Monday, October 30, 2006

Divine Chocolate Poetry

Divine Chocolate is a company committed to fair trade, giving a proper wage to cocoa producers based in Ghana. They have support and input from organisations like The Body Shop, Christian Aid, Comic Relief etc. The chocolate they produce is very good and is on sale in supermarkets throughout the UK.

This year, the company is holding a poetry competition.

The theme is “poems of persuasion” and well-known poet, Adrian Mitchell, is the judge. The idea is to write a poem “that features chocolate or Fairtrade (or both) – and aim to put an argument no one could say ‘no’ to.”

I’ve got to say – I can’t think of a more difficult type of poem to write! It would be so easy to churn out propaganda, or a sermon, or a political tract. But to write a good poem…?

Anyway, I’m up for a challenge and will give it a shot. I don’t know if I will manage to come up with anything worth writing or entering. Entry is free, and the prize is a month’s free chocolate (!) and some book tokens. The deadline is 20 December so there is time to think about how it can be done.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sonnet Sunday

At the poetry event in Linlithgow, I fell into conversation with a woman afterwards. She told me about how she used to work in a newsagent. Every week at the same time, a woman would enter the shop and buy a single packet of blancmange. She did this for years and never bought anything else. I thought this was an intriguing story, and the woman I was speaking to told me I should write a poem about it.

Well, it’s Sonnet Sunday, and I had to write a sonnet about something… Of course, my imaginary account of the shop and staff is entirely fictional.


Each Saturday she braved the village store
to buy a packet of blancmange. The aisles
were narrow, prices high. She could ignore
the hygiene of the staff, their filthy nails
and noses running through the cold meat section,
but not their lack of welcome after years
of patronage. She timed death to perfection,
collapsing in the eyes of the cashiers.

Some had thought her crazy. Others spoke
as if they’d never known her. Later, when
the council came to clear her house, it took
an inventory. Nothing much had been
kept over time, but cupboards bore the weight
of decades, unopened, and out-of-date.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Linlithgow Gig

I had a good time at the Poetry and Jazz event in Linlithgow yesterday evening. The hall was like a large living room, tastefully decked out with a vast fleet of candles, low tables, and comfy sofas. About 30(?) people crammed into the room.

Phil Melstrom started off with a short jazz guitar set, and he performed between each of the poets. When I watch people like Phil playing, I’m reminded both that I play guitar after a fashion, and also why I never made a career out of it. He made it all seem so effortless - Miles Davis standards? Herbie Hancock numbers? A spot of improvisation at lightning speed? Chords that look impossible to stretch anywhere near? He could do it without any problem. Really enjoyable.

I kicked off for the poets. I began with a couple of gently surreal new poems about angels and window cleaners (respectively), then a couple of older ones that had a jazz theme, then a few from The Clown of Natural Sorrow, and finished off with a newish one about war, a Davide Rondoni translation, and In the Last Few Seconds. People seemed to enjoy the set.

Douglas Briton was a good performer. His poems were rhythmic, self-effacing and mainly witty, although he had a few darker poems in there as well, and several on imaginary conversations between characters of the Bible.

Andrew Philip finished off the evening with a fine reading. His poems nearly always have an impact that never seems contrived or forced in any way. The writing is subtle and powerful.

Certainly, the evening was a good advert for variety, as each poet on show had a completely different style of writing and performing. So something for everyone, and hopefully an event that will bear repeating in years to come.


It’s been a really busy week. Hectic at work for a start, which has meant I’ve been burning the midnight oil and the dawn candle every day to make sufficient writing-time. I had to, because today was a week of deadlines.

This week I wrote two poems on the theme of “windows” to submit to Poetry News (deadline 1 November). I wrote a children’s story-in-verse to submit to a competition run by Lion Books with a first prize of £1000 (deadline 31 October). I tweaked six poems on the theme of “city life” to submit to Magma magazine (deadline 31 October). I wrote a review of a chapbook for Sphinx magazine (deadline 27 October). I revised and submitted poems for the UK National Poetry Competition (deadline 31 October). I read poems last night at an event in Linlithgow (more about this later). Tomorrow night, I’m off to the Shore Poets to hear readings from Donny O’Rourke, Nancy Somerville and Carla Jetko. I’m still reading Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems.

