glance, too - they always repay a bit of close attention.

I also came across this superb blog, Fades In Slowly, while browsing earlier. It contains all manner of things related to John Peel, so it's essential for anyone who, at this time of year, sets about compiling their own Festive 50.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Shindig! in Leicester

There's live poetry and an open mic at the launch of Issue 2 of Under The Radar magazine, at
Friends Meeting House, Queen’s Road, Leicester, at 7.30pm on Thursday, December 11th.

Readers include:
Jane Holland – editor of Horizon Review, reading from her latest collection Camper Van Blues; Matt Nunn – Birmingham’s finest poetic export, reading from his forthcoming collection, Sounds in the Grass; Warwickshire-based poet Jane Commane reading a selection of her recent work; and yours truly, reading from Troy Town and some newer poems.

It's free, and open mic slots are available - turn up early to register for a place.

More information at www.ninearchespress.com

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Quiet here, isn't it?

I haven't posted much recently, having been tied up with work and writing, and that's not about to change for a few days. Not many out of the ordinary birds about (a few White-fronted Geese, and a Marsh Harrier over at Willington Gravel Pits), although I've been happy enough watching some good-sized flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares, and a few local Stonechats.

Last night, I watched Channel 4's much touted new drama series The Devil's Whore, being a bit of a sucker for all things 1640s. I have to say, I rather liked it - they resisted the temptation to go sex it up along the lines of The Tudors, and they seemed to get the tone of the dialogue about right. Not that they went for wholly authentic 17th century language, but at least they avoided any jarringly modern-sounding passages. Promising - I'll be interested to see how it develops.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Free speech?

This from the Western Mail - had it been a little independent bookshop in a small town somewhere, I could understand how they might be bullied into submission, but Waterstones' main Cardiff branch? I think they're creating a pretty bad precedent here.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Overheard

I was in London at the weekend, and among other things went along to the Southbank Centre to record a reading of one of my poems, Treaty House, that appeared in Brittle Star No19. As well as the texts of magazines appearing at the Poetry Library’s Poetry Magazines site, some are to feature sound files too.

Elsewhere I bought a few books, including John Preston’s The Dig, having just popped into the British Museum and been reminded of it by the Sutton Hoo collection and the Franks Casket. It’s a novel about the excavation of Sutton Hoo, in 1939 – I’m looking forward to it.

In the little branch of Foyles nearby, I was browsing in the poetry section and couldn’t help but overhear a young woman explaining to her partner exactly who Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were. She reached the tragic end of the story, saying “and she killed herself by putting her head in the oven”.

There was a long pause, and then the young man asked, in perfect seriousness: “Was it a gas oven?” Every head within earshot turned their way, with faces wearing expressions that were a mixture of horror and disbelief.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Magma's new look

Magma has a new website and blog, both of them worthy counterparts to what is one of my favourite UK poetry mags (it's one that I tend to buy every issue of, whereas with some I pick and choose a bit more).

You can sample some of the poetry from the new issue, and there's also a couple of interesting pieces, one of them a review of Inventory, Linda Black's Shearsman collection of prose poems, and another Hannah Salt's look at exactly what a prose poem is. Don't ask me for any answers - I'm prepared to accept that a prose poem is a prose poem because the poet says it is.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Buzz

I was away for this year's Templar Poetry Festival, at Cromford, near Matlock, but last night the 2008 Pamphlet Competition anthology, Buzz, had arrived in the post. As ever from Templar, it's very nicely produced, with a good selection of poets and poems. You can also find more details on the 2009 pamphlet competition at the Templar site.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Collected or Selected?

I've just come across a piece advertising a reading by Lee Harwood, in Hove, to mark the launch of his Selected Poems, from Shearsman. Apart from cursing the fact that Hove is halfway across the country (admittedly, living slap bang in the middle of England, that's true of an awful lot of places), it set me thinking.

Two or three years ago I bought Harwood's Collected Poems, also from Shearsman, and enjoyed it hugely. I've gone back to it again and again (in fact, it's my current bedside reading). But several poets and readers have mentioned, in the past, that they much prefer the idea of a Selected to a Collected, the latter symbolically writing an emphatic full stop to the poet's career. Of course, they're often brought out after the poet is dead, but that brings its own problems, not least the fact that they can be packed with juvenilia or poems that the writer would rather had remained consigned to obscurity.

Selecteds, on the other hand, allow the poet to weed out work that he or she would rather they weren't associated with anymore, for whatever reason, and might be thought to provide a truer picture of the poet. They're a good way to spark interest in the poet's individual volumes. The slight problem is that, inevitably, there'll be occasions when they don't include work that the reader only discovers, much later, tucked away in those individual collections. I've had that happen a few times, often with Faber and Faber Selecteds, and as I say, it's probably inevitable.

On the whole, though, my preference would usually be for Selecteds, for the reasons suggested. I wouldn't, as I say, be without that Harwood Collected, nor would I swap my gargantuan Ted Hughes Collected for a slimmer volume. So I guess it comes down to the individual poet. Some need to be read in their entirety because their poetry depends on that much wider context, others simply because you like them so much.

But anyway, I'd be interested to know what anyone else thinks...

* As regards that reading, if you're in or around Hove, this Friday, November 7th, at 6.30pm, it's £6, and is at the Old Market, Upper Market Street, Hove. Ticket price includes free glass of wine and a reduction on books purchased, and is available from City Books, 23 Western Road, Hove, tel: 01273 725 306.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Zbigniew Herbert

Following on from Rob Mackenzie's recent posts on him over at Surroundings, there was this piece on Zbigniew Herbert in Friday's Guardian. As I mentioned to Rob, I don't know nearly enough about his poetry, but I remember years ago enjoying one called The Monster Of Mr Cogito so much that I copied it out. The current resurgence of interest in him, and the literary controversy that has gone with it, has given me the nudge I needed to go and seek out more of his work.

Friday, 31 October 2008

So Here We Are 18

I've been pretty poor at posting anything just lately, although for once it's been because I've actually been getting on with some proper writing.

