A Spring poem

While sorting searching my bookshelves last night I came across a copy of Gopagilla,my 2012 pamphlet published by Crystal Clear. 


Flicking through I found several poems which had not gone into The Sun Bathers, not because I didn’t like them or because I didn’t think them good enough, but because I didn’t want too much repetition. I wanted to have a balance of new poems and poems from the pamphlet in the full collection.

It was strange to see the work I’d left out of the book. Although it’s only two years since publication of the pamphlet it seems longer, and since I generally read new poems or poems from last year’s book, I had almost forgotten the poem that I’ve written out below.

As well as this poem being in Gopagilla, I had at some point given it the title of ‘Prelude’ and used it as the opening in a sequence devoted to Wilfred Owen. The sequence was of pamphlet length and called Witness. For various reasons I  abandoned that project, and the only published poems from it are ‘Last Letter’ which you can read on the ‘Poems’ page of this site and in The Sun Bathers’ and this poem which I’m sharing here under its original title.

 Wessex Wood

 A perfect diversion, to leave the lane and step
under this canopy, to follow the stream
and find bluebells, scroll-headed ferns,
yellow primrose at the mossy roots of trees;

then a sudden stench, and here, a Fox
some days dead, coat slackened, eye sockets
picked clean; death has come to steal a breath
from the mouth of spring.

Sates of Independence

I had a fabulous time on Sunday at this annual event which takes place at De Montfort University in Leicester.

There is always a great atmosphere at this book fair and readings event which hosts a large number of independent press stalls manned (and womanned) in most instances by publishers and writers, many of whom manage to combine both of these passions while making a living elsewhere.

Poetry is particularly well represented at the event with stalls from Five Leaves, Shearsman , Leaf, Flarestack, Nine Arches and Shoestring to name but a few.

The Leicester University based New Walk magazine also had a stall, and I was lucky enough to read again with Rory Waterman, Carcanet poet and co-editor of the magazine along with Leicester University’s Nick Everett. You can read a warm review of our reading at Tim Love’s   http://litrefs.blogspot.co.uk/.

As usual I missed some of the readings I would have liked to have seen, mainly due to the fact that I was too busy bumping into and chatting with writer friends like poet and publisher Alan Baker, poet and reviewer DA Prince, the poet and Interpreters House editor Martin Malone and my own editor, the brilliant John Lucas.  My son also enjoyed the company, quietly sharing a few of his own poems with attentive and appreciative listeners and learning how to set type and print a card for his mum.

I did manage to see a gripping and eclectic reading by  Oystercatcher Press and Open House Editions poets Alan Baker, Kathleen Bell, and Sarah Crewe.  You can read more about this and other events on David Clarke’s excellent blog. http://athingforpoetry.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/states-of-independence.html

A tour

I was pleased when my friend Kim Moore asked me to take part in this tour of blogs which involves answering the four questions you see below. The tour also involves asking three other poets to take part, and I’ve placed links to these at the bottom of this piece. My three poet friends will be posting their pieces over the next few weeks, so do drop in on them, particularly if you are not familiar with their fine and varied work.


What am I working on?

This past week I’ve been working on a short story. I work at my paid job four days a week and go to university in Sheffield where I’m studying for an MA on the other weekday, so I disappear to my little office and write whenever I can. This short story is only the second I’ve written since I was at school. The other I wrote as part of my application for the award which is paying my uni. fees. I’ve just remembered that I found story writing was the only thing I got good marks at in school.

I started a module in short story last week, and we were asked to produce the beginning of a story in time for the next session.  The story I’ve been working on is about a fair that was held on the frozen river Thames. I’d read about these frost fairs and had an idea that the subject might make for an interesting poem. I sometimes read or hear something that  might make a good subject to write about. When this happens I do a bit of research and make some notes. Occasionally this information will turn into a poem; an example would be ‘Records on the bones’ which is a poem about bootleg jazz records being made from x-ray sheets in soviet Russia. The idea for this came from a radio documentary.