On a positive note, I’ve had work accepted by several publications in the last week or two. First by New Writing 15 who have taken two poems – very good news! Second by Umbrella, a new webzine edited by Kate Bernadette Benedict. Kate has taken several poems, the exact number still to be confirmed. And finally, excellent Scottish-based print magazine,The Red Wheelbarrow, have taken some poems for their ocean-themed issue due in December.

I had a couple of rejections too, but I can live with them.

Friday, October 27, 2006


Thanks to CE Chaffin, Rob, and Barbara for the comments on the last poem I posted (now deleted from the blog). I made a couple of changes due to your intelligent readings and another few because they seemed right. It's now in the post.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Poetry and Jazz in Linlithgow

Warm thanks to fellow HappenStance poet, Andy Philip, for inviting me to Linlithgow on Friday to read with him and Douglas Briton, along with music by Phil Melstrom, in the Poetry and Jazz evening at the Celebrate Linlithgow! festival. Poetry and Jazz! Definitely my kind of scene. It looks like it will be a good evening’s entertainment.

When Andy told me about the event, he didn’t mention that the venue stocks only soft drinks, but I’m sure I’ll manage to smuggle in a whisky flask somehow (just kidding). It’s been six months since I’ve read poetry to a live audience and I’m looking forward to it.

In case any of you happen, by some miracle, to be in Linlithgow on Friday, the event is being held in Bryerton House in the Linlithgow High Street from 8pm. Come and say hello.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Prizes and Literary Criticism

I’ve noticed a few articles recently suggesting that literary criticism has been replaced by a culture of prize-giving, that our tastes and purchasing habits are shaped less by critical analysis of works than by how many awards they have won. This article in The Guardian makes the case pretty well.

Interesting quotation from Ezra Pound, back in 1928 – The whole system of prize-giving... belongs to an uncritical epoch; it is the act of people who, having learned the alphabet, refuse to learn how to spell.

On the other hand, prizes can help to launch (or save) the careers of writers who have been unjustly ignored by the critics and whose books have not sold well through lack of publicity. The Guardian’s case-in-point is Lionel Shriver, who wrote seven novels (the seventh of which didn’t find a publisher) and sold her eighth to a small publisher for a £2,500 advance. This novel won the Orange Prize. Shriver now has all her books back in print and a lucrative contract with HarperCollins. She deserves it for her perseverance alone. Without the prize, it might never have happened.

You could argue that there are hundreds of other artists equally as deserving and just as talented, which is probably true, but without the prize, they would still be in the difficulties they are currently in. The only difference is that one other writer would still be with them.

But the point about prize-giving replacing criticism as a symbol of cultural value is a real one. Could the fault lie with the quality of much current criticism as much as with the culture of prize-giving? Or are there wider issues that lead people to dismiss what a critic says as “just one person’s opinion”?

I like the final paragraph of the Guardian article. The first Nobel Prize for Literature was won in 1901 by Sully Prudhomme. Who? What did she (he?) write? Exactly… And one of the losers on the shortlist that year was a certain Leo Tolstoy – with War and Peace!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sonnet Sunday

It's Sunday, and therefore Sonnet Sunday, as inaugurated by C E Chaffin .


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Poetry Lists

I used to be a compulsive list-maker, but I haven’t made a list in a long time. Tonight I decided to go through the poetry books on my shelf and choose my 25 favourites. This proved an impossible task so I narrowed it down. The poets had to be alive and only one volume per poet was allowed. I couldn’t include anything I’ve read that wasn’t on my shelves (for example, books I’ve borrowed from the Scottish Poetry Library). The books had to be in English.

Here’s the list in alphabetical order:

Simon Armitage – Zoom!
John Ashbery – Where Shall I Wander
Ros Barber – How Things are on Thursday
John Burnside - The Good Neighbour
Michael Donaghy - Conjure
Carol Ann Duffy – Mean Time
Douglas Dunn - Elegies
Stephen Dunn – New and Selected Poems
Bernardine Evaristo – The Emperor’s Babe
Marilyn Hacker - Desesperanto
Seamus Heaney – Opened Ground
Kathleen Jamie – The Queen of Sheba
Philip Levine – New and Selected Poems
Roddy Lumsden – Mischief Night
Edwin Morgan – Selected Poems
Sinéad Morrissey – The State of the Prisons
Paul Muldoon – Moy Sand and Gravel
Don Paterson – Landing Light
Rik Roots – The Rik Verse
James Sheard – Scattering Eva
Charles Simic – Looking for Trouble
John Stammers – Stolen Love Behaviour
George Szirtes – Reel
Wislawa Szymborska – View with a Grain of Sand
Robert Wrigley – Lives of the Animals

