Friday, March 31, 2006

Without Title

Three reviews of Geoffrey Hill’s latest collection, enigmatically titled, Without Title. That’s his fifth collection inside eight years.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Big Bang Research

In my brief report on the StAnza Poetry Festival a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d gone to hear Richard Price do a reading. I didn’t know his stuff at all, but found it intriguing.

After the event, I offered to swap my chapbook for his. I must confess my ignorance at this point. I hadn’t realised that Richard was quite a well-known poet. His latest collection, Lucky Day (published by Carcanet Press, Michael Schmidt’s imprint) has been nominated for the Whitbread Poetry Prize, among other awards, and he’s been writing and publishing for many more years than I have.

Anway, he was gracious enough to agree to the swap and today I received a chapbook containing his translations of Apollinaire and some translations of other French writers into Scots by Donny O’Rourke. I’ve had a look through some of the poems and they look very good.

However, at his website, I found an excellent poem that’s really been making me think over the last few days. It’s called Big Bang Research.

As I see it, the poem is about relationships, and how poems and emails are transforming communication. Although the narrator likes visits from real people and suggests (by email) that the recipient comes over to stay, he still believes by the end of the poem that the “new upgrade” will solve communication problems (although this might be ironic - the lines "you know/ this new upgrade?" suggest that). “Attachments” (very ambiguous word – it connects with poems in L1-2, but also must have a secondary sense of being attached to people) are a scientific accident. An ambiguous love/hate relationship with technology is present throughout the poem, as I read it.

I’m not sure if I’ve read the poem correctly, but I enjoyed the compressed language, the pinched lines, the (ironic?) humour, and the way the poem made me think and continues to do so.

In April, I’ve banned myself from buying any books, as I have way too many to read as it is, but I plan to read Lucky Day when I get the chance.

Monday, March 27, 2006


Andrew Philip was asking what NaPoWriMo was and where I heard about it.

The "sticky" post at the link page should explain everything. The idea is to write a new (draft) poem each day during April. You have to register with Poetry-Free-For-All to take part there. After that, it’s fun all the way. Except for the times when it feels like hell on earth.

I did it last year and felt it was really worthwhile. You can be an experienced poet or a rank beginner, but the difficulty of completing the challenge with one's sanity in place is the same either way.

Poem for a Divorce (draft)

Desk Drawer

Funny how you took years
to jam full, then empty
with a quick sleight of wrist:
dead batteries, envelopes
I thought to re-use
someday, a set of keys
for the shed I burned down
the day she and he
rented their first hotel room
by the hour, and this photo
edging from beneath
your wallpaper-lining.
I am smiling
at her windblown hair –
a snapshot of simplicity.
Not that I blame anyone
for her betrayal,
for blame is something
complex people can’t
admit to. It’s more that
when you accumulate the past
until you’re misshapen by it,
it’s bound to end spilled
on a floor,
and all you can do
is wait for another past
to fill you up
to breaking-point again.

(and don't worry anyone. I'm not getting divorced...)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Another Review

Tia Ballantyne reviews my chapbook, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, on the HappenStance website. She sounds a little underwhelmed by sections of it, but her criticisms are interesting. Interesting to me anyway.

Of course, my hope is that you’ll all place an order as a result!

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Ordinary Water?

Ordinary Water, William Baurle's site (presently in my list of links), seems to have changed into a Quiche Lorraine recipe haven, run by someone called Nancy from Rhode Island. No recipes have appeared yet, but I'm still hopeful. Where Bill has gone, I just don't know. I'll probably have to take Ordinary Water down from my blogroll.

Also, Martyn Clayton is no longer blogging, which is a shame. But I hope you keep reading, Martyn, and let me know if you start a blog again.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Michael Schmidt

Michael Schmidt’s keynote lecture from last week’s StAnza festival makes stimulating (and lengthy) reading. I’ve initiated what I hope might turn into a conversation on it at Pffa’s Voyage of Discovery forum here.

