Monday, November 28, 2005

The Clown of Natural Sorrow

My chapbook, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, is now available.

I got a few copies through the post today and it looks very nice, with a lilac cover and pale yellow pages.

If you feel moved to buy a copy, then details are just below. Posted by Picasa

Read, Browse and...Buy?

You can read a sample poem from my chapbook and an author biography (of a kind) at this link.

You can find details here of how to order a copy. The cost is £3 for UK residents and £4 for non-UK residents - including postage.
There are three methods - by cheque if you have a UK cheque book, through PayPal, or you can email HappenStance to find another method if none of these suit.

And you can browse other HappenStance publications here, including Winter Gifts, the anthology of new poems grouped around the theme of winter, and the new edition of Sphinx, a magazine full of interviews, reviews and poems, all with a connection to recent chapbook publications.
It's difficult to recommend one book or another because they're all pretty good, but you can read a sample poem from each book at the site, and if you find issue 2 of Sphinx, you can read a selection of reviews online that didn't make it into print - these will give you the general idea.

I've just realised that you can also buy it from But Amazon add on a £1.99 "sourcing fee", will take 4-6 weeks to deliver it, and will also make you pay postage on top! Clearly, ordering direct from HappenStance is the better way.

Friday, November 25, 2005

A Sonnet

I don't write many sonnets, but here's one.


My fourth wife flagged her exit visibly
the way an aeroplane prints out its tyres
of jetstream through the sky: a litany
of bootprints in the snow, of empty drawers
and burnt-out cigarettes. The stain I spread
around the bath had gone. She sliced my face
from every wedding photograph, force-fed
the dog my shoes, and burned my masterpiece.

I grasp for evidence that she was here.
The three who came before her made their mark –
the mirror’s jagged crack, the Labrador
nailed to the floorboards, laughter in the dark.
The fourth’s a ghost. Now even tracks I make
fade with her and seven years of smoke.


The first in Edinburgh this winter fell today. More is to come. Tonight the forecast is for Arctic winds up to 90 miles an hour and heavy snow - blizzard conditions. Also a notional temperature of -9 degrees centigrade, not taking account of windchill. Brrrrr...

The next day:
However, the forecasters got it wrong again. It's cold, but no Arctic winds or blizzards. No complaints...
Posted by Picasa

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Latest Attempt

I reported a few days ago about my daughter's surreptitious attempts to post messages to poetry forums. Today I caught her just as she'd typed several paragraphs of random letters, numbers and symbols into a message-window at the Poetry Free-For-All site (PFFA appears to be her favourite). Luckily she hadn't pressed the button that sends the message for public viewing.

However, I then realised that she was attempting to post it to the "Experimental" forum where it might not have looked out of place. I deleted it anyway.


That poem, Smile, that I posted earlier this week: I keep tinkering with it. I felt it wasn't clear that the son had died. It now looks like this. Maybe I'm now being too blatant.

A smile won't fade with death. Her son
is grinning still from magazines,
from playgrounds, bikes and prams – a mine
of memories and could-have-beens.
A smile won't fade with death, once known.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Definition of Poetry

It is a sharply discharged whistle,
It is a cracking of squeezed ice-blocks,
It is night frosting leaves,
It is a duel of two nightingales.

(from Boris Pasternak's Definition of Poetry, 1917, translated by Edwin Morgan)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


If you throw a coin in the pool
a penguin may swallow it
and die. Money kills penguins,
the sign says. They’re not
the only ones starving
until someone aims
pennies in their direction;
and they have a charity.
Yesterday I received a letter
asking me to sponsor one,
a nameless penguin
I must name, identifiable
by its unique tone of voice.
Any time I visit the zoo,
I must listen carefully to learn
if it’s alive, to know whether
I owe for the next month.
Twenty years, thirty if I’m
unlucky, not bad for some parts
of the world. Do not drop
litter, penguins choke on
empty packets. Tomorrow
I plan to analyse data
on the infant mortality rate.

Monday, November 21, 2005

This Makes Sense

George Szirtes is interesting as usual - from The Guardian.

e.g. "Poets are ordinary people with a special love and distrust of language."
"Poetry is not a pretty way of saying something straight, but the straightest way of saying something complex."


A smile is slow to fade. Her son
is grinning still from magazines,
from playgrounds, bikes and prams – a mine
of memories and could-have-beens.
A smile is slow to fade, once known.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Hell for Poets

At times, light verse is just what I’m looking for, especially when it’s as well written as this. Most light verse isn’t. In fact, most isn’t either funny or clever, which makes Liz Lochhead’s poem so refreshing in comparison.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Uh Oh

My daughter seems to have found a new passtime - posting to poetry sites.