Then I decided to make a list of my top 5 poetry chapbooks. I barred the HappenStance Press chapbooks from this. It would have been impossible to choose between them:

Jim Carruth – Bovine Pastoral (Ludovic 2004)
Anna Crowe – A Secret History of Rhubarb (Mariscat 2004)
Norbert Hirschhorn – The Empress of Certain (Poets Corner 2005)
Edwin Morgan – Demon (Mariscat 1999)
Donny O’Rourke and Richard Price - Eftirs/Afters (Au Quai 1996)

I thought about doing a list of poetry e-books, but as I’ve read only two – by Julie Carter and Paula Grenside – there wasn’t much point. However, both are highly recommended!

Friday, October 20, 2006

New Poet Blog

Fine Sheffield-based poet,Tony Williams (also known in some quarters as EParsons, for some reason), has now joined the ranks of bloggers. Another site to add to your links!

David Cameron and Rhymefest

When politicians like Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, have their photo taken with a U.S. rap artist like Rhymefest, and the papers start calling it a Rap Summit, you might ask questions.

You might ask why a rap artist should want to give a right-wing leader such publicity. You might ask what Rhymefest meant when he suggested to Cameron that they meet to discuss ways to "come together with the community." You might ask whether there is an implicit contradiction in Rhymefest’s statement on Cameron after the meeting – “Whether you say that it was for the publicity or not, that's more than a lot of other politicians are doing."

And isn’t there something sad, even pathetic, about a straight-laced Tory politician trying to appear hip by holding talks with rappers? I can’t believe there is any other agenda, on Cameron’s part, for having the meeting in the first place.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Songwriters on Poetry

Song lyric writers sound off about poetry in The Guardian.

"I see a huge gulf between poetry and song lyrics. Poetry is so often an internal and individual thing. Music is a social art that speaks to the body more than the mind. Even if you choose to listen to music alone, you are still a part of a living thing. Poetry is about separating yourself out from the masses. It's about not being a social animal. I dislike poetry!" (Bill Callahan)

"Somehow, poetry has been turned into a lock-box which we can only write or read after we've gone to graduate school. People seem worried that poetry isn't selling. If you have nothing useful to sell, people aren't gonna buy it. Poetry is supposed to be useful. It's supposed to help us with our lives. Writing is supposed to be generous." (Josh Ritter)

"The disappearance of objective criteria on which to judge poems sort of opens the floodgates for a lot of bad poetry. And when a market becomes flooded with stuff that's poor, then the customers go away. And bad poetry - there can't ever have been so much as there is present today." (John Darnielle)

Interesting stuff, albeit a bit depressing at times. Poetry really does have an image problem, that's clear enough from what they say, especially if people see it as a way of separating oneself from the masses! Or of being "useful" (define "useful"!).

And perhaps it also suggests we need sharp-minded and enthusiastic critics who can engage with poetry and set forward criteria for assessing poems well enough that they herald a new orthodoxy - an orthodoxy that makes people interested in reading poems again.

Memory and Identities

Jackie Kay’s blog on the theme of ‘identity’ for the Poetry Society is still going and is still interesting.

From yesterday:

A large part of who we are seems to be who we remember we are, but then because that is constantly shifting and changing with some memories raging into sharp focus and others pleasantly blurring out, our idea of ourselves is constantly fluid. Memory fascinates us, our own memories of our past selves. Yesterday's selves and the day before and the one before that…

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright

Sean O’Brien’s Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright has won this year’s Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. It seems to be getting a bit of stick from some quarters, possibly because one of the judges called it "as close as it is possible to come to a perfect poem,“ as daft a statement as I’ve heard for some time.

But I do like the poem. As a meditation of history, memory, and struggle, it works really well. When I first read it in Poetry Review, I found it very moving, and I still do. The language and imagery, apart from one line, is beautiful. It deserved to win.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sonnet Sunday

C E Chaffin has inaugurated something called Sonnet Sunday and invites all bloggers to post a sonnet to their blogs each Sunday.

I’ve managed one this time (30 minutes) and will try to make it a regular discipline. Any other sonneteers out there want to join in?


He claimed to be my gardener. When I turned
my back, he lay down on the lawn and talked
to weeds. He kissed their stems. If you feel shocked
by such behaviour, me too, and I warned
him to be normal, or be sacked. He spurned
advice and when some crusty woman picked
him up and dragged him to her dodgy sect
for weed-huggers, no lesson had been learned.

