Writing a poem, I mean re-writing it, sounding out and rolling sounds and meanings around, considering each word and asking if a better alternative can be found, lying in bed and walking down the road with the lines in your head, getting home, sitting with the words, asking is what you meant, living with it for months, maybe years, removing, replacing punctuation, changing, again, where the line breaks fall, reshaping, so that if you were to animate all the different versions they’d twist and shift like starlings in murmuration.
I don’t keep ‘rejection’ slips, or notes accompanying returned poems, but I do keep acceptances and records of where I sent things. The Rialto, along with The North, was one of the poetry magazines I discovered in a really good bookshop towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium.
I was blown away by the quality of these publications, both in terms of design and production values, and I was enthralled by the variety and quality of the work within them. I sent both of these magazines some poems in 2009, the first work I’d ever sent anywhere, and the Rialto took one and published it. I remember the letter from the editor, Michael Mackmin saying he would like to take a poem, along with an apology for the delay in responding. I also remember the arrival of a contributors copy and twenty pound note. Since then, I’m delighted that the Rialto has published three more of my poems and it remains one of my favorite magazines. I love the fact I can find new work by, for example, the great Les Murray, alongside poems from people whose names I’ve not encountered before.
A new development for this venerable publication is the launch of the poetry pamphlet competition, details for which you can find here.
I am mentioning this as I received a subscriber’s e-mail today
which contained two quotes I wanted to share. The first is from Michael Mackmin.
‘As an editor who reads a lot of submissions I need to know that a poet is working on the balance between the thing said and the way of saying it (the essence of a good poem), and that she is engaged in the search for the ‘right’ word, the exact right word. This is often quite a difficult judgement to make when a submission only contains a couple of pieces. We hope, by opening this window for submissions of twenty poems, to discover important new voices. At the very least you’ll be able to check if there are certain words, or phrases, or concepts that you over use. At most you’ll be the winner.’
The second is from Gerry Cambridge, editor of another of Britain’s great ‘little’ magazines. It is taken from his book about The Dark Horse, and is published by Happenstance.
‘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.’
I’ve been living with a draft of my book for a while now. The poems keep getting rewritten- line breaks changed, and changed back again. Poems have been removed and added ; the usual stuff. I sent a version to my publisher a while ago, and he’s going to have a look in the autumn with a view to publishing in 2017.
In the meantime, I keep going back for a look, and when I do I find myself working again on poems I’d long since thought settled into their shape and sound. Even the shortest have been through countless drafts, and luckily, I managed to keep some of the first, since I’ve reverted to something close to an early version several times. I couldn’t resist adding a couple of newer poems to the latest file, mainly because they still give me a slight buzz of excitement, being not yet entirely familiar.
I’ve left out work that’s been published in good magazines- Magma (x 2 poems), The Morning Star, The North, The Interpreter’s House, Bare Fiction, Under The Radar and others – either because the poems don’t fit with the rest of the collection, or because I simply don’t love those poems enough. I like and in some cases, love, (or will grow to love; time will tell) all the poems I’ve chosen, and I’m pretty sure they are strong enough, though my editor may offer reasons as to why one or two might be left out. I’m looking forward to reading his thoughts.
Today, although I am not at my day job and it is a beautiful day,
I’ve been at the computer a lot.
As well as being absorbed in re-drafting a new poem, I’ve been looking at the order of the collection once more. Grouping poems by content is not as simple as it might be. Just because a poem has a bird in it,for example, should it sit with other ‘bird’ poems? I’ve decided not, as most if not all of my ‘bird’ poems are not about birds at all, but are poems with birds in them, birds that are usually passing through. Without going back and analyzing all the bird poems (maybe I should, and group them accordingly) I guess they are actually poems about change, transience, remembrance, loyalty, resilience etc.
There are so many possible ways of putting 60 odd poems together so that one leads into or echos or reflects something of the next. And of course my idea of a reflection may not be someone else’s. From where they are standing, the view may be completely different.
Then there is the option to break the book into sections. I’m not naturally inclined to do this, as I’m not sure what the benefit might be with this particular set of poems. I do have a sequence of some twelve poems about my time as a coronary care nurse, so that has its own title.
Where to place the sequence in the book is another question. At the heart, or middle of the book? I’ve been receiving some good feedback on these poems, and wanted to put them at the beginning. This didn’t ‘feel’ right ( although I can’t explain why at the moment) so I’ve compromised and am leading into the sequence with a short section of ten or so pieces, although this might change.
Putting the book in order, feels I imagine, a bit like designing a landscape garden with beds and ponds and hedges and sculptures.
Deciding on an order that will work is exciting and time consuming,
and, like most poets I imagine, I keep changing my mind.
