Thursday, January 31, 2008


What a busy month January has been and – it might be something to do with the low, grey sky – I am feeling tired. It’s been busy at work and in addition I had reviews of two large poetry collections to write during the first week, and then reviews of three chapbook collections to do over the following fortnight.

My own writing creaked to a halt - almost. I had ideas, but they weren’t keen to become poems, or at least not the kind of poems I wanted to write. I had decided at the beginning of the month that I was going to enter two competitions – the Wigtown and the Strokestown – and for a while it looked as though I had nothing worth entering. My best poems had all been sent to three magazine editors, with whom, indeed, they still reside. However, I managed to revise a poem I had drafted at the beginning of December into an entry for the Wigtown and, by some miracle, poetry started happening in my head again and I managed to write one for the Strokestown too. It was hard work, but I made it. I feel I deserve to win that competition, as I walked against the wind through a horrible blizzard to post my entry!

Actually, I also entered another competition – one with a free entry and a “free tickets for a year” type prize – although I wrote that poem inside a few hours before the deadline and emailed it off, so it was very, very rough.

So a strange start to the year. That’s probably about half the competitions I’ll enter all year. The others will be the National Poetry Competition and the new Edwin Morgan Competition. Maybe one or two more – the Bridport perhaps, or the Arvon. This all depends on having poems worth entering of course.

Anyway, tonight I plan to continue reading Andy Philip’s manuscript, which I’ve only got to sporadically over the last few weeks, for reasons that will be clear. Certainly, the first twenty-odd pages look very solid to me. I can’t see much Andy could do to improve them.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Pretending Poems Don't Exist

I decided that I no longer care much for some of the poems I've published - some in print mags, some in webzines - that have ended up on the web and were linked to from the right-hand column on this blog.

So I've just deleted those particular links. The poems are still out there, of course, but I can now at least pretend to myself that they're not.


I was leafing through Norman MacCaig’s Selected Poems, one of my favourite volumes. The section from his 1966 collection, titled Surroundings (yes, I ripped it off), contains some amazing poems. The drama of his writing, the creation of movement you can see and almost feel is uncanny. It astonishes again and again. Here are a few lines from Go-between:

Out of a night
that felt like a grape’s skin
an owl’s voice shuddered.
Out of the running
blackness of a river pool
a white salmon unplugged
itself and fell back
in a smash of light.

I was going to write something about why this is good, but the why surely must be obvious.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Sloans Bar: WN Herbert and Ciaran Carson

I caught the bus from Edinburgh’s west end, which diverted at a crawl through the east end of Glasgow and arrived about 30 minutes later than it should have. I found the venue after getting lost for a while and met up with Andy Jackson, Gerry Cambridge, Sandy Hutchison and Cheryl Follon. Because of all the delays and getting lost, I didn’t have time for a pre-reading drink – just as well, as it turned out.

WN Herbert read first. One immediate impression (also relevant to Ciaran Carson’s reading later) was that anyone who has ever asked what the difference is between poetry and prose could have heard the answer last night. Verbal dexterity, rhythm, wit, depth, mystery, and sonic explosion can also belong to prose but, from his opening lines, there could have been no doubt that WN Herbert was reading poetry. It was an ebullient performance and there can be few UK poets around with a more deranged imagination.

Ciaran Carson’s reading was also quite mesmerising. He managed to perform the poems as if he was inhabiting every syllable, but without theatrics. His sense was humour was dry, his manner extraordinary. That “piece of glass in the brain” that Andy J (in a previous comments box here) reckoned good poets need to have – well Ciaran Carson definitely has it.

Afterwards, Andy, Gerry, Sandy, Cheryl and myself spent a few hours drinking. I got the midnight bus back to Edinburgh and woke up this morning feeling rather the worse for wear! And I had plenty of work to get through as well. Also, I entered the Wigtown Competition with an hour to spare before the deadline. And my daughter (5) decided she was going to write a poem, unprompted by me, I hasten to add. It goes:

Snakes and ladders as a stool.
Up the ladders, down the snakes.

I don’t know what that’s all about, but it’s perfect trochaic tetrameter. Most of us think in iambs, but she thinks in trochees. Doesn’t surprise me.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Carson and Herbert

Here’s where I’ll be tonight - in Glasgow to hear readings by Ciaran Carson and WN Herbert. Should be good…

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


I’ve been really busy over the last few days, mainly with work, but also with one or two poetry-related things. Oddly, despite me not posting anything, the number of visitors to this site has reached an all-time high. I’ve no idea why. Maybe I should stop posting more often!