My wife protested – he was practical,
he understood each plant, each blade of grass,
not just in words of theoretical
import, but in the sacred interface
of vulnerable love; my sceptical
expression only masked my cowardice.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Quick Comment on Lee Harwood

I’ve been reading Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems, reviewed well here. Lee Harwood was influenced by the New York School (in fact, he and John Ashbery were together in Paris for some time) and would be seen by many as part of the avant-garde.

He seems always to be stretching to say the unsayable, even while knowing that’s impossible. What I like is that there’s a human heart beating in these poems, which sets him apart from a lot of poets who were influenced by Ashbery – too many of them are all head, but you couldn’t say that of Lee Harwood. Many of the poems are love poems or about human relationships at some level.

He has a sense of humour too. I enjoyed his poem, The Paint Box, which uses the act of creating a picture to comment on formulaic artistic endeavour of all kinds, including (and especially) poetry:

I mean the formula can be turned most ways
and it’s only a matter then of local colour
to give that touch of distinction.
The surface then appeared different –
But under the paint?
Canvas was universal – everywhere.

The painting progresses and a poem is pulled out and stuck below the painting:

Yes! And now it’s one more poem.
That’s funny isn’t it? or maybe
It’s not so funny, but scary instead.
I mean the whole routine of bare
canvas and the paints all squeezed out
on the palette and then it’s just for someone
to step out and say “GO” in a loud voice.
And the day goes by in slapping noises
as more and more paint is used up.

That’s not wholly representative of the poems in this book, but good for a Friday evening, I think. I’ll say more about the collection in due course.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Translation from the Italian...

I'm really glad to have come across this poem from Bologna poet, Davide Rondoni, from a collection published in 2003. Really good, I think, although I can't vouch for the translation (I did my best):

To love someone…

To love one person
is a long journey –

cliffs, falls of water
and sudden, expansive darkness
the closure of forests,
flashes at times
on a silence vast as the sea

and streets high above, (shout)

avenues immersed unexpectedly
in unfamiliar light

To love one, a thousand, everyone
is like holding a map of wind.
We can’t succeed, but the heart
has been placed at the centre of the chest
for this great, marvellous failure.

On the plateaux of each night
here I am with repetitions and hands that have spilled poetry:
do not wish them ill, they are yours, do not make them go away.

- Davide Rondoni (from Avrebbe amato chiunque (He Would Have Loved Anyone) , Guanda, 2003), translated by me.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Literary Maps

On visiting Raw Light, one of Jane Holland’s blogs, I discovered a site called Literature Map.

You just type in the name of a writer (poets, novelists etc all feature) and the site lists the names of other writers who bear some relation to your original choice. But it’s the way it does it that’s really good. Try it and see!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Tommy Sheridan and the Video Tape

Regular readers of this blog may recall my attemps to cover the Tommy Sheridan trial, a trial in which Mr Sheridan emerged victorious over Rupert Murdoch's News of the World newspaper. Well, it was never likely to end there, but the latest twists have come as a surprise even to those who expected further revelations.

A couple of weeks ago, a video was produced by one of Tommy Sheridan’s former friends. The News of the World claim the video shows Tommy Sheridan admitting that he did visit swingers’ clubs, something he denied at the trial. Why didn’t the video show up during the trial (quite a reasonable question!)? The former friend says it was because he had been sure Mr Sheridan would lose in any case. Here’s a link where you can read the full story.

Tommy Sheridan denies the video is genuine and claims his voice has been faked on it. No surprise there. But what came as a surprise was when he came to point blame at who had concocted the video and why:

'Tommy Sheridan did not stop at the Murdoch press, but cited "sinister forces" at work. "I would not be surprised if the state is involved," he said.
"The state has a fine history of trying to destabilise and undermine socialist movements or trade union struggles. When the history of this whole episode is written about, I think you'll find that MI5 was involved." '

And it didn’t stop there. It now seems as though George W Bush, the CIA, MI5, and other “sinister forces” may all have been a part of the conspiracy to undermine Sheridan and help Rupert Murdoch get his own back for the court defeat.

Needless to say, the Home Office “declined to comment on MI5 operations.” I suspect the most sinister force here may be the force of an unrestrained ego. That’s whether the tape is genuine or not.


I enjoy meeting with people, and like most people, I enjoy talking with people who share my passions and interests. I know some people dislike the idea of ‘networking’ with regard to poetry, but I have few problems with it. The By Leaves We Live event confirmed how productive networking can be for all concerned.

