Thursday, December 31, 2009

Morning Star: Best Poetry of 2009

I had a surprise today on seeing the Morning Star’s Poetry Books of the Year. Thanks to Kevin Cadwallender for nominating me, and good to see his own book being mentioned later on. Also great to see Ian McMillan nominating John Ashbery’s latest collection – McMillan is always a man of surprises and seems to have a very wide taste in poetry. The whole list is one of the more interesting ‘end-of-the-year Best Ofs’ – not the usual suspects, in the main.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Two Books and My 2009

I finished off two poetry collections in the last few days. First of all, The Burning of the Books and Other Poems, the latest collection by George Szirtes. I wish I had time to say more about it (but don’t). It’s a great read – complex, multi-layered, and unafraid to tackle big subjects. Many poets would come unstuck and produce turgid, earnest poems, but Szirtes is relentlessly inventive and shows (if this needs to be shown) how tight form can liberate poems from doing only the easy, expected thing. The book also has one of the great covers of 2009 - click on the image to see it better. Some people like to divide poets into oppositional categories such as ‘mainstream’ and ‘innovative’, ‘traditionalist’ and ‘modernist’, but Szirtes’s poetry resists such categorisation, which can only be a good thing.

I’d say the same about the second book I read, which was Equal to the Earth by Jee Leong Koh, born in Singapore and now living in New York City. The poems tackle immigrant experience, homosexuality, love, loss, and relationships. They often make use of traditional form but stand (I feel) at a distance from much American ‘formalist’ writing – I get the feeling many ’formalists’ spend most of their time counting syllables on their fingers to make sure they’ve got everything right! Koh’s formalism serves the poems rather than the other way round. They are extremely well written, moving, pointed, and refreshingly unfashionable (less surreal and elliptical, more complex reality and linguistic precision). His material is often deeply personal and clearly means a great deal to him but he avoids both melodrama and dry distance. At the Equal to the Earth link, you can read a terrific sample poem, ‘Brother’, a coming of age poem I suppose, the mythical brother-in-the-womb evocative of all ‘shimmering absences’ and unknowable desire. Anyway, I recommend this book highly.

People are blogging ‘what I did/achieved in 2009’ posts to end off the year. I didn’t really do enough to fill a blog article – I had a poetry collection published, a book I am still very proud to have written – I guess that’s an achievement in itself. I did plenty of readings and had poems and reviews published in various magazines. Other than that, there’s nothing of real note to say.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Have a Great Christmas...

...when it comes. Here's Mary Margaret O'Hara - a great gift, if there ever was one. Great words, great singer, great band, great song. This is the kind of thing that should have been number one this Christmas (if only a recording for download existed!) rather than all that 'Fuck you...' crap, or Joe singing Miley Cyrus:



Just in case MMO’H is a new name to some readers here, her only full album, Miss America (1988) is one of the best albums ever recorded.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Poetry And The Future

I was reading Don Share’s new blog article, The Future of American Poetry on how the relationship between poet and audience has changed and is still in the process of changing, mainly due to technological advance. Of course, it’s not only American poetry at stake. The “chapbook publisher with a Blogspot page and PayPal account can sell directly to readers worldwide,” as Ron Silliman mentions, from just about anywhere.

Any poet can develop an international readership, which would have been unthinkable only 15 years ago for all except for the most lauded writers with international reputations, who were very few. That’s the theory and, for some, it works. However, it’s more complicated than that.

A decade or two ago, most poets writing now would have had no audience at all other than friends and family (if that). Some others may have become known in a local scene, but not beyond. Only a handful would have entered the public consciousness (or, at least, the poetry-reading public consciousness). These days, millions of poets compete for readerships through the Internet and there is no quality-control. Poetry boards abound where people ‘share’ their poetry, and many of those people will never read poetry books. They read only their ‘sharing’ peers online, partly because they expect their community to reciprocate. I suspect they don't really constitute a significant potential base of readers (perhaps I'm wrong about that?). Some poets who would never have got a publishing contract from a traditional page publisher are getting read on the Net and are selling a decent amount of their pamphlets and books. These include poets who write 'traditional' verse and those who lean towards experimental work. Because there are so many, however, those with a gift for marketing themselves with an online presence are most likely to succeed in gaining an Internet audience. The rest will fail.

I’ve noticed that most of the bigger UK independent presses like Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Salt, Seren etc are all developing a significant Web presence and are embracing new media such as e-books, video, audio etc. The same isn’t true of the trade presses like Faber, Picador and Cape. They perhaps feel that their books will set the agenda for future anthologies, that posterity will belong to them, and that the deafening racket from today’s Internet won’t cement any reputations. They may be right. I know their books sell well (for poetry books), but they must be losing out on a vast potential audience by not engaging with Net readers. At the moment, they are fine and get plenty of publicity on the Web through newspapers (the traditional outlets online), prize shortlists, and the sense among UK readers (it still exists, I think) that a new Faber book is an important event. They are trading off their reputations, which is a fair enough strategy. But is it adequate to ensure a readership for poetry in the future? It’s hard to believe it is. As Ron Silliman says, “everything is up for grabs.”

Monday, December 21, 2009

TLS Review and New Scottish Fashion

Great to see Carrie Etter’s review of The Opposite of Cabbage in the Christmas double-issue of the Times Literary Supplement. It’s only on paper, not online (unless you’re a TLS subscriber), but it’s a very positive review and focuses both on the collection’s recurring themes and on the detail of individual poems. A few snippets:

Rob A Mackenzie’s first full collection inhabits present-day Scotland in all its liveliness, banality and bad weather… Mackenzie’s vigorous urban language, often employed in declarative sentences, vivifies it all.

One of Mackenzie’s stylistic hallmarks is paradox tinged with irony, as when a man ‘loses with a symbolic victory secured’… These apparently oxymoronic statements that pepper the volume suggest that people negotiate such contradictions as part of the difficulty of living, at the same time as they contribute to the book’s conception of the zeitgeist.

The Opposite of Cabbage impresses with its distinctive style and energetic exploration of ‘the way we live now’.

Anyway, a nice Christmas present for me.

Another Salt book, Mark Waldron’s The Brand New Dark is also reviewed, on the same page, by Ben Wilkinson. I haven’t read this book yet but it does sound like a collection I‘m liable to like. Ben says that:

The success of the book, however, stems from the way in which Waldron handles the sinister, noirish aspects of contemporary life… Waldron’s gift is to approach these subjects from oblique angles, often with a tone that is more implicating than accusatory.

I like the image Ben quotes straight afterwards, from a poem called ‘The Sausage Factory’, in which the meat is figured as “wee circus elephants, /gripping the tail of the one that goes before, /marching uncertainly away from death” (and for once, of course, I've been glad to set out poetry in sausage-quotes).

