Launch of ‘The Great Animator’.

My new collection, ‘The Great Animator’ will be published in February.

To launch the book I’m delighted and honoured that I’ll be reading with the American poets Michael Waters and the Romanian born poet Mihaela Moscialue. It is worth clicking on the links as above as these are two very interesting and highly regarded poets, and I am looking forward to listening and learning from them both. It is definitely worth clicking on the link to the read the review of Mihaela’s latest book by John Lucas.
John’s style, clarity and forthright opinions are a breath of fresh air in a poetry reviewing culture that often fails to explain why the reviewer thinks something is good or not good, and to incorporate aspects of poetics and wider cultural contexts in a concise, clear and engaging way.

Readings will be at Leicester on March 11th and in London the following week. There may also be a reading in Manchester.

All that remains is to send the typescript to the printer along with the artwork I have commissioned from graphic art student Ayo Byron.

 

Reading to write – back to Basics

“ I don’t know exactly where ideas come from, but when I’m working well ideas just appear. I’ve heard other people say similar things – so it’s one of the ways I know there’s help and guidance out there. It’s just a matter of our figuring out how to receive the ideas or information that are waiting to be heard.” ― Jim Henson

Jim Henson was of course the genius behind the Muppets. But his thoughts on ideas being mysteriously  ‘out there’ and ‘waiting to be heard’ by those ‘working well’ are echoed by many poets (Alice Oswald articulates the idea in this recent interview). In my own practice I have often found that the poem I wish to keep will arrive on the tail of another poem I have been struggling to write. It is about being receptive, to have all the creative muscles warmed up and ready to receive whatever it is, from wherever that may be.  And surely part of this ‘working well’ , for a poet, is to be reading well. I’ve been wondering lately, if my ability to ‘receive’ has been impaired by wading in the stream of internet communication.

It is seven years since a poem I had written first appeared in print. At the time I was not on Facebook or Twitter, and I had no smart-phone or tablet. I used the internet sparingly and when I did it was predominantly to research poetry magazines or to look up poets. I was still working days, nights and weekends as a nurse in a coronary care unit and had little time for anything else. At some point in the preceding five or six years, on a visit to the local bookshop with my baby son, I discovered contemporary poetry. As well as my role in the team at the hospital, I was a full-time dad and sole carer to my son for two days a week. So my first ‘serious’ attempts at writing poems had to fit around nursing, building towers with bricks, pushing a swing in an empty windswept park, changing nappies, spooning mush and so-on.

Two years on from that first poem publication in the Rialto magazine and a few publications later, I won a competition and had a pamphlet published as part of the prize. A year after that my first full collection appeared. Gradually I caught up with social media developments. I joined Facebook and was befriended by and friended hundreds of poets, many of whom I had never met. I learnt  not to be drawn into debates or arguments where misunderstandings were likely to occur. One comment on a thread might lead to countless updates that filled my e-mail inbox as people joined the conversation.  I subscribed to blogs and newsletters, found my inbox clogged, and unsubscribed. I became aware of research that highlighted the dopamine rush that occurs when people ‘like’ your posts. I enjoyed the feeling of connection to an online ‘community’. I shared my news and triumphs and was moved by heartfelt responses. I highlighted causes I thought important, vented anger over political events in an environment where I soon realised that my views were unlikely to be challenged since the majority of my online friends were involved in the delivery of state education and healthcare. I gradually became aware that just logging on to see what was happening could take me to news stories that might potentially distract and detract from writing or reading anything of real quality.

Despite my increased internet use, I continued to write and send work for publication. I’ve been told I am a prolific writer, and am pleased that a second collection is due out in a couple of months. Recently I began to question the value of time spent on the internet and particularly its impact on my writing output. After all, I started to write poems, to send them out and be published, without any ‘connections’.  I learnt by reading. I wrote by writing. I didn’t have the means, nor the need, to share any achievements and had not developed a Pavlovian dopamine release response to ‘likes’ and kind comments.  Not that I’m knocking the value of receiving generous and unsolicited praise and support which has buoyed me on many occasions.  Nor am I suggesting that a total cold turkey long-term withdrawal from social media, or from the internet in general, would suit me.  I’m not entirely sure that I have the will or the willpower.

addiction

Social media can serve various positive functions in facilitating contact and sharing information. It can be a place where writers can express themselves and receive support and encouragement.  However, apart from proving to be a distraction in benign ways, one aspect of social media is the potential to lead users to make unhealthy comparisons with those who are ‘doing well’ – winning prizes, being published, reading at festivals, delivering workshops etc. In the inevitable lull between the next publication or reading, it easy for anyone, even someone who is doing relatively well (and I include myself in this category) to feel that the poetry world is one non-stop party from which they are excluded, a party full of interlocking acquaintances and friends, all of whom are enjoying more ‘success’ than them. Despite having thought carefully and written about ‘success‘ in poetry , I am not immune to such pitfalls.

