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:’s a long freight train, metaphor 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 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 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 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 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: 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 often every bit 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, 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).