Monday, December 31, 2007

Emmylou Harris

Happy New Year, everyone, when it comes. May Emmylou lead us there.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A New Kind of Music Station

I have Martin Stannard to thank for this one. Pandora is a new kind of radio station. You key in a band/artist you like and Pandora will form a ‘station’ that plays songs non-stop by that band/artist and others who have some kind of affinity with that band/artist.

It works (and it's legal. Artists get paid, presumably through the discreet advertising - no horrible pop-ups)! I have five stations now that play music akin to Tom Waits, Talking Heads, Yo La Tengo, Miles Davis, and Belle and Sebastian. Some of the music I had heard before, some was completely new to me, but nearly all of it was good. If you hate a track, you can tell Pandora and they promise never to play it again.

When you go there first, you can have a trial shot. Then it asks you to register (quite minimal information) and to provide a U.S. zipcode. If you don’t know what to do at that point and are ready to give up, does this help?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Tommy Sheridan Charged with Perjury

Last year, I covered the Tommy Sheridan trial – outspoken Scottish socialist leader, campaigner, ex-member of the Scottish parliament and rampant egotist. Sheridan had sued the tabloid newspaper, the News of the World, because it had made lurid allegations about his private life e.g. that he’d visited swingers clubs and had sex with various women (other than his wife).

But the real crux of the matter was whether Sheridan’s working-class-hero image was a sham and that he was really a champagne guzzling sex addict who had thought nothing of lying to his family, his political allies and, of course, the ‘people’. Sheridan’s case against the newspaper was sensationally upheld and the News of the World were ordered to pay costs.

However an perjury enquiry was immediately launched. Had Tommy Sheridan and his witnesses lied in court? More than a year later, the enquiry has concluded that there is enough evidence to bring Sheridan to trial for perjury and perhaps others too.

Sheridan describes the proceedings as a witch-hunt instigated by the Murdoch Empire (Rupert Murdoch owns the News of the World). This, I think, is pure ego. The News of the World is an odious publication and I wish it didn’t exist. But I can’t see why Murdoch would consider Sheridan important enough to pursue over many years in expensive court battles. Hasn’t Murdoch got more important tasks to carry out in his quest for world domination?

The truth is surely that the accounts of evidence given at the original trial were so contradictory that one side had to be lying. The Crown Office instigated the enquiry for that reason and the trial is surely worth investigating. Whoever lied caused vast sums of public money to be thrown away on expensive legal proceedings, and if sufficient evidence has been produced to allow a trial, it’s important that the evidence is properly assessed. If Sheridan is found innocent, we an all draw a line under the case and perhaps just a few people might decide no longer to buy the trash that is the News of the World. If Sheridan is guilty, at least we’ll know how far he deserves to be trusted in the future when he complains about the government wasting taxpayers’ money.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Favourites of 2007

I’ve been ruthless in only including books I’ve finished, which rules out Claire Crowther, James Schuyler, Edwin Morgan, Richard Price, Alan Gillis, and W.S Graham – whose books I am still reading (I tend to read several books at the one time). Some of them, perhaps all, may well feature in my 2008 lists. I won’t finish any of them before the end of the year as I am reading two huge Selected Poems sent to me for review by a magazine and have no time to read anything else.

Favourite Poetry Books published in 2007

The Parthian Stations – John Ash (Carcanet)
The Harbour Beyond the Movie – Luke Kennard (Salt)
Travelator – Steven Waling (Salt)

Favourite Poetry Books read in 2007 (but not published then)

The Never-Never – Kathryn Gray (Seren)
Selected Poems – Mark Strand (Carcanet)
Fire Stations – AB Jackson (Anvil)
The Deleted World – Tomas Transtromer (Enitharmon)
Masculinity – Robert Crawford (Cape)
The Truth of Poetry – Michael Hamburger (Anvil)
Coming to Terms – Harry Guest (Anvil)
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly – Denis Johnson (Harper Perennial)
Carbon Atom – Alexander Hutchison (Link-Light)
A Little Book of Meat – Selima Hill (Bloodaxe)
Green Sees Things in Waves – August Kleinzahler (Faber & Faber)

Favourite Chapbooks/Pamphlets of 2007

The Small Hours – Tom Duddy (HappenStance)
Smoke – Jenni Daiches (Kettillonia)
Payday Loans – Jee Leong Koh (Poets Wear Prada)
Cabinet d'Amateur - Andrew Shields (Darling)
19th Century Blues – Patrick McGuinness (Smith/Doorstop)
The Body in the Well – Gregory Leadbetter (HappenStance)
Super Try Again – Roddy Lumsden (Donut)

Favourite Poetry Magazines


Favourite Poetry Webzines


Most Provocative Essay on Poetry

Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment – Tony Hoagland

Best Live Poetry Gig

Of events I have been involved in, the HappenStance reading at Carlisle was brilliant, and Roddy Lumsden, AB Jackson, and Andrew Philip at the Great Grog, Edinburgh, would take a lot of beating.

Mark Strand at StAnza 2007 was terrific.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Poetry and Copyright

Wendy Cope’s article in last week’s Guardian on breach of copyright raises complex issues.

Cope complains that her poems can be found “all over the Internet” and I’ve no doubt that’s true. She depends on income from writing. It’s her job. She feels that the sheer amount of her material online must adversely affect her book sales.

This week in the Guardian blog, Oliver Burkeman makes the opposite case. He feels that while wholesale copying from poetry collections is clearly wrong, the availability of a few poems online is most likely to increase sales.

Part of me agrees with him. I’ve bought several collections after finding poems online. The amount of poetry online simply hasn’t stopped me from buying poetry books. My own bookcases are ample evidence of this. Also, there is a lot of really bad poetry on the internet – millions of poems that wouldn’t stand a chance of being published, but which find a home on showcase sites and blogs. It’s good that quality poems exist on the internet – otherwise people might get the impression that most poetry was of the unpublishable variety. In addition, the Internet has opened up the work of poets to a global readership. Because I've found work online, I've ordered and read collections from foreign poets (especially Americans) who are virtually unknown and often unpublished in the UK. I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do so without such fortuitous breach of copyright.

On the other hand, I can see why Wendy Cope isn’t happy. The idea that poets should be grateful when people reproduce their work without permission (even if they credit the poet) is incredibly patronising. Poets are supposed to nod their heads in thanks for any crumb of attention people throw to them, even if that means allowing people to reproduce their work without payment – even if writing is part of the poet’s livelihood. The worst offenders in that regard are sites like Poemhunter which reproduce large amounts of poets’ work (even creating ebooks of it!) without permission and who make money from revenue generated by site-ads.

But uploading occasional poems without financial gain seems to me to belong to a different category. On balance I think it brings attention to a poet’s work. It leaves people wanting more. Of course, if you only want a single poem by a poet and you find it on a website, it saves you from buying the book and Wendy Cope’s argument is vindicated. But I suspect that’s more than balanced out by people finding a poem by someone, liking it, and then buying the collection it comes from. Of course, it’s impossible to prove this either way.


As a postscript; I typed ‘Wendy Cope poems’ into a search engine just to see what would come up and despite Ms Cope’s efforts, there are quite a number of sites still showcasing her poems. The most thought-provoking was this one, in which a poster asked where she might find Wendy Cope’s A Christmas Poem. She felt it would be a good quote for her Facebook page. The question has been “resolved”.

The “resolution” was another poster typing the poem, in full, into a comment box, without any thought that doing so was breach of copyright (just as using it on a Facebook site would be). Other posters had recommended trying various websites. But no one suggested purchasing Cope’s collection Serious Concerns, where the poem actually appears. Makes you think!