So I looked up the frost fair information and started writing about an elephant crossing the frozen river during the last big freeze in 1814. I was presently surprised that the story came quite easily and was very enjoyable to write. I’m sure this won’t always be the case! I felt compelled to finish it, and realised I probably had when I going through and reinserting commas I’d taken out previously.

I suppose I’m always working on poetry. By this I mean I engage with some aspect related to poetry every day, whether this is writing something new or working on older drafts, reading other people’s work in books, magazines or on-line, listening to recordings or radio programs like the recent series on radio 3, writing reviews, researching or preparing for readings, corresponding or going to watch people read. Even writing this is piece is related to poetry since it makes me think about my relationship to writing.  If I’m not doing any of these things I might do a bit of administration, working out which poems to submit where, giving feedback to friends, thinking about applying for a commission or seeing if there are any competitions I fancy entering.

I suppose once you produce a poetry book you are inevitably working on your next one. My first full collection came out three months ago and I had a few poems left over from that. I had a very productive period recently, and I have about twenty poems I think are up to scratch, plus a few that might or might not make it. They’re in a file I was calling ‘second book’, but I have a provisional title now- ‘Amaranthine.’ It means everlasting or eternal. A lot of the poems are concerned with death and impermanence, although hopefully not in a morbid or depressing way.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

I’m not the best person to answer this question, but I suppose every writer writes their own version of the world according to past and present life experience.  l am attracted to and interested in writing poems that can connect with a ‘non-poetry’ audience as well as being crafted and well made enough that peers would recognise the amount of work, and hopefully, skill in them. By this I mean you could pass them around and an ‘ordinary’ or non-specialist audience would understand and hopefully appreciate them. The terms I’m using are problematic, I know, but in short I don’t want to write poems that only other poets would ever get to hear or appreciate. I don’t like work that makes me feel thick or confused, and there’s a bit of that about. I’d like to think my poems use very specific language to capture experiences and emotions that will resonate with most readers.

Why do I write what I write?

I write poetry because I can’t help it. It’s not always an easy relationship, but something of a cross between an addiction and a love affair. There are great highs that come when you are writing easily and well, but also disappointments and frustrations. The content of my writing is informed by my upbringing and by my political, social and personal concerns. This sounds very earnest, but I think this must be true of all writers to some extent.  When I look at themes in the last book I realise there are quite a few poems about war. I suppose this is a reflection of the fact that my grandparents experienced the first war, and my parents and other family members lived through the Second World War. Their stories filtered through to and informed me. I sometimes wonder if the fact I lived in California at the age of two to three might have had also had impact. I have a bit of an obsession with that era-  civil rights, wars, (again,) the music, fashion, art and architecture, the political and cultural changes.


I didn’t study history in any formal way, but am deeply interested in personal histories and the effects of world events upon the lives of individuals.  I am also interested in describing the natural world and in trying to invoke my experience of it. So what I write reflects my concerns, influences, enthusiasms and interests. And in terms of style, I suppose this has unconsciously developed from reading other writers.

 How does your writing process work?

In physical terms, I sit down at my desk or on a train or under a tree and I write with a pen or pencil. The poem starts to be ‘real’ for me as soon as I start to type it up.  I love seeing how the line breaks and stanzas might work, although the ‘finished’ poem will rarely have the same form as the first drafts.

In terms of organisation, I keep everything I think is finished or nearly finished in a document which I open up and scroll through and occasionally pick out something to re-work. Individual poems at earlier stages are in individual documents, and will only make it into the communal folder when they are ‘getting there.’ Sometimes I’ll change my mind and take poems I previously thought were ready to be ‘communal’ out and put them on their own again. I suppose the communal folder is a working draft of a book.