Poetry is a slow art. Reading poetry requires undivided attention. It is a means of communicating that is probably the antithesis of the super-fast communication highways that now infiltrate most people’s waking lives.

I feel very positive about certain aspects of my internet engagement. I enjoy writing this blog and find it useful and hope it is useful to others. Among its other functions, it is a place where I can clarify thoughts such as these. And of course even ‘idle’ browsing of the Internet can reveal thought provoking articles or information that can enhance writing.   Generally I think it is good to connect and engage via the Internet. As long as this doesn’t become a major time consuming preoccupation.

I began this piece by recollecting how I started out writing poems; by reading them, and by working away when I could, without distraction.  Somewhere, I forget where, I read that anyone thinking of writing poems should read all the poetry books on their shelf before starting to write. I am aware that I don’t read nearly enough, and that several collections I’ve bought of late have not received sufficient attention or thought.
So I’ll start there.

Here is a simple poem by Wendell Berry, with a simple message.

How to Be a Poet

(to remind myself)

i

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill—more of each

than you have—inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your poems,

doubt their judgment.

 

ii

Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

 

iii

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.

From the Poetry Foundation  

 

The fab four, smoke and Montale

I enjoyed the recently released Beatles documentary, ‘Eight Days A Week’  earlier this evening.

beatlesmovieposter

As a Beatles fan from a very early age, I didn’t learn anything new about the band or the times they lived in.  I was surprised, however, by the raw energy of their early performances, and once more impressed that the band could sing and play in time and in tune without being able to hear each other or themselves over the legions of screaming fans.  This level of achievement was not only due to their considerable individual talents as musicians, but also a result of their five year apprenticeship at clubs in the their home town and especially in Hamburg, where they played for up to twelve hours at a time. I always remember this when I hear how an artist arrived from nowhere. No one, in any field can get that great without a lot of graft.
Months before their last official concert on the 29th of August, 1966 ( the day I was born) the band had become sick of touring and wanted to spend more time experimenting with new sounds in the studio. What came across through this film was that inside the bubble of madness and mayhem that surrounded the band, they were very close. It was their humour and laddish bonhomie that enabled them to maintain their sanity and just about keep their feet on the ground. Another thing that struck me was the way the Beatles, and almost everyone in their circle, seemed to be continuously smoking. In one interview George Harrison sits behind John Lennon and mischievously and repeatedly taps ash on the latter’s mop top. And of course George Harrison sadly died of lung cancer at the age of fifty-eight.
In the UK and elsewhere,  legislation and vapour cigarettes have lead to great changes. In the nineteen eighties the canteen at my further education college, the cinema, the top deck of the bus, pubs, restaurants and my first work places were all filled with smoke. I even knew a heart surgeon at the tail end of the 1990’s who would light up in the staffroom before and after an operation.
I have two ‘smoking’ poems for you. The first is a translation of a Eugenio Montale poem that featured in the Italian translation section of the excellent ‘High Window’ magazine last year.

station

As I write this there is a fog outside, and I’m thinking of the black and white England of that Beatles film; of the foggy, cold and smoky railway stations where a young Paul Simon, visiting from the USA,  wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ as he waited for a train with his ‘cigarettes and magazines ‘.  The second poem is from my first book, ‘The Sun Bathers’ , published in 2013.

In the Smoke

after Montale

I’d often wait at the station, coughing
in the cold and fog, buy a paper
not worthy of the name, smoke cigarettes
that came in those bright packets
the fools have now banned.
If your train was cancelled or delayed
I’d watch carriages as they strobed past,
scan faces on the platform
until I saw yours, nearly always last.
It’s just one of the memories
that haunt me in dreams.

I Dreamt of Smoking 

the long abandoned sense of time
measured and slowed to a cigarette’s length;
necessity and luxury, the sparked up camaraderie
of bus shelter, fire-escape, a doorway in the rain.

My dream was not a pining for breath given substance,
for jellyfish pulsing in a projector’s beam,
nor for rituals of unwrapping, tapping and rolling,
or buried addiction, risen again.