For the magazine editors and publishers – they got to meet their readership, to sell magazines and subscriptions, and to talk to potential contributors.

For readers and poets – we got to put a face to people we’d normally know only through editorials and acceptance/rejection letters, to look at magazines and discuss them with those who produce them, and to talk about submissions.

Several magazines were displayed on tables without editors present. I strongly suspect that few of these were bought. But the editors I spoke to told me they had sold a lot of magazines, simply because they had made the effort to be there.

It was beneficial all round. Some might feel it’s all wrong, and that when editors can put a face to a submitter, they might be more inclined to accept poems by them. I really doubt this. I expect most editors are concerned only with putting out the best issue they can. Their reputation is on the line after all if they include inferior poems.

Friday, October 06, 2006

StAnza 2007

The initial participants list for the March 2007 StAnza Poetry Festival has been released.

I am in there. I’ll be reading at a venue with two other poets.That’s just in case anyone thinks I’ll be sharing a stage with George Szirtes, Ruth Padel, Jorie Graham, Jane Yeh, Sean O’Brien, Polly Clark, Mark Strand, Jackie Kay, Roy Fisher etc. No, I’ll be in this tiny place under the ground, atmospheric and intimate i.e. small.

However, I am delighted to be a part of the event. The only trouble is that I have no readings at all lined up before March and I really will need to get into practice before doing that one. So if anyone reading this wants to hire a poet for an evening’s entertainment, please get in touch.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

It's 5th October and...

...Happy National Poetry Day from the UK!

To celebrate, here’s a draft sonnet on the theme of identity written inside 30 minutes. I still haven’t managed a 15-minute one:

Not who you are but what you give away.
The fingerprints, the ruminations deep
in the brain, boots that shield your feet of clay –
each cover your identity. I peep
into your image: a unique splash
shaping the world’s tall cliffs; or thinking small,
at least a hieroglyph or fake moustache,
some chalk to scratch the surface of a wall.

Images can always be replaced
by other images. And when the purist
in you recoils, the sophist can be traced
in layers through your skin. I’ll play the tourist,
you the treasure map. The X I’ll trust
until it disappoints my wanderlust.

Gerry Cambridge and Duncan Glen

More on By Leaves We Live (with still more to come).

The conversation between Duncan Glen, editor at Akros Press (the link I had no longer works) and of the magazine Zed2O, and Gerry Cambridge, editor of The Dark Horse magazine, was packed with anecdotal humour. More than that, both poets exhibited a sense of history. They’ve seen poetic trends come and go in publishing careers that span years, and in Duncan Glen’s case, cover over five decades.

Duncan Glen began publishing in the early sixties mainly to give a higher profile to Scots poetry, both that of the ‘greats’ like Hugh McDiarmid and that of young, emerging writers. That was the primary passion that gave him a reason to push ahead. Even now in his mid-70s, he continues to publish chapbooks of writers new and old, and his annual magazine, Zed2O, concentrates mainly (but not exclusively) on innovative and experimental poetry of quality.

Gerry Cambridge had linked up with American writer and publisher, Dana Gioia, who offered to publish The Dark Horse in the USA as long as it offered more than merely Scottish interest. The Scottish/American link, the emphasis on metrical and formal poetry (again, not exclusively), and a deliberate internationalism, gives the magazine a unique flavour.

In some ways, they could be seen to come from opposite ends of the poetic spectrum. What they had in common, which seemed more significant to me, was an emphasis on quality, a passion for making good poetry available, and a drive to surprise their readers and – no doubt – themselves.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Poet Mimics - Michael Schmidt

The By Leaves We Live event at the Scottish Poetry Library was good in all kinds of ways.

The seminars were interesting and provocative. To begin with, Michael Schmidt of Carcanet Press said he felt too many poems submitted to him were nothing more than mimics of other contemporary poets. A batch of poems would sound like, say, John Ashbery (or whoever the flavour of the month happened to be), but lack these poets’ antecedents e.g. Beddoes, Clare etc. So not only a mimicry, but a superficial one.

He also felt that before the last few decades, there were really bad poem-submissions and really good ones. Now the majority occupied a dull middle ground – people who had learned technique enough to pass their poems off as clever and well crafted, poems that seemed to have style and voice – but the voice would have little depth to it, the style little individuality. Ultimately, average poems are never going to be good enough.

There’s lots more to say about this event. Soon.