In terms of where poems come from, they either arrive or they don’t. I have stopped doing exercises or using prompts as I don’t find this works for me at the moment, although I am aware these methods for starting to generate new work can prove very useful and I might return to them.
I have enjoyed attending workshops in the past, not least for the social aspect and to hear other people’s work, but I don’t often get the opportunity and at the moment I am quite happy working on my own. I’ll occasionally share a poem with someone whose own work I like and whose judgement I trust. I’m fortunate to have a few of these poetry friends, so when I feel like sharing something I’ll contact one or the other and am always pleased to receive their feedback.

Rachel, my wife, read the short story I’ve just written and I’m pleased to say she liked it. She’s really good at telling me, subtly, if something isn’t very good! I try to show people more polished work these days, whereas in the past I was in much more of a hurry. At least that’s where I am tonight. Things might be different in the morning.

The blogging tour continues.
For answers to these questions by three more poets see

Matt Merritt http://polyolbion.blogspot.co.uk/
Janet Rogerson  http://janetrogerson.wordpress.com/
David Clarke. http://athingforpoetry.blogspot.co.uk/

The TS Eliot prize and thirty years of Shoestring Press

One of the great showcases for poetry, the TS Eliot Prize is over for another year.  I’m lucky enough to have met and spent a little time with three of the nominated poets in the last couple of years, and I found all of them to be witty, generous, brilliant and fun.

I have never met Danie Abse, shortlisted for his ‘Speak, Old Parrot,’ but  I have loved his work for some time, not least because Abse, a Doctor by profession and now 91 years of age, has written about medical matters from an insider’s point of view in his ‘Pathology of Colours’.  Reading this poem and others by Abse I realised I could write about my own experiences as a nurse.
You can hear the funny and very moving Danie Abse and all the other brilliant poets reading at the awards ceremony by clicking here.  


Away from the bright lights poetry continues to thrive in the small presses and magazines. My review of Matt Merrit’s ‘The Elephant Tests’ (Nine Arches) is on the impressive new online magazine Hinterland along with some excellent poems.

Elsewhere you can find a review of Helen Mort’s TS Eliot Prize nominated ‘Division Street’ as well as a well-balanced and written review of my book ‘The Sun Bathers’ on Antiphon.

In other news Nick Laird’s new collection ‘Go Giants’ (Faber) arrived today and looks to be as good as I had hoped. I’m catching up on Laird’s work, and his superb poem ‘Grace and the Chilcot Inquiry’ inhabited my head for most of the day.

Finally, I was thinking about my wonderful publisher today. I can write this safe in the knowledge that the notoriously modest John Lucas will not be reading it as he stays away from electronic media as much as possible.

John Lucas set up Shoestring Press thirty years ago this year. Small press publishing is a precarious business and John has continued to quietly produce a wide range of poets in beautiful editions, including the brilliant John Hartley Williams. His selection of writers is varied and includes translated work, and John will often concentrate on publishing poets who he feels have been overlooked or undervalued. One example might be the wonderful Matt Simpson. Another is Brian Jones, not the ill-fated Rolling Stone, but a poet published at various times by Chatto and Windus and Carcanet.  Much of Jones work had been out of print until Shoestring’s recent New and Selected.

John also publishes a lot of first collections, including, I’m extremely happy to say, mine. As everyone reading this will no-doubt know, small press poetry books are highly unlikely to be stocked in high street bookshops or to be nominated for the large poetry prizes (see Fiona Moore’ s interesting post on this here.)  Forgive me. I am about to relate an anecdote which involves quoting a complementary introduction given by John Lucas and thereby blowing my own trumpet a little. But I do so for a purpose.

Two months ago, on the night of a joint launch reading with Rory Waterman, John suggested that my poems, rather than having a highlight or two, were the highlight,  rather like Duke Ellington’s music.  I should mention that John is a cornet player with his own jazz band and I imagine he thinks rather highly of Ellington.  I felt as if I’d won the biggest prize in poetry. If my work never receives further recognition or praise I’ll be happy with that.