I’ve read three collections recently - Don Paterson’s Rain (Faber), Brian McCabe’s Zero (Polygon) and John Glenday’s Grain (Picador). Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Three recent Scottish poetry collections all with single-word titles. Is it a new fashion? I suppose you could add Richard Price’s Rays too. Probably just coincidence although, as George MacLeod (late leader of the Iona Community) said, “If you believe in coincidence, I wish you a very dull life.” They are all good books in very different ways.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Give Thanks and Go West

Henry Smith wrote ‘Give thanks with a Grateful Heart’ and published it in 1978, although it didn’t become a staple in Christian worship until after 1986 when it was recorded by Don Moen. Here it is, a fairly soporific version by the Maranatha singers (couldn't find a decent version of it on YouTube), but the similarity to another song is obvious:



In 1979, the Village People released ‘Go West’, more than a year after Smith’s worship song. I wonder if Smith was paid anything for it, as the similarities in the choruses are immediately striking:



The irony is that most people probably think the worship song was filched from the Village People. On some Internet sites, ‘Give Thanks’ is dated as 1986, but that was the Don Moen album release date. It was definitely first published and recorded in 1978 and I have the music in front of me to prove it. Not that I’d want a legal action against the Village People or whoever wrote ‘Go West’ because the VP appear to me to be having a great time in this video.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

American Poetry Recommendations

Looking over the poetry I’ve been reading this year, I’ve read quite a number of recent UK collections. This is highly unusual for me. Normally, I read poetry from Scotland, Europe (in translation) and the USA - not much else – and these can come from a variety of time-periods.

This year, I read only one U.S. collection published in 2009 - D.A. Powell’s ‘Chronic’ (unless I include Mark Halliday’s ‘No Panic Here’ chapbook, published by HappenStance in the UK). The American poetry world is so vast, it’s hard to know where to start, except with writers I already know about. I found this list by Brian Foley (thanks to Howard Miller for the tip), which contains some books I think I might like from the last decade of American poetry. I have wide taste, although I have a blind spot both for LANGUAGE poetry and for bland poems full of incidents concerning people’s relatives etc. I like the New York School, WS Graham, Wallace Stevens, Zbigniew Herbert, and I also like quite formal writers like George Szirtes and Don Paterson. I’m not so interested in writers like Sharon Olds and Mary Oliver (not slagging them off – they have a big audience who love them – it’s just not for me). I like poets who can write well and whose minds work in interesting ways

Anyway, what individual U.S. collections from the past decade would people recommend to me? And is there anything coming up in 2010 I should look out for?

Monday, December 14, 2009

My Favourite Poetry Collections of 2009

I’m going to make an attempt to pick out my favourites of 2009, although I’m bound to miss some. I really need to re-read a couple of books that might have made this list, but deciding on the basis on a single read-through isn’t my practice e.g. Carrie Etter’s The Tethers (Seren) and D.A. Powell’s Chronic (Graywolf). I also need to finish a few collections that seemed to demand a gradual approach – so gradual that I’ve still not made it to the end e.g. Brian Johnstone’s The Book of Belongings (Arc), Liz Gallagher’s The Wrong Miracle (Salt), and Merle Lyn Bachman’s Diorama with Fleeing Figures (Shearsman).

Of books I have finished this year and read thoroughly, here are my favourites. First of all, those published in 2009: I read Andrew Philip’s The Ambulance Box (Salt) as it emerged in manuscript form and the final book version is really excellent; Claire Crowther’s The Clockwork Gift (Shearsman) displays a refreshingly original approach to language, even stronger than her fine debut collection; Roddy Lumsden’s Third Wish Wasted (Bloodaxe) contains several outstanding poems and has strength in depth – I can’t even begin to fathom why it hasn’t appeared on this year’s prize shortlists; C.L. Dallat’s The Year of Not Dancing (Blackstaff) also has some great poems, written with real skill; Richard Price’s Rays (Carcanet) is just amazing in its range, formal dexterity and invention – his best collection yet; much the same could be said of Tony Williams’s debut, The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street (Salt).

I’ll also mention a couple of pamphlets/chapbooks published this year – James Robertson’s Hem and Heid (Kettillonia) was entertaining and very well written; Mark Halliday’s No Panic Here (HappenStance) breathes new life into irony as a poetic technique, and was a highly enjoyable read.

Now for a few books I read this year but weren’t published in 2009: I read through all four of Michael Hofmann’s collections (all Faber) – brilliant stuff, of course; Mark Ford’s Soft Sift (Faber, 2001) was really good, influenced by Ashbery but only good Ashbery; I was blown away by Robert Archambeau’s Home and Variations (Salt 2005) – a really terrific book and another which displays astonishing range; Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, was re-published by Bloodaxe this year (the poem was originally published in 1966, so it really belongs in this section) together with a CD of Bunting reading the poem and a DVD of a Channel 4 documentary about Bunting – everyone should read it and take plenty of time doing so. The book/CD/DVD package is great.

Finally, for anyone interested in publishing poems, I’d thoroughly recommend Helena Nelson’s How [Not] To Get Your Poetry Published (HappenStance 2009, £5), which contains all the advice you’ll ever need on the subject, besides being an entertaining, funny and painfully honest take on the subject.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Three Posts

Some great blogging going on in the last few days...

At Gists & Piths, there’s a really interesting and provocative essay on reviewing titled A Reviewer’s Manifesto.
Over at the Scottish Poetry Library blog, Kona Macphee has a great post in praise of writing habits.
And at Mairi Sharratt’s new blog, A Lump in the Throat, Sally Evans explains how she selects poems for Poetry Scotland.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: Mark Halliday - No Panic Here

Mark Halliday is an American poet who is also professor at Ohio University (there is a UK poet called Mark Halliday, so plenty of room for confusion). HappenStance recently published his chapbook, No Panic Here – interesting in itself that a small chapbook publisher based in Glenrothes, Scotland, has published a debut UK collection by someone who has published five full collections in the USA. Long overdue, I’d say.

If I mentioned that mortality and time were major themes in this chapbook, which they are, you might have certain expectations of the poetry inside, but you’d need to revise these quickly. Halliday himself cites the influence of Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, and also nods in the direction of Wallace Stevens, but none of those influences quite convey what he does. He uses plain language, layered with irony, and often turns that irony on himself with great comic timing.

Noon Freight is a good example of his style. The poem's ‘you’ is eating a turkey melt and watches a long freight train go by, an ‘unmistakable metaphor’, he thinks, for time rolling by, the past (loaded with ‘stuff’, of course!) giving way to the future. The satire is plain:

.....You’ve seen how many, probably four thousand freight trains
.....and at least fifty of them looked meaningful;

He is aping a certain kind of contemporary poem in which the poet observes an object and finds something that sounds deep and meaningful in it. The problem comes when very little of substance is actually conveyed. The satire continues:

.....it’s a long freight train, metaphor
.....so rhythmic you never quite grab the iron handles
.....and hoist yourself on board

There’s a disconnection between the metaphor and what the poet is really experiencing. The epiphany of the metaphor is an abstract construct that sounds ‘poetic’, a stock metaphor, the kind of image that lends itself to poems, but the poet isn’t really there, can’t quite get ‘on board’. Suddenly the freight train passes and the empty tracks become yet another metaphor, with silence in its wake. The 'you' is left with his turkey melt, which is at least real. In fact, you could say that there is no material difference between the freight train and the turkey melt, except that trains have traditionally lent themselves to poetic treatment.