Another postscript: the attitude of melodic pop band, the Trash Can Sinatras, shows how some artists have embraced both the Internet and breach of copyright.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Twisted and Bent

I've no idea of how many times I saw The Trashcan Sinatras live in Glasgow back in the nineties, but it was a lot. This is my favourite of their songs, especially the harmonies in the last section.

As an interesting adjunct to the debate on copyright and the Internet above, here’s a list of Trash Can Sinatras videos available on YouTube, provided by the band’s own website!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The X Factor Final 2007 - Part 5

Well, you wouldn’t take a tip off me, would you? I’ve at least been consistent in getting it wrong all evening. Leon won! I must admit, I am as stunned at that result as Leon obviously was. And relieved too. Leon is at least a modest kind of guy. He only began singing about 10 months ago, but he has quite a voice and I guess it will keep getting better for a while. He will be Christmas number one. After that, I don’t know…

Anyway, I guess it's now back to business as usual - poetry, criticism etc - all that stuff I've left behind for one evening.

The X Factor Final 2007 - Part 4

Yes, Rhydian sang it exactly as I knew he would. It’s anybody’s game. The lines are closed, the votes have been cast. In five minutes, it’ll all be over.

The X Factor Final 2007 - Part 3

Huh! What a useless pundit I am. Same Difference are out of the competition in third place. So it’s between Leon and Rhydian and only one percent of votes separates them at the moment. Leon sang the final song, When You Believe (I think that’s what it’s called) and did a good job. Rhydian is just about to go. I know exactly how he will sing it and I know I won’t like it.

I hope Leon wins. I think Rhydian will win.

The X Factor Final 2007 - Part 2

OK, all three finalists have sung their hearts out, and here’s how I see it, round by round. I’ll try to put aside my prejudices and be as objective as I can:

1. The Christmas Songs

It pains me to say it, but I have to hand this round to Rhydian. O Holy Night turned out to be an inspired choice. It suited his voice down to the ground. He had a backing choir and a bunch of children on stage too – always a winner on the X Factor.

Second would be Leon – he did a pretty good White Christmas.

Same Difference were energetic but shrill.

2. The Duets

A complete surprise. Same Difference and Jason Donovan were cheesy, but extraordinarily effective. The kids on backing vocals will pile on the votes. I’d give them this round.

I suspect that most people would give it to Leon and Kylie. I would too if it was Kylie I was voting for. I don’t really like Kylie much, but she has star quality and she showed it. Without her, Leon would have been struggling.

If you wanted proof of why classical vocalists singing pop songs is nearly always a terrible idea, you don’t need to look any further than Rhydian and Katherine Jenkins demolishing You Raise Me Up. It was awful. And it reminded me of how important it is that Rhydian doesn’t win tonight.

3. Performers’ Choice

A tough one to call. The judges loved Rhydian’s Somewhere. I didn’t care for it, but I guess it will get a lot of votes.

Leon’s You Don’t Know Me was good. His diction is excellent, every word as clear as a bell. I don’t think it is a vote-grabber though.

Same Difference did a great job with the High School Musical song. They jumped off desks and did a kind of scissors-kick in unison on the way down, which was a great piece of television. They had trendy child-dancers. I think they shaded this round, given that their fan base will vote from their mobiles in huge numbers.


My predictions: I think Leon will take third place.

Picking a winner is hard. On tonight’s performances, I think Same Difference were best, even though what they do means nothing to me. But the judges were angling for Rhydian and I reckon their opinions have a big influence on the voting. So I’m going to stick to Rhydian to win, even if it means I will have to:

a) buy ear-muffs for the next few weeks at least, as his single will be playing everywhere

b) buy his album for Andy Jackson, as I foolishly promised I would after a previous post – if he wins.

The results show begins in about ten minutes. Please don’t win, Rhydian.

The X Factor Final 2007 - Part 1

The X Factor Final will begin in approximately five minutes. But who will win? Perhaps the answer is in the songs:


White Christmas
Better the Devil You Know (duet with Kylie Minogue)
You Don’t Know Me

That duet with Kylie is a masterstroke. Plenty of votes there. I hope Leon wins. If he does, I don’t think anyone will remember him by this time next year, but at least we’ll have forgotten about the other two as well. Small mercies.


O Holy Night
You Raise Me Up (duet with Katherine Jenkins)

Certainly a more inspiring set of songs than those of Leon. But it’s Rhydian singing them. I really really hope he doesn’t win. I don’t want to see his smarmy little face again or hear his distinctly average pseudo-classical voice. But I think he will win. Aaaaargh…


All I Want for Christmas is You
Any Dream Will Do (duet with Jason Donovan)
Breaking Free

Well, they’ve drawn the short straw with the duet. Leon gets Kylie, but SD get Jason? But Breaking Free is another masterstroke – it’s from High School Musical and will earn them the primary school vote and the uncool teenagers vote – probably that’s a lot of votes.


I'm off to watch now. I'll blog again after the perfomances and say what I think.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Last night, I went to see Jack and the Beanstalk, this year’s pantomime produced by the Edinburgh People’s Theatre. Anne, my wife, plays a glittery pink fairy, making sure love wins the day against those who are determined to raise taxes and stop everyone from having a good time. Being a fairy, she speaks in rhyme – poetry not quite up to the standard of Paul Muldoon or George Szirtes, I admit – but pantomime is always enhanced by fun and doggerel, and she gives a good performance.

I was there with a group of children, who are no doubt the best judges of a pantomime, and they loved it. Unsurprising, as the baddies (the baron and his incompetent henchmen) are really bad, but not in a way liable to give kids nightmares. In fact, my lot were more than a match for the forces of evil. They booed and hissed with enthusiasm whenever the nasty threesome came near the stage, so much that in one scene the baron stared at them and said, “Go back to Broomhouse,” the area of Edinburgh where they live (he had obviously been tipped off by the fairy…), which stemmed a predictable reaction!

Jack is convincing as the naïve boy who is determined to rescue his true love (he falls in love at first sight in a hilariously over-the-top scene – never can a dialogue have contained so many romantic clichés, deliberately of course) by climbing the beanstalk and rescuing her from a ghastly dungeon. Jack’s mum, Dame Bella (brought into the production less than three weeks ago after the original dame had to pull out), was excellent – you would never have guessed he had learned all those lines and moves in so short a time.

The singing is good too and the camp soundtrack straight out of Eurovision (usually with altered words) will give the adults a good laugh. “Fly the Flag”, the UK’s Eurovision entry earlier this year, is really well done, complete with air hostess and safety demonstration. There were a few problems with the sound, the vocals being too quiet for the music during the first few songs. That was dealt with as the play went on, but the sound people might want to make sure the levels are right from the beginning in future shows.

So if you’re looking for a panto that will engage children, but also entertain adults, Jack and the Beanstalk might be what you’re looking for. Details below:

CHURCH HILL THEATRE Morningside Road, Edinburgh
12th - 22nd December 2007 (not 16th)

Evenings at 7:00pm (not 16th or 22nd);
Matinees at 2:30pm on 15th & 22nd

Tickets: £8.00, Concessions: £7.00

Friday, December 14, 2007

Poems in This Week's TLS

If any of you pick up a copy of this week’s Times Literary Supplement (dated 14 December), you’ll find poems by three excellent writers - AB Jackson, Carrie Etter, and Robert Crawford, in amongst all the other stuff.

I’ll have to hunt down an issue myself. Apparently there is a misprint in Carrie’s poem, and they’ve printed the wrong version of Andy’s. However, I’ve read Andy’s poem, The Visitor, and it’s really good even without his final tweaks. Worth getting a copy of the TLS for.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Notes on the Christmas Poetry Pamphlet Party and Fair

I thought I’d never reach the Christmas Poetry Pamphlet Party and Fair last night. I left the house slightly late, due to family responsibilities, missed a bus and had to wait 25 minutes for the next one, which took ages to crawl through town. I arrived 40 minutes late, just in time to elbow my way through the bustle (really…) to the table I was sharing with HappenStance poet, Margaret Christie – we laid our pamphlets out and waited to see if we could sell any.