Anyway, I was thinking about the so-called “gatekeepers” of poetry, those who decide who gets published and who doesn’t. Thanks to James, Andrew, Roddy, Steven and Jane for getting me thinking on the issue by commenting on a previous post. Some people feel that the most prestigious poetry publishers (by which they mean Faber & Faber, Cape, Picador etc) have a very limited view on what constitutes good poetry and make it impossible for anyone who writes anything ‘different’ to be published.

For example, Todd Swift, in an article in the Oxford Forum refers to:

“…the new generation that emerged in the 90s and was a hugely successful promotional campaign claiming ‘poetry was the new rock and roll’. This attempt to brand poets created a new landscape for poetry and poetry marketing in the UK…

House styles emerged, as the poets became ever more branded. Where once there had been “the movement” or “the group”, there were now “publishers’ poets”. Investing in these few, carefully-groomed authors, the poets who were selected to be promoted and published, needed to be seen to be not simply exemplary of the best of their generation, but rare.”

However, in a comments box on this blog, Roddy L. said that the reasons publishers give for rejecting manuscripts are

“that they are not good enough, that the poets have failed or negated to establish themselves in any way, that the work is adequate but unoriginal.”

So on the one hand is a vision of a marketing ploy, a few poets flying the flag for a publisher’s style. On the other hand is a vision of publishers opening their doors wide to original and brilliant work.

It seems to me though that if someone wants to be published ,and if their work is good enough (“if” being the key word), he/she will find a way. Personally, I like several of the poets on Cape and Picador and don’t find them all part of a uniform brand – John Burnside, James Sheard and Robert Crawford are all on Cape, for instance, but they are all completely different. And if you add in Anvil, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Salt, and plenty of other publishers (bluechrome, Shearsman, Arrowhead, Enitharmon, Seren and others), there are certainly opportunities in the UK for good writers of many different styles to be published.

It’s not easy. There are many more good writers than publishing slots and some excellent writers are bound to be passed over. Mistakes are made. Great poets are ignored in their lifetime. Trends come and go. But that’s the case in every country and in every generation. Don Paterson says that there are too many poetry books being publsihed in the UK, inferring that there simply can't be as many poets of sufficient quality out there. In fifty years time, I'm sure we'll see the truth of that. The only problem is that in the here and now, it's hard to identify the unworthy publications with any great certainty, and although we might think we know how future readers and critics are going to view things, none of us will be right all the time. So I support the excess even if it does turn out to be an excess.

It’s possible I will feel differently about this if I send my MS out and it gets rejected by every editor in the UK. Maybe I’ll take up crochet or stamp-collecting. There are worse ways of spending one’s time.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Second-Hand Poetry

A few days ago, I met my friend Martin over lunch to plan a conference (work related, nothing to do with poetry), and on the way back I passed a second-hand bookshop. I went in to find shelves of poetry collections, and I bought (the whole lot for under £10, all in good condition):

Selected Poems – Robert Lowell
Complete Poems – Marianne Moore
Selected Poems – Paul Celan (translated by Michael Hamburger)

And there were other bargains – I am now kicking myself for not buying a hardback first edition (it looked as if it had never been opened) of Orpheus, Don Paterson’s versions of Rilke, for two-thirds of the price of a new paperback.

The guy behind the counter glanced at what I’d handed him and said, “Aye, it doesn’t take long for the good poetry to get snapped up…”


On an unrelated subject, some interesting thoughts in the comments box of my TS Eliot Prize entry – the last few posts – on how wide-open the gatekeepers of the poetry world leave their doors. On Monday, I plan to pick up on one item from that discussion and make a new post. Today, off work, I need to press on with a poem, which could net me £5,000 if the judges are favourable. Or could lose me £5 or so if they aren’t.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Leona v. PJ

OK, here are two women who have been nominated for Best Female Artist at the Brit Awards – PJ Harvey and Leona Lewis.