But anyway, here's the latest of poet and Tears In The Fence editor David Caddy's So Here We Are letters. I'll be having a careful read of it over the weekend, because he touches on a few things close to my heart. One is John Clare, of course, but another is the whole idea of the forest in this country, bound up as it is with the Norman Conquest, Robin Hood, and so on. Over several years, I've been piecing together a sequence of poems about Leicestershire-based Hood inspiration Roger Godberd, and this might give me a bit of new impetus to get on with it and finish it.

He also touches on enclosures - although he's talking about events that took place in the 19th century, it was something that had been going on since at least the end of the 16th century, and was the main cause of another of my historical hobby-horses, the Midlands Revolt of 1607. So, read and enjoy, and expect a flood of historical poems from me some time around 2012.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Vote now!

If you've ever looked at the results of a poetry competition and thought "that's all wrong", then here's your chance to influence the outcome of one. The shortlisted poems in this year's Times Literary Supplement Poetry Competition are here, and you can vote for your favourite. I've had a quick scan through, and already have an idea which one I favour, but I'll read them all a few more times before I make a decision. Enjoy!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Back in Blighty

I’ve just come back from a week in the Azores, where I went to write a couple of articles – one about the archipelago as a birding location generally, and the other about the Priolo Life project, which has been fighting to save the Priolo, or Azores Bullfinch, from extinction.

After a brief stopover on Sao Miguel, it was off to Corvo, the smallest and most westerly of the islands, seven square miles of extinct volcano with just enough flat land for a runway and a village. Like the rest of the Azores, it’s covered with lush vegetation, with lots of small cow pastures between thickly wooded valleys and ravines.



In between some torrential rain, we found a Red-eyed Vireo high up on the mountain, but things really took off just after a large container ship had passed the island.

First, Belgian birder David Monticelli found a Common Yellowthroat in a patch of scrubby bushes close to the village. He couldn’t find any of us to tell us until breakfast the next day, so we headed back to the same spot at first light praying it hadn’t disappeared.

It hadn’t. We thought we heard it call once or twice, and then I found it flitting around a patch of maize in the company of some Blackcaps. Later, David found another (or more likely, his original). As we were waiting, though, he also spotted a chunky, strongly marked passerine, and we both got great views of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.


It’s well-known that a lot of rare transatlantic vagrants hitch a ride part of the way, and here it was in practice. Unfortunately, I had to fly back to the main island, Sao Miguel, at this point, but the others have since found a variety of North American birds of Corvo.

After a slightly hair-raising night drive along the fog-bound, rain-lashed coast road from Ponta Delgado to Nordeste, I met up with the Priolo Life people. The idea was to get stuck in as a volunteer, to give our readers an idea of how to combine a birding holiday with a bit of practical conservation. So, I spent my time high up in the mountains, clambering up and down steep, muddy trails and getting ripped to shreds by brambles while surveying the native plants the Priolo needs if it’s to survive. And of course, we saw plenty of the birds themselves. They’re not, you’d have to say, as colourful or striking as the European Bullfinch, but they’re a fine sight all the same, and thanks to the project, their future looks a little brighter.

Finally, driving back to Ponta Delgado airport, I stopped on a headland along the coast to stretch my legs and tried to tune into BBC Radio 4, to get the India vs Australia cricket score. Instead, I got Start The Week, and by a strange chance the first voice I heard was of poet Jane Holland!



The pictures show (from top): Corvo; Belgian birder David Monticelli trying to photograph the Common Yellowthroat on Corvo; the north coast of Sao Miguel; and Nordeste.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

You Are Here - Simon Turner

You Are Here - Simon Turner
(Heaventree Press, 2007) £7.99

Birmingham gets a raw deal, if you ask me. For far too long, the mere name of the city has been a byword for industrial decline and an urban landscape embodying the worst of post-war town planning and architecture.

Me, though, I’ve always liked the place. A lot. The train journey from Leicester to Brum always seemed to involve mile after mile of fragmented, semi-neglected suburbia, and yet it was always exciting. And then the centre, whatever the lack of fit between its Victorian glories and its more recent experiments, was never less than vibrantly alive, yet never managed to attain the sort of glamour or cool that Manchester, for example, has managed.

In the poetry world, though, it does get the celebration it deserves. That’s been down to Roy Fisher, most notably, and in the notes to this remarkably assured first collection, Simon Turner says: “I avoided reading Roy Fisher for a long time, worried that, as a fellow Midlands-based writer, he would come to dominate my style once I had. I was right.”

He’s being far too modest, because while Turner’s poetry does at times bear the trace of Fisher’s relaxed, inclusive modernism, he’s far too good a writer not to let his own voice come through loud and clear.

This is a book in four sections, some relatively lyrical, others dominated by linguistic experimentation, but that fragmented landscape I talked about is a constant presence throughout. It’s there in the nature poems, such as Storm Journal, which choose less obvious subjects than most poets would, and which combine acute observation with a subtle, suggestive language. And importantly, the poet himself is never foregrounded in these works, even when he’s aware of his presence within the scene. The excellent Swifts even references this, being split into the two sections what I say and what they say which wittily rewrite each other from different viewpoints, while in Geographies he even asks: “Why write? These things / are so much themselves.” They are, but his poetry allows for that fact rather than diminishing it.

Turner isn’t afraid to return to the same territory again and again, sometimes within individual poems, but it never gets repetitive because he’s always aware that language has the power to freshen it up each time. The result is a bit like one of those train journeys I mentioned earlier – at times you find yourself moving into a new part of town that looks uncannily similar to where you came from; at others, the passing of time has wrought subtle changes. And so the city is simultaneously ugly and beautiful.

I’ll be honest. A few of the most experimental pieces left me cold, but it’s a good-sized collection and none the worse for taking the opportunity to try things out, take risks. And one of the most impressive features is the way that Turner doesn’t play with language merely for its own sake. Instead, it’s a constant part of the landscape too – crows scry their new alphabet “on the scorched parchment sky”; “the town’s frayed outskirts” become the “furthest edges of speech”; high rise blocks are “a stuttered plea” that the “crazed sky ponders and declines”.

Oh, and one last thing. I’d only come across one Heaventree publication before, Andy Brown’s pamphlet The Trust Territory, but this book confirms the good physical impression made by that. It’s a really nicely put together paperback, with a splendid cover by David Dewis. I know I’ve said it before, but that matters to me.