Halliday’s style may appear casual. I read an interview with him from a few years ago (actually, I've just realised that it's not this interview and I can't remember where he said it, but I'll keep the link up, as it is a great conversation) in which he suggested his ‘ultra-talk’ poems might seem odd to a UK audience, whereas Americans were more used to conversational tangents in poetry. British readers tend to prefer a tighter structure. That’s probably true but, in this chapbook, the pace of each poem is spot on, and the progression and structure never seem accidental. The switch between different registers, especially prominent in the opening poem, Numerous Swans, which contains one of the best closing lines I’ve ever read, is another feature of Halliday’s work. In other words, the style may appear casual, but its simplicity is a crafted illusion.

Halliday turns his irony on himself and his own work as much as anyone else’s. At first, The Elegist might seem similar thematically to Noon Freight. It concerns a memory of June 1980 conveyed by an ‘elegist’ who ‘stood up before us though we didn’t recall asking him,/ and he began to evoke.’ The evocation of grilled-cheese sandwiches and the sun filtering through the green leaves wins over his sceptical audience:

.....…we were touched as if we had no choice
.....each time he said green leaves

That phrase, ‘as if we had no choice’, just drips with irony. But then comes a ‘dark crosscurrent’ to balance things out a bit, important (ironically) to convey more than mere sentimentality, as the elegist creates a metaphor about loss and separation and death:

.....the metaphor resonated with a grownup kind of truth
.....so then we gave him an award
.....and we gave him a fellowship
.....and we gave him a prestigious grant

So you now know how to be a ‘successful’ poet. Green leaves, however pleasing, are insufficient; you need the ...ahem... 'grownup kind of truth' in there as well! But the elegist secretly realises he hasn’t quite managed to convey what he wanted to convey. He is stuck with the limits of language, the stock metaphors and the vivid particulars that language can only approach from a distance. Halliday seems to be acknowledging both the laudable attempt of poetry to get to the core of experience and yet the extreme difficulty (or impossibility) of doing so. The elegist:

.....kept on trying to touch that thing
.....by saying the green leaves or
.....those grilled-cheese sandwiches

The universal and the particular, seriousness and comedy, combine to make poetry resonate, but it always leaves us (and the poet) still trying to touch the thing. Many poets use irony as a cloak, but Halliday uses it like a barb.

Not all the poems are about poetry. Like most people, I don’t find many poems about poetry have much to say, but I enjoyed the ones in this chapbook a great deal – Drafts to Impress the Angels is terrific, satirising with wicked humour the tension between a desire for posthumous critical reputation and an engagement with living readers. However, Halliday also writes about tomato ketchup and rain, and contributes a few elegies himself – loss and absence are recurring themes and wit is often fuelled by sadness. My favourite poem (I think) from the chapbook was The Leakage, a poem in five short sections that connect in various ways. We are all, I suppose, ‘spilling over into the dark’. The fifth section evokes, but it evokes something all at once mysterious, universal, particular, and real:

.....A week after I die there will be
.....a woman with black hair who should have met me a long time ago
.....sensing something of the greatest importance
.....as she listens to a string quartet by Boccherini.

No Panic Here is published by HappenStance and costs only £4.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

'The Flowering of Flint' and 'Prop'

The deadline for ordering Salt Christmas bundles (postage free within the UK) is 15th December. There are five bundles to choose from and each represents a great saving on the books’ cover prices. My book is in the bundles ‘for the deep thinker’ along with Alexander Hutchison’s brilliant ‘Scales Dog’, and also Peter Abbs’s ‘The Flowering of Flint: Selected Poems’, a book I reviewed for Orbis magazine all the way back in 2007, well before I had become a Salt author myself. I thought I may as well republish it below, and you also get a review (written for the same issue) of Peter Jaeger’s Prop thrown in for good measure.

The Flowering of Flint: Selected Poems by Peter Abbs, 172pp, £14.99 hardback, £11.99 paperback, Salt, 2007.
Prop by Peter Jaeger, 66pp, £12.99 hardback, Salt, 2007.

People may debate whether publishing hardback poetry collections is a good idea, but there’s no doubting the quality of these books as physical objects and both cover designs are beautiful.

The Flowering of Flint selects from twenty-eight years of Peter Abbs’s poetry, giving the reader ample opportunity to view its development. The poems find common identity in the author’s quest for shifting truth, for glimpses of sense in an often baffling world, for words to express them. Peter Abbs mines his personal memories, which rarely yield themselves without struggle, and aims to ‘spill a brief life writing/ to allay the ache of it’ (‘It’). His subjects range from childhood and memory to love, justice, transience, death and loss.

In his 1991 poem, ‘Loss of Faith’, Peter Abbs sets out preoccupations that resonate through his work: ‘On Sheringham sands I can connect nothing/ With nothing. The spray lashes into the dark,’ a poem which ends on the memorable couplet:

.....God created the world ex nihilo. And withdrew.
.....Then, one day, the nothingness seeped through.

Throughout the collection, that nothingness is much in evidence, together with rage that finds an apt metaphor in spray lashing into the dark. I don’t mean this in a negative sense. These poems are clearly the result of a refusal to accept conventional answers. From ‘Who I Am’:

.....Filament by filament, inch by inch, I make
.....This architecture: a bound and limited life.
.....What I have struggled with is who I am.

Death is part of the struggle, not only the need to make sense of transience, but also confrontation with the deaths of his father and mother, dramatised in two sonnet sequences. I didn’t find these among the more engaging poems in the book. This lyric from ‘A Girl in Sepia’, which looks back at his late mother’s life in photographs, isn’t untypical:

.....I still wince before your flawed, excessive love;
.....Yet now, far too late, beyond the grave,
.....Ache to thank you – for the life you gave

This idea is echoed in a later poem about his father, ‘Out of Touch’, which finishes on the phrase, ‘Father, forgive me for arriving late,’ a stronger poem, but one which illustrates how these parental death poems tended to cover similar ground. They felt real, the product of deep experience. However, they rarely surprised me at either an emotional or linguistic level.

Peter Abbs is best when most lyrical, rhythmic and musical, and he negotiates complexities with admirable lucidity. A sequence based on the last years of Nietzsche was one of the book’s strongest sections. ‘Under the Bell Tower in Genoa: Summer 1877’ begins with bell-music that conveys meaning:

.....So audacious there are no words. It pinpricks the skin,
.....Snuffs out the light of the intellect, up-ends the quotidian.
.....It was always waiting like this – bright as the glockenspiel

.....In a child’s garden.

That’s fine writing, de-familiarising experience and yet unveiling its unsettling intensity. These are words which “cast a further spell/ Until we enter an estrangement which feels like home” (‘A White Dark-Scented Rose’), and the best of Peter Abbs’s work does just that. His anger at the shallowness of modern life is obvious: ‘Platitudes jostle in the gaps. The healing word takes flight/ In the daily battle-ground of microphones and hype’ (‘At Cuckmere Estuary’). His response is an unflinching gaze and a falteringly human quest for words. The final poem, ‘Finding Words’, closes with:

.....Blaise Pascal walking with anguish

.....under the haphazard stars…
.....and sown in his crumpled coat his testament of fire.

Peter Jaeger’s Prop is a very different proposition. His untitled poems are composed of fragmented impressions gleaned from journeys through Japan, India, Canada, Italy and England, although the location of each poem is not always clear. Similar imagery recurs throughout the collection – landscape images of wetness, mud, thorns, clouds, doors and roofs, body images of bones, palms, and skin. There is no narrative and the syntax is twisted until it no longer resembles conventional structure. A casual glance may be enough to put many readers off exploring the collection further, but a closer look brings rewards.