But I know the source; it was you of course,
it was the two of us, smoking.

 

The Dark Horse

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I’ve been very much enjoying Gerry Cambridge’s account of the first twenty years of his journal ‘The Dark Horse’.  Available from Happenstance Press, this is a beautifully produced book utilising elegant typefaces and layout. This is fitting since Cambridge is a specialist in print design and typography. Illustrations include front covers as well as correspondence from and portraits of, many of the characters involved in the magazine’s story.  This book is a must read for anyone who is involved or thinking of becoming involved in  poetry magazines, and it will also be of interest to anyone who has ever purchased or submitted to a ‘little magazine’ .

Cambridge is a fine prose writer and his light and witty style makes for a lively read.  As well as details of the natty-gritty of obtaining finance and the physical aspects of printing and distributing a little magazine, there are sketches of the  (mostly memorably idiosyncratic)  poets and critics he has encountered along the way.
Other topics include poetry politics, cliques and prize-giving culture, the relationship between poetry and academia, and issues of editorial independence.  If all this sounds a little too niche for the general reader, it isn’t. The book moves swiftly from one anecdote or topic to the next, and the writing is often elegant and never less than nimble.
As an occasional reviewer of poetry, I was particularly interested in the section that touched on that subject.  When considering who to approach to write reviews, Cambridge states that he likes to ‘ assign books about which honest opinions may not be forthcoming to more senior, less easily impressed critics. They blow through the smothering hype around much current poetry, which is often mutually congratulatory, like a gust of January air through a mim-moue’d cocktail party. ‘ I must admit that I don’t know what ‘mim-moue’d’ means, but I get the gist. Cambridge continues

‘It is not that such critics are deliberately combative; they are merely unafraid. Fear of creating offence is a major issue in the contemporary poetry world, which is a relatively small boat; rock it, and you may be thrown overboard. And there is no large, popular readership to be validated by; there is only the sea.’

Cambridge implies that contributors (such as my own editor and publisher John Lucas, who has occasionally written for the ‘Horse’ over the years, ) had and have the integrity and independence to write candidly. These are reviewers who  ‘enjoy, indeed, relish swimming’ in the aforementioned sea, and their lack of fear allows the sort of writing that might eloquently point out that an emperor of the poetry world is in ‘the altogether.’

Cambridge’s anecdotes of his encounters and exchanges of opinion with the great and good often have a sense of mischievous glee, as he depicts quirks of personality and points of contention over literary matters. He is also keen to point out his own moments of ignorance and naiveté as he navigated various poetry worlds equipped with nothing more than with what he subsequently came to see as misplaced confidence.

It is clear that Cambridge enjoys his status as a poetry outsider; as a non-academia (he is self-educated) who can hold his own in academic circles, as a Scot with Irish heritage, as a poet and publisher geographically removed from the London-centric poetry elites, and as someone who has created and sustained a well-regarded journal through nothing other than passion and perseverance.  It is also clear that he has frequently re-evaluated the direction and values of the magazine in order that The Dark Horse evolves and reflects developments in the wide worlds of poetry.

Cambridge concludes

‘Like poetry itself, at heart a poetry magazine is a celebration of the human spirit beyond awards, issues of reputation and all the attendant palaver. It is a free space of expression that transcends commercialism and other involved interests. It aims for the high ranges even as it scrabbles in the foothills.’

While reading this book I remembered that George Harrison named his record label ‘Dark Horse’. And later that morning I encountered another dark horse.  Crossing a field, I came to a stile where this chap stood and refused to budge. I didn’t fancy trying to get past his head and navigate the space between his ample flank and the fence.  I reasoned with him for a while before deciding on a three-field detour. I thought how Gerry Cambridge’s choice of name for his journal was not only apt for the reasons he gave – ‘the outsider ,  the unknown quantity, the unexpected winner’.Perhaps it also reflects a certain dogged determination to stand and remain exactly where one wishes, regardless of persuasion, expectation or unrecognised command.

 

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A dark horse

John Foggin’s ‘Much Possessed’

much-possesed
Sometimes I’m lucky enough to  buy a book of poems that is so compelling that, time allowing, I’ll have to read the whole collection in one go. This sort of collection transports me into another world (or worlds) so completely that everything else has to be put on hold.  Books like this tend to confirm our essential ‘aloneness’ while making the world seem a less lonely place.
Here is John Berger writing about poems in his book ‘and our faces, my heart, brief as photos’ 

‘Poems…bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that language is acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.’