There’s a lot in the lecture and I’ll try to collect enough thoughts together to say something about it soon. But for now, I did enjoy his closing salvo:

Ring Lardner had this advice for the young story-writer, which also applies to a starting poet: ‘ A good many young writers make the mistake of enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, big enough for the manuscript to come back in. This is too much of a temptation to the editor.’

Heh. Now I know what I’ve been doing wrong all those years.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Terza Rima

I was wanting to get this terza rima poem to a final draft stage before the Na PoWri Mo challenge (i.e. write a draft poem every day for the month of April), but I’m not sure I’ll make it. What I’ve managed is below.

Clearly it wouldn’t suit the Pebble Mill Review, but such rhyming frenzy might be acceptable for less discerning editors.

In case some international readers don’t know, Eurovision refers to the Eurovision Song Contest in which each European nation is represented by an original song (nearly always generic middle-of-the-road), and a vote is taken to find the winner. It’s extremely hard to score zero points, but it does happen now and again.

Euro Pop (draft)

A few hours after his Eurovision dud
flopped on the glitzy stage, the nil points still
rattling the echo chamber in his head,

he tilts a plastic vial of orange pills
and toasts defeat with four imaginary
voices from the white hotel room walls.

Bulgarian whisky – the glass is empty,
the vial joins smashed bottles of Turkish beer
on the rug. The bassline from the party

downstairs uproots him from his easy chair
and draws him to the heart of European
malaise. He staggers down a corridor –

white as the room and indistinct as stone
with edges flattened out – and calls the lift
which drops him to a thumping monotone,

an unidentifiable space stuffed
with personalities he knows he ought
to know. In unison, they make the shift

from face to name-badge. They commiserate
with him artfully, reoccupy
their blank expressions over bittersweet

pickles and Beaujolais. “I’d love to stay,”
a woman tells him through her vol-au-vent
and leaves with the polyglot from Hungary

who finished ninth. In crowds, he stands alone
always, while every conversation builds
a private unit where he can’t belong;

and as the pills and alcohol have brawled
in his brain until he can’t remember whether
he came in first or last, he’ll never recall

how he knocks two unwilling heads together
with over-zealous force, and when restrained,
pleads diplomacy at fault in either,

neither or both. Snatching at scenes regained
from a mind-blinding, lowest-order gin
propped on his breakfast tray, he’ll apprehend

the whites of eyes, the undistinguished din
and wall-to-wall psychobabble, the plain
likeness of each sound to each other one;

his muesli spoon becomes a microphone.

Links and Categories

I’ve tried to organise my links in a systematic way, according to theme. They are also in aphabetical order within each theme. Of course, the categories overlap, and some blogs fit within a certain category one week and then fit better in a different category the week after, but it should make navigation a little easier.

If you’d prefer to see your blog in a different category, please let me know. Even worse, if my link to your blog has disappeared altogether, let me know too, as that will almost certainly be a mistake.

I’ve added fellow HappenStance poet, Andrew Philip to the “On Poetry” section, and you can also read some of the poems he wrote to accompany paintings at David Martin’s site.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Sudoku Poem

(image from

Some of you might recall a Petrarchan sonnet I wrote called Girl Playing Sudoku on the Seven-Fifteen. It’s now the sample poem for the third issue of Fourteen Magazine and can be read at the link.

The paper-version doesn’t have the double-spacing and the poem is supposed to be split into two stanzas of 8 and 6 lines, but you’ll get the general idea. If some readers have only read the work-in-progress version, I hope you see the finished poem as an improvement.

Fourteen is a great little magazine. It comes out twice a year. It only publishes poems of 14 lines and contains exactly 14 poems per issue, along with some commissioned sketches to illustrate the poems.

Monday, March 20, 2006


I hadn’t been to the StAnza Poetry Festival before and had no clear idea what it was going to be like.