However, as with every word and line break of the poems themselves, there will have to come a time when the printer puts a stop to experimentation and mutation: a time when the book will be held firmly in place by its cover. Which reminds me, I need one of those too.
There have been some great new online poetry magazines launched in the UK in the last year or so. I’ve mentioned The Compass before when they published some reviews I wrote for poet and reviews editor, Kim Moore, including one of Sarah Howe’s ‘Loop of Jade’. Sarah is one of the editors of Prac Crit, another brilliantly produced and presented contemporary magazine that is totally free to read. The current issue contains some wonderful work by poet Katrina Porteous, as well as a fascinating and wide-ranging interview with Katrina by The Butcher’s Dog magazine editor and poet Jake Campbell.
The new issue of The Compass is full of really good work from poets I have and haven’t come across before, as well as reviews, articles and interviews with many poets I know of and admire. I’m happy to have one of my poems featured today. It’s called ‘Shocks’ and is taken from ‘Traces‘, a sequence reflecting on my nursing experience,
which will be published in a new book next year.
I’m looking forward to reading at three poetry events in October, two in Yorkshire and one at the Swindon poetry festival (details are on the ‘Readings‘ page) .
Since 2012, I’ve been lucky to read in guest spots in about thirty different venues.
I’ve never been sure how this whole ‘getting readings’ thing works for poets. Apart from pamphlet and book launches organised by publishers – I’m lucky to have had a couple of these, firstly for my pamphlet, ‘Gopagilla’ and then for the book ‘The Sun Bathers’ – it seems readings beget readings, and that meeting and chatting to people at magazine launches and competition prize-givings can help.
A couple of years ago I was invited to read with poet Janet Rogerson in Sheffield’s Blackwell bookshop. Janet, one of the organizers of Manchester’s Poets and Players, subsequently contacted me to ask if I’d like to read with Geraldine Monk and Liz Berry at the beautiful library. This was real thrill. You can see me fidgeting on the video of the event here, or use the link to check out Poets and Players extensive archives.
Other invitations have come from poetry night organizers, usually run by poets I’ve met over the years, including my Yorkshire based friends John Foggin and Keith Hutson. It is just as well that I have these supportive chums as I’m not very good at approaching poetry event organizers or groups, something that must be done some time in advance as planning invariably begins about a year before the programs happens. Approaching groups didn’t seem very dignified and I wasn’t sure of the etiquette. I used to think ‘oh look, so- and-so is reading again ‘ and wonder why I wasn’t reading too!
Poetry readings in England, outside of spoken word events at theaters, poetry festivals, tours by laureates and other well-known poets and those visiting universities, take place in pubs, cafes, church halls, libraries and bars up and down the country. There is a small but vital and vibrant scene run by and for enthusiasts.
After a recent magazine launch I found myself having a drink with a poetry event organizer and another poet friend. My mate, sensing reticence on my part, said ‘How about getting Roy to read for you?’, and the organizer responded favorably and offered me a reading. I like to think it was because she likes my poems. Failing that, perhaps my manners/ face/ dress sense appealed. Whatever the reason, I was, as always, thrilled to be invited. It seems that when it comes to poetry guest slots, as with most things, if you don’t ask you don’t get. Also, it’s not what you know but the way that you do it – or something like that.
I enjoy reading and have improved of late. Gone are the days of standing shaky-handed, dry mouthed and ultra serious before an audience, rushing through a poem, heart pounding, breath refusing to be available in the right places.
With long gaps between readings, it is easy to experience self-doubt.
The only way to deal with this is to practice my set aloud before the next reading. I know that being really well prepared will help with anxiety and make for a good experience for my listeners.
By the time I read a competition winning poem at the Wenlock poetry festival earlier this year, I had practiced it so much I could have recited the poem from memory at high speed. I’d walked across fields reciting it in various accents (mildly sonorous quasi Richard Burton Welsh being a favorite) and sung it to a variety of tunes.Thankfully I’d not met anyone on my walks who might have considered me odd. If you are practicing in public you can always pretend to be speaking into a mobile phone. It was just as well I had learnt the poem. After being introduced by the competition judge, Don Patterson and invited to the stage, I realized I’d lost my glasses and the poem before me was a blur.
Birds, or more specifically eggs and dead birds, had a big impact on me during my formative years. There was the occasion in primary school where I innocently removed an egg from a nest in order to show a teacher. She told me I had caused the death of a baby bird and some thirty years later I recollected that moment in a poem, ‘Egg’ published in a pamphlet called ‘Gopagilla’. I also remember finding a dead blackbird while making a den in a hedge at the age of nine or ten. The bird was very recently dead and I can still picture its delicate feet and oily eye. I did notice live birds too- most memorably the house martins in their mud nests under the eves of a white house in the Leicestershire village of Quorn where I lived.