Of course, it would matter too if the contents didn’t live up to the package, but there’s no problem on that count. Simon Turner is here, to stay I hope.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Why chapbooks matter

Go to Alan Baker's blog, Litterbug, and scroll down to the post for September 21st (there are no titles). He makes what is, I think, a very good point, and one that I touched on earlier in the year - the fact that poetry collections seem to be getting longer, sometimes at the expense of quality, rather in the same way that the advent of the CD encouraged bands to fill every album with 70 minutes worth of music, regardless of whether it was worth recording in the first place.

Of course, it's not always true, and there are plenty of collections of which I'm glad that the poet kept going well beyond the old 64-page mark. But Alan's point still stands, I think. In such times, chapbooks can offer the perfect format for a writer who wants to get work out there in between increasingly chunky full collections.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

So Here We Are 17

More good stuff over at David Caddy's blog - here's the latest of his So Here We Are letters.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Weekend reading

I enjoyed this review of Michael Symmons Roberts' new book, The Half-healed, in The Guardian on Saturday. Roberts is a poet I've not really read enough of, but I really ought to catch up some time soon.

I spent most of the weekend reading in the ridiculously summery weather (someone on the radio this morning said that we'd had the sort of day yesterday "that poets mean when they talk about autumn"), and writing one or two reviews. I even attempted to write some poetry.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Not exactly breaking news, but...

Still a bit bleary-eyed after getting back from London in the middle of the night, having been to the Forward Prize announcement. Not the best of journeys, but even the vagaries of Britain’s railway system couldn’t ruin a really enjoyable day.

You may well have seen by now that Mick Imlah took the Best Collection Prize for The Lost Leader – I’ve only skimmed it so far, but will be taking it with me when I’m away next week for a proper read. I don’t think there’ll be too much argument – from what I’ve read so far, it looks like a worthy winner. It’s terrible to read of his illness, though.

Best First Collection went to Kathryn Simmonds, for her Sunday At The Skin Launderette. That might have qualified as something of a surprise, because I’d guess that most people’s money was on Frances Leviston, but I think this would have been the closest category of all. Anyway, Kathryn’s book was my favourite of those I’ve read, so I was pleased by her win.

Best Individual Poem was won by Don Paterson’s Love Poem For Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze. I think Roddy Lumsden hit the nail on the head by describing it as a ‘Marmite poem’ – most readers will either love it or hate it. I’m not a big fan myself, and would like to have seen Tim Turnbull’s Ode On A Grayson Perry Urn win, but never mind.

Anyway, it was good to finally meet Roddy in person, and to chat with some of the judges, publishers and other poets. Congratulations to all the winners and shortlisted poets.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

New Sphinx

I got home late last night to find the new issue of Sphinx waiting for me. I made the mistake of dipping into it for what was supposed to be five minutes, and ended up reading Rob Mackenzie’s excellent piece on poetry blogging, a fine interview with poet, artist and Stride Magazine editor Rupert Loydell, and Tia Ballantine’s perceptive (and glowing) review of James Wood’s Inextinguishable. Who needs sleep?

There's plenty more still to read, and of course the website contains a wealth of reviews that complement the printed version. Sphinx editor Helena Nelson mentions that it is likely to go totally online in the near future. It’s a shame in some respects, but on the other hand it will give it the opportunity to maintain its high standards without running up huge bills. Stride itself serves as a good example of just how well an independent online mag can work.

Whatever the format, Sphinx remains an essential read for anyone interested in the poetry pamphlet world. Buy one now.

Monday, 6 October 2008

At last!

Well, who'd have thought it? Only a few weeks ago I was bemoaning the lack of honour accorded to this blog's inspiration, Polyolbion poet Michael Drayton, in his home town of Polesworth, and then this turns up in today's Coventry Evening Telegraph. They've wisely decided against spending any of the cash on a one-off recital of his masterwork, but this will do just fine.

It's that time of year again

A few of the Sunday broadsheets featured poetry yesterday, as always happens the weekend before National Poetry Day. Some talked about the launch of a new initiative to encourage children to learn poetry by heart, while one took a more general approach of asking various celebs and literary luminaries what their favourite poem was.

Of course, that set me thinking what an impossible task it is trying to pick out a single poem (I’d managed to reduce my shortlist to 28 by late last night), but it was also interesting that a lot of the responses were in favour of pre-20th century poetry. Tennyson featured more than once, for example. I’m not sure that says anything significant, other than the fact that in the normal course of things, most people aren’t exposed to a huge amount of contemporary poetry.

Against the odds, the one that particularly caught my eye was Jason Donovan’s choice, which was one of the poems of Harry 'Breaker' Morant, which he had learnt as a kid when his dad was playing Morant in the play of the same name. If my memory serves me correctly, Donovan Senior went on to play an Australian general in the film version, where Edward Woodward took the lead. I’ve no idea about Morant’s merits as a ‘bush poet’, but it’s a great film, and it’s high time it was repeated again (it usually turns up on BBC2 at about 12.15 on a Sunday night).

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Day jobs

I came across this piece on the Poetry Society’s website the other day. It would have been nice to see a bit more on each person, maybe, and a wider cross-section of poets generally, but it’s interesting stuff.

There are certainly occasions when I curse the fact that a day job leaves far too little time for writing poetry (not least at the moment), but on the whole I think my attitude probably comes closest to Dennis O’Driscoll’s. Which is to say, however much I think I like the idea of having nothing to do all day except write, in reality I know it would involve a rapid descent into friendless, Crunchy Nut Cornflake addiction in front of repeats of Minder.

On reflection, I think having a day job forces me to be a bit more disciplined in my poetry writing, to make full use of my spare time. Plus, luckily, parts of my job are quite conducive to poetry – long drives, lots of yomping around looking for birds, and easy access to a computer, for example. So what do you think?

Monday, 29 September 2008

Busy, busy, busy

I was a bit surprised to receive my copy of The Forward Book Of Poetry 2009 this morning (I’d sort of assumed they’d hand them out at the launch, or post them out after that). Anyway, it’s pretty exciting and a little bit unreal to find my name in there among a host of well-known and justifiably lauded poets, and I was intrigued to see which of my poems they’d picked. It turned out to be Holiday, 1939, which you can read here (and scroll down further to find my comments on it).