I missed the opening two days, and so missed readings by Thomas Lux, Michael Longley, Jo Shapcott, Fleur Adcock, and Michael Schmidt’s keynote lecture, amongst many other good things.

On Saturday, I arrived with my wife and daughter and spent most of the day on the beach, wrapped up against the wind, so that Alyssa could play in the sand. They left in the late afternoon, and I just missed Tony Curtis’s reading, which I now wish I’d seen. Everyone was saying what a great reader he was.

In the evening I saw readings by David Harsent, (whose book, Legion, a collection of mainly war poems, won the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2005) and Eilean Ni Chuilleachain, one of Ireland’s foremost poets. David Harsent was brilliant. His delivery was measured and unshowy, but not flat, and allowed the words to sound with real power. I’ve read excerpts from Legion, but I really must get hold of a copy and read it properly. Eiléan Ni Chuilleanain was also good, but I was getting tired and found it hard to concentrate.

Afterwards there was an open-mic in a small, impossibly crammed bar that lasted from 10.30pm until 1am. The short, barbed material and the funny performance pieces worked best in that setting. It was good to see a few of the billed poets joining in – Tony Curtis (the Irish poet, not the Welsh one of the same name) recited an excellent performance piece called something like “I drink for Ireland”. Also a guy called Rab stood out with a lengthy but very funny satire in the style of Burns, and Jim Carruth’s ode to the kisses of old aunts was excellent.

I felt that poets who (like me) write primarily for the page could have learned a lot from the performance poets on how to deliver poems in public in a setting like that. Tony Curtis and Jim Carruth (both primarily “page” poets) showed how to take the best of what the performance poets had to offer on board.

On Sunday morning, I saw another reading from Richard Price, Siriol Troup, and Andrew Philip.

Andy read very well, some poems from his excellent Tonguefire chapbook and a new sequence written to accompany a set of paintings.

Siriol Troup, a London poet, was a new name to me. Her poems were well-crafted and I was impressed by her endings. The poems all seemed to lead somewhere, which isn’t always the case even with published and highly-touted poems.

I had heard of Richard Price, but hadn’t read any of his poems. His book Lucky Day had been shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize for Poetry. His poetry was very interesting. He had a voice that was very much his own and a delivery that seemed to quieten as each poem went on, so I had to listen hard to catch his drift. His opening poem on sleep deprivation was original and compelling. I found it harder to get into his sequence of love poems towards the end of his reading, but I’d maybe need to see them on the page to appreciate them.

In the afternoon, I visited the Poetry Pamphlet Fair and bought Jim Carruth’s Bovine Pastoral, which though the unpromising theme of dairy farming, manages to touch on a whole range of social and personal matters. I’m still reading it and have found it fascinating so far.

I thought about staying on for Sheenagh Pugh’s reading, but awkward train times persuaded me to make the journey home instead.

Of course, the performances and events are only half the story. The people I met and the conversations I had would take up another page, as I met a lot of people there. At least next year I’ll recognise more faces when I arrive.

Friday, March 17, 2006

I’m off to the StAnza Poetry Festival over the weekend. It’s held in St Andrews and is by far Scotland’s biggest poetry event of the year. I’ve already missed Thomas Lux, Fleur Adcock and Jo Shapcott, but there’s some interesting stuff still to come.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


I am going to have to do something about my links. That long, un-signposted trail of green on the right gets longer every week and needs a touch of order. But I can’t think of any principle with which to order them. A thematic principle would be difficult to maintain as so many blogs contain a hotchpotch of subjects, but an alphabetic list seems as pointless as a random one. I’ve a feeling theme is going to win out, so I hope no one gets mad at me if I slot them into an ill-fitting one.

I’ve just added Ros Barber’s Shallowlands blog, which is well worth checking out, as is her website. And if you’re feeling at a low ebb, her post on fighting the writer's demons might be just what you need. Take a look.