And the story of most of this event for me is one of sitting at a table. There were four sessions of live poetry – one poem per person, blocks of six or so poets – the usual mix of brilliance and hopelessness. I read Advice to the Lion Tamer on Becoming a Poetry Critic. Margaret read a really good haiku. Occasionally I got up from my table with the plan of leafing through (and perhaps buying) pamphlets on other tables but always got involved in conversations with people, so I didn’t get to read much of anything.

I met Rachel Fox, whose poems I had enjoyed in the HappenStance light verse anthology, Unsuitable Companions, which also featured my Lion Taming poem. She had produced 10 postcards, each with one of her poems on it, so I bought a set.

I ran into A.C. Clarke who told me that a sonnet of mine, The Long Stand, had been runner-up in the readers’ poll for best poem in a recent issue of Orbis magazine. This was news to me, but obviously nice to hear about. Thank you, Orbis readers!

I also bought Jo Gibson’s The Heart is Full, just out on Colin Will’s Calder Wood Press (Colin has also blogged on this event). I’d met Jo at StAnza 2007, the legendary night in the bar when famous poets like Ruth Padel and Daljit Nagra were singing Irish folk songs at the top of their voices in honour of St Patrick’s Day. It was nice to catch up with Jo again and I look forward to reading her poems.

I swapped my chapbook for one called Baz Uber Alles, by Kevin Cadwallender, who has recently moved to Edinburgh from NE England. He had read a very funny poem earlier (about an existentialist bricklayer – not in the chapbook), so I think his chapbook will be entertaining.

I asked a woman at one table whether she was interested in swapping chapbooks and she told me that she “had never thought about it,” as if a swap was an entirely new idea to her. She glanced at my chapbook and during our conversation, slipped it back to me. So I know now that “never thought about it” is clever-code for “no.” I have a policy about these things. If anyone suggests a swap to me, I always say yes. What’s the worst that can happen? I might get a lousy book in return, or the other person might hate my book. But there’s always a chance of picking up something terrific, which might lead to me buying publications by that author in the future. Everyone wins.

Surroundings got a few mentions at the event – Patricia Ace announced that everyone should read it so that they could find out what had happened at the event they had just been at (heh heh), Alan Gay mentioned it soon afterwards, and I’m sure there was a third mention…. Afterwards people asked me, “Are you the guy that does the blog?” I run these imaginary conversations in my head:

A: Are you the guy that does the blog?”
Me: Yes, and I write poetry too.
A: Well yes, but that blog sounds good.
Me: Thanks. This is my chapbook, The Clown of Natural Sorrow.
A: Uh… what’s your blog url?...

That didn’t happen. It was more like:

A: Are you the guy that does the blog?
Me: Yes. This is my card. The url is on it.

I sold 5 Clowns and 1 Unsuitable Companions (I only had one of those on me). Margaret Christie sold slightly more. Not bad really.

I have this fictional scenario in which, after this event, everyone goes out to a bar together and has a laugh. Actually, everyone gets into their cars and goes home, unless there was a secret bar that no one told me about. I waited on a bus – for ages again – and went home. A good thing probably, after all the red wine and mince pies at the event.

In any case, thanks are due to Tessa Ransford and her team for making the event happen. Perhaps we should have an International Poetry Pamphlet Day in which everyone buys a new chapbook. Or swaps one… Or at least reads one.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas Poetry Pamphlet Party and Fair 2007

This is where I’ll be tomorrow early evening.

Christmas Poetry Pamphlet Party and Fair
Wednesday 12th December 2007 - 6 to 8.30pm

Phase 2 Lecture Room, Causewayside Building,
33 Salisbury Place, Edinburgh

Free entry: wine, mince pies, readings,
poetry pamphlets and cards to buy.

Poets and publishers display and read samples of their work. Plenty of opportunity for browsing, chatting and buying pamphlets…

Monday, December 10, 2007

The X-Factor 2007

Last year, I blogged quite a bit about the X-Factor (the UK version of American Idol) and Big Brother. I find reality TV fascinating – in equal measure compelling and repulsive. There is far, far too much of it. I never watch all those shows about people buying houses abroad or eating insects in fake jungles or swapping partners or being sworn at and humiliated in restaurant kitchens or hiring self-proclaimed ‘experts’ to bring their rebellious children into line etc. But the X-Factor’s brazen fast-track-to-fame mentality and Big Brother’s voyeuristic control experiments are of a different quality – often trashy but nonetheless interesting to watch.

And of course I write a lot about that place (whatever it is) that lies between the real and the unreal, the world as it is and the imagination, the living and the dead, one’s self-perception and how one is perceived by others – and reality TV occupies that place in a unique way. It gives me plenty of material, no doubt about that. Yes, I know, my attitude is all wrong. I should either love this show for what it is or switch off and read some criminally-neglected literary classic instead, because life is short and every hour is precious. But for a couple of hours a week, I crave my dose of nonsense.

Last year, when Leona Lewis hit the X-Factor stage, I guess Simon Cowell and the other judges must have been rubbing their hands in glee. They had obviously struck gold. Leona doesn’t sing the kind of music I am interested in and I hate her recent number one single, but she has an incredible voice. She was way above all the other contestants. Only Brenda, from the previous year, inexplicably voted out the week before the 2005 final, had that same star quality (and I understand Brenda now sings on Broadway).

This year, I can’t get interested. The final takes place this Saturday and I’ve been keeping an eye on the show, but the quality is way down. Every week when someone is voted off the show, I cringe when they say, “This is not the end, just the beginning for me.” The performers voted off so far this year might enjoy their fifteen minutes of tabloid fame, but I don’t see any of them enduring in the public consciousness much beyond March 2008. How many can you remember even now? Perhaps the formula has become tedious, despite the much-hyped changes of personnel in presenters and judges. I watched last Saturday’s show and saw:

Rhydian – I can’t stand this guy. People who sing pop songs in faux-operatic voices do my head in. I hate it. Why anyone likes it is beyond me. What’s more, Rhydian’s voice isn’t that good – not good enough for serious opera and horrible for pop. He is hot favourite. If he wins, it will be a victory for bad taste. If you don’t believe me, watch him singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. Will the UK prove that it has finally lost all its marbles?

Same Difference – remember Dollar? Cheesy pap, ridiculous dancing – OK for a one-off Royal Variety Show, as long as you don’t make me watch it.

Leon – this year’s ‘Ray’ (finalist last year). He sings swing in an entirely unremarkable way. He is Scottish and with the Scottish block vote, he might win. But who will care?

Niki – Niki represents the quality bar of this year’s show. She was easily the best singer of the four, but not a patch on Leona or Brenda. The show’s image-makers had also made the weird decision of making her look like a soap opera barmaid on stage. Anyway, she was voted out, so the final will be between the first three.

I will watch the final, but it will be a struggle. I can listen to the inoffensive Leon. I hope he wins. At least he is not annoying.

Fuselit Foxes

Does the thought of ‘Fox’ suddenly inspire you to write a poem or prose piece, or record a weird soundscape, or get your crayons out? You might consider sending the results to Fuselit, a sparky little publication. I know the website says the deadline for contributions is 30 November, but that’s now been extended to 31 December.

