Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Actors reading poetry

There's a very interesting discussion going on at Helen Ivory's Facebook page over the decision to have the nominated poems in this year's Forward Poetry Prizes read by actors at an event at the Southbank Centre.

My initial reaction was disapproval - I've been to a few events over the years where actors have done terrible things to innocent poems, usually by over-emoting, over-enunciating, or trying, as someone on the thread says, to sound as if the poem has just come to them.

On reflection, my position is altering a little, although I still can't really see why they couldn't give the poets the choice whether to read themselves. Some, I'm sure, would have been happy for the actors to take over, so the publicity boost from their presence (which I assume is the major reason they were enlisted) would still be there.

But several people on the thread (notably Gary Longden and Jonathan Davidson) make good points in favour of actors being used. One is that, of course, not all poets read their own work well. I'd still want, I think, for the poets to be able to give the actors some sort of direction, but why not have both options? Some poets probably dread every reading, but can't afford not to try to sell books when they're given the chance.

What does still get my goat, though, is what I think is a rather separate issue, that of the actors adding 'glamour' and 'magic' to the whole thing, as if no poet could possibly be trusted to turn up in their smartest clothes with their hair done.

But anyway, I've posted a poll on this on the right, because at the end of the day what poets think about it is not really as important as the book-buying public's. I'll be interested to see what the results are.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

James W Wood at the Poetry Cafe

I enjoy my job a lot, and it's not that often that I'm so office-bound that I can't get away when I need to, but unfortunately, last Friday was just such a time. James Wood was launching his debut full collection The Anvil's Prayer, published by Ward Wood, at the Poetry Cafe in London. I'd hoped to zip down the A1 to hear him read, but it wasn't to be - it was deadline day for our October issue, too, and duty called.

Fortunately, Adele Ward of Ward Wood was recording the event, so you can watch and hear James reading on You Tube here and here - I'm delighted and honoured that the latter poem, Buccaneers, is dedicated to Noel Duffy and myself.

Keep an eye out here - I'm going to take a closer look at James's book on this blog before the end of the year. But in the meantime, I can recommend it very highly.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Nottingham workshop

I'm running a poetry writing workshop next Saturday (September 28th) at Nottingham Poetry Society's monthly meeting. It starts at 2.45pm, at Nottingham Mechanics, 3 North Sherwood Street, Nottingham, and non-members can come along too, paying a visitor's fee of £5. Among other things, we'll be using maps to generate new work.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Shindig does it again

I've written on here before about how, at the best poetry open mic nights (and Shindig is certainly one of those), a mysterious process seems to take place by which many of the poems coalesce around a unstated theme.

It happened again last night, with a string of poems about drugs, booze, addiction, and the fall-out from such things. I didn't catch all the names, but there was an astonishingly assured first-ever performance by a young man called (I think) DP Horton, and another fine poem from David Devaney (I think I've got that right). The regulars rose to the challenge, too - Rebecca Bird's Parisienne poem, and Roy Marshall's rather menacing, butcher-themed piece, were among the highlights, but there was a lot else to enjoy, too.

Of the featured readers, both Lydia Towsey and Deborah Tyler-Bennett, who formed the first half of the bill, are familiar faces, but no less impressive for that. Lydia actually did just two, long poems, both performed from memory (something that always impresses me) - the second of them, with its Spanish setting, was particularly fine. Deborah's new book, Turned Out Nice Again, is a collection of stories about music hall and variety in the East Midlands, and as with her poetry, it demonstrates a great ear for natural speech, especially where accent and dialect are concerned (nowhere but the East Midlands is 'home' pronounced 'omm').

After the break Martin Malone read superbly, both from his Templar collection The Waiting Hillside, and from newer work, touching on memory, family, masculinity and landscape. It's the first time I've met Martin or heard him read (although I've long since enjoyed the book), and he's a born performer, projecting his poems through that mixture of stillness and energy that I've talked about before.