Short Poems

I noticed that Snakeskin e-zine are having a “short poems” issue next month. Poems must be 8 lines or less.

So for all those epigrams, julains, and quick-but-deadly imagist miniatures, you might think of sending to Snakeskin, which is a pretty good zine.

They are making decisions on what to include during the last week of March, so poems will need to be in before then.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Monday, March 13, 2006


This is where you can find all the winning and commended poems in the National Poetry Competition.

It’s a varied selection, covering a wide spectrum of poetic styles, which is, I guess, what they were aiming at.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

National Poetry Competition 2005

Well I got back from London yesterday evening, but was too tired to write anything. Or perhaps still suffering the after-effects of the evening before.

My poem, In the Last Few Seconds, had received one of ten commendations in the UK National Poetry Competition, so I took the train down to collect the award. By the time I’d paid the fare and so on, I’d more or less spent the prize (the first prize was £5000, but the cash drops dramatically by the time you get to the commended poems), but I felt that being there had to be better than getting a cheque through the post, and I was right.

I met up with Harry Rutherford and Katy Evans-Bush. It was great meeting them both. You never know what to expect when you meet Internet personae in real life, but we all got on well. We had a quick drink and wandered over to the City Hall, a curious, upside-down, glass beehive of a building on the outside, but inside it was impressive, with a scale model of London covering the ground floor.

After passing through the security channels, we found ourselves in a roomful of poets, editors, and other movers and shakers in the poetry world. This will either sound like a vision of heaven or hell, but if the latter, you could wash it down with free wine (in what seemed like unlimited, constantly replenished quantity) and finger-food (even less than it sounds).

Perhaps it was the wine, or the beer in the pub afterwards, but everyone I met seemed so friendly and interesting. I dislike networking when it's purely a method of buttering up people until they're ready to do something for you. I hate the falseness of that. But when it involves chatting with likeable people over a glass of wine, you can count me in. My favourite people were:

the woman from “The Institute of Ideas” whose mission was to further public debate and discussion of important issues (which included poetry) through the media etc – she told me that people kept phoning her and saying “I’ve had an idea, if you’d like to hear it”, and “I’ve invented a new design of tin-opener…”

Janet Phillips, who produces the Poetry Society newspaper Poetry News, who was simply a fab person;

Bernardine Evaristo, one of the judges, who (I think) had a soft spot for my poem. I certainly liked her immediately. Her speech from the floor was the best of all the judges, although she did get to introduce the winner, which I suppose must help;

Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review – that’s the second time I’ve met her, and the second time I’ve been impressed with her acuteness of mind and warm enthusiasm for poetry. One of these days I’ll have to submit something;

John Duffy – another Scot with a commended poem (there were three of us). I didn’t know his poetry before, but I certainly intend to check it out;

Melanie Drane – the competition winner, the first ever international winner (she is from the USA). Her poem was well-crafted and multi-layered, a Tokyo earthquake and flood as the backdrop to a new marriage, with an ambiguous but satisfying close. A worthy winner, I think. I mean, I’ve read all 13 winning and commended poems, and it’s impossible to choose between them, but I wouldn’t argue with the choice made.

Roddy Lumsden, a fine Scottish poet and keeper of the excellent Vitamin Q site (see my link column). He seemed like an easy-going but deep-thinking person – if that isn’t a contradiction in terms;

Angel Dahouk, who deals with educational matters for the Poetry Society. It would be impossible not to like someone called Angel. At least, I found it impossible. Until this late point in the evening, I had been thinking that everyone seemed far drunker than myself – a poor assumption, because when I spoke to Angel, I realised that might not have been true;

Alison Brackenbury, another of the judges, the only judge whose poetry I had known to any extent beforehand (it’s very good). I must admit, I was impressed that she could recall my poem and discuss it cogently by that stage of the proceedings. I was trying desperately to keep up and remember what I’d written and why I’d written it. Apparently, the judges had debated the final stanza of my poem for quite some time;