I have two 'fox' poems on the go. Whether I'll manage to finish them is another matter.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

On Dark Places

Interesting. Jane Holland has initiated an exercise on her blog to do with first-draft writing and revision. Anyone can take part. The exercise is titled On Dark Places and full details can be found there. You can also read Jane’s attempt and responses to the first-draft part of the challenge at this link. You’ve got until Wednesday 12th December if you want to give it a shot.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Scales Dog

Scales Dog, really a New and Selected Poems by Alexander Hutchison is now out, published by Salt. His last collection, Carbon Atom, much of which is included in Scales Dog, was terrific. I’m going to have to leave buying Scales Dog until January (and wouldn’t have time to start reading it until then anyway), but it looks like being one of the best collections of the year - if the rest of it is as good as the bits and pieces I've read so far.



Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thoughts on Recent Collections

Andrew Shields has been reading some of the books nominated for this year’s TS Eliot Prize and he’s done a great job of presenting Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon and Sarah Maguire’s The Pomegranates of Kandahar so far. Well worth taking a look at.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Best Scottish Poems 2007

The list of Best Scottish Poems 2007, part of an annual series produced by the Scottish Poetry Library and chosen this year by Alan Spence, is now online.

Of the 20 poems, my favourites were:

Unaccompanied by Fiona Benson
Afterlife by John Burnside
Salvador Dali: Christ of St John of the Cross by Edwin Morgan

I enjoyed some of the others too.

I’m not going to say which ones, as I have to live in this country and don’t want to get into fistfights unnecessarily, but I thought that a few of these poems were awful

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Publishing Poetry

First off, big congratulations to fellow HappenStance poet, Matt Merritt, whose manuscript has been accepted by Arrowhead Press and will become a full-length collection in 2008. Matt’s poems are wonderfully observed and always have impact at a deep human level. It’s terrific news and well deserved.

My own manuscript is still crawling its way towards the outside world. I still haven’t sent it to any publishers, but I’m convinced now that it’s far stronger than it was a few months ago. I’ve added poems, revised a few that hadn’t quite hit the mark before, and chucked out a fair number. Thanks are due to Andrew Philip and AB Jackson for their perceptive comments on my earlier draft. Most publishers don’t want to receive a full manuscript at first – only a selection from it, the exact number of poems depending on their submission guidelines – so I’m going to have to give serious thought to which poems are the strongest. Sometimes my favourites aren’t the best ones. I'm also thinking about how to 'sell' it - how it hangs together, whether it's sufficiently distinctive (if not, there's no point in its existence).

I’ve also been printing off my favourite unpublished poems from my MS with a view to sending them to journals. I haven’t submitted a huge number of poems in the last six months or so, so I have a lot of unpublished material. The trouble now is deciding which magazines to submit to. I am making a list of potential magazines, but choosing the right poems for each magazine is really hard. My golden rule is to send only to publications I like or to publications someone I trust has recommended. That, at least, cuts down my options considerably!

I confess that I’m wary of many Internet zines. Not all of them – some are very good. But others seem to me to publish a kind of “McPoem” – worthy, decently crafted, and entirely dull – and an acceptance from any of them would be more worrying than anything else. Hmmmm, perhaps I’m being too harsh. Probably.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Carlisle HappenStance Poetry Party

The photo is from the HappenStance reading in Carlisle on Friday evening at the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery. Six of us were involved:

L-R: Matt Merritt, James Wood, Eleanor Livingstone, Trish Ace, myself, and Helena Nelson.

It was a really terrific night, one of those readings that seemed to make a connection with the audience and came alive in a way that none of us could have predicted. The first half involved each poet reading about three poems apiece. The second half constituted two poems and a few minutes of waffle about ourselves, our plans, our current activities, and in my case, this blog. If anyone from the uniquely receptive Carlisle audience has found Surroundings – a warm welcome, and thanks for a highly enjoyable evening.

[for another angle on the event, have a look at Matt Merritt’s report]

I was close to not making it at all. After waiting ages on a bus to Haymarket station, it crawled all the way, stopped at every stop, and I’d just stepped onto the platform when the train to Carlisle rolled in. The train was full, the guy next to me had BO, but my Collected James Schuyler took my mind off things. What a fantastic writer he was, my favourite of all the New York School poets, despite my only realising this in recent months.

I had met Eleanor and Helena getting on the train, and Matt was at the B&B when we arrived. We were told that Trish, her husband, James and his girlfriend, were at the Howard Bar, but they weren’t. Eventually Trish turned up, but James had disappeared. Nobody knew where he was or how to track him down. However he did turn up at the venue, a room in a spectacular Art Gallery, complete with bar and ideal acoustics.

The readings were all good – very entertaining and engaging – and the audience were terrific. They also bought loads of chapbooks. There were only three or four chapbooks left by the end of the gig. As far as I know, all of mine were bought – that’s a first!

Afterwards we tried to find food in Carlisle, but even though it hadn’t hit 10pm, the people of Carlisle had stopped eating and moved onto more liquid pursuits. We walked about the city and asked in every café and restaurant we came across, but no one would serve us. Perhaps they’d been tipped off that the poets were in town. We found an Indian restaurant that still seemed fairly lively, but were told that the chefs had just left the building. A taxi driver sent us to a Thai place that looked as if it hadn’t opened in years. There were two chip shops near the train station but it was cold and drizzly and no one wanted to wander about for any longer. We found a Subway café and bought sandwiches. Mine was laden with jalapeno chillies that set my mouth on fire. I would have gone out for a drink afterwards, but Trish ordered a hot chocolate, which suggested to me that the night was drawing to a close, and indeed, two minutes later, we were on our way back to the B&B. However, I believe Trish and her husband followed up their hot chocolate with a night on the town - one strength of good poets is the ability to do things in the wrong order.

The next morning, we all had breakfast, gathered around the table in front of the Christmas tree as if we were a family on Christmas Day – all that was missing were the crackers and daft hats. Afterwards, on the way to the station, the Salvation Army band were out playing "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and other carols, so the commecialism all around us made a temporary retreat - at least until we passed a well known DVD/CD shop with the slogan on its windows, Take the Nightmare out of Christmas!, as if Christmas had been a nightmare before all these guys with their slogans came along.

Oh, and my obligatory setlist:

1. While the Moonies are Taking Over Uruguay
2. Concentration
3. Light Storms from a Dark Country
4. At the Harry Potter Launch
5. Advice to the Lion-Tamer on becoming a Poetry Critic

Friday, November 30, 2007


Check out QuickMuse if you haven’t before. Well known poets e.g. Robert Pinsky, Paul Muldoon, Glyn Maxwell and Charles Bernstein, are given 15 minutes to write a poem, and you can watch them writing it in ‘real time.’ Often really fascinating.

Meditation at Lagunitas

Robert Hass’s Meditation at Lagunitas is a poem I never get bored of reading, and Pimone Triplett’s reading of it at the link has just got me reading it again (the poem is printed in full beneath her commentary).

The first thing I read by Hass was his brilliant collection of essays on poetry, Twentieth Century Pleasures (yes, the anonymous Amazon review there is mine). Along with Michael Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry, it’s probably the best book about poetry I’ve ever read.

I’m going to drop subtle hints to my wife that his latest collection, Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005, would make an excellent Christmas present.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

First Leg of the HappenStance Tour

Actually there only is one leg, but it should be well worth checking out if you are anywhere near Carlisle on Friday 30th November from 8pm. It’s all happening at the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery. Castle Street, Carlisle, Cumbria, CA3 8TP, which happens to be home of the Border Poets, who have organised a series of events over the next few months.

Although the venue’s website suggests that there will be four or five HappenStance poets reading, there will (as far as I remember) be six – Patricia Ace, Eleanor Livingstone, myself, Matt Merritt, Helena Nelson, and James Wood.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Tindersticks / Buried Bones

My favourite Tindersticks song, and there were so many in contention. A terrific band with an unmistakable sound.