John Foggin’s new collection is a book full of such poems. I wanted to share my enthusiasm for the book and so I recently contacted a magazine editor friend of mine to ask if I could review it. I was somewhat relived when I found the book had already been sent for review. Why? Because I don’t really want to write an analysis of something I am still marvelling at. I just want to enjoy it!  Also, this is a complex and lengthy collection and it would be very hard to do it justice in a 500 word piece. So instead I’ll write a few words here.

At 81 pages ‘Much Possessed’ travels far and wide, geographically, historically, spiritually, emotionally. It draws on biblical stories and figures to take on and re-imagine some of the great myths and stories from feminist and humanist perspectives, through eyes that have evidently seen much but are still lit up by the unfathomable mystery and joy of living in all its difficulty and wonder. Like D.H Lawrence’s incredible poem ‘Snake’, Foggin’s ‘Whether it cared or not’ and ‘A Dry Place’ are breath-taking challenges to theological dogma that are driven by a compassionate need to question what has been handed down.

This book is packed with poems of love, hope, celebration and endurance. It is articulate and illuminating, full of warmth, tenderness and toughness, exploration, courage, humility and humanity. Did I mention the craft involved? Well, can you imagine me being so enthused if it wasn’t a superbly crafted book of poetry? I’ve been carrying a copy around with me for a while now to ward off the darkness, both very real and of my own making. ‘Much Possessed’  is a superb achievement.

 

Politics, poetry

2016 has been a tumultuous year in western politics. Here in the UK the repercussions of referendum result on leaving the European Union are yet to be understood.
Then there was the American election result which seems to have come as a shock to so many.
There has been much debate on the role of media- ‘mainstream’ and other-  and coining of terms such as ‘post-truth’ (lying), and ‘fake news’ (previously known as propaganda.)

As always, when events are perceived as unprecedented or representing a radical shift of some kind, there arises discussion about the relevance of poetry and its ability to reflect and respond to events. I’ve read several pieces about this, and have looked to poetry for solace, for precedence, for echoes, for sense.

Here is the poet Ocean Vuong –

“The reading of poetry is in itself an act of political resistance to the mainstream. Particularly in this election cycle, where there is this great anxiety for certainty. What is your position? What is your stance? Why are you flip-flopping? There’s an anxiety of certainty and power and boldness . But poetry acknowledges the true complexity of what it means to be human, which is that nothing is ever that certain.”

Another take on poetry and politics, or more specifically how to feel useful and engaged in a ‘time of crisis’ , can be found here.  I can relate to some of this article, but can’t help thinking that a lot of people were living in times of ‘crisis’ before the results of elections in the US shook up their world view. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complacent or immune to anxiety over recent developments. I’ve had recurring nightmares about Nazis which I imagine came about after hearing of the rise of white supremacists and their increased profile and apparent proximity to power in Europe and the United States. I worry about climate change and its denial. However, it is simplistic to think that all was well yesterday and that everything has suddenly changed for the worse.  Many people live under threat because of their gender, religion or race, or because of lack of access to basic sanitation and healthcare. The richest countries supply the arms that fuel conflicts in which civilians suffer.

I met a friend of mine recently who said that with ‘everything’ going on she couldn’t possibly write poems. I understood what she meant and thought of Adorno, German sociologist, philosopher , musicologist and composer, and of his statement, often, it seems quoted out of context, that ‘ there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. ‘

This is a huge area for philosophical debate and if I recommend visiting this site and particularly the comments section, if you are interested in the discussion and interpretation of this statement.

In his brilliant and wide-ranging article ‘A Politics of Mere Being’ for this month’s Poetry Chicago, the poet Carl Phillips writes

‘I know political has chiefly, as a word, to do with governing — and usually, more specifically, the governing of an entity such as a nation, a body of citizens — from the Greek politikos, relating to citizens, the people of the state, polis in Greek.’

Another definition might be that politics is about who gets what, when and why.

There are thousands of overtly political poems, poems that addresses issues or situations by name, that are powerful and memorable. A poem like Neruda’s ‘I’m explaining a few things’ which he wrote in response to the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil war, bears witness to an inhumane act.  It contrasts many aspects of the complex and simple beauty of the city’s daily life prior to the atrocity with the destruction and suffering in the aftermath of the bombing. It is a timeless piece that serves as a monument, and sadly, remains relevant as an expression of disgust and horror.