Many poems exhibit great fluidity of movement. As an example:

.....warm head pointing
.....east, pointing at migrant

.....pearls – where eyes meet
.....river, river bends to

.....mist, where stones meet
.....pale, pale whitens

The shift from the head pointing east to the specificity of ‘pearls’, and the focusing in of the eyes to river, mist, stones, and whitening pale (which brings pearls to mind again) may not make conventional sense, but has an almost hallucinogenic quality, that of one landscape continually opening out onto another. Peter Jaeger’s language and rhythms operate hypnotically and can be beautiful:

.....fern a lonely thorn the thorn
.....leans firm against the wind

.....against that blowing, leaning
.....into song, a wren

It’s refreshing to read passages displaying such musicality and compared to the flatness of much poetry, I’d prefer to grapple with the difficulties of Prop, just to encounter lines like:

.....…sometimes juniper
.....droops, juniper droops & the bridge
.....washed out by monsoon rush, spanned
.....by the rain-slick sheen of a log
.....underfoot, then only monsoon log, only
.....log – bodhi hung with clouds

A number of poems began mid-sentence and several ended that way too, as if reluctant to embrace completeness. Such technique can become convention, a method of avoiding engagement with the claims of definitive meaning, but used judiciously, it can work well. One of my favourite poems was this:

.....skin a vine the steady plain
.....a night stretched to small
.....still tanks & smaller quartz
.....of healthy skin a vine

.....near a roof where the door
.....creaks low from a gust
.....removing every thought –

.....a vine removing, how it
.....loosens everyone the wind
.....& how through leaves

That shift from the wind’s effect on the door to its effect on thought and the final broken-off ambiguity of its action on leaves is astonishing (bringing to mind an earlier poem with ‘specific sunlight slanting/ through a thinner leaf’), and I’m always grateful when poetry astonishes me.

Some poems I found almost impenetrable. I got the impression of a wilful desire to disorientate, at times to muddle syntax even at the poem’s expense, and to distance words from their referents by making the context as hazy as possible. This poem, possibly a self-effacing joke at Peter Jaeger’s own expense, contains a barb of truth:

.....“your work makes no
.....sense” she laughed

.....stopping so bright so
.....poor but then they snap

.....so often every bit
.....by bit & every

I’m not going to rehash the arguments on the tensions in poetry between communication and disorientation, open-endedness and closure, and the responsibilities between writer and reader, but anyone reading this book will find themselves reflecting on them. It’s probably best to avoid this collection if the excerpts above have reaffirmed your belief that avant-garde poetry is hermetic self-indulgence, but for anyone interested in engaging with it, Prop contains very good, thoughtful writing.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Press Release: Cabbage Under Attack

Prichard Hakkins, well known author of The Cod Infusion, or Why Poetry Makes No Difference to the Likes of You and I, has attacked an article that appeared on the Internet yesterday titled Why The Opposite of Cabbage Makes an Excellent Therapeutic Christmas Gift. Mr Hakkins poured scorn on the redemptive qualities of the book. “It’s just a collection of bloody poems,” he said, speaking from his million-dollar mansion, which may soon be featured on The Grauniad’s weekly ‘writer's living-rooms-with-a-sea-view’ feature planned for 2010 (rumour has it). “There’s too much poetry slipping into our lives,” Hakkins continued. “I read one of the so-called poems in this book and NOTHING HAPPENED. It’s all just a con from some massive multinational conglomerate to steal your money, and what do you get in return? A discounted hardback book, postage-free throughout December, that’s what! With poems in it! And they’re not even that funny!”

The communications division of the aforementioned massive multinational conglomerate, known (somewhat sinisterly) as the S.A.L.T. Consumer Council, released this statement, “We believe in the redemptive powers of all our books, including the Cabbage-less one. The fact that poems are involved is nothing to do with us. However, we take no legal responsibility for the failure of readers to make progress with their neuroses after reading our publications. With some people, it takes more than Just One Book™ to have the desired effect. We recommend that Mr Hakkins takes our full Scottish Course and reads The Opposite of Cabbage along with The Ambulance Box by Andrew Philip (a combination officially recommended by amazon.co.uk), Scales Dog by Alexander Hutchison, Dear Alice by Tom Pow, Stations of the Heart by Raymond Friel, and The Searching Glance by Linda Cracknell, in quick succession."

The author, Rob A. Mackenzie, was unavailable for comment, but his spokesperson informed us that a new organisation, OPOC, had been set up for all readers who require counselling after Mr Hakkins’s comments.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Magma and The Herald on Poetry Books

At the Magma blog, we’ve been asking whether or not too many poetry books are being published. It’s not so much that I’ve decided either way on the issue myself – I’m more making public an argument being waged inside my own head.

Coincidentally, I was directed to Saturday’s issue of The Herald newspaper for Lesley McDowell’s article, ‘Dawn of a New Age’ (not online as far as I can tell). She writes on the current state of Scottish poetry, which she regards as very healthy, especially given the large number of prizes Scottish poets have won over the last few years (the question arises as to whether that's an accurate measurement of health). But the topic of whether there are too many poetry books surfaces there too, also whether there are too many bad ones, whether editors and publishers are 'gatekeeping' effectively, what the future might hold for Scottish poetry, and the effect of the Internet. I really need separate posts spaced out over the next week or two to do justice to the article, which is very stimulating – and good on Lesley McDowell for managing to get a two-page article on poetry in a national newspaper!

I did also find what I was originally looking for in the article:

“This is certainly a very fertile period for Scottish poetry,” Robert Alan Jamieson says. “And there is a new generation coming through – Jen Hadfield of course, but also Andrew Philip, Rob A. Mackenzie and Jane McKie (the latter won the Saltire* First Book award with her poetry) – serious writers, as opposed to hobbyists.”

*(actually, it wasn’t the Saltire Award that Jane won, but the Sundial/SAC Award for Best First Book)

HappenStance Press: Mark Halliday and Sphinx

Only yesterday, Mark Halliday’s HappenStance Press chapbook, No Panic Here, came through the letterbox. I began reading late last night and enjoyed it so much that I kept reading to the end in one sitting. There’s quite a lot to say about it and I haven’t quite coordinated my thoughts, but the thoughts will find a place on this blog soon.

On the HappenStance front, I’ve also been reading Sphinx, issue 11. I mentioned the Tony Frazer interview previously, but Peter Hughes on Oystercatcher Press is every bit as good. There are stacks of Sphinx online reviews up as well, including several of mine. There are three reviews of every pamphlet now. I think it’s a good idea to have multiple reviews like this. If there’s agreement, it no doubt says something clear about the pamphlet. If there’s disagreement, it means that a spectrum of views get aired and readers can detect the biases of each reviewer (we all have them).

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Top Poetry from 2009

Michelle McGrane asked people to name their three favourite poetry collections of 2009. Here’s part 1, here’s part 2, which includes my own choices, and here's part 3.

When You Order a Book from Salt...

...here's what happens. As you can see, it's very hi-tec.

Friday, November 27, 2009

More on Gary McKinnon

Great article by Katy over at Baroque in Hackney on the pathetic decision by Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, not to stop Gary McKinnon’s extradition. That’s despite the fact that earlier this month, the Commons' Home Affairs Committee said the move should be halted owing to McKinnon’s "precarious state of mental health."

