Sunday, November 30, 2008

Shore Poets, November 2008

Tonight, I hope to be at the Shore Poets, from 7.45pm at the Canons Gait pub in the Canongate, Edinburgh. I know I’m going to be late due to a work commitment, although how late is still unclear. The line-up looks really good:

Frances Leviston
Ian McDonough
Susan Tichy (all the way from southern Colorado)

with music from ‘The Kitchen Stools’. I’ll be there, although never by 7.45pm.

X-Factor 2008: There Goes Ruth Lorenzo

I have little to say about the X-Factor last night, mainly because I missed the live show. I had an event I needed to be at. However, I was back in time for the results. My wife told me that Alexandra had been by far the best – yet again – and that JLS had performed better than usual. I guessed that Ruth Lorenzo was doomed and so it proved.

Ruth sang very well in her final song, Always, after being ejected, perhaps enough to make the judges wonder whether the public might have done them a favour and booted out the passengers, Eoghan or JLS, instead. She made the error of saying what they all say, “This is not the end for me. It’s just the beginning.” Hmmmm, I think it’s more probably the end, as it has been for so many.

Just to add, I saw the much-hyped Britney Spears appearance on the results show. She mimed her new single, which, incidentally, is crap. So how come Britney, the supposed 'expert', mimes, and the X-Factor wannabees have to sing her songs live?! Clearly, she is unable to pull it off, but isn't it disturbing that the crowd gave her a huge cheer anyway?

This year is surely a two-horse race between Alexandra and Diana. I hope for Alexandra because I find Diana positively annoying.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Christmas Poetry

I imagine that poets prefer to receive anything other than a poetry collection for Christmas, if only to assure themselves that life exists outside the small thin volumes on their shelves. Or perhaps just because people making such a gift invariably choose badly. Or because, in the case of some poets, they don't read or even like poetry (apart from their own of course, which they badly want other people to read and buy).

On the other hand, many people who enjoy poetry aren't quite sure of what to buy. They don't know many of the names and don't want to risk alienating friends by buying them poetry books they might hate.

However, it’s possible to think about this in another way. You could buy yourself or a friend a poetry collection for Christmas, partly as a gift to a small, hard-working publisher. That way, you (or a friend) receive an enjoyable book and also help to keep a poetry press in business through the credit crunch. Everyone wins.

If you’re not sure about what to buy, I would brazenly suggest a book from Salt. Salt is publishing my collection (and Andrew Philip’s) on 1st March next year. However, there are many sound choices at their website at the moment. Even better, if you join the Salt Fanclub Facebook page, you get a discount totalling 33% off every book from now until Christmas Day. There's a UK and USA store for buying online.

If you can’t decide, here’s a list of my top 5 Salt poetry collections, in alphabetical order. You can read about each of them and a sample poem at the links. Of course, there are hundreds of books at the site which you might prefer to these ones:

Me and the Dead – Katy Evans-Bush
Scales Dog – Alexander Hutchison
Cossacks and Bandits – Katia Kapovich
The Harbour Beyond the Movie – Luke Kennard
Travelator – Steven Waling

I’m going to pick up Chris McCabe’s Zeppelins and possibly Andrew Duncan’s Origins of the Underground. Is the latter book as good a read as it sounds? Anyone read it?

Monday, November 24, 2008

X Factor 2008 - Hallelujah

I’ve managed to avoid mentioning The X Factor this year so far but now that we’re getting near the final, I thought I’d say a few words. Alexandra is the best by far, although nowhere near Leona two years ago – that about sums up this year’s series.

It’s reported that the other contestants are unhappy because the song chosen for the winner’s single release will be Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. They’re not unhappy with this song but because one contestant, Diana Vickers (people keep saying she is original – to me she sounds like Dolores from the Cranberries), sang it at bootcamp to qualify for the show.

On the evidence of that performance, Alexandra and the rest have nothing to be worried about. Horrible!

Compare it to this rendering by Leonard himself - altogether more believable. Add in this one by K.D. Lang, a more understated Damien Rice, and several more versions from a blog post I made last year (not all the links there still work, but you can find the song by all those people at YouTube), and you can see how Diana suffers in comparison (at least, I hope you can).

