Sunday, September 30, 2007

Where to Submit Your Poems

I asked the question on where poets should submit their poems down at the Poets on Fire forum, and in the process brought up all kinds of other questions regarding submission and publication. There are probably too many points for a single thread, but I’ll see which of them people want to pick up on and discuss.

Shore Poets Back Again

The Shore Poets live poetry readings start up again tonight for the new season.

Readers this evening are Polly Clark (who was excellent when I saw her at StAnza), Ian McDonough (whose poetry I also like) and Jilly Garnet, whose stuff I don’t know at all, and look forward to hearing. Should be a good night.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


I was reading Sarah’s post on Transtromer and got onto talking about the Samuel Charters’s translation of Transtromer’s Baltics, a chapbook-length poem published in 1975 on Oyez Press.

This translation is hard to find. I’ve seen it selling for between £40 - £80. Imagine my shock when I went to and found several copies available at around $60-$110, and one copy via Powell’s bookshop for FIVE DOLLARS.


Could it be the same book? Amazon didn’t give details of the translator, but it’s definitely Baltics by Tomas Transtromer, published in 1975 on Oyez Press. What else can it be?

I ordered it. The postage cost double that of the book, but that’s still only about £8 in total. It should arrive in a couple of weeks. But I still can’t believe it. There must be a catch. There must be something wrong…

Book Shelf

Colin Will was blogging earlier about how he reads several books at a time. I go through phases. Sometimes I read one book from beginning to end, often more than once if it’s a (good) poetry collection. But at the moment, I have several books on the go, and they are:

Wallace Stevens – Harmonium (Faber& Faber): Stevens’s phenomenal 1923 debut collection. It doesn’t matter how many times I read this, I don’t get tired of it.

Hazel Smith – The Writing Experiment (Allen & Unwin, 2005): “Strategies for innovative creative writing” is the subtitle, and that’s what it is. Very interesting stuff, clearly presented.

Denis Johnson – The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly (HarperCollins 1995): I seem to have been reading this book for ages, but I’ve read most of the poems many times now. I’m not yet tired of it.

Alexander Hutchison – Carbon Atom (Link-Light, Glasgow 2006): came through the letterbox this morning. Excellent stuff in the first 20 or so pages. It sounds great too. I’ll say more when I’ve read further.

edited by Mark Ford – The New York Poets II (Carcanet, 2006): eleven poets, each with about fifteen pages of poems, all offering their poetic response to the cultural hotbed that was New York in the 1950s, 60s and beyond. Often experimental and always interesting.

Charles Baudelaire – Les Fleurs du Mal (Picador, translated by Richard Howard in 1982): these poems are unlike anything I’ve ever read and I find it astonishing that they were written in the mid-19th century.

W.S. Graham – New Collected Poems (Faber & Faber 2004): one of the great modernist writers, not much recognised in his own lifetime, but now acknowledged as a pioneering 20th century poet.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


A couple of weeks ago I had several poems accepted by a fine poetry magazine. The editor asked me for a bio – below 30 words. So I wrote:

Rob A. Mackenzie’s pamphlet collection, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005. He blogs at

The editor emailed me to say that the bio was too “flat” and could I have another shot at it – certainly, the first time I’ve ever had a bio rejected! The editor is probably right though.

I subscribe to the magazine, so I looked at bios people have contributed from past issues, such as (missing out names):

R. started writing short stories to help her get through the winter.

C. was born on a utility bed in the livin room of a flat in Drumchapel, Xmas Day 1955.

D. has finished novel 2 and hopes one day to finish his first.

W. is the only British poet to read in Shangri-La, Pokhara.

Some bios were like these, others were more ‘normal’ e.g. born in Ztown, published books A, B, and C, and work in such-and-such.

What should go in a bio? Humorous or serious? True or false?

The Anti-Muses

I did enjoy these Anti-Muses, presented by A.E. Stallings. Very funny (and true to experience).