There couldn’t be more of a contrast. PJ is pop queen of creative experimentation, every album sculpted with a particular sound in mind, from bone-crunching fuzz to the disconcerting lullabies of her latest recordings. She is one of the few rock artists (perhaps the only one) to have received plaudits from Captain Beefheart in recent years. Leona Lewis is winner of the X-Factor 2006, a terrific voice without a doubt, and very much in the Mariah Carey / Whitney Houston mould. Her single, Bleeding Love, went to number one, and her debut album was the fastest-selling UK album in history. There's a song by each of them in the two posts below this one.

I thought I’d conduct my own popular vote. Vote in the comments box for either Leona or PJ Harvey. Do so anonymously if you wish. After a week, I’ll add them up and I’ll delete the video of the second-placed artist.


OK, not exactly great enthusiasm over this contest, but PJH got the most votes. So Leona is gone. I suspect this result may not repeat itself at the Brit Awards, but I am a PJ Harvey fan and live in hope.

PJ Harvey

If you want to keep PJ Harvey on Surroundings, vote for her in the post above.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Great Manuscript Exchange

After Rachel complimenting me on rarely talking about myself on this blog, I’m now going to… talk about myself. What else! Yesterday I bussed myself to the Canongate for a quick lunch with Andy Philip.

We talked quite a bit about poetry – the live scene, the current state of the publishing landscape – and we swapped the latest incarnation of our poetry collection manuscripts. Well, at least, I gave Andy my MS, but Andy had run out of reams of paper and emailed me his MS later. I’ve printed it out this morning (my office is a mess, but the paper is sticking out from beneath a mound of something).

My MS is radically different from what it was six months ago. Over two-thirds of it is new and rewritten material. Even I can’t believe this, but when I compared them a few days ago, that’s what I found. I think the changes have been much to the good, but I’m sure I’ll be told in no uncertain terms if I’ve messed it up.

In any case, Andy’s MS, now lying on my floor in funky yellow paper, is printed off and ready to read. It is fun playing at making manuscripts. Sooner or later, we will really have to send them out to publishers, although ‘later’ is the more frustrating but, no doubt, saner option. If a manuscript keeps getting significantly better, that’s a sign that it isn’t ready. If it can’t get any better, that’s a sign either that it is ready or its author is delusional, but readers like Andy Philip will be of help in assessing which applies in my case.

Monday, January 14, 2008

TS Eliot Prize: and the winner is...

The winner of theTS Eliot Prize 2007 is Sean O’Brien, with The Drowned Book. O’Brien is the first person to win both the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the TS Eliot Prize in the same year. Not a bad double!

So well done to him. As far as I am concerned, the result could have been a lot worse. I don't think The Drowned Book was the best collection of the year but it had good moments, some of them very good.

TS Eliot Prize: Last-Minute Speculation

One of the very few disadvantages of being far away the centre of things (i.e. London) is that I can’t get to the TS Eliot Prize readings, an annual event that everyone seems to enjoy – not just for the readings but for the social life afterwards.

The final decision will be made this afternoon at an intimate awards ceremony. The contenders are:

Ian Duhig - The Speed of Dark (Picador)
Alan Gillis - Hawks and Doves (Gallery)
Sophie Hannah - Pessimism for Beginners (Carcanet)
Mimi Khalvati - The Meanest Flower (Carcanet)
Frances Leviston - Public Dream (Picador)
Sarah Maguire - The Pomegranates of Kandahar (Chatto)
Edwin Morgan - A Book of Lives (Carcanet)
Sean O'Brien - The Drowned Book (Picador)
Fiona Sampson - Common Prayer (Carcanet)
Matthew Sweeney - Black Moon (Jonathan Cape)

I hope Edwin Morgan wins. He is certainly the greatest living poet never to have won the award and none of the other names on that shortlist can match his life’s output. I realise that the prize isn’t supposed to be a ‘lifetime’s service’ award, but that’s surely what it sometimes is. In any case, A Book of Lives contains many brilliant poems and wouldn’t be an unworthy winner in itself.

I’m not wildly enthusiastic about the shortlist. Four books have to be included – the Poetry Book Society ‘Choices’. Most of the others seem to be Poetry Book Society ‘Recommendations’. Many people are questioning the absence of Daljit Nagra and Luke Kennard, and I’d agree that their collections should be in there. I’d also like to know why Claire Crowther and John Ash weren’t included. Their collections are much stronger and more exciting than most of those books on the list. I also enjoyed new collections by Michael Schmidt, Jane Holland and Steven Waling and can’t see why they are considered inferior either.