Sarah James was a totally new poet to me, but I'll look forward to reading more of her work. She's had collections out from Circaidy Gregory and Knives Forks & Spoons, and her poetry rather defies easy categorisation, flitting between the mainstream and the more experimental without ever being intimidating.

Finally, it's just worth mentioning that there's an additional Nine Arches event in Leicester next month, on Friday October 25th at the Quaker Meeting House on Queen's Road, Clarendon Park. For just £5 you get four poets (Mario Petrucci, Claire Trevien, Alistair Noon and myself, plus tea and cakes). Follow the link to book.

Friday, 13 September 2013

September Shindig!

The latest Nine Arches Press and Crystal Clear Creators Leicester Shindig takes place at The Western, Western Road, Leicester LE3 0GA, on Monday from 7.30pm.

As usual entry is free and there'll be plenty of open mic slots - just sign up on the door if you'd like to read.

Guest readers are Sarah James, Lydia Towsey, Deborah Tyler-Bennett and Martin Malone. Deborah and Lydia will be familiar faces to East Midlands audiences – Deborah's publications include Pavilion (Smokestack, 2010), Revudeville (King's England, 2011) and her most recent, Turned Out Nice Again: Stories Inspired by the Music Hall Tradition (King’s England, 2013), while Lydia is a poet and performer who has been shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize and is currently working to organise a tour of her one woman show, The Venus Papers. She's also Chair and Compere of WORD!, the longest running spoken word night in the Midlands, held monthly in Leicester.

Sarah James is a poet, short fiction writer and former journalist. Her first collection Into the Yell (Circaidy Gregory Press, 2010) won third prize in the International Rubery Book Awards 2011. Sarah's second collection Be[yond], published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, is officially launched this week.

Martin Malone was born in West Hartlepool, and now lives in Warwickshire. A winner of the 2011 Straid Poetry Award and the 2012 Mirehouse Prize, his first full collection - The Waiting Hillside - is published by Templar Poetry. Currently studying for a PhD in poetry at Sheffield University, he edits The Interpreter’s House poetry journal. He also has a taste for 1980s Australian indie bands so frighteningly similar to my own that you'd think we'd been raised together in a Perth commune.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

An interview with Gill McEvoy, part 2

Chester poet Gill McEvoy has published two (now sold out) pamphlets with HappenStance, Uncertain Days and A Sampler, and two full collections, The Plucking Shed (2010) and Rise (2013), both from Cinnamon. This is the second part of my interview with her, plus a selection of poems from the new collection – the first part of the interview can be found here.

I like that idea of a sort of ongoing sequence, with Nuala popping up again and again in the future. Which brings me on to the subject of future work – do you do any planning of what you're going to write, or tend to let the poems 'come to you', and wait until they start to coalesce around a certain theme?
My first two collections were formed from poems that accumulated but that seemed to belong together. In general I let poems come to me, which so far they've been very generous about doing! 
But for a long time now I've had a particular sequence of poems in mind, loosely based on one of the Greek myths. It will be a pamphlet rather than a large collection and it has taken a lot of thought, many drafts, and was the major project I worked on at Hawthornden, although I did use that time also to tidy up the poems in the forthcoming Rise.
For this sequence I have read and re-read every version of the myth I can lay hands on (there are always so many versions of Greek myths, tiny little changes in the story can be worth seizing on), and I've tried it in close parallel to the myth and then, finding that didn't work, tried to ignore the myth altogether and just write the poems that tell the story as it is today.
One thing I would like to do, even if I have to do it at my own expense as a limited small booklet and find someone to illustrate it, is to assemble all the poems I've written about horses, another great love of my life. A handful appeared in The Plucking Shed and one in Rise but there are a good many more.
I have been looking at the kind of books book-binders and textile artists can create – saw some marvellous examples in the Scottish Poetry Library, and more at Ledbury Poetry Festival, also recently in a local exhibition which was a collaboration between poets and textile artists at Frodsham. I would love to produce something along those kind of lines, but my own handwriting is so appalling even I cannot read it. All I could do is create the poems!
I’m also collaborating with a friend, Polly Bolton, a singer and choir leader, to produce a sung/read show based on the lives of three Shropshire women. It is to be called Out of the Land, and the stories cover Molly Morgan who was bigamously married, transported to Australia twice, and thanks to the use of her charm and wit became a wealthy woman. The second is Katherine Moore, whose four children were taken from her and sent off to America on the Mayflower; only one survived. The third is Sarah Burton, whose home cottage was outside any parish boundaries so she was able to conduct a business as a midwife to unmarried mothers. Polly is setting the poems I've created to music, and some of her choir members will join us in the eventual production, which we hope will be spring 2014. It's been very exciting doing this and has involved a good bit of touring round Shropshire to see where the women came from and also researching laws of the time and anything we can find about their lives or life at the time, the 16th and 18th centuries.
So, a pamphlet needing much thought, a sung-and-read show needing a lot of work, and a would-be booklet of horse poems - I must have reached the age of Reason, not Intuition! But I am enjoying it very much.