On family walks in Swithland woods my father had two bird calls he could make by shaping his hands and blowing into them. One was the sound made by a cuckoo, the other, that of an owl. I don’t know what kind of owl it was that my dad was impersonating, but I do remember my mother telling him to stop once when his call received an identical response. I think she was concerned that the respondent would be disappointed when no suitor proved forthcoming, and that the interested party would be left bereft and lonely in the otherwise owl-less wood.
My renewed interest in birds coincided with starting to write poems again in my early thirties. I imagine this had to do in part, with spending more time walking and noticing things, whether that be the beautiful plumage of starlings bathing in puddles by a bus stop in a busy Sheffield high street, or a skylark climbing from a field near the South Downs way. I had no idea, until recently, what an impact birds had and have upon my imagination and how often they appear in my poems. A skim through my first book reveals, scattered through the pages, a kestrel, a blackbird, swans, sparrows, a crane and a wren. The typescript of my new book has a similarly high avian count, this time featuring a heron, cormorant, swan, crows, geese, rooks and a disembodied wing. My knowledge has increased a little, but I am hardly even an apprentice bird-spotter. Both the heron and geese in these poems were spotted in the patch of sky revealed by the office window where I sit writing this, and although I am always thrilled to see hedge sparrows, blackbirds and occasional starling or robin in the small garden behind the house, I’ve been keen for some time to learn something of the birds that frequent the country beyond the village and city where I live and work.
For this reason I was delighted to obtain a copy of Matt Merritt’ s book, ‘A Sky Full of Birds’.
As well as being a poet (see an interview here), Matt is the editor of Bird Watching Magazine. I took the book on holiday with me to the Northumberland coast, one of the great areas in which to see seabirds in the British isles, and it proved to be an educational and entertaining choice for such a trip.
While there I was fortunate to see puffins, cormorants and sand martins, among many other birds I was unable to identify (I have since bought a field guide.) I was also lucky enough to visit the grey seal colony’s by boat, and one evening while walking alone on the rocks below Bamburgh Castle, to catch several glimpses of what I believe was a Minke whale. I was too surprised and slow to capture the whale with my camera.
I am unqualified to write in any meaningful way about these sightings, which is why I was so taken with ‘A Sky Full of Birds’, a book that generously shares great expertise and passion for its subjects without ever alienating the inexpert reader.
Early on, the author makes it clear that he knows that birdwatchers are a strange species, and that their dedication, passion and associated behaviors are likely to appear peculiar to those with a more casual interest. While I was absorbed by the writer’s easy , laconic narration, I was learning; absorbing facts about the astonishing and often overlooked bird-life that inhabits every part of the UK. Each chapter ranges freely and smoothly across historical, anthropological and geographical landscapes, weaving in social and autobiographical detail. The humor is gentle and self-effacing, and the text is punctuated by astonishing flights of description that might be described, in the best sense, as wildly romantic. Unlikely as it may sound, these sections sit beside and segue-way easily into scientific fact and research based evidence. Ecological concerns are raised and are placed in the context of humanity’s historical impact, with triumphs, both accidental and otherwise, being highlighted alongside failures to manage and protect environments, as well as tales of the incredible resilience and adaptability of birds. There are a wealth of facts relating to the origins of bird names, and references to the appearance of various birds in literary and musical works. All this may sound too dense and specialized for those with a casual interest in bird-life. It is not. The author accesses a well of deep knowledge in an entertaining way, managing to convey something of the mystery surrounding many of his subjects and fascination this inspires. Both the scarcity of certain birds and the ubiquitous nature of others are frequent themes, and we discover how the shifting location of populations are effected by the unique geography and micro-climates of the British isles. ‘A Sky Full of Birds’ is a great read. Buy a copy for yourself and another for a friend or relative.
Matt Merritt blogs at Polyolbion.
I was lucky to attend the launch of issue 62 of The Interpreter’s House magazine at the wonderful Albion Beatnik bookshop in Oxford.
The Albion, a small and enthusiastic bookshop in the Jericho part of town, has been described by the Sunday Times as the “best bookshop in Oxford,” and it is the kind of place where it is hard to tell staff from browsing customers and tea drinkers. The bookshop houses a relaxed cafe and hosts poetry, music, themed literary evenings and general talks and debates.
The Interpreter’s House issue 62 launch event was held in the evening and attended by hard-working editor and co-editors Martin Malone and Charles Lauder.
There were readings by some of the many contributors to the issue, including Elizabeth Parker.
Among the many highlights was Lizzie’s reading of her beautiful poem about walking with her father, ‘At Cannop Ponds’. I asked if Lizzie would like to share the poem and some other work here and I’m delighted that she kindly agreed.
Elizabeth Parker was born in The Forest of Dean and grew up in a garden center which her parents still own and run. She finds The Forest of Dean inspires her writing more and more.