I dealt with the extradition treaties here a few months ago. Basically, no matter how often Alan ‘poodle’ Johnson says he can’t halt the extradition on medical grounds, what he means isn’t “can’t” but “won’t”. Johnson clearly sees himself as a future Labour leader, perhaps even a future Prime Minister and doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of the U.S.A. He seems to me to be a typical New Labour politician – without principle, ready to act as far as possible purely to his own advantage, and governed by faith in fudge and soundbite. His predecessors of decades ago must be spinning in their graves.

Let’s hope the European Court of Human Rights makes the correct decision.

As an aside: some of the comments on Katy’s post, however well argued, seem to me to betray a cluelessness about Asperger’s Syndrome. Yes, Gary McK has had a job, girlfriend etc and wasn’t formally diagnosed with AS until adulthood, but he was born in days when people weren’t diagnosed until adulthood. He’s obviously a highly intelligent individual with lots going for him. The job, the girlfriend, home, and all the rest of it combined to give necessary routine and stability. But these things, and his coping mechanisms (he’s clever enough to have devised plenty), will simply conceal the extent of his difficulties, which will be very real. Take that all away and you’ll have a very different scenario, but that’s what the U.S. prosecutors want to do.

Also the point isn’t that Gary McK is incapable of making a plea at a trial. It’s that the stress and the removal of all his support networks will be catastrophic and could result even in suicide.

The people who should be prosecuted are the idiot U.S security team who didn’t bother to create login passwords and enabled hackers around the world to look in on top secret data. No one in the prosecution team has suggested prosecuting them. Odd, that!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Masters

I haven’t blogged for a few days, mainly because I’ve used blogging time to revise a few poems, one quite extensively. I may submit them to a magazine soon. There again, I may not. Poems take such a long period of time to write these days. Only a few years ago, I could rattle them off - several per week if I felt like it. While I know I still can write them on demand, it hardly seems worth inflicting such poems on the world anymore. Of the four I’ve been revising, three are as finished as they are going to be. I’m a word of two short with the fourth.

In any case, I thought I’d mention Masters, a chapbook published by Claire Askew’s Read This! Press, and featuring graduates from Edinburgh University’s MSc Creative Writing Poetry Class of 2009. Only twenty copies of this chapbook were made and they’ve almost certainly sold out months ago, but I’m always happy to break the connection between reviewing and commerce.

Eight poets are featured, each with two poems. None are wildly experimental. For that matter, none are written in traditional form either. They all fall within the broad free verse mainstream. There are hits and misses, often both from the same writer. Sometimes the words were good but the form seemed wrong, sometimes most of the words were good but a few words seemed out-of-place. However, generally, there’s evidence of skilled writing in this chapbook and I’m sure some of those poets will go on to publish strong collections.

Aiko Harman’s ‘Hart’ impressed me by the way she never quite resolved whether she was talking about a hart or a human:

Your mates rally behind you –
a red herd. You knock your heads
into one another on the way
back to Ladbrokes.

So, human really, but the well-observed hart qualities seem as literal and real as the human ones. The poem is split into three short sections, three windows into a life, and the form is integral in helping the poem transcend straight narrative. The final section, revealing a vulnerable love after the previous drinking exploits, is genuinely affecting and surprising.

Struan Robertson’s ‘Dissociation’ has a similar oddness about it. The theme is set by its opening line, “Now, nothing much reminds me of anything,” and the remainder of the poem illustrates the dissociation, in the narrator’s mind, of things we’d expect to connect, including the past to the present and the external world to the narrator – “Even my favourite mug seems stained/ with somebody else’s tea-rings.” The poem hints at a relationship (present or broken-up?), but doesn’t quite explain it. The tension between revelation and mystery is held to the end, and the reader is left to draw conclusions over the narrator’s state of mind, particularly the attractively warped final line:

And if I think of you today, it’s not
one of your long red hairs that reminds me,
nor is it your shampoo and conditioner,
although they must have got here somehow.

My favourite poem in the chapbook was the last poem, ‘The Ladder and the Fish (Lapdog. John Bellany)’ by Hayley Shields. The poem is a response to a painting but it works without sight of the painting. The first lines create an immediate impact:

rot rotting smell of flesh, of flesh
and hacked-off fish-head. blind-
folded by a sheep-head, caught and
wrapped and in fleece and matted wool and
nose-to-nose with the warm red slap
of wet flesh…

Terrific stuff, I think. The repetitions, the way ‘and’ comes at the end of a line twice, the piling on of phrases, the rhythms, the visceral description (I love the “red slap”) – the style here is crucial to the poem’s success. It’s chaotic, a little deranged, and when you look at the painting, you can see why the poem needs to be like this. However, the chaos is created by the well judged timing of the poet. The mask of formlessness is the result of form. It’s the most distinctive poem from this selection and I hope Hayley Shields explores this kind of path further.

I don’t have time to go through a poem from every poet, but I’d say that all eight had at least one decent poem in here. I know Claire’s work and had heard Dave Coates read at the GRV (so no surprise to see good stuff from them), but the work of those mentioned above and the others (Niki Andrikopolou, Aileen Ballantyne and Natalia Herrero) was new to me. I certainly look forward to seeing what they come up with in years to come.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dryden: Religio Laici

To conclude my brief series on Dryden, here’s Religio Laici. My Selected Poems only has an extract from this of the first 167 lines. The poem is essentially an argument for Religion over Reason. It was, I suspect, quite a counter-cultural poem. It was the Age of Reason and the Church of England was spending (wasting?) a great deal of its time in dialogue with a rapidly changing culture and felt the need to show how religious truths could be proved by human reason. Dryden wasn’t impressed by this:

Dim, as the borrow'd beams of moon and stars
To lonely, weary, wand'ring travellers,
Is reason to the soul; and as on high
Those rolling fires discover but the sky,
Not light us here; so reason's glimmering ray
Was lent not to assure our doubtful way,
But guide us upward to a better day.
And as those nightly tapers disappear
When day's bright lord ascends our hemisphere
So pale grows reason at religion's sight;
So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light

When I first read this, I assumed this was a conservative stance. He is, after all, defending religion against the claims of human knowledge, and there is, clearly, a conservative strain in his ideas. However, in doing so, he was arguing against the accepted mode of thinking in his day, even within the church. So Dryden is both conservative and radical and the poem may have been an attempt to find out what he really thought rather than a setting-down of prior certainties. Many people write poetry to find out what they think - it's as good a reason as any. These days, when I hear of an anti-Christianity book or poem being described as ‘radical’ or ‘daring’ or even (laughably) ‘blasphemous’, I wonder why a stance that accords perfectly with contemporary intellectual/media opinion is considered at all radical. Today, it is far more radical to offer intelligent reflections that stem from belief in God, however tenuous or questioning, than from disbelief.

In any case, those opening lines offer a superb extended metaphor and you don’t need to agree with Dryden’s conclusions to appreciate that. Dryden’s couplets often constitute complete phrases, so when he uses enjambment (i.e. when one line spills over into the next without a syntactical break), you really notice it. Here, he delays ‘Is reason to the soul’ until the third line after the slow second line, which gives the clincher maximum impact. There’s a lot for contemporary poets to learn from Dryden, and the clever manipulation of syntax would be one area worth taking a close look at.