Can I ask the old question about influences? Who are your main influences?
Influences? Oh Lord, such a hard question! I read very widely, buy more poetry books than I can afford, and love the work of so many poets, but if I must narrow it down, then I relish the sensuous, tactile richness of Keats as shown in Ode to Autumn and St Agnes' Eve, and some of the poetry of Alfred Noyes which enthralled me as a child, especially the rhythmic repetition of lines as in Sherwood, what I call 'chantery'! I discovered with joy the simple directness of Machado, Frost, and Edward Thomas. I also hold dear the mysticism of San Juan de la Cruz, and Kathleen Raine's ability to find the numinous in the humble, remarkably so in her poem Scala Coeli.
When I was ill I clung to Louis MacNeice's poem Snow as if it were a life-raft; indeed I had an article published in Poetry News on how much the poem had truly helped me, and that article led to a short series of poets writing about their own 'poems of significance'. I still greatly enjoy MacNeice's work. His poem Mayfly is a delight where he speaks of the mayflies going 'up and down in the lift' all day just for fun!
Later I came to admire the work of Denise Levertov, Jane Kenyon, Lorca, Luis Cernuda,  Eavan Boland, and Derek Mahon (the latter is very unlikely to remember it but we both worked at the Language Centre of Ireland, Dublin, for some months). At the moment I am re-reading the poetry of Sylvia Plath and feeling astonished yet again at her sheer power of language and expression.
But if you were to tell me I could keep only one poem to sustain me through life I would choose Denise Levertov's The Unknown. It perfectly describes our restless human longing for that vague 'something else':
"One doesn't want rest, one wants miracles". And when they don't happen
"Beaten you fall asleep... wake to witness...eager furniture, differentiated planes....the windows big and solemn, full of the afterglow...
The awakening is to transformation
word after word."
Isn't that what every poet seeks?