Her first act was to send a private message to a moderator of a poetry site (she would choose a moderator!) with "jhnb vhvhvvxzscdx" in the title-bar and "ò,x mm nj, àò u u k u jijki b tctvg ggbhbyyy jui9injj hmum8 omkjn g h y nhng mndfxcf xzcs vb" as the message. Luckily the moderator in question had a sense of humour.

Her second act was to post a "poem" to the Advanced C and C forum of Poetry Free-For-All. People have a sense of humour there too of course. It hasn't even been (yet) moved to a lower forum.

I was out working all day, but my wife told me that my daughter must have posted the poem during a ten-minute period when my wife was making her something to eat before nursery school.

What next? I dare say that tomorrow she will start working on the three crits she owes, so posters at Pffa had better watch out. Unless I find an effective way to stop her first. I'll work on it.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Reversal (first draft)

Suddenly the universe starts
contracting. Because distance
equals speed times time,
the clocks slow down.
Soon the long hand
is spinning backwards
and cars roll boot-first
up the hill. The video
is trapped on rewind.
Hot-air balloons crash
into molehills. Women
minutes from labour feel
a tightness in the womb
and a shrinkage that
becomes heavier to bear
the longer time goes on.

Roger McGough

I enjoyed this interview with Roger McGough in the Guardian.

This paragraph is typical:

McGough finds it demoralising when he goes on children's TV: "They say, 'Come on and read a poem,' and they're all very excited, but 'Keep it short, keep it short, it's for children.' OK. 'Keep it 30 seconds.' OK. Then you do your 30-second poem, and it's followed by someone coming on with a hedgehog for 20 minutes."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Chapbook Publishing

I guess there are poets out there who dream of landing a contract with Major Publishing House (even though most release hardly any poetry from new writers – but poet-with-dream’s material is, of course, so unique and original, that these major imprints just won’t be able to say no).

They see themselves as the new Ted Hughes/Philip Larkin/Carol Ann Duffy/Simon Armitage (no offence meant to any of these excellent poets, by the way), their books studied in schools by cramming 16-year-olds, and being sold by the hatload in all the major bookstores, who (naturally) place their books in the most prominent shelves.

My albeit limited experience of releasing a chapbook with a tiny organisation has taught me the exact opposite. HappenStance, who are publishing my chapbook on 1st December, give the kind of personal attention to detail that a more major publishing house wouldn’t even think about giving to a book of poems.

The editing process has been instructive, the way we sifted through many of my poems to find a group that sat well together as a collection. It’s meant that a few of my better ones haven’t made the cut, but there is a coherence to the book, and I’m happy with the selection. Helena Nelson, the editor at HappenStance made some useful suggestions on some of the poems, although I always had the final say. But in most cases she was spot on.

They also have an active marketing system, which includes a launch, a presence at various poetry gatherings and on the Internet, an IBSN number, and an attempt to get the books into venues which will stock them e.g. the Scottish Poetry Library sales section. OK, the books won’t be in Waterstones, but who goes into Waterstones ready to pick up and buy a poetry pamphlet from someone they’ve never heard of anyway?

I sent them some poems through the post after I attended the launch of the Press and was impressed at what they were doing. I was amazed to get an acceptance. The deal was a one-off payment (edit: i.e. HappenStance made me a payment - thanks for pointing out the previous ambiguity in this sentence, Shug), but HappenStance would bear all costs. They would also take any royalties. This seemed like a very good deal to me, as they were bearing all the financial risks, and I only stood to gain. However, I do hope I sell a good number of chapbooks, partly because of my own ego (I would like people to read my work) and partly because I think a serious, small imprint like this is worth supporting (and I know Helena Nelson would laugh at the word “serious”! But there is a seriousness of purpose about the enterprise. Also I don’t want her to be left bankrupt because of my chapbook).

HappenStance do what they do because they care about poetry and are ready to invest time, energy and money in creating a product that they believe in – not because it’s commercial, but because they like it, and I’m sure the same is true of many chapbook imprints across the world. From a poet’s point of view, I suspect I will shift more copies of my chapbook with HappenStance than I would do if I’d brought it out on Faber (not that Faber were knocking on my door, you understand), where it would sit unmarketed, uncared for, and unread, on the shelves of major bookshops, squashed between thicker volumes of other poets, most of whom are lucky to sell a few hundred copies themselves.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

For Anyone Living Near Edinburgh

My chapbook, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, will be launched in the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh (at Crichton's Close, off the Canongate, opposite the Canongate Church) on Thursday 1st December 2005. There will be wine on offer from 6.30pm, and readings begin at 7pm.