Friday, November 23, 2007


I've posted more original poetry here in the last couple of weeks than I normally do, and here's another poem, a draft really. I don't often write poems based on true news stories, but this one begins with a real incident. It will disappear, as ever, at some point tomorrow:


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Poetry Meeting

I went yesterday evening to the inaugural meeting of the UK Poetry Society’s Edinburgh ‘Stanza.’ The idea is that members of the Poetry Society meet together once every month or two and such meetings take place locally up and down the country. I wasn’t sure what these meetings were supposed to do, other than bring people who like poetry together, and went along out of curiosity.

It was a good evening. Valerie Gillies, Edinburgh’s “Makar” (a Scottish version of city area poet laureate), was there reading a few new poems and talking about her work. Then we discussed the future of the group, what could be done that wasn’t already being done by other groups. It will be interesting to see how things develop. Options (not mutually exclusive) include asking well-known poets to come along to read their poems and appraise members’ poems, holding discussions about poets and poetic themes, exploring ways of getting poetry more into the public eye, and hosting short readings by members.

Colin Will and Alan Gay were both there, but it was also good to meet poets and readers who were not otherwise connected with the east of Scotland poetry ‘scene.’

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Daft Sonnet

OK, for anyone who missed (or indeed, anyone unlucky enough to read) the pantoum I've now erased from the post below, here's a sonnet (of a kind) about writing the pantoum. So from a formal poem, I've now moved on to meta-formal:

Muldoon could knock off pantoums with such ease
I thought I’d have a shot. The first line
found truth beneath my neighbour’s tangerine
sofa – a gift to any troubled muse! –
and the first stanza’s making was a breeze.
But by the second stanza, I began
to wish I hadn’t started this insane
form that Muldoon could knock off with such ease.

The repetitions every other line -
I know – are gifts to any troubled muse
when stuck for words. Just write the same again
and again… By the umpteenth stanza I’d begun
to lose the plot of how Muldoon with ease
found truth beneath his neighbour’s tangerine

Monday, November 19, 2007

Formal Debate

I initiated a discussion on full rhyme and metre at the Poets on Fire forum after reading a critic who dismissed writing in traditional forms as “anachronistic.” I know this issue often polarises North American writers, but I had thought that writing and publishing formal verse was uncontroversial in the UK. However, it seems as though not everyone agrees.

I guess only about 10 percent of my output is in traditional form, and I tend to go for slant rhymes and loose metre. However, the poem (a pantoum) below is unusual for me in that it uses full rhyme and fairly strict metre. Does that mean I’ll find difficulty in getting it published, outside specialised “formalist” publications (which I don’t tend to submit to anyway)? Well, I’ll see. I may do some more work on it, and then I’ll keep submitting it to the mainstream magazines until either someone takes it or I give up. Of course, it won't really prove anything if no one accepts it - it might simply not be good enough. I’ll leave it here for about 24 hours.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

We're Out!

Well, that was thoroughly depressing. It might have been easier to shrug off if Scotland had been rubbish, but they were a match for Italy all the way. Dee Rimbaud has said all that needs to be said.

Can Scotland Beat Italy?

Football is a matter of life and death to many Scots. The national self-confidence will either take a huge boost or be plunged into depression later today. Scotland only have to win a single game, with home advantage, kick-off 5pm, to qualify for next year’s European Championship. The bad news is that the game is against Italy, who happen to be the current world champions.

Scotland could have made life easier for themselves by getting a point or two from their last fixture away to Georgia, but you can always trust Scotland to make things as hard as possible for themselves.

Can we do it? On paper, the answer is definitely no. The Italians are too strong. But Scotland have upset the odds several times in the qualifying group. When the draw was made and Scotland ended up in the same group as Italy, France and Ukraine, no one gave us half a chance, but we’ve put together a string of great results - including home and away victories against World Cup runners-up, France.

My feeling is that if Italy score first, we may as well forget it. I can’t see Scotland coming from behind. Italy’s defence is one of the best in the world and they have always been adept at holding one-goal leads and hitting sides mercilessly on the break.

Some people are suggesting Italy might really thump us. I’ve even read predictions of a 4-0 Italy win. I don’t think so, mainly because I think Italy will sit back and defend if they go 2-0 (or even perhaps 1-0) up.

But if the score is 0-0 around the 60-70 minute mark, or if Scotland sneak an early goal and are still ahead around that time, then anything is possible, even against the best team in the world. It won’t be any disgrace for Scotland to go out against Italy. All the pressure is on the world champions. That might work to Scotland’s advantage.

My prediction? I think Scotland will lose 1-0. But I hope that, against all the odds, we sneak a famous victory tonight. The team have performed brilliantly and deserve a reward.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What Poetry Should...

Someone came to this blog yesterday by googling “things poems should contain.”

The reference was to my recent review of Steven Waling’s latest collection and, in particular, these lines from one of his poems:

Poetry should contain/ coffee and croissants

I hope that was helpful! It is of course the only true statement that can be made on this subject. Unless anyone can think of anything else?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Latest HappenStance Pamphlets

Five new pamphlet poetry collections are now available from HappenStance Press, all of which confirm its growing reputation as a small publisher of real quality. The books are:

Michael Munro – Poems for Alice: Michael Munro compiled the legendary ‘dictionary’ of Glasgow dialect, The Patter. But this is his first collection of poetry after 30 years of writing it.

Gregory Leadbetter – The Body in the Well: always comes at a surprising angle to the world. Some excellent writing too.

Marcia Menter - The Longing Machine: all the way from New York, the U.S. editor of cult literary magazine, The Dark Horse, shows she can write a bit herself.

Margaret Christie – The Oboist’s Bedside Book: ever wondered why the oboe seems to connect to just about everything else in life? This unusual, quirky collection makes weird sense of it all.

Ruth Pitter – Persephone in Hades: I haven’t seen this one yet myself, but it sounds fascinating. The author, who died in 1992, was the first woman to win the Queen’s Award for Poetry. This long poem records a “dark night of the soul” and “triumph of the spirit” and is described as “iconoclastic”. A forgotten classic? Not forgotten any more.

Check them out at the link…

Monday, November 12, 2007

Review: Travelator by Steven Waling

Impossible to classify, the poems in Steven Waling’s Travelator (Salt, 2007) flit between the experimentalism, play, shifting tones and unexpected leaps a reader might expect from the New York School, and an earthy, northern English, lyrical vernacular that wouldn’t sound out of place in an early Simon Armitage collection. One aspect they share is a reluctance to tie-up all the loose ends, or close with the force of aphorism, and there’s little straight, linear narrative. Instead, images juxtapose and gradually form a picture, often punctuated by gaps and missing links. The best poems almost seem to push beyond their own limits, very much like the sailors of The Prospects navigating towards a place of blessed happiness they’ve heard about, who finally touch land and find that:

whatever it was we were looking for
on this bare headland out in the ocean
has jumped ship to the next blessed isle
or the next or the next after that.

The collection is split into two sections. The first comprises a selection of ‘sonnets’ (some people might debate use of the term as the 14-line poems are unrhymed and without regular metre), which took their inspiration from a sequence by American poet, Ted Berrigan. The poems often use a ‘cut-up’ technique in which the lines in a poem are reordered. They don’t always make conventional sense, but most are compelling reading nonetheless. The cut-up phrases convey fleeting impressions. The poems leap from one impression to another, line by line and often across lines, using the vocabulary of the lyric poem, slang conversation, advice columns, and responses to news of tragedy by telephone (some of these may even be partly 'found poems', made up up of overhead conversation snippets or chopped-up phrases from newspaper articles). Phrases recur from one poem to another too, lending a tenuous unity to the sequence. An example from Advice Column:

Don’t let it get you down .... Madness is doing
the same old things
.... Since he stopped drinking
nothing about it seems funny except the way
you’re looking at things .... Poetry should contain
coffee and croissants .... Fold it up .... put it away

The artful arrangement of phrases is humorous and absurd in equal measure. The unexpected juxtapositions lend themselves to irony, but can also be utilised to explore feelings of unease, such as in The All-Purpose Stars where a relationship appears to be threatened both by what’s currently unspoken and by what should have been left that way.