I'd like to repeat exactly what Roy Marshall asked me recently, because it's a fascinating question – one of the strengths of your poems is that they can read and appreciated or enjoyed by a ‘non-poetry’ reading audience. I’d like to relate this to something Don Paterson said in an interview last year, that poetry has a ‘moral obligation to clarity.’ I wondered what, if anything, this phrase might mean to you, and if the concept of clarity is important in your work?
Oh, without doubt my answer would be YES! Clarity is vital if you want a reading public, especially among those who are not themselves poets or dedicated readers of poetry. I'll underline my answer with this anecdote: at an open-mike I read my poem Message to the Well-meaning (from my previous book The Plucking Shed). Afterwards a man came up to me and said "Yes! That poem - it's exactly like that" and I felt so thrilled, the kind of response that's worth more than anything.
I strongly feel it behoves poets to remember they are writing for others; we're human-beings writing to bring alive the world and our experiences for other human-beings, to touch that chord of Yes! in others' hearts. And sometimes we succeed. I'm not a very public poet but I am lucky enough to have a small public of loyal readers who like my work. And that is joyous. If we lose sight of our readers we'll end up in an introspective world of poets reading to poets, which I suspect is a bit like where we are now, and probably why there's a slump in poetry-book buying. We have a duty (and the gift) to "awake" others to "transformation word after word", as in the Denise Levertov poem I quoted earlier in this interview.
Clarity is for me one of the hallmarks of a great poet like George MacKay Brown - through simple recurring images of daffodils, fish, salt, boats, storms, whisky, bread, corn, stars, and evidence of simple belief in the Christian calendar, he takes you with him through the seasons of the Orkney year. Marvellous work. There is a line in his poem Creator which says "He is the Seed locked in the House of Dust". That seed could easily be poetry; the poet's task is to set it free, make it grow.
Lastly, the enduring popularity of a radio programme like Poetry Please says it all. People want to hear tried, tested, and loved poems. Loved is the significant word. Poetry is about the heart, whatever its subject.
Simplicity. Honesty. Clarity.
Wonderful words. Wonderful.

Exorcising the chemotherapy wig

I buried it deep below
my cotton pants and nylon bras.
Wispy hair caressed the gussets, hooks.

In the basket on the wardrobe
it raised the hackles of its fur.
On still nights I would wake
and hear it purr.

In the solid wooden box
it's feelers palped the edges,
picking up my pulse.

In the grate I set a match to it,
watched it jerk and leap,
throw out angry sparks
until it stilled to ash.


Over her thirteen years of life
prolific litters squirmed against
her vast complacent sides.

He'd lean on the wall of her sty
for hours,
bring her offerings of cabbages,
corn stalks,
the incense, myrrh and gold
of beech nuts, acorns.

Shrouded in muslin,
glistening with salt,
her earthly self was turned to flanks
of bacon, ham.

At mealtimes he'd hold her flavour
on his tongue,
stretch out a hand,
as if to scratch once more her bristly back.

The Christmas helter-skelter

She thinks it's a lost lighthouse
Lifted from a coastal rock.
Red and white candy rock,
dropped in the city's square.

Its boards are bare,
no-one's riding it,
no music celebrates
it's strange appearance here.

She puts her small hand,
gloved in knitted snowmen,
into her mother's hand
and shakes her head.

Take it away, she says.
It makes her sad, as if she
should hug the lonely thing,
but how would her arms

reach round it?
Take it away, she says again,
meaning Take me home, Mummy,
take me home.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

An interview with Gill McEvoy, part 1

Chester poet Gill McEvoy has published two (now sold out) pamphlets with HappenStance, Uncertain Days and A Sampler, and two full collections, The Plucking Shed (2010) and Rise (2013), both from Cinnamon. I talked to her at length about poetry, writing more generally, and the natural world. This is the first part of the interview - the second half will follow next Monday, along with some poems from Rise.  

Rise feels like a very natural progression from your first book; there's no trace of 'second collection syndrome' there. Was inspiration easy to find?
Thank you for that. I took considerable pains to avoid ‘second collection syndrome’ in putting the collection together. In terms of assembling the collection perspiration was more apt than inspiration! I worked very hard at considering the order of poems, rearranging many times until I felt they were about the best I could do. And then paring them down, a process greatly helped by the luxury of time at Hawthornden.
What I really wanted to do with this collection was to put the cancer experience to bed once and for all. I touched on it in Uncertain Days and more so in The Plucking Shed, but as you will appreciate, that diagnosis was one of the greatest shocks of my life. To learn that you may only have three months from diagnosis to leaving the planet is pretty scary. I hardly heard the proviso that followed which was that an immediate and brutal regime of chemo would have to be undertaken in hopes of saving my life.
It did, and I am so grateful for that! I wanted in Rise to include poems about that experience which were more wry, although still truthful, and to suggest some humour too. The poem Conservatory is rightfully the "farewell to all that" poem, after which I wanted to go on and celebrate the living world (cancer, peculiarly, is a great stimulant, since time to do things becomes incredibly valuable and valued). I included the sequences Nuala and Almond St to indicate firmly that cancer and the memory of it do not dominate my life. My work, I hope, has a wider range than that.
Inspiration comes often from the smallest things – the way a bird bathes in the bird bath, the way a leaf falls from a tree. I always have half an eye on what's going on beyond me, which is why I burn so many saucepans!