At the weekend, it was good to hear Jane Holland, Simon Turner, Matt Nunn, Jane Commane, George Ttoouli and Tony Walsh read at Atherstone – a variety of styles, from Simon’s modernist urban pastorals, to Tony’s polished and thought-provoking slam poetry. But it was all excellent, and it was nice to put some faces to names, too. I bought Simon’s book, You Are Here, from Heaventree Press, and what I’ve read so far is extremely impressive. Very nicely produced, too, with an eyecatching cover.

Finally, I got two poems accepted by Under The Radar magazine – A Fixer-Upper, and St Beuno Meets The English. Oh, and I seem to have lost my voice.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Deva (not diva)

I’m ashamed to say that until Monday, I’d never been to Chester before. Not properly, anyway, just zoomed past on the way to Liverpool, or North Wales, or wherever. So, it’s always good when a poetry reading allows you to fill large gap in your knowledge, and it won’t be the last time I visit. For starters, it was surprisingly quick and easy to get to, now that there's a quick cut-through from the M1 to the M6.

More to the point, it’s a lovely small city. No surprise there, really. Roman ruins, a medieval street layout including almost intact city walls and gateways and plenty of half-timbered houses (although a lot of these are actually Victorian). What’s not to like?

The main business of my trip, though, was to read as guest poet at the Zest! Open Mic, at Alexander’s Jazz Theatre Bar. Zest! is a monthly event, run by fellow HappenStance poet Gill McEvoy (her pamphlet Uncertain Days is highly recommended, and she has a full collection forthcoming from Cinnamon Press in 2010).

Alexander’s is a terrific venue. Tucked just below the city walls, it’s intimate enough that you feel part of a tight-knit group, but large enough to accommodate audiences of 70-80. I’m not sure how many were in on Monday – maybe 40-50?

Anyway, there was a good mix of young and old, and a fair few got up to read poems too, whether their own or other people’s. And read them very well, for the most part. Among the highlights were a chap called Miguel’s heartfelt and animated recitation from memory, Len’s beautifully scanned elegy, Aled’s use of Welsh, and (I think) Phil’s excellent poem on Klimt. Oh, and Gill read two fine pieces, and her Zest! colleagues Leih and Caroline also read very well.

There was also Chris Kinsey, whose name I know of old from countless magazines and whose Ragged Raven collection Kung Fu Lullabies I must get hold of (not least for that great title). She read very well, and when I got to work this morning I flicked through the new issue of BBC Wildlife and found that she’s the winner of this year’s BBC Wildlife Poet Of The Year award – fully deserved, too, because her The Morning After The Clocks Went Back, in the space of 12 short lines, manages to observe nature acutely, remain beautifully understated and poised, and still spring a surprising image on the reader.

I’ve already posted my set-list, but it was interesting that chatting to people afterwards, the one poem that people kept mentioning as a favourite was Knots. I’m glad, partly because it’s always intriguing when people pick out less obvious pieces, and partly because I always worry that it’s a bit too bird-y. And I sold a few books and pamphlets on the back of it, which is a bonus!

The following day, I was out at Ness Marshes by just after 9. There are wide grazing marshes overlooking the Dee Estuary, and although it’s a bit early in the year for most of the waders and wildfowl, there were good numbers of Lapwings and plenty of corvids and small passerines around the path. Ravens gronked over at intervals, two Buzzards and a handful of Kestrels hunted close to the road, and then things really hotted up, with a female Hen Harrier quartering the fields, a Peregrine perched on one of the fenceposts, and a male Merlin on another until it was chased away by an irate Crow.

After that it was back into Chester to soak up a bit of history, and of course to search the bookshops. Bluecoat Books, on the city walls just next to Alexander’s, was excellent, so I bought Robin Robertson’s Swithering for £4, to replace a copy I lent to someone. It’s reminded me what an excellent collection it is. In the little Waterstones in town, I bought Bernard O’Donoghue’s Selected and a history of the Spanish Civil War. I’ve been meaning to get the latter for a while, because my knowledge of it is very sketchy – at university, I remember realising in horror the day before my Industrial Europe exam that it was one of the mandatory subjects, and spending 12 hours reading a book on it from cover to cover in an only-just-successful attempt to avert disaster.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Zest!

Just back from Chester after reading as the guest poet at the Zest! open mic last night - very enjoyable indeed. It's a really vibrant monthly event, and there were plenty of really good poets and poems on show.

Anyway, I'll post about it properly later in the week (I also managed to do a bit of birding and a lot of rummaging through bookshops), but for now, here's my set-list.

Set One
Familiar
Knots
The Meeting Place
Probably The Ponzo Illusion
Poem ("Today we haven't stopped to think...")
The Memory Of Water
Scorpio Over La Selva
Troy Town

Set Two
At Home
Show, Don't Tell
To A Flame
Ringing Redstarts
Another
The Mad Mile
Raining, Craswall, Evening

Friday, 19 September 2008

Coming soon...

Just a quick reminder - I'll be reading as part of the Zest! Open Floor Poetry Night, at Alexander's Jazz Theatre Bar, Chester, at 8pm on Monday (September 22nd). There's also an open mic spot, so you can bring along your own or a favourite poem to read.

The venue is in Rufus Court, off Northgate Street, and entry is £3/£2. See you there.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

And another review

The latest issue of Iota (No82) was waiting when I got home last night. It's the last one produced by the current editors, Bob Mee and Janet Murch, who have turned it into a really good small press magazine, IMHO. Sometimes the poetry is a little hit or miss, but to be honest I think that's what I want from a magazine. It means there are always surprises, and that's not always true of some rather more feted publications.

From next issue, it's going to be produced by a new editorial team, and published and distributed by Bluechrome Press, so there's every chance it will go from strength to strength.