Sally Evans – editor of Poetry Scotland. I had met Sally before, but it was nice to meet her again. In fact, I sat beside her for part of the train journey back to Edinburgh, and we witnessed the ultimate cliché of this drunk Scotsman attempting to start a fight with this (innocent) English guy. It took four train-staff to break it up to the background of wailing children and inarticulate threats from various sections of the carriage, and a woman from the Niddrie area of Edinburgh who kept shouting, “You’re a disgrace to Scotland. What are they English gonnae think of us now?” and “My mammy could batter you, the state you’re in. A disgrace to the nation, that’s what it is!”

People I missed:

Ruth Padel – now how did I manage to miss noticing that Ruth Padel was even there. I like her poetry and would have really liked to meet her.

Mark Ford, the third judge – again, I would have liked to have spoken to him, as he seems like an interesting guy, and I’m intrigued by his poetry, but I didn’t get the chance.

I shook Jo Shapcott’s hand as she handed me my envelope and felt that what John Sait had said, on winning last year’s award, was true (and it’s just as true for us commended poets as the actual winner) – that this was one of those rare moments of recognition and success that pass by infrequently in a poet’s life.

As if to underscore the point, I arrived home in Edinburgh and found a rejection letter for all 6 poems I’d sent to Envoi magazine. It was nice to go to London, and nice to return home and find life carrying on as it always has.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


I’m off to London for a couple of days, so this seems like a good point to unleash the archive for anyone who cares to read it. I don’t publish much stuff on e-zines, but I do have a few poems out there.

Seeing as Stride magazine now has direct links to each group of poems published (a direct link used to be impossible), you can read four poems of mine from the middle of 2003, and four poems from January 2005.

The Meaning of Tingo

I tried this quiz at the Guardian in which you’re invited to guess at the meaning of weird and wonderful foreign words.

I’m not very good at this.

"You scored 2 out of a possible 10.
Terrible. Only Yiddish can do justice to the paucity of your knowledge.
In future, when someone calls you a shmutte, a schlump, a nar, a tam, a tipesh a bulcan or a shmenge, you’ll at least know that they’re referring to the fact that you’re a fool."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


To read Eliot’s The Wasteland and understand all the allusions, including the unintentional ones, would take a lot of cross-referencing, and these days, a lot of googling. However, I don’t find I need to understand every reference to enjoy it. The poem can be appreciated, and mainly understood, without months of in-depth study (not that I’m knocking anyone who has undertaken such a study. I just haven’t the time).

However, I have read a few poems recently in which poets have slipped in obscure references, and without some understanding of the references, the poems didn’t make much sense. It’s as if these poets have felt the need to prove themselves superior to the hapless reader. Even worse when they add as a footnote, “Krysyck’s lines only have a faint echo in this poem,” as if the reader is supposed to know exactly which Krysyck poem(s) is (are) referred to (and even whether Krysyck is a poet, novelist, historian, film director, or what).

I find the approach intellectually dishonest. I could easily take a trip to a musty library, dig out some facts that few people are likely to know, and write a poem to expose its readers' ignorance. Of course, any of these readers could do the same to me.

On the other hand, there must be ways of writing on subjects that aren’t familiar to many people without packing the poem with so much background information that the poem looks like an encyclopaedia entry. As a reader, I’d be prepared to do some work to understand a poem if I think the writer is doing some work to communicate his/her obscurities, so maybe there is a balance there somewhere. But not an easy balance to find.

Later edit: I’m editing this in because there might be a part-answer in George Szirtes’ entry of 9.3.06 titled The Waste Land.

Especially this paragraph:

“I try to explain how the poem rang in my head without anything as clear or definable as a meaning, that I knew little about de Nerval or Webster but felt the dramatic core of the poem as power, because a poem is a piece of writing that requires nothing external to complete it, since the external can only adumbrate, amplify, enrich but never complete a poem, so the worst thing you can do with The Waste Land at the beginning is to clobber yourself with learning and solving, because it is not a crossword puzzle to be solved or a peculiar rare parchment to be stored away in a sealed cabinet at the right temperature and humidity, but a world created in a state of breakdown, one you walk into, dizzy and staring and haunted.”