I think you very much succeeded in the aims you outlined there. I'll come back to the Nuala and Almond St poems a little later, and to your approach to the natural world, but I'm interested to know a little more about your working methods. You mention the value of time at Hawthornden – is that sort of 'time out' something you look for once the poems are written, or is it a source of new poems in itself?
Ah, working methods… hmm. Have to say I am a bit chaotic in that respect, having no set time when I write, and at the same time I’m prolific. Lines on scraps of paper, in various notebooks; scribbled poems the same. Every first draft is done by hand and as I write and think very fast I often can’t read the finished result unless I transfer it rapidly to the computer. After which, lots of redrafting! Like many other writers I have a love of good paper, splendid notebooks, fine pens, and stationery shops. I use Pilot pens, Hi Tec-point.
What keeps me grounded is having set challenges with two poet friends, a fortnightly one with Sheila Hamilton and a regular Monday morning one with Judy Ugonna (except in the summer months). Sheila and I take it in turns to set a theme, sometimes specifying format/ length and voice as well. Judy and I simply try to send each other either a new or reworked poem each Monday plus comments on the previous week’s offering.
However, it is a very different matter when it comes to putting a collection together. I work extremely hard at this, placing the poems, jiggling them about time and time again to get the best possible order, paring them down, re-reading, asking friends to proof-read them for silly mistakes/too many repetitions etc. Amazing how you can make a mistake with the layout of a title for example, and so easy to miss when you’re busy thinking about the meat of the poem itself.
I really do like to be away from home to do this – I need silence and no interruptions so I like to have only a good light and a large table or floor to spread work out on. No phone, no radio, no computer. TV? Well since I do not even have a TV at home that’s not an issue!
My Hawthornden Fellowship was wonderful in that respect – even the responsibility of meals and laundry was taken from my shoulders, leaving me utterly free to work, and to use the extensive poetry library there in complete peace. I loved every minute of being there and really didn't want to go home at the end of it.
I have also been very lucky in having two incredibly generous people in my life with cottages that they have loaned me occasionally to write in. In both of these I have managed to produce a very large body of work. Both places are in deep countryside with good opportunity for wildlife watching and that's given birth to many new poems.
Lastly, I do have to refer to the huge impact my illness has had on me. There is no whip to drive you like the knowledge of your mortality. I came very close to leaving the planet, and although I was fortunate and recovered, like many others who’ve been through cancer, I know time may not be on my side.

I think the experience of your illness also comes through in the way you approach your nature poems – there's a great immediacy to them, a reality, but also a fragility. There's been debate lately about whether nature writing can ever be more than consolatory, but I'd guess you'd disagree with that? (I certainly would!).
Your question seems deceptively simple but really it is one of the hugest questions to be asked. I instantly dispute the word ‘consolatory ‘ – who are we to expect nature to console us when we’ve done it so much damage – very clear in the fact that when you drive a long distance these days the car windscreen does not get covered in insects like it used to. Remember the days when your screen-wash only spread them further about the glass?
I’d like to tell you about something I witnessed one summer not so long ago. The soil in my garden is sandy, and I have a bird bath near enough to the kitchen window so that I can watch but not be intrusive. Three sparrows had a busy time dust-bathing and then all three capered in the bird bath water to clean themselves; it was, for me, a joyous sight. Then, so swiftly I wondered if I’d really seen it, a sparrow-awk flew in and bingo, only two sparrows lived to flee into the bushes nearby. Nature in the raw. I don’t bewail that, it’s how creatures survive, or don’t survive, in the food chain. And to see the female sparrowhawk on reconnaissance on the garden fence is an awe-inspiring vision; its white chest feathers blowing softly in the wind, its scaly yellow legs, powerful claws, vigilant huge yellow eye that misses nothing – well, breathtaking.
And I think that phrase ‘awe-inspiring’ is the key to how I see nature; I use my ears, my eyes, my sense of smell, touch and sometimes taste, in my apprehending of it. I often carry a pocket lens – “all the better to see you with, my dear”! So much to see, so much to learn, so much to rejoice in. It’s a privilege to be alive to witness the small daily miracles of the natural world.
I don’t think of my poems of observation as “nature poetry” but as poems about the remarkable world we live in. The very term “nature poetry” seems, sadly, to be slightly derogatory, as if the poet can write of nothing else. I feel it's one of the most important topics to be writing about these days when the very balance of nature is so under threat.
My illness may have coloured my poems about creatures to some extent – everything is fragile, including ourselves – but I was already a keen observer before I was ill. But now I do feel it all so intensely, extremely so.
I’d like to quote from the poems of Jaan Kaplinski:

The roof leaks,
the kitchen door won’t close, there are cracks in the foundation…
One can’t keep everything in mind. The wonder is
that beside all this one can notice
the spring which is so full of everything
continuing in all directions –

That expresses perfectly something of the way I feel – and that 'way' is certainly coloured even still by fear of there possibly not being enough time to do/see/write down everything I would wish to.
Lastly I remember one evening in the last hospital I was in, a cottage hospital where I'd been sent to 'convalesce'. A friend visited and I was that evening able to accompany them to the door. We opened the door onto the biggest, reddest January moon I've ever seen in my life. We both gasped. Suddenly I felt so small. And utterly overcome with awe.
That's what nature does for us, reminds us of our own insignificance. Not a bad thing; not a bad thing at all.

That's a fantastic answer, and exactly what I was hoping for. I agree totally about the 'consolatory' charge (it was levelled at Richard Mabey recently), and that even the term 'nature poetry' is wrong – it implies that what's being written about is somehow separate from everyday life, and it's that attitude that I think is to blame for many of the dangers facing the environment. Let's move on to the Almond Street poems - what was the original inspiration behind them? 
The birth of the Almond St poems was really quite surprising: I was running a workshop in Chester Library, in the Reference room upstairs. Outside the window we could see the top half of a helter skelter, plonked down in the city as part of the Christmas celebrations. Suddenly a young woman in the workshop stared at it and announced that it made her feel very lonely! Her comment caught in my mind so firmly that when I got home I began writing these poems and adding to them some previously written poems loosely based on my own childhood memories (Puddles is one, Fifteen Minutes of Fame is another), and also thinking about things I'd watched children do or tell about. Children behave in such engaging (or infuriating) ways. It's interesting watching the difference between what children do and what adults think they should do. The MacDonald's poem is from direct observation of an incident. So is the Christmas Market. So my Nuala is a kind of 'universal child', and I think many more poems might appear about her.
I included this sample of the Nuala poems in Rise and also the sample from the Almond St poems because I wanted to demonstrate clearly that I do follow other directions apart from illness and the natural world. Indeed I am hoping that for me the poem Conservatory will be the poem that lays the cancer experience to rest once and for all. This is indeed "my time now", my time to pay full attention to all the other things that interest me.

Monday, 2 September 2013

The Elephant Tests reviewed at Antiphon

Rosemary Badcoe has reviewed The Elephant Tests in issue 8 of the excellent online journal Antiphon. I'm very grateful to her for such a generous and full consideration of the book, and I should also point out that the same issue contains DA Prince's review of fellow Nine Archer Angela France's collection Hide.

There's lots of excellent poetry in this issue too. New work by Harriet Tarlo is always worthy of mention, as is anything by Roy Marshall. Two very different poets, but both consistently high quality, and it's typical of Antiphon's eclectic approach that they should both appear here.