Here’s a confession. Two of the books on the list had me yawning, falling asleep (literally), or drifting off to think about other things, including other poems. I couldn’t get anywhere with them. They are among the most boring poetry collections I have ever tried to read. Perhaps I never got as far as the best bits? And yet they could win this year’s TS Eliot Prize. Oh well…

There are some good books on the list too. I’ve read part of Alan Gillis’s collection and it looks excellent. I enjoyed Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon. What I read of Mimi Khalvati’s collection (in a bookshop) was interesting stuff. So Edwin Morgan does have a little competition…

Saturday, January 12, 2008

New Links

Probably the last thing anyone needs is more material to read on the Internet, but in recent weeks I have added yet more links to the lists down the column on the right – some good stuff too – each with an attention-grabbing NEW! alongside their name. A quick summary:

Scottish Links: Books from Scotland

Blogs: Bill Herbert, David Caddy, Emma Lee, Rachel Fox

Literary Zines: Fuselit, London Magazine, Mimesis, Roundtable Review, Seam, Succour, Tears in the Fence

Poet/Writer Websites: David Kinloch, Polly Clark

All good sites and worth reading.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Christie Williamson Poem

Christie Williamson will be reading at the Great Grog Bar on February 10th (I’ve just added his bio to the post below). I’m very pleased to feature one of his poems, written in Shetland dialect, which was commended in the Wigtown Poetry Competition 2007. It’s a very good poem and I hope you enjoy it.

Some readers might feel immediately daunted by the dialect, but once you get going, it’s not too difficult, and well worth engaging with. Du = you, de/da = the, aa = all, laek = like, hit = it. Just to start you off.

I'd be interested in comments on how anyone unfamiliar with Shetlandic dialect (I guess that means most of us) found reading this poem.


Whit does du tink hit means
wi de faunsy wirds
an de slack smile,
been wi aabuidy
gyaan naewhaar
laek da mapmakker
draain da hert o Shanghai
gittin lost
atween Dim Sum
an fresh lychees;
laek da accoontant
blaain aa his credit
an losin his cheenge
atween livin free
an deein aald;
laek da merchant
grown fat
on shakkin his heid
wirkin aathin oot
keepin aathin in;
laek da kind voice
hearin ay hoo it’s wrang
seein ay hoo it’s richt
keepin ay oot a sicht;
laek da queek tongue
firin verbal bullets
at conceptual targets
troo a funnellin telescopic gless;
laek da ivy
feelin hit’s wye
ee step faurder itae da wid
ivvery day
no keenin whit threatens hit
ony whit keeps hit alive.

.......... - Christie Williamson, 2007

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Forthcoming Poetry at the Great Grog

After the first reading last November starring Roddy Lumsden, AB Jackson, Andrew Philip, and myself, here’s a little advance notice the second poetry gig at the Great Grog Bar below.

A fantastic line-up of poets will entertain, provoke and conjure up all kinds of verbal magic in the Back Lounge of the Great Grog Bar in Rose Street, Edinburgh (walk up Hanover Street, turn left at Rose Street for 30 metres).

The readers will be (click on the names for links):

Alexander Hutchison
Cheryl Follon
Hazel Frew
Christie Williamson

I will be doing my MC thing, but not reading any poems.

Sunday 10 February 2008, 8pm
Donation of £2.50 (or more) would be appreciated (all money goes to the poets).

Alexander Hutchison

Following Carbon Atom (Link-light: 2006) Sandy Hutchison has just published Scales Dog - a new and selected - with Salt. He has done an interview with Andrew Duncan in Don't Start Me Talking: Interviews with Contempoorary Poets (also from Salt, 2007) and one reviewer comments: "Hutchison brings to the book a distinctive Scottishness which for me (with no Scottishness at all) has an especial richness of voice, reference, mischief".
The interview (and other work) can be read on the nifty website A B Jackson has designed at

Cheryl Follon

Cheryl's first book-length poetry collection All Your Talk was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004. Previous to that she published the pamphlet Tales from a Small Island with Duncan Glens' Akros Publications. She has won two Scottish Arts Council Writer's Bursaries and she spent the best part of 2004/2005 in New Orleans looking at southern folk songs and ballads.

Hazel Frew

Hazel’s pamphlet collection Clockwork Scorpion was published by Rack Press in 2006. Her debut full collection is due later this year from Shearsman Press (full bio in due course).

