Thursday, February 28, 2008

Great Grog Update

I've just posted the 2008 programme of readings to the Poetry at the Great Grog site. I've added links for the poets reading on Sunday 13th April 2008 - Tom Pow, Joy Hendry, Margaret Christie, and Elizabeth Gold. It's going to be another superb evening.

Jim Carruth Launch

Yesterday evening, I was at the Scottish Poetry Library where Jim Carruth was launching two new chapbooks, Baxter’s Old Ram Sings the Blues, and Cowpit Yowe.

The former is a fable for our times. – not the most fashionable approach, but it’s good and is illustrated really well too. The latter contains mainly concrete poetry, but concrete poetry which attempts not just to do tricks with words and design, but to make a connection with readers. I’ve only had a chance to glance through it, and what I’ve read was excellent stuff. Jim was entertaining and read his poems very well.

After the reading, I ran into Alan Gillis, whose collection, Hawks and Doves, made the shortlist for this year’s TS Eliot Prize (you can hear poems read by the nominess at the link). I was impressed that when I asked him, without any introduction, if he’d come and read at the Great Grog Bar in 2009, he didn’t ask, “Who are you?” or “What kind of venue is it?” or anything like that – rather, an immediate ‘yes’. So there’s another thing to look forward to…

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jacob Polley

I was at the Shore Poets last Sunday, at the best readings so far in this session. Colin Will and Andrew Philip have already written about it.

I’d add only that I had read Jacob Polley’s debut collection, The Brink, when it came out in 2003. I thought some of it was terrific, but other bits didn’t do much for me. I’ve been taking another look and have enjoyed it. I’d like to say something about one of the poems and will do so soon.

Magma, Skein of Geese, and The Journal

Today, the new issue (number 40) of Magma arrived, edited by Roddy Lumsden. Hard to know where to start.

There’s always the cover featuring six young poets, including the lovely Eloise Stonborough (who has a fine poem in there too) - you’re now a star, Eloise! Or the interview with all six inside. Or the first poems, written by one of the featured poets in September at the Great Grog Bar readings, Charlotte Runcie. Or you could check out poems by Ben Wilkinson, Tony Williams, James Midgley, or A.B. Jackson. And in addition to all that and much much more, two poems by me (‘Moving On’ and ‘The Listeners’), and reviews by myself (on John Ashbery and CD Wright) and by Katy Evans-Bush.

In addition, I received my contributor’s copy of Skein of Geese. Last year at the StAnza Poetry Festival, a historical poetry event took place: the Hundred Poets Gathering. In fact, there were 103 poets, as a few were held in reserve in case of illness etc. It was an amazing day with poems read by the likes of Robert Crawford, Douglas Dunn, Cheryl Follon, Hazel Frew, Jen Hadfield, WN Herbert, Alexander Hutchison, AB Jackson, Jackie Kay, me, Helena Nelson, Ruth Padel, Alastair Reid, Penelope Shuttle, Mark Strand, George Szirtes, Tim Turnbull, and loads more people. All the poems have been compiled in the Skein of Geese anthology, which will be available for sale at only £5 from April, for as long as stocks last. I’ll post a reminder nearer the time.

Finally, I’ve just heard that the new issue of The Journal is out, including two of my poems, both from The Clown. Sam Smith, the editor, asked if he could republish them. The issue also contains poems from HappenStance poets, Patricia Ace (reading at the Great Grog in November), Martin Cook, and Gill McEvoy.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Ten Questions on Publication

Here are my responses to the Ten Questions posed at Very Like a Whale. It’s possible that I’d answer these differently from one day to another, so take them with a pinch of salt. I have published exactly one chapbook/pamphlet and am at work on the manuscript for a possible debut full collection.

1. Describe your publishing trajectory. (Where did it start? Where is it now? How long have you been at it?)

About 20 years ago, I sent poems to Iron Magazine (no longer with us) and received a kind reply from the editor suggesting I read more poetry. As he hadn’t recognised what I imagined (insanely) to be my genius, I didn’t take his advice and instead concentrated in writing song lyrics and playing in a band. Around 1998, I began writing and reading poetry again. My first published poems were in 1999, two poems in New Writing Scotland. I moved to Italy, published poems in the little magazines, and five years later moved back to Scotland where HappenStance Press was starting up. I went to the launch of the first two pamphlets, was impressed, submitted a batch of poems, fully expecting a rejection six months later, but instead got an acceptance a few days later. The pamphlet came out in December 2005. Since then I’ve been writing poems and reviews. Recently I’ve been putting together a manuscript – when it’s ready, I hope it will become my first full collection.

2. What would you do differently if you had to start all over again?

At times, I wish I’d read more poetry and learned to write it earlier in life. However, it may be that I simply wasn’t equipped to write poetry in my twenties. There’s no real point in wishing to have done things differently. Things might have worked out better if I’d been more committed earlier, but they might have turned out worse. Who can tell?

3. Why did you start seeking publication? Why do you continue?

I had written poems. Poems are there to be read and that’s why I sought publication. These days, I want a) to have my poems appear along with others’ in magazines I like and, b) to gain readers by having pamphlets and books of my work published. I could do that by self-publishing, or by uploading all my poems onto this blog, but I’ve always preferred the validation and the kudos of having other people publish my work – or not, as the case may be.

4. Does your relationship with your work change after it is published and if so, how? How does the concept of publication affect your writing in general?