I was directed to the anti-muses originally through a fairly new blog by Poetry (Chicago) senior editor, Don Share. And this led me to explore the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet, which contains the Anti-Muses and plenty of other interesting stuff. Christian Bok’s posts on poetic failure and the avant-garde are particularly interesting.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The new Sphinx

Issue 7 of Sphinx magazine has just arrived and looks full of good stuff. It’s definitely one to subscribe to. It doesn’t contain many poems, but is packed with articles on poetry and publishing, reviews, interviews, cartoons. Its recent application for funding from the Scottish Arts Council was unsuccessful, which seems most unfair to me.

Issue 7 contains, amongst many other things, an interview with Frogmore Papers editor, Jeremy Page, a feature on ‘editorial pet hates’, and a review by Tia Ballantine of Jee Leong Koh’s chapbook, Payday Loans:

“Thankfully imperfect and patiently brilliant, this chapbook introduces a poet whose compassionate insightful voice deserves to be heard…[The poems are] generous, honest, and lively.”

Well done, Jee, and well deserved.

Monday, September 24, 2007

B52s: Rock Lobster

This is a fantastic live version of a unique song. I saw them once, one of the best live acts ever.

OK, I'll stop posting videos now, at least for another few weeks.

The Go-Betweens

Sometimes I miss things. And somehow, I had missed that Grant Maclennan of terrific, under-rated band, The Go-Betweens, died on 6 May 2006.

They were one of my favourite groups of the 1980s and I saw them live several times.The band certainly deserved far more success than they got.

Grant Maclennan was only 48 when he died suddenly in his sleep. I don't know how I didn't see the reports. I only found out today, 18 months late…

Check out Cattle and Cane too.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Ouch! I'm not even sure what tooth it is - somewhere towards the top right corner. Luckily, I have a dental appointment tomorrow at 9am, and not a moment too soon.

I took some double-strength Nurofen tablets, along with two pints of lager. I should have read the Nurofen instructions to find out if it agrees with alcohol or not, but it's too late now. Anyway, I feel really spaced out, as if I'm hovering a few inches above the ground. And the pain has gone, for the moment at least.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Arts Celebration

My church is holding an Arts Celebration Day this afternoon. It’s mainly devoted to visual arts, and also craftwork, but I decided to contribute some poetry this year. I’ve hand-written four of my poems onto card, signed them, and mounted them in wooden frames. I wonder if any of them will sell! I’m also selling copies of my chapbook at a discount (only £2). I’ll let you all know how it goes, even if I sell none.

***Report: Rather amazingly, all ten of the chapbooks I left on the stall sold! In addition, two of the framed poems sold. Maybe community arts festivals are the way to go...***

Over Two Years In

Even I managed to miss the fact that this blog is now over two years’ old. I made my first post on 3 September 2005. The anniversary slipped my mind, although I’d been thinking over summer whether I wanted to continue with it after the second year.

The answer is that I’m not sure. Surroundings has a good readership (for a poetry blog), not in the same league as Ron Silliman, but enough to make writing it feel more than a conversation with myself. But it takes time – writing time that I could use productively on poems and prose. It’s not just the writing of the blog, but reading other blogs that steals time.

On the other hand, blogging does have the effect of focusing my mind on poetry and this helps my own writing. It provides a measure of entertainment and interest for readers. There is also an element of self-publicity, of ‘creating an audience’, which is nothing to be sniffed at or to be ashamed of.

So I’m in two minds.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Kenneth Koch Audio

Kenneth Koch’s One Train May Hide Another is, I think, a terrific poem, and it’s great to hear him read it at the link.

Would you believe that today is the first time I have ever heard Kenneth Koch’s voice? Sometimes the Internet is fantastic.

Black Moon - Review

Black Moon is Donegal-born Matthew Sweeney’s ninth collection. Its poems are packed with disturbing images – a race of animals to the death, prisoners forced to sign papers they don’t understand, a nation in a sunless future grown so used to suicide-hangings from lampposts that they barely notice the bodies. There is plenty of darkness in this book, as the title suggests.

Even everyday transactions become problematic. When a voice asks, “What size of shoes has he?” down a phone line, met only with a fire siren and shrill whistling, and delivery is then promised, the result is un-ease, the suspicion of death or disappearance, a dialling tone. The long, complex syntax of the poem gives the impression of time passing in constant anxiety.

