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Matt Merritt’s ‘A Sky Full of Birds’

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’.

A sky Full

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.

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The sea after the whale I spotted
had submerged.

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.

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A few thoughts on a Thursday evening

I’ve just dispatched some poems for consideration by the editors of a poetry magazine. After six years of doing this, I still find the process of submitting poems exciting.  I’m not a gambling man, but I think the buzz of putting one’s poems ‘out there’ might be similar to the experience of laying down a bet. Unlike gambling, there is really nothing to lose. Indeed, I’m sometimes quite glad when poems are returned- I get another go!

A friend of mine has just had some work accepted by a really good poetry magazine. After an initial (and ridiculous) pang of envy I was able to be genuinely pleased for him. This is because a) he is a lovely bloke and b) because his work is startlingly individualistic and as fresh as wet paint. James Giddings work was featured on this blog a while ago, and I’m pleased that he is sending work out and that editors are beginning to notice his obvious talent.

I’m also delighted to announce a new series of interviews that will be posted on here soon. The last batch was a year or so ago, and included Ian Parks, Matt Merritt,  Jodie Hollander, Maria Taylor and Kim Moore. The new series will begin with Martin Malone, editor of The Interpreter’s House. Martin’s second collection will soon be published by the excellent Shoestring Press.

You may have noticed that Leicester is in the news. Robin Houghton recently featured the city in the first of a series of articles about regional poetry scenes, continuing with Cumbria. Robin’s articles are well researched and definitely worth a look.

Finally, one of my own poems was recently published by The Morning Star. If you go to their webpage you can also read work by Leicester poet and reviewer, Emma Lee.         

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A short (interim) interview

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The series of interviews published on this blog last month proved to be very popular. I really enjoyed thinking of questions and was rewarded with some brilliant and enlightening responses from Matt Merritt, Ian Parks, Rebecca Bird, Maria Taylor and Jodie Hollander. If you haven’t read these yet then do have a look. There are more interviews with contemporary poets and publishers coming up , but while the next batch is cooking I thought I’d post my own brief responses to two questions I was asked yesterday by my publisher’s publicity officer, Michelle Rose.  I’ve lengthened my responses slightly for this post.
Michelle’s  questions were

 Could you tell me about your collection? What inspired it? What are your influences?
This is my first full collection so it contains a selection from all the poems that I’d written up to the date I had to submit the manuscript to the printer. I started seriously focusing on poetry about eight years ago. When I say focusing, I mean reading and writing and re-drafting to the point of obsession. Prior to that I had always written the odd poem, but I hadn’t read a great deal and I was completely unaware of the contemporary poetry scene or the world of small magazines. Then in 2009 I sent my first poems out. One of the first I sent was published by the magazine The Rialto, another was chosen for publication in an online Guardian work shop.  Another came third in the Ledbury Poetry prize.

I started going to readings and meeting people, some of whom later became my friends.  I kept on submitting poems and having a number published. In 2011 I felt I had enough for a pamphlet. This seemed the next logical step so I entered and was fortunate to win the Crystal Clear Pamphlet competition. Part of the prize was getting editorial advice from the poet Wayne Burrows.
Wayne helped me weed out the weaker poems and tighten up the stronger ones.

The pamphlet got good reviews, and John Lucas of Shoestring Press wrote to tell me he had enjoyed the collection and to ask if I had any more work as he would like to publish a full collection. I was delighted, and began the process of looking at my work again and selecting possible poems.

I rewrote several and received astute advice from John and from a couple of poetry friends. I was writing a lot of new poems at the time I was assembling the manuscript, so quite a few of those got in, including the title poem, The Sun Bathers.  It was written on a train ride back from Sheffield. I’d wondered into the Graves Gallery and found an exhibition of the work of the artist Leonard Beaumont.  I bought a post card of one of his images it’s a 1932 lino cut in the Vortic style. It’s of two girls on a beach and it’s called ‘Sun Bathers.’  The poem was inspired by that image: it speculates on who these girls might be, how their parent’s lives might have been disrupted or destroyed by war and the way in which their own lives will soon be disrupted by another war. One theme of my writing has always been concerned with the impact on individuals of war.

Other poems are inspired by an interest in nature and trying to capture some of its transience and beauty. Also, with some time distance between my time as a Coronary Care nurse and the present,  I was able to write one or two poems about my experiences there. Other poems are about my family and others about historical figures. Some are vivid childhood recollections of emotion. There is a short sequence of poems about Leonardo Da Vinci which comes from a much longer sequence. These are the poems I decided to keep.
I had another ten or twenty new poems I liked, but was advised to keep these for a second book, which was good advice. It’s great to have some new poems in the bag so to speak, and not to feel I’m starting from scratch.

As for influences on my poetry, I think I’ve assimilated ideas from everywhere including film, music, art, novels. I admire lots of poets but it is very hard to say how directly my own work has been influenced.  Other people may find it easier to identify similarities between my work and that of other poets. I’ve had some very flattering comparisons made; I’ve been delighted that one or two people have mentioned Edward Thomas. But I’ve only read a few poems by Thomas so I don’t know if he has influenced me directly.  The poets I enjoy tend to display mastery of control and balance and a lack of excess or extraneous words.  A list would have to include Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Paul Farley, Robin Robertson, Jean Sprackland, Dannie Abse. I’m also a fan of Clare Pollard, Kim Moore and Maria Taylor, all for different reasons.

The Sun Bathers will be published in November 2013.