Anyway, I had a new poem, St Martin's Summer, in No82, plus there was this review of Troy Town, by Bob Mee, which was a pleasant surprise. Good to see Adrian Buckner's collection Contains Mild Peril reviewed extensively and positively too - it's on my To Buy list, and not just because it contains a section of cricket poems.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

A walk in the country

A couple of yards from my desk in the office, the good people of Country Walking magazine go about their business. Speaking as someone partial to yomping round the Peak District on a regular basis, it's a magazine I've always enjoyed, but the new (October) issue is particularly good.

It's a Yorkshire special, and contains a fine piece by editor Jonathan Manning about Ian McMillan. There are a couple of newish poems included, and as ever, McMillan is good company.

It strikes me that, should he be interested, they could do a lot worse than McMillan as the next Poet Laureate, because he seems completely lacking in self-consciousness about mixing populist and less accessible poetry. A couple of years ago, for example, I bought one of those issues of The North in which the poems are presented anonymously, and you have to turn to a key at the back to find out who wrote what. There was a really fine poem from McMillan in there, and at the time I'd never have guessed that it was from him, so far was it from the rather lighter stuff you often see and hear from him on TV and radio.

The same issue contains my own article about walking on Ilkley Moor with Yorkshire and England fast bowling legend Matthew Hoggard, and all the usual features. Oh, and it recommends Timothy Taylor Landlord, Black Sheep and Sam Smith's Bitter - surely three of the finest beers ever to be supped.

Titchwell update

Here are some of Mike Weedon's wader shots from Monday's big day's filming, over at Weedon's World Of Nature. Love the phalarope, and it's alwaays nice to see Turnstones.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Titchwell time

We were over at the RSPB reserve at Titchwell yesterday, taking advantage of the good weather to crack on with filming of the next Bird Watching DVD. It's good fun, whispering to camera David Attenborough style and fighting the urge to shout excitedly every time a good bird comes into view.

We quickly found the juvenile Red-necked Phalarope that had been reported there, and although it flew off to the far side of the lagoons for a while, it gradually worked its way back during the day, until we were able to get good views of it behaving in typical phalarope fashion - swimming frantically in tiny circles to stir up food, and jabbing at the water with its needle-thin bill.

There was a Pectoral Sandpiper, too, although only fairly briefly, but we did get great views of four Little Stints that fed only a few yards from the path along the bank. Plenty of other waders, too - Avocets, Curlew, Curlew Sandpipers, Lapwings, Redshanks, Greenshanks, Ruff, Bar-tailed Godwits, Turnstones and Oystercatchers.

We had a quick trip to the fen hide, and saw a male Redstart (my more patient colleague Mr Weedon hung around longer and was rewarded with good views of a Bittern, plus two Whinchats), then picked up an early male Hen Harrier hunting over the saltmarsh and fields just outside the reserve, over towards Thornham.

As I prepared to do a piece to camera scanning over the lagoons, virtually every wader, gull and goose on the reserve rose into the air making a huge clamour, a sure sign that a raptor was around, and sure enough a Peregrine dived into the heart of the flocks, although it seemed to come up empty-taloned. It was truly spectacular, though.

And the thing is, Titchwell is set to change over the next few years, as the sea encroaches. The policy of managed retreat means that some of the freshwater marsh will inevitably disappear. In the meantime, if you have any interest in birds and happen to be around north Norfolk, go and enjoy what is still, in my opinion, the RSPB's best reserve - accessible, compact, family-friendly and always packed with superb birds.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

On the Horizon

The first edition of Horizon Review, Salt Publishing's new online magazine, is now live. Edited by Jane Holland, it includes poems by, among others, Alison Brackenbury, George Szirtes, James Midgeley, Rob Mackenzie, Andrew Shields, Andrew Philip, Zoe Brigley and Katy Evans-Bush, plus art, fiction, reviews and articles. It looks a great read - ideal for a quiet Sunday afternoon.

I also received the new Tears In The Fence yesterday and have been dipping in and out of it since. So far I've liked Julie Lumsden's poems, and enjoyed Tom Chivers' regular column and a review of a book by Elisabeth Bletsoe. I like the look of her poems a lot, and will have to get hold of the volume in question.

Finally, Poetry Nottingham arrived in the week. I've got a poem, Troglodyte, in there, and there's loads of good stuff by the likes of DA Prince.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

New review

It was a very pleasant surprise to find a full-page review of Troy Town, by Ewen McDonald, in the autumn edition of The Leicestershire Magazine. I've put it up over at my Troy Town blog, so you can read it in full there.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Forward Poetry Prize

Earlier today I got an invitation to the presentation of the Forward Poetry Prize, and the accompanying launch of The Forward Book Of Poetry 2009. Joanna Boulter, of Arrowhead Press, had already tipped me off that one of the poems from Troy Town, and one from fellow Arrowheader Peter Howard's Weighing The Air, were to be included in the anthology, but it's really very exciting to actually have the invitation card in my hand. And of course, the chance to go and sip wine and eat cheese footballs with the great and good of the poetry world is too good to miss, so I'll be there in Fitzroy Square on October 8th.

The full nominations are:
MAIN PRIZE
Jamie McKendrick - Crocodiles & Obelisks (Faber)
Sujata Bhatt - Pure Lizard (Carcanet)
Mick Imlah - The Lost Leader (Faber)
Jane Griffiths - Another Country (Bloodaxe)
Jen Hadfield - Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe)
Catherine Smith - Lip (Smith Doorstop)

FIRST COLLECTION
Simon Barraclough - Los Alamos Mon Amour (Salt)
Andrew Forster - Fear of Thunder (Flambard)
Frances Leviston - Public Dream (Picador)
Allison McVety - The Night Trotsky Came to Stay (Smith Doorstop)
Stephanie Norgate - Hidden River (Bloodaxe)
Kathryn Simmonds - Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Seren)

SINGLE POEM
Seamus Heaney - Cutaways
Christopher Buehlman - Wanton
Catherine Ormell - Campaign Desk, December 1812
Don Paterson - Love Poem for Natalie 'Tusja' Beridze
Kate Rhodes - Wells-next-the-Sea
Tim Turnbull - Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn

My own choices of winners (and I haven't read all the nominees by any means), would be Catherine Smith, Kathryn Simmonds and Tim Turnbull, but I suspect it may pan out rather differently. Still, they're all worthy nominees, so it will be fascinating to see who does win.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

HappenStance launch

Yesterday I went to the launch of two of the latest HappenStance publications - Marilyn Ricci's chapbook Rebuilding A Number 39, and DA Prince's first full collection, Nearly The Happy Hour - in Leicester.