Many poems are politically charged, many concern people who are trapped, embittered, at a loss. One of the most striking poems is The Snowy Owl, in which the owl swoops down as a firing squad executes a woman. The owl gets stained with the woman’s blood and then seems to glare at the men,

before swooping off, barely missing
the head of one, making them all
turn to watch it glide away, and hear
one more oohoo echo through the sky.

Without a word of explanation, the imagery contains ideas of innocence, wonder, guilt, fear, and possible judgement.

Matthew Sweeney writes in plain language, but with a subtlety of detail that resonates in the reader’s mind. Most of the poems are imaginative and unsettling, not quite taking the path you might expect. The rhythms are so smooth and unobtrusive at times that you almost forget you’re reading a text and instead find yourself transported within the dark world of the verse.

There were a number of poems which I felt didn’t work so well. Sweeney’s plain delivery depends on a fluidity of thought, clever use of syntax, and surprising imagery, for its impact. When these aspects aren’t so much present, the poems can feel insubstantial. The Scream tells of the troubled conscience of a man on a ship, who hears the screams of those he’s killed even over the storm and noise on board, and who throws himself over the side. I heard only the sound of melodrama. The Curry has the narrator arrive in a room filled with tell-tale evidence of a carry-out curry eaten earlier. But how had it got there and how can the narrator get hold of one around the airport? The problem is that I couldn’t care less about either the question or the solution (a pizza “brazen/ with chilli and garlic”).

That said, not many of the poems fall into that category. The bulk is pretty good. They are mainly narrative poems that tell a story and leave whatever resonance they have to do its work without appearing to have overt designs on the reader. Matthew Sweeney is best when reflecting on the disconcerting and mysterious and when creating strong and sometimes humorous images liable to stick in a reader’s mind.

The Snake posted to a woman in a long cardboard tube, “instructed not to bite her”, and then a second urged to do the opposite, isn’t a poem I’ll forget in a hurry. In The Fishermen, a man’s failure to catch a fish on his own leads him to stand alongside all the other fishermen, where he learns:

…the stupendous sense
of having multiple rods, all
sticking out in parallel. Today,
for example, I have four, and still
I’ve caught nothing, but the line on one
shook twice…

One of my favourite poems was The Sandal, which concerns a single Italian sandal washed up on a beach. The woman who finds it is Sicilian and rather than believing it useless without its twin, goes through an elaborate ritual, which at first seems like an artwork. After mounting it on black card, she :

glued an anchovy skeleton beneath it,
and above it, a dried scorpion,
sprinkled it with sea water,
said two dialect prayers

before kissing it and finally hurling it at the full moon. The comedy, mingled with parody of folk superstition, is humorous, unpredictable, and poignant.

The image of two drivers fighting over an embassy official’s suitcase at the airport is equally vivid and funny, and could also be seen as a cartoon metaphor of political struggle and ambition, in Ireland and beyond:

He felt like the rope in a tug of war.
He wanted to grab his bag and run
but each of them had it by the handle
and neither was letting go.

Matthew Sweeney’s poems are snapshots of contemporary life, often life at its darkest, lived by people who feel trapped and weighed down. Its strange humour and liveliness give it a light touch, its disconcerting subject-matter an underlying seriousness of purpose. It’s a good read.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Being co-editor of qarrtsiluni this month (and next) has been an interesting experience so far. Making decisions to accept or reject is sometimes easy, but on a few occasions I’ve been given a dose of what editors must feel when they read a piece several times and can’t quite decide.

Anyway, keep the submissions coming, folks. When we receive a piece of real quality, it’s a great feeling to read it and to accept it. Oh, and try to keep on-theme.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Boundary Marks

I had no time last week to write anything for this month’s Guardian Poetry Workshop. Until last night.

The idea was to pick a proverb, twist it, and write a poem incorporating both the twisted proverb and seven out of ten words provided by John Hartley Williams. I opened a can of Stella Artois and wrote a draft inside twenty minutes. The workshop instructions said I should “allow your work to cool off for a couple of days and take a fresh look at it.” So I watched a BBC TV drama with my wife over another can of Stella Artois and about 11pm went through to the computer again, gave the poem a stiff twenty-minute revision session, and posted it to the Guardian.