Dryden had his own assumptions, probably held without much question. For example, on the subject of the Bible, he writes:

Whence, but from Heav'n, could men unskill'd in arts,
In several ages born, in several parts,
Weave such agreeing truths?

I know some people can still talk away more or less every set of contradictory verses in the Bible, but I prefer to live with the contradictions and find them fruitful to explore. That is, in itself, a way of thinking popular with my era, as I’m well aware. We all live with assumptions, consciously and unconsciously, and may be confronted with them in reading Dryden’s poem. That’s got to be a good thing.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dryden: 'Sylvia the fair...'

Dryden likes his rhyming couplets and nearly all (or perhaps just ‘all’) his major poems seem to be written in the form. I read a section (167 lines) from Religio Laici, an interesting poem in many ways and I’ll try to say something about it soon, but it was something of a relief – after all this Religion and Reason – to find a short poem about a young woman.

A New Song: ‘Sylvia the fair’ may (almost) be written in couplets, but the anapaestic rhythm fairly drives the verse along. Poor Sylvia:

…had heard of a pleasure, and something she guessed
By the towsing and tumbling and touching her breast:
She saw the men eager, but was at a loss
What they meant by their sighing and kissing so close

Despite the country being full of Christians, they can’t come to the young virgin’s aid. Not even the parson and priest seem able to instruct her and the politicians are helpless. Fun stuff!

Finally Cupid comes along and, well, he:

…showed her his arrow, and bid her not fear,
For the pain was no more than a maiden may bear

Of course, Dryden doesn’t go into the consequences of the discovery, whether she became pregnant and ended up being thrown out the village – nothing like that. He stops with the discovery. As a poem, it’s full of rhythmic and verbal energy, and highly memorable. He calls it a song and I’m sure it would work to music. I wonder if Dryden ever sang it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sphinx, Magma and Salt

A few quickies. First, the new issue of Sphinx is out. I always recommend this magazine and it looks particularly good this time round. It begins with a terrific interview with Tony Frazer, editor of Shearsman Press.

Secondly, check out this fun, free-to-enter competition at the Magma blog, in which you choose a poem to ban from the school syllabus and say why in less than 300 words. The winner gets a poetry anthology and an annual subscription to Magma – so well worth entering.

Thirdly, all UK orders of Salt books before Christmas will be sent with free postage. If you want to surprise your friends and relatives, I’d guess my book would be among the more unpredictable gifts of the year. Anything called The Opposite of Cabbage is the last thing most people would expect to receive – but none the worse for that. I’d also recommend recent Salt collections by Tony Williams (The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street) and Liz Gallagher (The Wrong Miracle), which I plan to say something about on this blog if I have the time. Of course, there’s also Emily Benet’s Shop Girl Diaries, even if we male types might pretend we don’t read the Christmas book we buy for the women in our lives.

Readers from other countries, don’t despair. The Book Depository will also send Salt books with free postage, although my book appears to be out of stock at the time of writing this…

Dryden: Macflecknoe

Dryden’s MacFlecknoe would have been the literary romp of his day, a satire that makes today’s poetry wars look somewhat well-mannered. Wikipedia offers a very useful, short commentary on the poem’s background. The poem is essentially a satiric attack on a certain Thomas Shadwell, a poet and playwright, and a contemporary of Dryden with whom Dryden had various disagreements – mainly about poetry, although politics was also an issue. Shadwell may have seen himself as an heir to Ben Jonson, but wasn't anywhere near the same standard, and Dryden makes fun of his pretension (Dryden didn't seem to think much of Jonson, in any case).

These days, poets tend to carry out their arguments in prose, which is a loss for all of us, I think. Those who just want everyone to get along and stop fighting, laudable a notion as that may be, are trying to overturn what history has shown as inevitable, but Dryden’s approach at least has the merits of literary quality and entertainment for generations to come.

A minor poet (and priest), Robert Flecknoe, is characterised as a King of Nonsense looking for a successor and, according to Dryden, Shadwell is the ideal heir:

…'tis resolv'd; for nature pleads that he
Should only rule, who most resembles me:
Sh——, alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Sh—— alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Sh—— never deviates into sense.
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval;
But Sh——'s genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day:
Besides his goodly fabric fills the eye,
And seems design'd for thoughtless majesty

Don’t hold back, JD! I guess this poem is all most people will ever know of poor old Flecknoe and Shadwell. Towards the end comes a passage of biting satire, this time mocking Shadwell's writing:

With whate'er gall thou sett'st thy self to write,
Thy inoffensive satires never bite.
In thy felonious heart, though venom lies,
It does but touch thy Irish pen, and dies.
Thy genius calls thee not to purchase fame
In keen iambics, but mild anagram:
Leave writing plays, and choose for thy command
Some peaceful province in acrostic land.
There thou may’st wings display and altars raise,
And torture one poor word ten thousand ways.
Or if thou wouldst thy diff'rent talents suit,
Set thy own songs, and sing them to thy lute.

Just as well Dryden isn’t around today...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dryden: Absalom and Achitophel

I started off my tour of Dryden by reading the 1031-line Absalom and Achitophel (Part 1), which I suppose might come under the category of ‘mock epic’. It tells how the nasty Achitophel influences Absalom to rebel against King David’s peaceful reign. Along the way are excursions into the nature of ambition and desire, the divine right (or otherwise) of kings, and the courage of the faithful remnant who stand by their king in times of trouble. The poem is written in rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter – impressive in itself, in a way. I guess few modern poets would fancy tackling something like this!

I enjoyed it to an extent, but I confess that I didn’t feel really gripped by it. There were a few tedious sections that were just too drawn out. On the other hand, the poem is sprinkled with pithy phrases:

Some truth there was, but dash’d and brew’d with lies,
To please the fools, and puzzle all the wise.
Succeeding times did equal folly call,
Believing nothing, or believing all.

and:

So easy still it proves in factious times
With public zeal to cancel private crimes.

I can why Pope drew aphoristic inspiration from Dryden and, although Pope probably hit the mark with greater consistency, Dryden’s efforts still impressed me. His characters, however, didn’t have the same impact as, say, Milton achieves in Paradise Lost. Dryden’s plotting Achitophel is no match for Milton’s Satan, and Absalom also seems pretty thin. On the other hand, the psychology of ambition and Absalom’s dilemma (his ambition versus his denial of it) is handled well and the philosophical tangents are quite interesting. Dryden also can’t match the complexity of Milton’s diction and syntax, but I guess Milton had the advantage of writing a supple blank verse which allowed for more expansive phrasing compared to Dryden’s tight rhymed couplets – two different aesthetics.

Dryden drips with irony and was clearly born to be a satirist. The poem clearly is as much about events surrounding his own king, Charles II, as the biblical King David. It’s a public poem, engaging with some of the key issues of his day. Dryden ironises to considerable effect and even more so in Macflecknoe, a lighter poem, which I probably enjoyed more and will come to next time.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kevin Blechdom and Jamie Lidell

I was listening to a seven-year-old CD I'd got free from Wire magazine and enjoyed a track by Kevin Blechdom, who (to my surprise) turned out to be a woman. On YouTube, I discovered this performance below, which was apparently rehearsed from scratch in under one hour. It's something else. Jamie Lidell has quite a voice - I also really like his song Another Day, even if it's far more conventional than this one:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dryden and the Contemporary Reader

In the mid-eighties, John Peel asked listeners to his alternative music radio show who they felt was the least trendy band in the world. Peel’s answer was Status Quo, and he played track after track by them for weeks to prove it. In poetic terms, who is the least trendy poet? I’d guess John Dryden (1631-1700) would come far up many lists. Even the name, Dry-den, is enough to confirm the prejudices of many.