It was good to meet Marilyn, and to see Davina and HappenStance publisher Helena Nelson again, and the excellent turn-out on another day of foul weather was testament to a strong grass-roots poetry scene in Leicester.

Both poets read very well. It's interesting that a couple of Davina's poems concern swans, because her poems remind me of that old thing about appearing serene and elegant on the surface, while all sorts of things are going on just out of sight. It's all far more complicated than it first appears, but she uses the rhythms of everyday speech very well, so it's never difficult. She also writes very good light verse - an underrated skill, in my book. I should also point out that we both went to the same school, years apart, so it's good to be able to cheer her success.

Marilyn's writing is often grounded in family memory, and both she and Helena pointed out that, while that sort of thing is sometimes derided by poetry critics, there's no reason why it should be, when it's done well. It was here - for a start there's plenty of character in the poems, with everyday (Leicester) speech well captured*. There's also a sparingly used surrealism, which gives several of the poems an element of surprise. And finally, you're plunged right into the middle of the memory so that, I suppose, it's rather like recalling them yourself, rather than being told them by somebody else.

* One poem, Yakking, uses the title word in a sense that is, in my experience, exclusive to Leicester and its environs. To 'yak' means to throw, usually quite violently, and although a lot of local dialect words seem to be passing out of use, this is one I still hear (and use) regularly, not least on the cricket field. It's always been a source of annoyance to me that our accent and dialect gets so badly represented in the media. On the rare occasions that a TV programme is set in Leicester, for example, they generally use a Birmingham accent, but the reality is quite different. You can hear a huge difference between Nuneaton, on the Brum side of Watling Street, and Hinckley, only three or four miles away on the Leicester side of what I've always thought is a big linguistic divide, almost certainly down to the fact that we were part of the old Danelaw. In fact, we were more heavily settled by the Vikings than just about anywhere in England, as evidenced by all those Leicester surnames like Kettle, Herrick and Askill.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Hare care

This discussion of Charlotte Mew’s The Farmer’s Bride has been going on at the Guardian books blog this week. It’s a fine poem, I think, and well worth a close reading. I don’t share the reservations of some about the attempt to capture the farmer’s speech, and I don’t think it goes too far towards pathos. But I was interested too by some of the other directions the discussion takes – hares and their mythological connections (they're my favourite British mammal*, although it was only fairly recently I read that the Brown Hare is non-native - it was the Mountain Hare the Celts were thinking of); the wonderful folk song The Bonny Black Hare (I've written about Fairport Convention's version before); and Ian Duhig's equally fine poem The Lammas Hireling - it's all worth reading.

* I don't see too many, although the wide, rolling fields around Blatherwycke in Northants always seem to turn up a few when I'm out Red Kite watching. But earlier this year, as I was driving along the narrow lane from Eyebrook Reservoir towards Stockerston, a young Hare was sitting in the road. It showed no inclination to move, and I wondered if it was injured. But it finally slipped through the fence, and then waited as I pulled alongside, and was able to watch it from a few feet away. Eventually, it proved its rude health to my satisfaction by exploding into a lightning fast dash across the field to cover.

Sterna hirundo

I dodged heavy showers to do a bit of birding on the way home last night. Cossington Meadows was quiet, with no sign of the Whinchats that have been around, and only relatively few Lapwings, plus two Green Sandpipers.

I stopped for a quick scan on the dam at Cropston Reservoir, too, and as well as a couple of Little Egrets along the shoreline, there was a family of Common Terns hanging around the observation tower. The parents were swooping and diving, and occasionally coming up with fish, which they then fed to two youngsters perched on the rails of the walkway out to the tower. These young terns looked fully as big as their parents, but their plumage lacked the neatness of the older birds, with a gingery barring on their upperparts and ‘dirty’ heads.

I’d guess that they’ll be off on their mammoth migration to the southern oceans any day now, so it was slightly surprising to see the young not doing their own fishing (although both flew strongly at times). But it seems to have been a good year for the local Common Terns – I’ve seen more than usual, I think.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Competition time

I received this from Poetry Nottingham editor Adrian Buckner. Have a go - I've sketched something out, and far from feeling constrained by the imposed beginning, I think it took me somewhere I wouldn't otherwise have gone...

Poetry Competition (with a difference, or two)

RULES:
1. Your poem must begin with:
She lay on the lounger, watching
the rabbit nuzzle the lobelia
2. There is no line limit
3. Only one entry per person
4. Closing date: 3rd October 2008
5. Entry fee is 66p in postage attached to an unaddressed A5 envelope
6. Entries can be typed or handwritten.
7. Name and address must appear on the manuscript.
8. Entries to: Adrian Buckner, Poetry Nottingham, 11 Orkney Close, Stenson Fields, Derby DE24 3LW

YOU MAY:
1. Include your entry along with other poems to be considered for inclusion in Poetry Nottingham. (Entry fee still applies)
2. Alter the lineation of the required opening.
3. Inform everyone in your family, creative writing class, writers’ workshop, about this ground-breaking venture/editor’s whimsy and encourage them to enter.

PRIZES:
1. The best two entries in the opinion of the editor will appear in the next issue of Poetry Nottingham (winners to be informed prior to publication)
2. The winners will also receive a year’s subscription to Poetry Nottingham or, if already subscribing, a year’s extension to their subscription.

Today's selection

Following on from my post earlier in the week about James W Wood's excellent chapbook Inextinguishable, his poem Afternoon Nap, from that book, is today's featured poem on Poetry Daily. Rob Mackenzie has also posted about it over at Surroundings.

I meant to mention earlier in the week, that I went off to look up the word 'knucker', as in Knucker Press, publishers of James' pamphlet. It's a dialect word for a kind of water dragon, from the Anglo-Saxon 'nicor', which crops up in Beowulf. Apparently there are reputed 'knucker holes' at various places in Sussex.