The poem is absurd. It revolves around a narrator who keeps moving a boundary mark to gain land for himself, despite his dead mother’s advice that this is wrong. His neighbour gets wise to him. However, the neighbour has no sense of direction and when he tries to move the boundary mark back, he often moves it the wrong way. Frustrated, he gets his brothers in to help, but they drop the boundary mark and it rolls down a hill. The narrator is pleased, as now the entire hill is his. The mother’s ghost isn’t happy, but that’s not going to bother this narrator!

So another barren month down at the Guardian for me, I think…

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Finding the USA on a Map

The original clip of Miss South Carolina's desperate, inarticulate attempt to answer a question has been all over the Internet.

I must admit, I laughed. But I also felt sorry for her. It was a strange, unexpected question. She is young and was under pressure and obviously completely thrown by it. She does a much better job here on the Today programme.

I don't believe Americans would have more trouble finding the USA on a map than British people would have in finding the UK - and the same goes for any other country.

I mean, Charley from the recent UK series of Big Brother hadn't heard of Gandhi (between 30-60 seconds into the video), and the eventual winner, Brian, genuinely hadn't heard of William Shakespeare, so it's hardly surprising that some people have trouble identifying objects on maps.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007

Poetry and Depth

It’s so hard to inject a poem with depth without sounding pretentious. Perhaps paddling in the shallows is almost preferable because when such a poem fails, it doesn’t fail so spectacularly. On the other hand, I don’t want to bore even myself.

Of course, it's easy to make a poem seem deep and complex, but there's got to be substance behind that seeming.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Tchai Ovna

I was through in Glasgow last night to read at the Tchai Ovna CafĂ©. I turned up to find that of the four readers, only I had arrived, and two had definitely called off. But I had met up earlier with Andy Jackson and Sandy Hutchison, both poets who can read without a script, as it turned out, at the drop of a hat. And then Tuhuala (I know I’ve got the spelling wrong), a poet from Zimbabwe, turned up and offered to read impromptu. And then the other guy still on the bill, Alan Trotter, also appeared, so all of a sudden, we had five readers on the bill.

We sat chatting to the very sociable organiser, Nalini, for a while, and drank home-brewed ginger tea and Chai, courtesy of the Tchai Ovna (thanks!), which gave us all a welcome buzz after the Guinness we’d consumed in the Big Blue Bar in Great Western Road earlier. The Tchai Ovna has a laid-back, late-sixties hippie vibe about it – small, comfortable, and atmospheric.

Andy J. started off, reciting three of his poems by heart. It struck me that I could never have done that in similar circumstances and I really should learn a few in case. He read really well too. Then Alan Trotter read some light, humorous short stories. Tuhuala read a few mainly socially-conscious poems. We had a break. Then Sandy H. read a few poems and sang a traditional song – again all of it off by heart (although he did hold a notebook, just in case)! Finally I went on and read some poems before Nalini rounded off the night with three poems of her own.

Here’s my obligatory set-list, seven poems in fifteen minutes:

1. The Clown of Natural Sorrow
2. Girl Playing Sudoku on the 7.15
3. Voices
4. How New York You Are
5. Dated
6. Concentration
7. Scotlands

Another Guinness followed, in the Stravaigans bar in Gibson Street, then the underground train to the town centre, the midnight bus back to Edinburgh, and I arrived home about 1.30am. Not bad, and a very enjoyable evening.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Call for Submissions

I am guest joint-editor, with Katherine Abbott, of the fine qarrtsiluni web magazine over September and October, and we’re now seeking high quality submissions of poetry, prose, and visual art. The submission guidelines are at the qarrtsiluni site. I hope some readers of Surroundings will consider submitting material. Have a look at the journal first, although each editorial team clearly brings personal preferences to it.