Steven Waling’s poems stand at an angle to much contemporary poetry in the UK. Linear narrative isn’t a feature of many poems in this collection, although I should emphasise that they are not absurdly ‘difficult’, abstract or obscure. Waling has an ear for the music of words, a willingness to steer the poems by force of an untamed imagination, a sense of humour, and a connection with real human concerns at an emotional level. Cod, probably a cut-up poem, uses the technique not as an end in itself, but to get to the emotional heart of the matter:

on their way from Iceland emptying cargo
on the deck at Fleetwood less and less
shoals departed smaller the hunger as deep
eaten with fingers washed down with loss

The second section of the book doesn’t evidence cut-up technique with great regularity, and employs fairly conventional syntax for the most part. However, the juxtaposition of surprising images that don’t quite connect (at least, not at first) is still a strong feature in some of these poems. Other poems are nostalgic and lyrical, often beginning from a situation of sadness or alienation. I particularly liked the ‘bus-stop epiphany’ of Catching the 22, in memory of Kenneth Koch.

The characters in many poems are complex and not quite comfortable in their environment: the man commuting to a job interview who feels ill-at-ease in a world where “the lighting of lamps/ on fogbound stations breaks my heart” and “professors speak like newsreaders/chatting theology” (Through the White Hole); the vulnerable Romano outsider wandering Prague with his dreams and love of the arts – “Don’t wait for time/ to give you her hand. Go out, find/ a name for yourself: I call myself home./ My name means Gorge crossed by a bridge” (Ghosts on the Wall); the boy and his sisters looking on as a leather-clad biker, a “roaring streak of Black Lightning,” rides off with his delicate girl, the same man previously described as “reading aloud from the paper,/ that old-fashioned chivalry arm/ gentled round her waist – unnatural/ and stilted” (Before). I won’t give away the ending.

A couple of poems, Trade is Increasing and That Summer, were perhaps just too Ashbery-esque, but quite enjoyable all the same. Gorgeous, the final poem in the sequence Three Poems about Love, contained such a ham-fisted metaphor that I wondered if it had been meant as an ironic joke (but I don’t think so!). However, this collection is generally very strong, and I wouldn’t want to dwell on the few poems that didn’t hit the mark. Travelator is quite different from most collections you’ll read this year. I thought it would be the kind of book I would enjoy, but even I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Féile Filiochta

Hmmmm. I’ve tried twice now to email my entry the Feile Filiochta Poetry Competition, closing date today, and it’s twice been returned to me with the message, “Recipient’s mailbox is full.”

Clear out your mailbox, competition administrators!

***Third time lucky - I think - on Friday evening. So I may have managed to enter this competition after all. Entries were free, so there was nothing to lose.***

Boris Johnson Book of Verse

It appears that buffoon politician, Boris Johnson, has produced a collection of poems – that’s if you stretch your definition of what might be considered a ‘poem’ by several miles.

The Guardian reviewer, Stuart Jeffries, is scathing:

“As you will notice, Johnson has a gift for assonance not heard since Alexander Pope wrote the Rape of the Lock (this will be the quote they use on the paperback edition - just see if it isn't). By which I mean, there are lots of duff rhymes…e.g…

'Every child's a human being,/ not a piece of Plasticine.’

But is Jeffries scathing enough (he tried his very best, I admit)? Why does anyone put up with plonkers like Johnson, give them book deals, buy their books, vote for them?

And I thought I was half-kidding with my Johnson-Mapanje piece a few months ago. Shudder… Perhaps it gave Johnson the idea to write a bloody poetry book!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Monkey Tides

I’ve finished drafting a couple of reviews for Orbis, a UK print magazine. One of them is of Prop by Peter Jaeger, born in Montreal and now based in the UK, very much on the avant-garde side of things.

I knew I’d read something about the collection before online and then remembered it was in a mini-review by Rupert Loydell in Stride magazine (you have to go three-quarters of the way down the page to find the comments relating to Prop). Rupert Loydell comments on one of the poems, this one:

need was cooler than a shout
for drifting anchored loosely

pulling here & there
the monkey tides lap up

against the sun-bleached
logs, how they come & go--

what anchor but a yellow petal
gust of wind or even

saying, “Look at the way this…poem moves between emotion ('need'), abstraction ('monkey tides') and the purely visual & notated ('sun-bleached logs').”

I don't refer to this poem in my review, but I read it very differently. I could be entirely wrong to do so. I separated “monkey” and “tides” – so that you have this drifting matter pulling at a (real! but dead) monkey which the tides act on by lapping it against the logs. The tides (and perhaps also the monkey and logs) “come and go” and the only anchor is the inconstant petal in the wind – a fascinating final image coupled with a deliberately tailed-off fragment “and even”

When I read Rupert Loydell’s comment, I googled “monkey tides” and came up with nothing. That doesn’t mean anything in itself. Because something isn’t in Google doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist (even if some people find that hard to believe), and in any case, Peter Jaeger may have liked the idea of “monkey tides” and decided to invent the phrase. It’s certainly no stranger a phrase than the opening “need was cooler than a shout.” The appearance of an actual monkey would be unique in this book (and hence unlikely), but it’s not impossible, given that some of the poems are set in parts of the world where monkeys are plentiful.

It does make me reflect on the open-endedness of meaning in poetry. This is very different from the vagueness and lack of clarity that afflicts beginners’ poems. Peter Jaeger skews syntax and grammar deliberately to create phrases which can mean one thing or another depending on how a reader chooses to connect the words together. This open-endedness is seen as a strength by some critics, as it allows interplay between the poem and the reader. There’s no sense of definite meaning decided on by the writer. But others would demand a degree of clarity from writers, that they should try to say what they mean, or at least avoid confusion by making images sharp and clear, even if readers then bring their own interpretations to the text.

In other words, does it matter whether there’s a monkey in this poem or a specific type of tides? Does the writer have a responsibility to guide readers one way or the other, or is such confusion part of the joy and fun of poetry?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Minnie Riperton

Her high notes are legendary and the very last one in the song is almost beyond belief, but it's the emotion she puts into the song - the seeming effortlessness of it all - that made Minnie Riperton special.

And she was a one-hit wonder, dying of breast cancer at the age of 31.

"...Please stay with me while we grow old
and we will live each day in Spring
because loving you has made my life so beautiful..."

Monday, November 05, 2007

First Poetry Gig at the Great Grog

Last night’s readings at the Great Grog Bar (by Roddy Lumsden, AB Jackson, Andrew Philip and myself) went really well. I couldn’t single anyone out, as all the poets were excellent, each with a completely different style. I had hoped for just a few more people in the audience, but it wasn’t a bad number, especially given that it was the first poetry event in this venue. More importantly, everyone seemed to enjoy the show, the atmosphere was good (candles on the tables, dimmed lighting), the poetry was of high quality, and the Great Grog’s wine and draught beer was as fine as their advertising claims.