Neruda is a great poet and was able, I think,  to write a worthy response to this event.  Not all poets can achieve this. Political poems can lack subtlety. They might read as ‘preachy’, or appear to tell the reader what to think.  The same is true, for example of songs. Although John Lennon wrote some great ones, his “Power to the People” is not one of them.  Perhaps at the other end of the scale is ” Strange Fruit“,  first recorded by the great Billie Holiday in the late nineteen thirties. The lyrics were originally a poem, written by American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meerpol. Meeropol had seen a photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana, and wrote his poem, which he  later set to music, to express his horror.

The heading of this post is ‘politics, poetry’ and I’m aware I’m rambling a bit. Perhaps a consideration of the interaction of these two subjects would be better suited to a thesis or two.

Definitions of the ‘political’ can extend into every aspect of human life. Accusations of poetry’s failure to respond to the ‘political’  seem to discount the recent increase in the diversity of voices being heard in British and American poetry- voices that arise from a wider range of gender and racial perspectives than previously heard; voices that articulate a wider range of experience.

As a contemporary writer it is possible to wonder if one is responding ‘well enough’ to political events. To feel that one is somehow failing to articulate responses to disturbing events. I recently picked up a second-hand copy of The Faber book of Reportage.

faber-book-of-reportage

It is full of incredible eye-witness accounts that served to remind me (and it is a reflection on my distance from such events that
I might need reminding ) that barbarism on a huge scale is as old as the human race. This ongoing inhumanity has never prevented the celebration of its beauty in art. We have Neruda’s civil war poem, and we also have his love poems. We have Picasso’s  ‘Guernica’. We also have his ‘Child with dove’.

guernica-1937

I suppose I am trying to articulate the rather obvious idea that not every artist can respond to ‘political’ events by producing ‘political’ art. However, I believe it is important for writers and artists of all kinds to respond to inhumanity and humanity on whatever scale they can, and by exploring their daily lives, to add, if they have the freedom and means to do so, their unique voice to the ongoing record of human experience.

Carl Philips articulates this far better than I can. Here he is again.

‘ A reason to broaden the definition of political is because each individual is different, and our poems will necessarily reflect that. In a democracy, that seems to me to mean that those who must write as witness to the savagery of, say, war should do so — that’s part of the record of what it means to be alive right now in 2016. So too, though, is the intimacy between a parent and child, so too is the agony of private despair that can blind us to what also counts as part of life — joy, in its myriad forms. To be alive has never been one thing, any more than a period of history is. At the same time, people are complex creatures, and we manifest our sensibilities in many ways. Writing is just one of them. …. How is it not political, to be simply living one’s life meaningfully, thoughtfully, which means variously in keeping with, in counterpoint to, and in resistance to life’s many parts? To insist on being who we are is a political act — if only because we are individuals, and therefore inevitably resistant to society, at the very least by our differences from it…. as we all should, if collectively we are to be an accurate reflection of what it will have been like to have lived in this particular time as our many and particular selves.’

There are lots of resources related to this massive topic here.

I’d welcome any thoughts. Thank you.

New book


I have a book coming out in March 2017. So I’m going to toot my own trumpet for a moment.

Where did this book come from? Well, I’m not entirely sure! Apart from one poem I had left over from the last book, all the poems in this one were written and rewritten over the three years since ‘The Sun Bathers’ was published. Only one poem was generated in a writing workshop.  

As with the last collection, I’ve kept poems circulating to magazines. As I write this, forty-five of fifty-seven poems in this collection have been published. Since the last collection in 2013, magazines that taken my work for the first time included Ambit, Poetry Wales, Stand and The Manchester Review. Poems were also taken by new magazines that appeared during this period including The High window, The Compass, Clear Poetry, and Nottingham’s Lucifer magazine, due to be launched next week. I was also pleased to have poems in favourites of mine like The Rialto, The North, New Walk, Magma and The Interpreter’s House. Several poems have appeared in anthologies. Seven or eight of these published poems have been left out of the book, for various reasons.  Other poems in the collection have received competition prizes from judges including the poets Liz Berry, Clare Pollard, Don Patterson, Pascale Petit, Helen Ivory, Ruth Fainlight and Dalgit Nagra.  Once again, several poet friends have cast an eye over individual poems and one or two offered to look at  the manuscript and their names will be in the acknowledgments. All that remains is to finalize the title and artwork with my publisher.  As I found out with the last book, none of this seems real until you hold a copy in your hand. Writing this helps. Thank you for reading.