There is a theme: Making Sense

Writers often lean on what they see. But for this issue, we challenge you to build up a world in scent, taste, touch, sound, or any combination of these. We are not outlawing imagery, not at all. We value a clear, active connection with the world. As Wislawa Szymborska said in Conversation with a Stone: “Even sight heightened to become all-seeing/ will do you no good without a sense of taking part.” To have a full and concrete awareness of space, physical detail, and emotion, you do not need sight. Take your impetus from another sense, or let material from another sense define or guide the piece.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Domination of Black

I’ve been reading a fair bit of Wallace Stevens recently. I’ve always liked Stevens. I don’t know of any body of poetry that sounds better than his. The precision of his thought, the scope of his imagination, and his manipulation of rhythm put most poets in the shade.

All these qualities are important to the success of Domination of Black, from Stevens’s first collection, Harmonium, which he published in 1923 at the age of 44.

The poem requires the reader to see a fire with the colours of leaves turning in a room, peacock tails in a fire, and loud hemlocks. Normal expectations must be suspended. However literally the images are expressed, the description goes beyond a literal scene, and it goes straight to the heart like a barbed arrow. The overarching approach of night, fear, death – whatever it all amounts to – dominates the poem, and it’s hard as a reader not to feel a chill creeping down your back.

The rhythms are wonderfully effective. Consider the lines:

Like the LEAVES themSELVES
TURNing in the WIND.

Look at those two short syllables in the middle of the first of those lines, followed by the thumping long drawn-out ones, with a line-break stretching out 'selves/turned' further still, and then more anapaestic (short-short-long) syllable sets broken by the near-repeated 'selves/turn' once again on the bridge of third and fourth lines. The ‘turning’ gains emphasis from the controlled rhythm and continues to do so throughout the poem. It’s brilliant writing.

Repetition is integral. It creates a sense of inevitability, an increasing weight of doom, a mesmorising force. The hemlocks have an aura of death. Those peacocks with their awful cry act partly as a warning, partly as protest, partly as helplessness. And yet the poem is so beautiful.

Domination of Black

At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Repeating themselves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
Came striding.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.
I heard them cry -- the peacocks.
Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?

Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Sphinx 7

Sphinx issue 7 is imminent, and its accompanying online reviews are up at the link.

They include four reviews of mine of pamphlets by Gordon Jarvie, Laureen Johnson, Patrick McGuinness, and Stewart Conn.

As ever, there are many interesting publications being reviewed at Sphinx online, some reviews you might feel you want to argue bitterly with, and some that say what needs to be said with succinct elegance. And the magazine on paper, which doesn’t include the online reviews, is always worth getting hold of.

Jack Mapanje Interview

Interesting interview in the Guardian with Jack Mapanje, whose book Beasts of Nalunga has been nominated for this year’s Forward Prize.

"The narratives in Beasts of Nalunga are in the form of spirals," he explains. "They start in one place, then go around and come back, but further on. It's the best way of remembering something; an oral technique I learned from my mother when she was telling me stories about hyenas and rabbits. She would string them together, and then link them up and then loop them again, and again ... " His hands trace curves in the air.

These helical structures, these repetitions and elaborations, stood him in good stead for the harsh regime inside Mikuyu prison. Deprived of pens and paper, he began composing poems in his head, a method he still uses to this day.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Friday Reading

I’ll be doing a 15-minute poetry reading at the Tchai Ovna in the West End of Glasgow (42 Otago Lane) this Friday 7 September from about 8pm, along with other readers (I don’t know who else is on the bill). They ask for a donation of £2 at the door as entry fee.

Come along if you’re anywhere near Glasgow. It will be the first time I’ve read poetry in Glasgow since the late nineties when I used to go every month to the open mic at the Bar Brel (an event that no longer happens).

Manuscript Evolution

Thanks to Andrew Philip for saying nice things about my MS on his blog.

As Andy also points out, the MS is continuing to evolve. Some poems have been removed and most will never find their way back into the MS. A few of these might live again if I can revise them effectively.

I’ve written several poems recently that are queuing up for entry, but I’m reluctant to let them in until a few months have gone past. I tend to overrate my new material and need to time to see it in clearer perspective. I guess this is normal for most writers.

But by that time, I will have written more poems, which will also be in a queue, so I’ll have to stop adding to and subtracting from the MS at some point, when I’m sure it’s strong enough.

I’m going to try sending a few of the stronger new poems out to magazines in the meantime.