I’ve been reading the introduction by Roger Sharrock to an old Selected Poems of John Dryden (Heinnemann, 1963, 1968), which I must have picked up secondhand some years ago. The former owner has written on the book only once, on the inside title page – “Is Gulliver’s Travels a Novel?” – so his/her mind may not quite have extended as far as the contents. This is a shame, as it’s a splendid introduction to the predominant ideas of the 17th century, how they influenced Dryden, what he himself questioned, and what made him stand out from the pack. Sharrock certainly demonstrates how easy it is to nod assent to contemporary fashions as if they possess innate truths rather than simply being products of an age, which ages to come will pull apart under their own microscope:

“The modern reader, whether consciously or not, is usually guided by notions of what a poem should be which derive from symbolism. It should be, not do; it should not state something, but offer a unified experience not definable in any other terms, so that its operation may be better compared to that of a flower or a musical phrase or to a dance movement than to the non-poetic use of words in discourse. Dryden’s poems emphatically do things; they point to purposes outside the poems, they make statements which can be paraphrased as political manifestos or logical arguments.” (p.15)

I can see some of my assumptions in there, and assumptions are always worth questioning – both at an intellectual level and in the practice of writing and evaluating poetry. Anyway, I’m going to read a little Dryden over the next week or so. He has a reputation for ordered reason and neo-classicism. The Romantics disliked his work, feeling that there was too much mind and not enough heart in it, but Eliot spoke out in his favour, as did (perhaps even more commendably) Hopkins before it had become trendy to do so. Sharrock says of Dryden’s work that “its predominant qualities are energy and exuberance,” and also that “absurdity is given a certain poetic grandeur and even beauty in his humorous passages.” I’ve read Dryden before, but never with a great deal of attention, and I’m looking forward to the experience.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

StAnza Virtual Poetry Festival

I’m very much looking forward to this Saturday’s Distant Voices: StAnza’s Virtual Poetry Festival (that’s Saturday 14th November). Live on your computer screen, you can hear poets reading throughout the day from Tblisi, St Andrews, Mumbai, Vicenza, Skye, New York, Amsterdam, Sacramento, and other places besides (the programme with times of broadcast is at the link). You can only watch this live as it unfolds on Saturday – it won’t be left online afterwards.

The event is also being screened in the Byre Theatre in St Andrews. It would be fun to go there, but I’m not going to make it. I will tune in on my computer though. A unique event, which you can watch wherever you are in the world.

New Magma Newsletter

I just got my Magma Poetry Newsletter by email today. I’d recommend signing up for this, wherever you are in the world. It’s free and means only one email every two months. It’s very good stuff: this one has an article on reading poetry to an audience by Roberta James, a summary of what’s on offer in Magma 45, short reviews (not in the print magazine) by Andrew Neilson on the Faber New Poets Pamphlets, and by Matt Merritt on George Szirtes’s The Burning of the Books and other poems, and a critique by Laurie Smith of the first poem to be chosen for the Subscribers’ Workshop – it shows how an editor might look at a poem you’ve submitted, why he might accept or reject it, what he’s looking for etc. All very interesting!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Latest Magma - Issue 45

The new edition of Magma, issue 45, edited by Clare Pollard, is just out. I’ve only had time to read some of the prose so far. Got to say, Jacob Polley’s piece on Poetry and Prose is excellent (in print only, not online) - a very thoughtful and intelligent angle on a subject that often yields little insight. I have three reviews in it – of recent collections by Roddy Lumsden, CL Dallat and Angela Kirby – and these are online and in print, as is Tim Turnbull’s fascinating article on the poetic legacy of the music hall.

Poetry at the... GRV and a Poetry LoveFest

Another good night at Poetry at the…GRV on Sunday evening. Each poet was distinctive – from Morgan Downie and his island poems (my favourites of his, although I thought his ‘work’ poems were also interesting) to Tessa Ransford, who read a miscellany of work from several decades, to Robert Alan Jamieson, whose commentary on ‘the language question’, illustrated starkly in the poems, made for a thought provoking and memorable set. There were also three ‘3-minute’ poets: Colin Donati (his Scots version of Jabberwocky was astonishing), Jon Zarecki (normally the barman in our room at the GRV) who was reading his poems in public for the first time, and Ross Wilson, who I’d first heard read at an open mic during StAnza – all three did well.

The February date at the GRV would be Valentines Day, 14 February. Rather than doing the usual line-up of three poets, I’m considering holding a kind of Poetry LoveFest. The nascent plan is to get 20-30 poets to write a poem (or a short prose piece) each inspired by a different verse from the Song of Songs, which I would provide for them. On the night, all the poems would be read, mostly by their authors, but some might be written by folk at too much of a distance and I could get skilled readers to read these ones. But would people go for that (and bring their loved ones), or are people going to prefer a quiet, romantic evening for two around the dinner table? Only one way to find out, I suppose…

Friday, November 06, 2009

Blondie

Just reminding myself that Blondie were really quite a good band back in 1978. This is live, raw, and fantastic. Also worth reflecting that Debbie Harry is already 33 here. Most new bands seem to have an average age of around 17.



And from about a year later, Picture This (live from Glasgow, I think). The song contains one of the great lines of the modern rock lyric:

"I will give you my finest hour,
the one I spend watching you shower."

Poetry at the...GRV Taster - Sunday 8 November

To say the least, I’ve been ‘blogging lite’ recently, for which I apologise. Most stuff I have posted in the last month or so has been no more than a pointer to some poem or event or book or reading, and it’s the same with this post. Normal service will return soon, maybe next week. I’ve been really busy and thought that going easy on blogging would enable me to get more done. Oddly enough, that hasn’t really happened. I get about the same amount of stuff done whether I blog or don’t blog. As my American friends would say – ‘Go figure!’

I’ve posted a poem and bio from Morgan Downie over at the ‘Poetry at the…’ site. Morgan will be reading this Sunday 8th November from 7.45-9.45pm, along with Robert Alan Jamieson and Tessa Ransford, at the GRV, 35 Guthrie Street, Edinburgh (£4, concessions £3).

I’m still trying to decide whether to continue the reading series in 2010. I’d like to, but it takes time and energy to organise. The audience size has been not bad and the level of finance is OK, but a few low audiences would make things very precarious. It’s been hard to find people who want to help with the organising. Maybe I’ll decide after this Sunday. If I decide not to have any more, I’ll organise one more poetry event in 2010 to use up any money that’s left in a constructive way. So this Sunday could be the last ever. But perhaps after Sunday, I’ll feel the need to come up with a 2010 programme.