Now I think about it, I dimly remember, in the 80s, there being a dragon called The Knucker in the story Slaine the Barbarian, in 2000AD comic.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Derwent Poetry Festival

Last year I went up to Matlock for the first Derwent Poetry Festival, run by Templar Poetry, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

This year’s festival takes place over the weekend of October 17th-19th, at Masson Mills, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire. It will feature the launch of 10 new poetry titles from Templar Poetry, including the presentation of the 2008 Templar Poetry Pamphlets Prizes.

It is accompanied by readings from Paul Farley, Tim Liardet, Jane Weir, Pat Winslow, Rob Hindle, Dawn Wood, Siobhan Campbell, Mike Barlow, Angela Cleland, Pat Borthwick, Katrina Naomi and many others. There is a festival bookshop, stands from magazines and an exhibition of paintings by Artist in Residence Karen Isherwood.

I might struggle to make it this time, as I’m scheduled to be out of the country working that weekend, but it’s all a bit up in the air at the moment so if I am at home, I’ll get along. I particularly liked Rob Hindle’s reading last year, but there was plenty of other good stuff and Matlock Bath is a pretty nice place to be on a fine autumn day.

The full festival programme is listed at: www.templarpoetry.co.uk or you can call the box office on 01629 582 500.

End of an era

You have sporting heroes for a wide range of reasons. As a kid, my cricketing idol was David Gower, probably precisely because I knew I’d never be able to bat even remotely like him. After all, no one can. He might have infuriated some pundits because of his perceived lack of application (I’d argue that was rubbish, but it’d take too long just now), but he was one of those sportsmen for whom that hackneyed old clichĂ© “poetry in motion” might have been devised. My other (English) childhood hero was Derek Randall, who had none of Gower’s style, but bags of guts and character. You could identify with ‘Arkle’, or ‘Rags’, as he called himself.

This week, another hero of mine and cricketing legend announced he’s finally bowing out of county cricket after 25 years. As Andrew Miller says here, Graeme Hick fully deserves that title, however disappointing his test career was.

It’s all relative, though. Yes, he never developed into the batsman many thought he could be (the name Bradman even got mentioned in his early years, and certainly people thought he might be another Viv Richards). But on the other hand, there were times when, judged by the standards of the other players around him in the England side, he deserved high praise rather than criticism. Quite apart from his batting, his off-spin was underused by captains, and his superb fielding at slip or in the deep was too rarely factored into the equation when he was being made the scapegoat for another England failure. As Miller says, the security of a central contract might have brought the best out of him, because poor man management, especially by Mike Atherton, certainly did him no favours. What Miller says about that incident at Sydney doesn’t tally with Alec Stewart’s recent account of it, which suggested Atherton (I’ll admit, I’ve always thought him overrated, as a captain especially) stitched Hick up. If he’d done it to someone less mild-mannered, he’d still be picking bat splinters out of his back even now.

Other critics have described Hick as a ‘flat-track bully’, or his batting as mechanical. Again I’d argue, because what they saw as mechanical was just a refreshing simplicity, hitting straight and hard wherever possible. And he played plenty of good knocks on less than great wickets, against the best in the world. He just never quite believed in himself at the top level.

Miller makes good points about how Hick was always happiest at Worcester, and perhaps the last of the great old-fashioned county players, and it’s worth remembering how much he contributed to the success of that late 80s Worcester side. But I wish he’d gone on to point out more clearly just why so many English fans hold him in high regard – his honesty, modesty and supreme unselfishness, the latter shown in the way he was shunted in and out of the England side, and up and down the batting order, without a murmur of complaint.

I’ve seen him play loads of great innings over the years (and I’m not a Worcester fan, by the way), but my enduring memory will be of a day in December 2000. England were on the up. Duncan Fletcher, who had discovered Hick in Zimbabwe in the early 80s and then captained him, was the new England coach and gave him another chance. He responded well at first, but by the end of the series in Pakistan he looked like he might be on his way out once and for all.

I was watching on the TV at work as England were chasing 176 to win at Karachi, and it was getting dark. Really dark. Pakistan used delaying tactics to try to salvage a draw, but ultimately just made life harder for their own baffled fielders. Still, when Hick came in, there was plenty left to do. A lesser man might have started worrying about his own place at this stage, playing with one eye on his average. Not Hick. He got stuck straight into the bowling, allowing Graham Thorpe to play the anchor role, and saw England right to the brink of victory. Atherton, Thorpe and others took the plaudits, and two tests later, Hick was gone for good. That was him all over, though – a great team man who was happiest out of the spotlight. As Andrew Miller says, county cricket will certainly never see his like again, and it'll be a poorer place without him. There's rumours that he'll enjoy a last big pay day in one of the Indian leagues, in which case good luck to him - he deserves a good send-off.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Inextinguishable - James W Wood

Inextinguishable
James W Wood (Knucker Press, www.knuckerpress.com)
If you enjoyed James Wood’s 2006 HappenStance chapbook The Theory Of Everything half as much as I did, then you’re probably not going to take too much convincing to buy this, his latest pamphlet, a handsome full-colour publication matching the response of 13 artists to his poems. So, my apologies if you’re already converted, because I’m going to preach to you anyway (something the poems never do, incidentally).

The first thing to say is that this collection represents significant progress from an already impressive starting point. That HappenStance pamphlet was notable for the sheer variety it offered, with Wood leavening the more serious, resonant moments by taking off at all sorts of playful tangents. The poems in Inextinguishable, on the other hand, are much more homogenous, the better to carry their considerable elegiac weight.

And carry it they do. The first poem, An Fraoch Mhor, sets the tone simply but movingly, both looking back to the past and imploring “Let memory go now”, and several of the other pieces here explore that tension – on the one hand, wanting to do justice to people and places past, on the other, wanting to move on into an uncertain future.

Fine craftsman that Wood is, he knows just when to deploy that plain, unvarnished style elsewhere. The Craws, for example, contains the lines:
“…You were
no prize-winner, sportsman or great thinker,
just a man like any other, and one
whose life asks us for little grieving.”

The emotional impact of the poem is all the greater for that willingness to speak a simple, unvarnished truth, to do much more than a little grieving without ever slipping into sentimentality, an effect that’s replicated elsewhere.

Another favourite was Catherine Wheel, an elegy which closes with the fine:
“…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.”