The X-Factor, the very fact that Diana is taken seriously as a ‘great talent’, really makes a mockery of all that’s vital in music. The show still works as entertainment, of course.

Poetry and Good Looks

If you’re a poet, does it also help to be fantastically good-looking?

Clearly, it doesn’t count so much as in the rock, television or movie industry where so much depends on looks. The best poets vary greatly in their aesthetic appeal. People buy their books for their words and don’t care what the poets look like.

Or is that entirely true? In these days of live literature, YouTube, poetry on DVD, and increasing pressure to form an image around one’s work to provide a selling-point, would it help if you looked like the young Brad Pitt or Michelle Pfeiffer (photo)? Do people pick up books and pay more attention to them if the author photo appeals to them?

Saturday, November 22, 2008


It always seems strange to me when people talk of how poetry has (supposedly) alienated vast numbers of people and that poets really ought to create work that is more 'accessible'. Did the Talking Heads worry about accessibility? They still sound very strange to me - brilliantly strange - even 28 years later - and look at the applause they get from that big crowd!

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I have a couple of poems in the new issue, number 8, of print magazine, Succour. One of them is a sestina. I’ve heard so many people tell me that they have never read a good sestina, so I plug away at the form, no doubt out of sheer bloody-mindedness. I’ve enjoyed the poems I’ve read so far from the issue – highly eclectic. It includes another sestina, by Miriam Gamble, which seemed good on first read. The issue's theme is 'icons' and it's interesting to see how different writers have dealt with it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Would You Cross With This Man?

I was walking home yesterday afternoon and saw something strange – a lollipop man. Nothing strange about that in itself, but a) he was staffing a pedestrian crossing and allowed people to cross when there was a green man i.e. when people crossed in any case, and b) he was listening to music through earphones – surely that can’t be allowed!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thought for the Day

The third annual HappenStance Story pamphlet arrived today. It’s free to HappenStance subscribers (do consider subscribing or buying a HappenStance publication – mine has sold out, so I say this without any personal hope of gain) and, as ever, looks like highly engaging stuff. The final page contrasts the desire to write poetry and the desire to be a poet. The first of those is a laudable ambition, although it takes plenty of work and reading (and perhaps a degree of luck) for anything memorable to emerge. As Helena Nelson puts it, with just a touch of ironic humour:

“Sometimes, I want to ask the people who don’t write poetry, what’s wrong. Everyone’s doing it these days, it seems. Why aren’t they?”

But not everyone is reading poetry, developing knowledge of poetry, or buying poetry. Just like those who pin all their hopes on winning the X Factor or American Idol, there’s a sense that being a poet, being someone, is more important than poetry itself. The article finishes on a sobering question – whether it would be preferable to have your name and poetic achievement remembered by posterity, or to have lines you’ve written recalled with appreciation, without recollection of who wrote them.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


In my last post, I mentioned not writing a poem for around three months. In the last week, I’ve written seven poems, partly as a result of PFFA’s new Seven Seven forum. It was hard going to begin with, but I got into the swing of things as the week wore on.

Here’s the last of the seven.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

'Writer's Block'

I’ve heard several poets talk about having writer’s block after they had finished their first collection. Also, many novelists go through the same thing after completing their first novel. Where do they go after putting their heart and soul into a debut book?

I don’t believe in writer’s block exactly. It’s always possible to write something, to churn out a poem. But, after I finished the manuscript that was then accepted by Salt, I didn’t or, more accurately, couldn’t write a poem for about three months. I’ve been trying to work out why. It could be that:

a) the ideas I was having seemed like similar ideas to those I’d been working with on the manuscript – not much point in such repetition
b) lines that came into my head didn’t seem any good. In fact, they weren’t any good
c) I had nothing to say. This felt true. But how come?
d) I could have churned out poems. In fact I did churn out one, but I don’t count it as a poem as it didn’t amount to any more than an exercise

However, in the last week or so, I’ve been writing poems again, and have some interesting drafts (interesting to me, at any rate), poems I feel might be the starting-point for a second collection. They have similarities to some poems in the first collection (it’s still me writing them, of course, so that’s to be expected), but there’s progression too (I think).

Maybe time off between collections in a good thing. Three months isn’t so long, although it was beginning worry me and anxiety in itself can be a block to writing creatively.