Monday, November 02, 2009

November 2009's 'Poetry at the... GRV'

This Sunday coming, November 8th, will be the final ‘Poetry at the…’ meeting of the year. As usual, it’s from 7.45–9.45pm at the GRV, 35 Guthrie Street, Edinburgh – entry £4, concessions £3. On display will be the considerable poetic talents of Morgan Downie, Robert Alan Jamieson, and Tessa Ransford. You can read a bio and poem from Tessa at the link.

There will also be three or four 3-minute spots from assorted poets, which seem to have gone down very well in the last couple of events.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Report From Aberdeen's Dead Good Poets

I didn’t get to bed until after 1am last night after taking the last train to Edinburgh from Aberdeen where Andrew Philip and I had been reading at the Dead Good Poets. The venue, an independent bookshop/cafĂ© in Belmont Street called Books and Beans, was a great place to read and does a fine chai latte, which we both took advantage of. The evening started with an enjoyable open mic, which included everything from Rapunzel Wizard's (I’d first met him at one of the Utter! Edinburgh Fringe shows) very funny rant against Donald Trump to the calm precision of 2009 Foyle Young Poet of the Year, Bryony Harrower. There was a good audience, positive and friendly, and they bought our books too (very much appreciated, folks!). The only regret is that there isn’t much time to have proper conversations with people when you have to sit at a table to sell and sign books, but it was good to have a pint afterwards with Gerard Rochford, Eddie Gibbons and Osob Dahir.

Andy and I had been given 25 minutes each to read. Rather than doing two separate sets, we decided to integrate them. I think the approach worked well and the contrast in the alternating voices and styles might have kept people awake (clearly, only the audience could verify that – they seemed to be awake).

Here’s the set-list. Andy’s poems are in red and mine are in blue:

Summa
Pedestrian
The Preacher’s Ear
The White Dot
In the Last Few Seconds
The Loser
Via Negativa
In Question to the Answers
The Ambulance Box
Everyone Will Go Crazy
Berlin, Berlin, Berlin
Jacko Holed Up in Blackfriars Street B and B?
The Meisure o a Nation
Scottish Sonnet Ending in American
(Sevenling) Elizabeth had II
The Invention of Zero
Light Storms from a Dark Country
Lullaby
Dream Family Holiday
Aileen’s Cupboard
Notes to Self
In Praise of Dust
How New York You Are

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Salt In Aberdeen

I’m reading in Aberdeen tomorrow evening (Thursday 29th) from 6.30pm at the Dead Good Poets event in the ‘Books and Beans’ shop, along with Andy Philip. It’s the Aberdeen launch for our books.

I studied law at Aberdeen many years ago and remember well the cold blast that rakes down King Street to the beach and back again. I now know almost no one there, but I hope we get an audience in any case. I’m now rushing off to do some work-related stuff by bus and, on the way, I’ll try to choose a pool of poems to read from. Andy and I may try to mix up our sets rather than read separately if we can find a way of doing that which works.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Christopher Whyte Book Launch

News of the launch of Christopher Whyte's major new book: Bho Leabhar-Latha Maria Malibran. (Acair. Thursday at the Scottish Poetry Library from 7.30pm (there's also a Wednesday launch at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow). Chris is coming all the way from Budapest. I would be there if I could (but can't). It will be Gaelic and English translation.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bag A Salt Bundle

I was reading on the Salt Blog about the new themed Christmas bundles – selections of five books that are likely to have a common appeal – and was delighted (and somewhat amused) to see that The Opposite of Cabbage is included in the book bundle 'for the deep thinker'! The other books are a short story collection by John Saul, and three poetry collections by John Hartley Williams, Peter Abbs and Alexander Hutchison. Great to be in such august company!

In other news from Salt, Tony Williams’s debut collection, The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street, is just out. That should be terrific, I think – a ‘must read’ as far as I am concerned.

Last, but not least, Andy Philip’s The Ambulance Box has been shortlisted for the 2009 Jerwood Aldeburgh Prize. Two Salt authors are on the shortlist (Sian Hughes is the other) and three are Scottish (Andy, Dawn Wood and J.O. Morgan). Philip Rush, previously unknown to me, is the fifth name on the list. Intriguing that the judges have bypassed Faber, Cape, Picador, Seren, Bloodaxe and Carcanet. Perhaps they didn’t enter? Or maybe they did… Either way, it’s an interesting shortlist.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Horizon Review, Issue 3

I’ve been reading sporadically from the brand new issue 3 of Horizon Review. So far, it’s excellent, a genuinely stimulating experience: interviews, articles, podcasts, reviews, fiction and poetry are all thrown into the mix. The Craig Raine interview is liable to be the most obviously controversial (and what magazine doesn’t appreciate a bit of controversy?), but there’s plenty of other good stuff, both serious and funny. I have a poem there called One Way to Be a Catholic.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Syllabary At The Scottish Poetry Library

After Friday’s readings from Kinloch, Hutchison, Price and McCarey, I felt I couldn’t miss Saturday evening’s offering at the Scottish Poetry Library - the launch of two new versions of The Syllabary, the brainchild of Scottish poet, Peter McCarey. The first launch was of the upgraded site at the link. The second launch was of a collaborative project, which I’ll say something about in a minute.

At the link, the revolving dial at the bottom right corner contains every syllable in the language. Each syllable is split into cells containing all monosyllabic words corresponding to the syllable. McCarey’s project is to write a poem for every cell. He is currently (after 15 years) almost halfway through the mammoth task. You can both read and hear the poems. If McCarey hasn’t yet written a poem for a cell, the dial continues to spin until it reaches a completed poem. This review from 2006 gives a fairly good idea of the ambition, scope, vision and sheer obsession that drives the task. It’s an astonishing work.

The SPL event also launched a new collaborative version. The idea is that you can email Peter McCarey (mccarey*AT*perso.ch) and he will assign you a cell – a syllable and the words in that cell. You write a short poem, using all the words provided. There are no deadlines, no pressure. Aiko Harman explains the concept in more detail. By the time it’s finished, McCarey hopes that more than 2,200 poets will have taken part. I’m just about to request a syllable –some are easier to write with than others(!), but you take what you get. The collaborative site will be up soon. I guess he needs to gather a number of poems initially to make visiting the collaborative version worthwhile.

Friday, October 09, 2009

StAnza 2010 Participants and Two Readings

The participants in 2010’s StAnza International Poetry Festival have been unveiled and it’s a terrific line-up. How fast will the Heaney tickets sell? No advance orders. You’ll see my name on the list. I’m not reading poems, but doing something else. When the full programme is released, all will be revealed.

And tonight, from 7pm, I’ll be in the Word Power Bookshop, Edinburgh, for a reading from four excellent poets:

Richard Price
Peter McCarey
David Kinloch
Alexander Hutchison

I reckon this will be a terrific reading.

Finally, on Sunday evening (11th October), ‘Poetry at the…GRV’ (35 Guthrie Street, Edinburgh - £4, concessions £3) is back from 7.45-9.45pm, featuring Brian Johnstone, Eddie Gibbons and Dave Coates. You can read poems and bios from all three at the link.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Happy National Poetry Day...

...but as poetry is around for the other 364 days of the years too, I though Frank Zappa might be just what's needed for today.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Poetry and Dirt Bikes

My poetry collection appears to have a following among the dirt bike riding community of Australia. One of them asked for tips on where to go around Sydney, and the second post down suggested the rather surreal route of my book!

It gave me a much-needed laugh anyway…