And the final poem, The Orchestra Plays Nielsen’s ‘Inextinguishable’, serves to gently but firmly restate what we’ve already taken from what’s gone before:
music is life, and like it, inextinguishable.
A principle
for every anxious soul to follow,
forged and hammered in our heart’s crucible,
the beat that trips and will not rest,
all things in ebb and flow.”

Taken on their own, these poems add up to a very strong chapbook collection, so maybe I saw the artists’ responses as something of a pleasant but inessential bonus. Perhaps a few too many seem to interpret Wood’s words a little too literally, but I liked Jaimie Lane’s By The Station CafĂ©, Fiona Purves’ Thirteen and Elizabeth Walker’s Catherine Wheel in particular.

But it’s the poems that I really want to talk about. Buy them, read them, and wonder when this man is going to get the full collection his talents deserve.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Killer Bob (Browning)

I’ve posted on here before about my unease when a poet’s work is interpreted as being wholly autobiographical. I can’t imagine that’s ever the case, even with ‘confessional’ poets. Poetry is, after all, art, and as such contains imagination and fictions.

With that in mind I meant to link to this piece in The Guardian a few weeks back, which seemed to me to carry that autobiographical notion to absurd extremes. I didn’t, because I was too lazy, but I opened today’s Guardian to find that Sheffield poet Geraldine Monk had done my work for me (and done it far better than I could).

Her letter reads:
“I read Elizabeth Lowry’s article about Robert Browning (“Portrait of a lady”, July 19) with mounting incredulity. To adduce murder from a poet’s writings is as serious as it is shallow. My last volume of poetry contains monologues and imaginary letters by Mary Queen of Scots. I have never once harboured any desire to murder either my husband or the Queen.”

Says it all, really. I bet it won’t deter the next would-be literary detective, though.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Going live

Time for a bit of self-advertising. I'll be reading as part of the Zest! Open Floor Poetry Night, at Alexander's Jazz Theatre Bar, Chester, at 8pm on Monday, September 22nd. I'll also have plenty of copies of Making The Most Of The Light and Troy Town available, so I'll work out a little package deal.

As the title of the event suggests, there's also an open mic spot, so you can bring along your own or a favourite poem to read (I like that idea of having a few 'cover versions' at a poetry reading).

The venue is in Rufus Court, off Northgate Street, and entry is £3/£2. See you there.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

The Fifth DH Lawrence Festival

The DH Lawrence Festival – held in and around Eastwood – started on August 15th and runs until September 11th. Brochures can be ordered by calling 01773 717353.

The Festival includes introductory material on Lawrence, events for specialists, a photography exhibition on mining, family events and walks round Lawrence's old stomping ground, "the country of my heart".

Less Lawrentian events include a drawing workshop with the man who did the Harry Potter drawings and a family history session. On September 9th there is a talk on dialect in Lawrence's work and a guided walk round Greasley on September 7th.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Prynne at Litterbug

I've been doing a bit of browsing over at Litterbug, poet and publisher Alan Baker's excellent blog. Take the time to go down the page (at least as far as July 13th), and there's all sorts of interesting discussion of JH Prynne. I'd have to say that on first reading I found myself sympathising with CJ Allen's piece, but then I'm coming at it from an angle of almost total ignorance, which is never a good thing, is it?

I find myself wanting to know more, wanting to read more, and then getting put off by the thought of paying money for a book that might, judging by some of the comments there, get tossed into the corner for years after an initial burst of enthusiasm. So where's a good, and cheap, starting place for Prynne? Any ideas?

It's April 1st, right?

First Jeremy Paxman lays into him in an ill-considered and ignorant mini-rant, and now this. What did Burns do to deserve all this?

Still, at least Jacko and his mate are fans of Scotland's national bard, and it's certainly not the first time his poems have been set to music. Will we ever get to hear them, though? Don't bet on it.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Another quick reminder...

A week on Saturday, two new HappenStance poetry publications by Leicestershire poets will be launched – D A Prince’s Nearly The Happy Hour, a first book-length collection for both author and publisher, and Rebuilding A Number 39, by Marilyn Ricci, the author’s first chapbook collection. Come along and listen and celebrate the launch, and talk to the poets and HappenStance publisher Helena Nelson in person.

It's on Saturday, September 6th, at 2.45 for 3pm, at the Friends’ Meeting House, 16 Queens Road (junction with Victoria Park Road), Leicester LE2 1WP. Email nell@happenstancepress.com if you plan to attend. I'll see you there.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

The Bestiary - Sam Meekings

The Bestiary
Sam Meekings (Polygon, 2008, £7.99)
You see a lot of talk these days about the extent to which poetry collections need a connecting thread, theme, arc - call it what you will.
My own feeling is that, while such binding agents can often add hugely to the success of a collection, they’re by no means essential. The more old-fashioned, ‘greatest hits’ type of approach (or rather, simply bringing together the best of a poet’s most recent poems) can work just as well for me too.
All this is by way of ponderously getting round to saying that Sam Meekings’ debut collection seems like a perfect example of how to link together poems that aren’t, strictly speaking, a sequence, but aren’t stand-alone efforts either.
As the title suggests, it’s nature that is the common element throughout, although Meekings is at least as interested in fish, amphibians, invertebrates and the shifting borders between land and sea as the birds and animals beloved of so many poets (I plead guilty). There’s a fascination with all sorts of textures and smells (the slimier and ranker the better – slime is a word that crops up regularly throughout), and a gift for rendering them real to the reader, that recalls not only Hughes, but also early Heaney, an impression that’s reinforced by Meekings’ preference for regular forms.
He uses plenty of end rhyme too, with a rare subtlety and musicality, and similarly the links he makes from his apparent subjects to human concerns are generally understated, often only apparent after a few reads.
Very occasionally, I’ll admit, he overdoes it and you long for just a little plain-speaking, or, as in Calves, he strains a bit too hard for significance when his knack for vivid description would do the job on its own.
Mostly, though, he hits a balance that’s hugely impressive for a poet in his first collection (and one who has arrived relatively unheralded). It will be interesting to see where he goes next – he’s created a considerable weight of expectation for himself, but all the signs are that he has the talent to carry it.