After achieving First Class Hons in English and Creative Writing at Warwick University, she taught secondary English for eight years. Elizabeth’s poems have been shortlisted for The Bridport Prize and Eyewear Publishing’s Melita Hume Prize, which resulted in Eyewear publishing her debut pamphlet Antinopolis.
Elizabeth lives on Bristol harbor and is a member of poetry group The Spoke. Her work was recently Highly Commended in the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Competition, and has been published in Magma, The Stony Thursday Book, Raceme, Southword, The Interpreter’s House and Eyewear’s latest anthology The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016. She is currently working on her first full collection.
A city founded by the Roman emperor Hadrian to commemorate his deified young beloved Antinous, who drowned in the Nile.
The site of excavations by French explorer Albert Gayet, who discovered ‘Mummy Portraits’ at the site- highly realistic head-and-shoulder portraits attached to mummies of the Coptic period, bound into the burial cloth so as to cover the face of the deceased and painted in the classical style of ancient Greece and Rome.
They have locked up the river where you fell
bike-tyre slotting into tramline, tipping you
into water that wants us all
now striped with chrome bars.
There is a photo in a pollypocket
cable-tied to a tube bolt.
Your looks were classical
remind me of the mummified boy
his portrait on a cedar panel
bright lips, thick brush strokes of black hair.
When Albert Gayet opened the dark
their faces gleamed in the tombs
ancient paint still glossy
in egg-yolk eyes, milk cheeks
hair of soot and plant gum
lips a pinch of cinnabar
stirred through beeswax
kept hot and dry
for two thousand years.
After two years
your shrine is fading
carnations threaded through the bars
hemmed brown with rot
rain drawing pale lines
through your inkjet colours.
I want to laminate your picture
so your face shines
unpick metal stitches
slimy weave of dead carnations.
My father’s river has risen
above seams that won’t be softened or stolen
from hard lime and coal
to pennant sandstone that gives
until the water is precious
My sister’s brook is root beer with rot
the dead giving up their tannins
letting riches from their skins
My grandfather’s river floats rafts of flotsam
scum bobs and pops near its walls
He says it has turned from pea to tea
that his favourite part
sometimes flows the wrong way
My friend is afraid
of her river’s urge for her
Despite wide-mouthed sewers
my grandmother’s river still licks up storms
My mother’s river keeps forking
thinning to little more than shine
Her deft eye gathers its frays
slicks them back to their source
My brother’s river
broods behind loch gates
My aunt’s river grazes its banks
Rocks are loosed to salt her river
Some drink from their rivers
morsels of light and water
speck their lips
My uncle’s river remembers its monks
their nights rowing to secret mass
prows cutting water bonds
to rock chapels in the gorge
My river reaches for me
At night I watch my river
slink toward my feet
Stormwater has thickened my grandmother’s river
sluicing darkness from the banks
My father’s river has broken through
soothes dry mud
My friend’s river has dropped
can’t reach its own watermark
etching of sand that flakes as it dries
This morning my river was high
green and urgent with rain
rushing light and leaves toward the estuary
I have seen it slow
ease its freight of yachts and light
thickened with dark loads
a dun afternoon
In summer people meet at my river
their bare legs tassel its banks.
Previously published in The Best New British and Irish poets, 2016
At Cannop Ponds
we take the wettest path.
A nestbox spits a nuthatch.
Dad says they shape the hole
by nibbling it larger then rimming the edge
with mud to keep woodpeckers out.
I ask about sinews in the black beech.
He tells me most trees have a twist in them
changing position for light.
We both press palms against the bark.
Mud sucks our boots, moss is juicy
every tread squeezing
a moat around the foot.
On the jetty a fisherman spins a plastic fish
tricking carp, pike, tench,
bream, perch, gudgeon.
We pause over water
clear spaces where silt is settled
crowfoot birthing silver beads.
He can still name every fish, plant
bird, tree, starting with Latin
forgetting I’ll insist on the Common.
He shows me a slime mould on an oak stump
props a node on the end of his finger.
Light glows inside.
There is a mackerel head
by the bench where we pause
one platinum eye.
He describes stumps of alder as gorgeous
says their sap must be red
so I look for wounds.
Across the water, coots pop up
an oak shakes off birds and bits of gold.
He says there’s more life in the reeds
the yellow smoke of oatgrass.
For him, I want the air peppered with little grebes
lifting and landing on the surface like fleas.
I want to keep asking
make sure he remembers every bird call.
He says he is tired of listing things for me
says, quietly, that he and his mates
used to jump into marl holes.
The Blackhand Gang of 50s Smethwick
finding gaps in the fences
of biscuit factories, building sites
skirting pits of quicklime.
On the biggest rock
we do not find the black crossbow
of the lone Cormorant.