However, I know of one writer who couldn’t write a poem for about nine years, but is now writing well and fluently again. Perhaps a break from writing, periodically, is a positive thing, even if it doesn’t always feel like it at the time?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reports on Two Live Literature Events

First of all, I had a very good evening at the Linlithgow Book Festival last Saturday (4th November). You can read a fuller account of the festival at Tonguefire.

I began by hearing crime fiction writer, Alex Gray. She read a little from her new book, but talked for most of the session about how she writes, her research, and so on, which was very interesting. I don’t often have the time to read crime fiction, but it’s a genre I enjoy. Then there was the open mic, which was, quite honestly, one of the best open mics I’ve ever attended – some very good poems and prose. Afterwards, a few of us ended up in a Linlithgow bar. We sat at the table next to the band who treated us to Wild Mountain Thyme, The Jeely Piece Song etc at a volume just sufficient to guarantee that none of us could make out what anyone else was saying. Anyway, it was a very enjoyable evening from what appeared to be a highly successful festival.

Secondly, I can report that the readings (Patricia Ace, James W Wood, Colin Will, and AB Jackson) at the Great Grog yesterday evening were very good. I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone will ever forget being at this one! I was pleased that those attending their first ever live poetry event (and there were a few in that category) seemed really to like it. I didn’t get home until close on 2am, so stimulating was the post-gig discussion at The Standing Order, and I was up at 7am. Quite a way to end the 2008 Great Grog poetry season! A small break now until February when we’re back with a bang (Alan Gay, Jane McKie, Andrew Shields, and Tim Turnbull).

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Final November Great Grog Poetry Taster

Over the last few weeks, I’ve posted bios and poems from Colin Will, AB Jackson and Patricia Ace to the Poetry at the Great Grog site and, earlier today, I posted a bio from James W. Wood along with a small section of his long poem, Song of Scotland. If you want to read the whole poem (it’s five pages long), you’ll have to get hold of the new issue (vol 98:3) of Poetry Review – a disappointing issue generally, I thought, but James’s poem is worth reading.

I’m looking forward to Sunday evening (9th September from 8pm at the Great Grog Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh). Should be good.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

New Magma Website and Blog

The new Magma website has been launched. You may know that Magma is one of the best literary magazines in the UK, one of the few magazines that’s worth subscribing to. It publishes terrific poetry alongside stimulating prose pieces, and is (genuinely) always open to talented unknown writers as well as famous ones (In the interests of transparency, I am an associate editor with Magma, but I was a subscriber before that came about). Buy a copy to check it out if you haven’t read it before – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. You can also read a small selection of poems and articles from the latest issue at the website.

Part of the website includes a new blog. There will be three main writers – Mark McGuinness, who, in addition to being a Magma editor, also writes the Lateral Action blog for creative professionals (interesting even if you’re not a ‘professional’), Jacqueline Saphra, an excellent poet (winner of the Ledbury Poetry prize 2007 and author of new pamphlet, Rock’n’Roll Mamma, published by Flarestack), and… me.

The blog will bring news from the magazine but will also cover many other poetry-related issues and controversies. We’ll have guest writers on a variety of topics. It will be terrific, I promise you. In other words, I hope you’ll click those buttons at the Magma blog and subscribe either to the RSS feed or to the email update notification.

I’d be very grateful if those of you who have blogs and websites could consider adding it to your links. We’ve kicked off with some Magma news, to get things moving.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Blue Fone

Check out the latest initiative of bluechrome press - Blue Fone! This did make me laugh.

Great Grog Taster - November 2008

In anticipation on this Sunday’s reading at the Great Grog in Edinburgh, you can now read a bio and poem from Patricia Ace. The poem won 3rd prize in this year’s Mslexia Competition, judged by Carol Ann Duffy. Patricia will be reading along with AB Jackson, Colin Will and James W. Wood. See the sidebar at the link for further details.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Towards High School Musical 3

I haven’t yet seen High School Musical 3: Senior Year, but I’m not going to be able to put it off for much longer. My daughter (6) has the first two movies on DVD, knows all the songs, and now knows there’s a third movie at the cinema.