Another chapbook, Winter Gifts, an anthology of new poems on a winter theme, will also be launched at this event. I've seen a draft copy of this and it looks really good.

The event is free and if anyone reading this actually comes along, please introduce yourself afterwards.

Monday, November 07, 2005


I expect there are some writers who will describe their progress as a gradual upward slant; each poem they write becomes the measure for the next one, which must be that minuscule amount better, and so the progress continues.

I’ve never felt like that. My progress – if you can call it that – has been erratic. I scrawled my first published poem on a scrappy piece of paper on a bus from Bellshill to Glasgow. I revised it several times, but got the basis down on that forty-minute journey. Before that I hadn’t written any poem worth the paper it was written on. What had changed to make this new one several degrees better?

Looking back, I see that several things coincided. I had subscribed to a poetry magazine and for the first time, I was paying attention to what other writers were doing and how they were doing it. My first marriage ended and within a few months, I had material to write about that I wouldn’t have had access to before that happened. I began to perform poems monthly at the Bar Brel in Glasgow, an open mic situation, and that forced me to come up with poems I didn’t feel too ashamed about reading in front of other people.

And it was strange. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but almost every time I sent poems to a magazine, I’d get an acceptance.

This lasted for a few years. I then remarried and moved to Italy. I wrote nothing for six months. I wanted to write about Italy but didn’t have enough experience of it to come up with anything of any depth. And Scotland just seemed so far away, invisible even to my imagination. Then I discovered the PFFA workshop and wrote a poem, Waiting, and sent it in. It got a very mixed reaction. There were good bits in it, but it was way overwritten. I managed to improve it in subsequent drafts, but it still remains unpublished.

For a couple of years, nearly every poem I sent to magazines was rejected.

What I find interesting is that when I read some of the poems I was writing at that time, they seem sloppy, without the substance I’d aim for in a poem now (“aim for” doesn’t always mean I am successful). Either this means that I have changed for the better, or it means that in three years time, I will look at the poems I am writing now and have that same feeling of disappointment.

These days, I get some acceptances and some rejections from magazines.

I’m not sure what progress means anymore. I am convinced that my writing has improved in the last few years, but if so, it hasn’t made magazine editors fall over themselves to accept my latest creations – not any more than it did seven years ago. Occasionally, I do ask myself why that should be. But a glass of good Italian red wine takes the edge of the question. As it is doing now.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


I've been thinking about poems that use well-worn words like heart, soul, moon etc and why some work and some don't, and haven't really found any answers. Perhaps some poems work and some don't and if you have a poem that works and these words work within it, then you're onto a winner.

Carol Ann Duffy's new collection of love poems, Rapture, is full of these words, over and over again, and the repitition throughout the collection takes on an intensity that a single poem from it can't quite show. Of course, some people found the book dull. I read a review by someone who liked Duffy's first three collections but hated this new one. Other critics loved it.

One thought I had is that using language that borders on cliche shows a lack of artifice on the part of the writer, and that approach gives a love poem the impression of being genuine. Whereas a love poem full of fresh, original imagery looks more planned out, as though the heart had less to do with it.

On the other hand, I hasten to add that Duffy handles her poems with a skill most of us can only dream at. Handled with less skill, the poems could all have come over as stale and cliched, which is the way most love poetry comes over.

This is a poem I wrote a few years back:


The mind a drill ..... the heart
a lawnmower ..... the tools we use to make
ourselves heard by one another above all other voices .....
save them .....from rust
even if there is no garden..... no need to screw
holes in concrete walls to beautify a barren landscape ..... our inner
appliances crave more than appearances ..... what’s on paper
..... the IKEA kit for the soul ..... the how-to book of how
things work ..... the dry formulae of mathematics
and magic portions
..... permanent
as technology
..... silent as a star’s knowing
wink ..... so give us noise and bustle ..... the clang
of hammer on scaffold ..... last century’s kettles
snarling on the stove ..... the electric
hum of the washing machine..... its stagger between cycles
..... a lawnmower ..... a drill
to snow imaginary whitewash on the courtyard below
..... where grass has never grown.

- first published in Stride magazine.