Here’s to John Lucas and Shoestring Press and to all its supporters and readers. And to Shoestring poets both alive and living on through their words.  Cheers.

Featured Poet. James Giddings

I’ve recently had the pleasure of hearing and reading poems by James Giddings and I asked him to contribute some poems to showcase here. I don’t want to label James’ work as it is varied and obviously evolving, but many of his poems contain dry self-effacing humour and gentle melancholy. This element of wistful tragi-comedy is combined with high narrative energy and neatness and economy of style. I hope James won’t mind me saying that these two aspects make his work sometimes seem like a cross between Simon Armitage and John Hegley, although his own voice is very distinctive.

James is twenty three years old and is currently studying for his MA at Sheffield Hallam University, funded by the Arts Humanities and Research Council. His poems have appeared in magazines including Black & Blue, Antiphon and The Cadaverine. He once won a silver medal for swimming at Cubs.

Mean Time

‘But we will be dead, as we know
beyond all light.’ Carol Ann Duffy.

Like new, or so they said.
But there’s lines of lead, graphite
graining the pages, some darkened
grey-black, so sure of themselves,
and the asterisk inked in blue,
rushed, not quite a star,
marking the sentences -
Yes, like an angel then,
to be truthful now.’
There’s more on twenty-nine
scribed beneath the title,
struck with potluck candidness;
mad’ they said, scoring
a tally through the thigh
of the letter H, capitalized
to hold its weight.
I rub away at the grey shadings,
thoughts they left
like litter down a side street;
the words ‘I’m falling asleep’
ghosted now, only half there
when held in the light.
And in the contents
there are marks, little hearts
next to the lovey ones
and with them the initial R
which I can’t bring myself
to remove; to do that
would kill love, leave love
in the dark. In my hands
they have a second chance
to stay alive in the light.


I couldn’t hate you more than I hate myself
at 3.00am watching cat videos, with this dusting
of orange moustache from all the Cheesey Balls.

Yes, I thought about killing myself, but then
I watched a five-minute clip of a pug barking
at its own reflection, found the bottom of rock

bottom. The car is running in the garage, and I left
the hamster by the bins. I’ve packed five years
into a rucksack. In the bottom drawer are the bills.


I’d see him every shift; he’d come in,
order a bottle of the house
Shiraz, sit in his booth with the paper,
doodle the quiz, fill in the Sudoku.

I often imagined how he lived
at home, if he had wine there,
a lady-friend who he could argue
over the answers of the crossword with,

or if that was it for him, our forced
friendship: me providing napkins, calling
out to him as he enters, the usual is it?
Him leaving an inheritance through tips.


After Miriam Van hee

standing on the embankment you watched
the coast drift through the evening
and thought of your Father and Mother
about the distance keeping everyone apart, but
paths are everywhere, even on the water

you look for signs forming in the foam

Nine line cameos

This is another from a series of nine poems I wrote in early 2012. A few were published in different versions in London Grip . All nine of the poems were nine lines long and were concerned with the deaths or illnesses of poets and writers – perhaps a rather unhealthy preoccupation of mine at the time. I found the poems again today (see previous 2 posts) while looking through some files and I’d thought I’d share them here. I promise return to cheerier subjects in my next post.


4.30 am

Through a gap in the curtains
London railings pierce a wrap

of fog. She’s long since kissed
the children, left a note

to call the Dr, pressed her forehead
to frozen glass. Wet towels

and muslin are putty in the gaps.
There’s nothing more to do.

A milk-float rattles past.

John Berryman, October 25, 1914 – January 7, 1972

John Berryman pic

John Berryman’s Last Walk

It’s a fridge cold Minnesota day.
The poet crunches to Washington Avenue Bridge
looks down on three inch ice
beneath the iron span, turns to wave
at a young woman, a passer-by whose face
will freeze and drain
in the time it takes to climb the rail
and drop his flapping shadow
through the thick-skinned Mississippi.

A version of this poem was first published in London Grip in March 2012.