In some ways, it’s surprising that the movie appeals to tots. It’s set in a High School and the plot centres around the teen romance between Troy (Zac Ephron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) – not the kind of thing you’d expect a six-year-old to be interested in. But my daughter and all her friends are obsessed by it.

The plots in the first two movies are virtually identical, and both are full of holes. The dialogue is unreal and packed with cliché. But Disney’s publicity machine knew what they were doing. Gabriella is like the star princess little girls want to be – pretty, sensitive, straight-talking and a great singer and dancer – and Troy is the guy who manages to overcome even his friends’ disapproval for love of his woman – when faced with the choice of leading his team to basketball glory or singing with Gabriella in the school play, he chooses… both. Obvious, really, but not to his friends. Not to him for some time either – he has to overcome huge hurdles, believe me. The girls love him for doing the right thing.

But is Troy tall enough to be a basketball champion? Basketball players all appear to be about 7 ft. tall, but Troy seems about average height – I don’t know, 5 ft 10? And when Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) makes her move on him in her typically cheesy way, why doesn’t he just tell her to get lost. He seems clueless, but maybe that’s another reason why the girls love him – he’s entirely un-manipulative.

Ryan, Sharpay’s twin brother, was portrayed as an idiot in the first movie, but becomes cool and sharp in the second movie, despite his daft hats. This dramatic change in character is almost as hard to accept as the fact that Gabriella is supposed to be a mathematical genius. She is never, at any time, believable as a genius. Of course, she doesn’t want to be that “weird math girl”, but someone should have told her that no one could have mistaken her for “weird” by any stretch of the imagination. She tells Troy that he makes her feel “just like a girl”, a line every guy wants to hear at least one in his lifetime. Gabriella is full of winning smiles and cute moves. Her voice is practically liquid.

Troy and Gabriella also prove that you don’t have to work too hard at being a star. The first time they meet each other, pulled from obscurity to duet in an end-of-year karaoke, they manage to sing in perfect harmony. Hey, they never realised before that they could sing. Gabriella has sung in a church choir. Troy had sung only in his shower. And yet they wow the crowd in three minutes flat. It’s magical, not something you practice or work at, but a gift. This could be you too, six-year-old! You can see how folk at the X-Factor and American Idol who’ve never sung a note in their lives are prepared to brave the TV cameras and the barbs of the judges – they never know, an unexpectedly angelic voice might just pop out by magic and propel them to stardom, like Troy and Gabriella.

So Troy gets his girl, he wins the audition, he captains the basketball team to the championship and scores the winning point in the last second of the game. What a hero! You couldn't have written the script, could you? Well, actually, you could have guessed it all, but at least you're never going to be disappointed or surprised.

One further reason why the movies have been so successful: most music aimed at primary school children is awful – bleepy electronic crap powered by horrible drum machines which sound like hangovers from the eighties. While High School Musical isn’t the kind of stuff that any self-respecting post-punk adult would listen to out of choice, the music is actually good. Disney must have picked up some very skilled songwriters and arrangers to write the soundtrack. In the first movie, particularly, every melody is strong. It’s not horrible to listen to. At least, it’s not horrible to listen to compared to the alternatives. And if you’re a parent having to listen to it about 20 million times, that counts for a lot. Again, Disney knew what they were doing.

If you haven’t seen this (i.e. if you don’t have any kids of the requisite age), here’s a song from the first movie. Sharpay and Ryan have performed their audition for the school show – a cheesy (everything they do is over-the-top), self-obsessed, egotistical rant about how they want to make it to the top by any means necessary. On come Troy and Gabriella to show them how it’s done. The other kids are soon on their feet dancing and applauding, Troy’s disaffected dad and Gabriella’s mum enter and you can just see that look of astonished pride in their eyes. And, of course, the happy couple really mean it. When they look into each other’s eyes, we’re all there with them, recapturing our own youth, our own missed opportunities, thinking, “that could have been me, if only I’d pulled Vanessa Anne Hudgens out on stage and sang my heart out to her at the age of 17.” I’ve heard that kids in the cinemas are passing round the tissues through sections of the new movie, such is the overload of sentiment as Troy makes the hard choice for his future beyond school – singing or basketball? Gabriella or his friends? What will he choose? Have we heard something like this before? Perhaps he will think back to this audition and win over his six-year-old fans yet again…