Christie Williamson

Christie spent his childhood in Yell in Shetland and now lives in Glasgow. He was runner up in the William Soutar Open Writing Prize 2006 and the Wigtown Poetry Competition 2007, and has been published in the New Shetlander, Shetland Life and Lallans as well as Shetland anthologies “The Pull of the Moon/Bicycle Dreams” and “North”. In 2007 he translated some of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry into Shetlandic for “Lorca’s Shadow”, a play based on Lorca’s life and work.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Evaluating John Ashbery

In the course of reviewing a John Ashbery collection, I began asking myself what the difference might be between a good John Ashbery poem and a bad one? Many critics seem reluctant to evaluate individual poems. Some even appear to take the view that the poems should not be read in a critical way, but should simply be ‘experienced’.

I’ve finished writing my review. I’ll read it over one last time just to touch up any rough spots. But I’m still pondering the question of evaluation. The Ashbery poems I like best tend:

1. to make some kind of sense, even if that sense is clouded in fuzziness, ambiguity and numerous tangents (I expect those qualities in every Ashbery poem)
2. to have a number of great lines, a sense of humour, surprising images, and intriguing ideas – not necessarily all of those, but some need to be present.
3. to make me feel that there is a reason for them being written other than simply to confuse or provoke.

Here are three Ashbery poems.

The New Higher

Meaningful Love

Local Legend

The first isn’t up to much, I’d say. I reckon it’s got to be a joke. Those ridiculous –are/er internal rhymes on innocuous words are surely parodying what he sees in much contemporary poetry. There’s an intriguing relationship hinted at, a few references to death. Having said that, there aren’t enough good lines in it to make me want take time with it.

The second poem is better. It has three fantastic phrases:

In the medium-size city of my awareness
voles are building colossi.


bought a ticket to the funhouse,
found myself back here at six o'clock,
pondering "possible side effects.”


Leaves around the door are penciled losses.

The poem moves around images of ennui, of fear, reticence, and mortality, some images stronger than others. The bit about loving servants or bosses in the final stanza doesn’t ring authentic to me. It seems more like an attempt to be clever and unusual than anything else, but without much point.

The third poem is lighter, funnier, with Ashbery’s trademark switches in register much in evidence. It all makes for good humour. The off-hand aside:

…Which reminds me, have you chosen your second?

made me laugh, the ridiculous conversation in the orchard with which the poem closes, and the quaint “See you again, old thing,” (who says that these days?) preserve the absurdity. There is, however, a sense of threats not taken seriously lurking in the poem – these elements: the lack of a past, the reassurances that don’t sound very reassuring, are mysterious and disconcerting. It’s OK, not among my favourite Ashbery poems, but not bad.

Or is an attempt to evaluate Ashbery’s individual poems doomed to failure?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Poet Assassinated

Astonishing story in the Guardian today about the murder of Sardinian poet, Peppino Marotto.

Described as “a man who helped many and did not have enemies,” we later learn of his “imprisonment in the 1950s for robbery and attempted murder, and his reported ties at the time with a notorious bandit, Pasquale Tandeddu.”

But he began writing in prison and seemed to change his life when he came out, acting as a local peacemaker and union official. He was a communist, believing passionately in equality and justice. Last Saturday, he was shot dead, almost certainly as a result of a vendetta held against him for his crime from over 50 years ago.

Of course, although he was shot in a busy street in broad daylight, no witness has yet come forward.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Persuasion versus Seduction

I just read through this Guardian review of Notes from the Air, selected recent poems by John Ashbery. Possibly, it wasn’t a good idea to read this, as I’m due to write a review of the same book in the next few days. Too late now, I couldn’t resist. It won’t affect my own review though and I’m highlighting different poems and ideas anyway. I thought this paragraph was interesting:

But you get the feeling Ashbery could be stirring it a bit here because he does just enough to make you think you might be following it without ever letting it get too coherent; the sense-making is never quite as satisfying as the sound of the lines and the images evoked. He doesn't want to be persuasive, he wants to be seductive. In an Ashbery poem, patterns appear and fade, dramas come and go and unaccountable feelings are stirred. The poems invite you to both make sense and stop making sense, but they never assume they know which is the better thing to do at any given moment. They make it sound entirely plausible to be incoherent, to give up on understanding, and yet 'there had to be understanding to it,' he writes.