I know Andrew Shields wanted a setlist from every poet. Here's a record of my own set:

1. The Haunting
2. Accident
3. The Listeners
4. Back to Rome
5. Benediction
6. The Innocents
7. Light Storms from a Dark Country
8. How New York You Are

And AB Jackson has just emailed me his setlist:

1. Foxes
2. Office Talk
3. Acts
4. Apocypha: the Apocalypse of Judas
5. Apocrypha: Adam lay miraculous
6. Apocrypha: Abraham
7. Blackbird
8. Acoustic Mineral Wool
9. Missing
10. Lauder's Bar
11. Stammer

Roddy Lumsden has added his setlist to the comments box, but I thought I'd add it here:

1 Against Complaint
2 Shoreline Charismatic
3 Keepsakes
4 Moments of Pleasure
5 My Reptilian Existence
6 Higher Still
7 Tricks for the Barmaid
8 Ludlow
9 The Hook
10 Luck Expressed as a Fraction
11 Contagious Light
12 Against Conceit
13 Ornithogalum Dubium
14 Land's End
15 Sammy's Noodle Bar & Grill
16 Stone Tape Theory
17 A Transatlantic Creed

And finally - what you've all been waiting for - Andrew Philip's setlist.

1. The Invention of Zero
2. Man With a Dove on His Head
3. Pilgrim Variations:
i. The Departure Board
ii. Escape Velocity
iii. To the Naked Eye
iv. Eschatology for Dummies
v. Ice Storm
vi. No Thread to Follow
vii. Futurology
viii. Fire Storm
ix. Via Negativa
x. The Welcoming Committee
4. Notes to Self

Friday, November 02, 2007

Poetry Gig

Just in case any readers from around Edinburgh don’t know this is happening, I’ll paste details of this Sunday’s poetry gig at the Great Grog Bar below. It’s been publicised via the Scottish Poetry Library mailings, the StAnza mailing, Facebook, Poets on Fire, the Shore Poets, a HappenStance Launch, two blogs, and I’ve sent emails to everyone I know in the vicinity. And yet, I’m still concerned that about 5 people are going to turn up!

A great line-up of poets will be reading in the Back Lounge of the Great Grog Bar in Rose Street, Edinburgh (walk up Hanover Street, turn left at Rose Street for 30 metres).

Roddy Lumsden
A. B. Jackson
Andrew Philip
Rob A. Mackenzie

Sunday 4 November 2007, 7.30pm
Free Entry

The Poetry International website’s UK section has just given a page to AB Jackson. Some good new poems of his there. Check it out!

Nothing to do with the reading, but Richard Price now has a page on Poetry International too.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

TS Eliot Prize 2007 Shortlist

The shortlist for the TS Eliot Prize 2007 has been announced, one of the UK’s biggest awards:

Ian Duhig The Speed of Dark Picador
Alan Gillis Hawks and Doves Gallery Press
Sophie Hannah Pessimism for Beginners Carcanet
Mimi Khalvati The Meanest Flower Carcanet
Frances Leviston Public Dream Picador
Sarah Maguire The Pomegranates of Kandahar Chatto & Windus
Edwin Morgan A Book of Lives Carcanet
Sean O’Brien The Drowned Book Picador
Fiona Sampson Common Prayer Carcanet
Matthew Sweeney Black Moon Jonathan Cape

I like a few of these poets, but my first reaction is to feel it’s a rather conservative, predictable list of names.

As far as publishers go, I make the score:

Carcanet 4
Picador 3
Gallery 1
Cape 1
Chatto & Windus 1

which means 0 for Faber & Faber and Bloodaxe, and no debut on the list for Salt or Shearsman (so no Luke Kennard or Claire Crowther), let alone any of the smaller presses. That's nothing new of course.

The two surprises are Allan Gillis (whose book I must take a look at, as he lives in Edinburgh) and Frances Leviston, whose debut collection is still to be published (so impossible for me to know how good it is). **Actually, I've just realised that it was published today.**

Can Edwin Morgan do it? He probably deserves a lifetime’s service award, and there’s some great stuff in A Book of Lives, but I don’t think it’s his strongest collection.

Difficult to call. I'll say more over the next few days.

November Snakeskin

The November issue of online magazine, Snakeskin, is up. It includes two of my poems:

On the Escalator with my Daughter
Love Song from the Pot to the Kettle

Your Messages

Here’s an interesting idea from Lynne Rees and Sarah Salway. Each day of November on their blog, they invite 300-word responses to their “messages” and the best ones will be published in an anthology on bluechrome press in 2008.

Reading the guidelines and examples at the link will give you a better idea of what this is all about.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Titles and Pen Names

Yesterday, I posted my entry for the Poetry Business competition. You need to submit 20-24 pages worth of poems. The four winners get a chapbook collection of their poems published and a cash prize. It’s a well-established competition with a formidable reputation for finding high quality work. Chances of winning – as ever at this level – are slim.

One intriguing aspect is the choice of a title for the collection and of a pen-name. The title is clearly important as a collection of chapbook length requires an underlying unity. Its theme might be loose and wide-ranging, but there’s got to be something holding the collection together and the title should at least allude to that.

The choice of pen-name is another matter. Real names mustn’t appear anywhere on the manuscripts, and you might imagine that this rule is simply concerned with anonymity of submission and transparency of judging, but I don’t think so. The judges are bound to recognise poems in many manuscripts because they will have read them in magazines, competitions and anthologies. I know it will be easy for at least one of them to identify my entry and there’s nothing I can do about that – other than leave out some of my stronger poems, which would be self-defeating. So I don’t believe the pen-name requirement is primarily concerned with anonymity and, in any case, I think these judges will select their favourite entries irrespective of who has written them.

I was discussing the matter with Eleanor Livingstone on Sunday, and Matt Merritt also considered the issue on his blog a couple of weeks ago. Could it be that the choice of pen-name is part of the ‘test’? Choosing a name like ‘Jim Smith’ might suggest a failure of both nerve and imagination. ‘T. S. Stevens’ could suggest pretension and megalomania. ‘Sa Mi-Gyoung’ might suggest deception unless it becomes clear that you really are a Korean woman.

So what to choose? Clearly I can’t make public either my title or pen-name here. All I can say is that I chose them with the kind of deliberation I’d bring to writing the final line of a poem. Of course, it may turn out that the pen-names are entirely irrelevant.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Editing qarrtsiluni

The issue of qarrtsiluni that Kate Abbott and I guest-edited is now complete. We’ve concluded the issue with a real cracker of a poem (with a terrific photograph to match). Don’t miss it! I thought I'd try to say something here about the experience of editing.

As experiences go, this was a good one. At first submissions were slow in coming and I was a little concerned. However, it was probably a positive sign that people were thinking about the theme and working on their pieces rather than rushing them in.

We received a few strong pieces early on, but it was only after the first few weeks that things began to take off. It became vital to deal with submissions in as disciplined a way as possible so as they didn’t build up in too large quantities. I was surprised at the amount of high quality material we were sent, particularly on the poetry side (we could have done with more quality prose). I had expected far more bland stuff and we had to reject pieces that weren’t bad to make room for the ones which had something extra about them, that indefinable quality that demanded attention.

In the vast majority of cases, Kate and I were able to agree quickly on pieces we wanted to accept and reject. Some kept us in discussion late into the night. A co-editor is valuable. I would have rejected a few pieces of real worth had Kate not persuaded me otherwise and I think the same is true the other way round.

In a small number of cases, we worked with authors and suggested ways of improving their submissions. Some pieces needed a tweak here or there, others needed more substantial changes, but it was great when writers revised pieces and sent them back in a far stronger form. I guess that if qarrtsiluni continues to grow in readership and in numbers of submissions, this co-operative element might prove more difficult.

Rejecting submissions from friends and Internet colleagues was hard, and we had to do a fair bit of that. However, receiving brilliant submissions from people with whom we’d previously had no contact made up for it. I was so impressed by one poet’s submission (well, OK, Claire Crowther) that I went online to purchase her collection the very next day, and it’s excellent.