A poet who writes only a crossword puzzle to be solved isn’t going to leave a reader “dizzy, staring and haunted.” But The Waste Land stands up on its own as an enormously affecting work, even if one misses all the allusions and influences.

Monday, March 06, 2006

A Poem for Lent


If you are the Son of God, find a desert
where breezes seethe like oven-fans
and rocks bake themselves
into loaves;

or sit parched before the blurred oasis
where mermaids guzzle champagne
and giant cacti pump the pools
with fresh water.

If jackals yowl behind the dunes
and scorpions scrape the dust
at your heels, these pass
like hunger, thirst;

the hardest test is not the little devil
with his kingdoms, but the sand
cooling your head each night
you think of home.

(based loosely on Matthew 4: 1-11)

Saturday, March 04, 2006


In the March edition of Andwerve, you can read my poem The Freezer, and a wide variety of intriguing poems. Jee Leong Koh had an excellent poem in the February issue.

A Poem about Poetry

Some people hate poems about poetry, but I don't.

Delayed Poem

I specialise in poems about trains
that call in late. Scratched into coffee stains
on bar tables, I leave a rhyme or two
for whoever turns up next to misconstrue
as past wrongdoing confessed or valentine.
By then, I’ve left to write another line
to someone else. As time slides by, I view
my poems as monuments to rendezvous
I usually missed. Some think they are profound,
a sign of hidden depths. Some say they sound
like one hand clapping, seconds in between
the long-lost five o’clock and six-fifteen.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Tom Raworth - Part 3

This concludes my reflections (such as they are) on Tom Raworth’s poem, All Fours (see my entries on 27th and 28th February). The penny isn’t really dropping. But here are a few observations.

1. The poem’s theme appears to be a huge alienation.

2. The characters who inhabit the stanzas appear to have little that’s vital to them. They “order quantities of everything”, “are living under siege”, are “dead and senseless at the wheel”, sing “damnation at an empty chair”, are “efficient as she had to be”, are “breathing not daring to smoke…”.

3. The descriptions also give that sense: the thick high weeds, the uniformed policeman who spies inside people’s houses, the workmanship years of polishing have dulled, the embers that have gone out, the mushrooms that are “small common objects of assault”, the blown cell in the dusty bulb, the blank shining glass that blots out light, the vending machines.

4. Certain words are used which further the sense of malaise: chronic, normal (surely ironic), rumbled, crouched, postured, shambling, abandoned road, mushroom thrived (fungus is the only thing that thrives here).

5. There’s no definite sense of place. There’s a road surrounded by high weeds, a shop(?), a house, a car, a roomful of books, a dark room in an apartment block. This shifting of setting presumably is to disorientate the reader and provide a deeper sense of alienation.

6. Similarly, there is no central perspective, no narrator, no central character – there’s a you in S1, a she in S2, we and him in S3 (although the you in S1 and the we in S3 aren’t necessarily connected), a she and him in S4, her and we in S5 etc.

7. The formal structure, regular stanzas of four ametrical lines, is a counterpoint to the abandoning of elements that a traditional poem would deem necessary – a structured argument or narrative, a narrator, a sense of unity (not all of thse have to be present in every poem, but if none are, the poem is probably [post-] modernist).

8. The title All Fours plays on the four-line stanzas and also denotes something animalistic, a dehumanisation.

So the poem leaves me with that sense of alienation, a few haunting images, but nothing overly memorable. I don’t dislike it as much as I did when I first read it, but it doesn’t do a lot for me either. It doesn’t point to anything beyond itself – the numinous quality that Robert Hass wants in poetry is absent - but I guess that’s modernism for you.