So it was great to be part of an online magazine that’s gaining a reputation for eclectic, quality literature and strong visual design. I hope you enjoy the issue and might consider submitting to qarrtsiluni in the future. A new theme with new guest-editors will appear sometime in early November.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Shore Poets Tonight

More live poetry again tonight, this time at the Shore Poets. The line up is impressive:

Gillian Allnutt (“her work is at once hard and delicate, like wrought iron” – Denise Levertov)
Christine de Luca (queen of literary Shetland)
James W Wood (yet another HappenStance poet, and a good one)

from 7.45pm at the Mai Thai Bar, down from the Scottish Poetry Library in Crichton’s Close, Edinburgh.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

New HappenStance Launch

I’ll be off soon for a new HappenStance launch – four new chapbooks – at the Scottish Poetry Library this afternoon, 3pm. The titles are.

The Oboist’s Bedside Book – Margaret Christie
The Body in the Well – Gregory Leadbetter
The Longing Machine – Marcia Menter
Poems for Alice – Michael Munro

I’ve read poems by Margaret Christie and Gregory Leadbetter before – both excellent poets. I don’t know of the other two, but I could lay bets on them being good.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

How to Win the National Poetry Competition

Well, entries have to be in for the UK National Poetry Competition by 31 October and poets throughout the country will be making those last-minute, oh-so-important alterations to propel their poems into the limelight.

I thought I’d pass on a few tips. I did get a poem commended a couple of years ago, and after much thought, I think I know how to get into the top three this year. But I am generous and don’t want to keep the information to myself. Choose from among the guidelines below. Following more than one suggestion is recommended.

1. Paste photographs of your children to your entry. If you don’t have children, use someone else’s.

2. Make sure someone dies horribly in your poem, especially a spouse, lover or child, even if they are still very much alive in real life. Play the sympathy card to the max.

3. If you feel that last suggestion lacks integrity, arrange to have someone kill you in a particularly brutal way. Your entry should be called, “My Last Gift to the World.”

4. Submit all your entries on pink paper, the more luminous the better.

5. Never type your entry. The more eccentric the handwriting, the better your chances will be of winning. Red pen or yellow felt-tip are the favoured options. Judges like that personal touch.

6. Crayon drawings around the margins of each page are a good idea, particularly pixies and kittens. They may distract the judges from that lack of subject-verb agreement in line 34.

7. Scour magazine archives in libraries for early poems from the judges that never appeared in their collections. The judges will probably have forgotten all about them. Enter them as your own work. An uncanny echo sounding in the judges’ heads will predispose them in your favour.

8. Write poems which explore the relationship you had with a dead grandparent. It’s all about making your poems stand out from the pack and no one else will think of that one.

9. Don’t be limited by the maximum 40-line rule. If your entry has 6,476 lines, join as many lines together as possible. Long poems are difficult to write and are bound to impress the judges.

10. Remember to attach copious notes that explain points the judges may have trouble grasping. After all, they can’t see inside your mind and you want them to be sure of the size of your intellect.

11. Use words such as eldritch, ontic, topos, and chthonic, as often as possible.

12. Be careful to avoid any resemblance to poetry in your poems. This is really important. Most poetry isn’t really poetry at all. Copy a section from a rail timetable or a guide to Windows Vista and chop it into lines. The shorter the lines, the more gravitas your entry is likely to have.

13. Judges enjoy novelty packages. Fold your poem into a paper aeroplane and seal it in a padlocked metal box. A key is optional as the judges will also enjoy trying to get into the box without one.

14. Spray your manuscript with a powerful unisex scent. Entries are anonymous, but if a judge thinks you want to sleep with him/her, it’s bound to make a difference.

15. Submit a sestina using all three judges’ names as end-words. For example, this year (judges - Michael Schmidt, Penelope Shuttle, E.A. Markham), you could begin:

“You must be taking the proverbial Michael!”
Maria exclaimed, “You think I could be Schmidt-
-en by the likes of you?” Earl glanced at Penelope,
who must have lied to him. If only a space Shuttle
could lift him to a distant galaxy. The initials E.A.
had been carved into a oak tree near Markham

village, and as Maria had once lived in Markham,
Penelope had put two and two together. “Michael
is better looking than you and belongs to the E.A.
posse,” Maria said, “but you don’t know Schmidt!”
It was now important that Earl caught the last Shuttle
bus home, even if he had to share it with Penelope..., and so on...

16. Submit a ‘concept poem.’ For example, write a different word on each sheet of a toilet roll. Invite the judges to piece them back together in the correct order.

17. Use text language as often as you can. Choosing such a poem as a winner will give the judges street credibility, even if you turn out to be resident in a nursing home.

18. If all else fails, start referring to yourself “as one of the UK’s most important poets of all time” in your blog and in every poetry board you can find on the Internet, and everyone will eventually come to believe that you, at one time, did win the competition or at least should have done.

Some of these techniques will not work with this year’s judges who, unfortunately, appear to be people of great integrity. So think of it as a practice run for future occasions. And who knows, you might get lucky!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mary Margaret O'Hara

With 'Miss America' (1988), she recorded one of the greatest albums of all time, and topped it off by not following it up! Apparently she still plays low-profile gigs around Toronto, but that's rather far away from me. So I'm delighted to find this video clip of her performing in her unique style.

John Llewellyn Rhys Prize Shortlist

The Guardian reports on the shortlist for this year's John Llewellyn Rhys prize, which is awarded to a writer aged under 35 for a work of fiction, non-fiction, drama, or poetry, has been announced – but contains no poetry or drama.

One of the judges, Peter Hobbs, talked about the submissions (which are made by publishers);

"There was very little poetry and drama at all," he said, suggesting that with big publishers restricted to three titles every year, it is difficult to reflect the diversity of their output. "It's partly market forces," he admitted, "the novel is what sells, much more than short stories, poetry and plays."

Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, responded;

"It's a bitter irony that awards have been subsumed into the battle for sales," she continued. "Literary prizes are one of the few things that might offset publishers' whims and the logic of the bottom line."

Publishers and booksellers already make decisions about which books to promote most heavily, she continued, and awards that only consider the books put forward by publishers will only replicate those decisions, giving shortlists the air of the three-for-two tables at the front of big bookshops. "Literary prizes ought to be leading the way, rather than responding to market forces," she added. "Prizes will have to change if they want to be taken seriously."

I couldn’t agree more. But there you have it. Publishers, understandably I suppose, note how prizes can greatly increase sales. They submit books they think will sell, given publicity, not the books they think are best. And poetry drops even further from the public eye because it doesn’t get onto the prominent displays that bookshops reserve for prize shortlists.

If publishers are able to submit three books each, it surely makes sense for the competition rules to insist that publishers must submit books from three of the four categories, ensuring that drama and poetry have a chance of a fair showing. But I don’t see that happening in a hurry.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Act of Making

George Szirtes has posted some interesting thoughts on The Sensation of Making a poem. And he invites other writers to email him (the address is on his home page) with articulations of their own.

Andrew Shields has responded. And I started a PFFA thread on the subject.

Poets in Velvet

My wife doesn’t read much poetry, but devours novels – hundreds each year of all kinds. She indulges, now and again, in a spot of chick-lit. At the moment, she’s reading a book called The Chocolate Lovers’ Club by Carole Matthews.

On page 183 of this novel is the following paragraph:

The poetry book that’s being launched is an anthology and I notice that there are several of the contributors mingling nervously with the guests. You can tell that they’re poets as they’re wearing mainly velvet clothing with lots of scarves and some of them have on jaunty hats.

Velvet? Lots of scarves (inside!)? Jaunty hats? Does that description scream 'poet' to you?

To be honest, she could probably spot the poets far more easily by those who'd start re-arranging her first sentence to read:

The launch is for a poetry anthology and I notice several contributors mingling nervously with the guests.