I don’t think my relationship with my work changes at all after publication. As time goes past, I like some of my published poems more than others. Some poems I regret having published at all. I never try to tailor my work to appeal to editors or publishers. Of course, I read magazines I submit to and don’t send work I know they would never dream of publishing, but I write the poems I want to write, now more so than ever. No compromise!

5. Talk about putting a chapbook together. How have you done it in the past, how would you do it differently now? Why are chapbooks a good thing or not a good thing?

Helena Nelson from HappenStance asked for 10-12 poems in the initial submission. After the acceptance came through, I had to send everything I thought might work in the chapbook. Helena made comments and editing suggestions on all those poems – some got a simple thumbs-up, some got an immediate thumbs-down (my poor old villanelle!), and I made revisions to others. The process showed me the importance of a good editor. If I was doing one now, I’d probably have more idea of what poems would work together and what order they should go in etc. I like chapbooks. They are short, usually good value, and are an effective way of getting poems to a readership, especially if you are prepared to get out there and sell them.

6. What’s your advice to someone putting together a full-length poetry manuscript for the first time? Share your thoughts on the importance (or not) of narrative arc in poetry manuscripts.

Make sure there are no passengers i.e. no weak poems. Keep trying to improve it. Make sure there are at least a few really fantastic poems. I don’t think narrative arc is important in the least. It’s a curiously fashionable idea. That said, care should be taken over the order of the poems. Even if no one has a clue why you chose that order, you should know! But sheer brilliance of writing makes for a great book, arc or no arc.
Some kind of rationale behind the collection is useful for a publisher to market it and, consequently, is useful for the poet to 'sell' his/her manuscript to a publisher. But I don't think all the poems need to fit the rationale, and some may do so only by a supreme act of poetic imagination.

7. Do you personally market your publications? If so, why and how, and do you enjoy it? If not, why not?

I must have mentioned The Clown of Natural Sorrow so many times on this blog by now. There’s no escape from it. The Clown will haunt your dreams and nightmares if you read this blog too often. Or if you don’t go to the link and buy The Clown immediately! I also do readings whenever I can and generally try to flog the chapbook to anyone with even a flicker of interest in poetry. That said, I haven’t found it easy to sell my poetry. I’m not naturally into talking myself up. It’s that Scottish thing – you can’t push yourself forward too far or you’ll get a sharp “Who do you think you are?” retort. There are serious dangers in having an ego here – there’s always someone waiting to “trip you up and laugh when you fall,” as Morrissey put it.

8. Complete the following sentences: Big-name poetry publishers are…..

Usually (in the UK at least) fairly small concerns with a passion for poetry. Or tiny poetry imprints connected to huge companies that publish all kinds of stuff. They can market and distribute books wider than small publishers. They vary widely. Some might seem a little “safe” in their choices of who to publish, but others certainly aren’t. They are businesses who need to sell books, but if they were in it for the money alone, they’d publish celebrity autobiographies. So, at heart, they are a contradiction in terms – not in a bad way.

9. Small- and micro-presses are…

Usually tiny concerns with a passion for poetry. They will publish books and chapbooks that they feel will enhance their reputation, that they think will sell, and that they believe in one hundred percent. They are generally unpaid and overworked. A sense of humour is a must. They are vital for poetry, always have been and always will be.

10. Describe the ideal relationship with a publisher and the relationship with a publisher from hell.

I have a good relationship with my publisher. She put out a good quality product and I met my deadlines. Communication was good. She did what she could to help sell the book (a launch, a web presence, sending review copies etc) and I played my part as best I could. We worked well together when creating the chapbook and we get on well personally. I guess a bad relationship would entail these things not happening on both sides.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Hazel Frew's Birthday Party

Last night I was at Hazel Frew’s 40th birthday party in Glasgow. It was a great evening. Plenty of continental beer in the fridge, and fantastic home-made pakora and veggie curry for picking at on the kitchen table.

There were plenty of poets among the guests and plenty of actors and actresses. You could tell the actors by their impressive hairstyles, the actresses by their confident plunging necklines, and the poets by their inability not to stare at both in awe (well, I am exaggerating slightly - but not much!).

I enjoyed the patter, the atmosphere, the fun, although after several beers I got into an earnest conversation about the successes and failures of Cuba – Cuba! at 11pm in a Glasgow party! – but fortunately the entertainment began and extricated us all. There were songs, poems, more fun – but I had to catch the midnight bus back to Edinburgh and had to miss most of that, one of the catches of having work to do on a Sunday morning.

Still, a very enjoyable evening. Here's to next year, the 41st. Same time, same place?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Questions for Poets

Poets are asking questions! And answering them too. To be exact, Nic S from Very Like a Whale is asking a batch of poets (one each week) 10 questions on the subject of publication. I’m tempted to have a shot at these myself.

In addition, Poet Hound has 5 more questions and asks you to email her your answers, which she’ll post to her blog next month. I did it a couple of days ago.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Poem in qarrtsiluni

My poem, Shopping List, is now up at the excellent qarrtsiluni. There’s plenty of good stuff to peruse in the current Hidden Messages theme and in the archives.

Oh, you can also hear me read the poem.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Katie Can Write Her Name

I was visiting someone in hospital yesterday and on the bus back home, I saw a long queue stretching down Princes Street at Waterstones Bookshop.

The reason for the queue was that Jordan, aka Katie Price, who is famous for…well, no one is quite sure… was signing her book. She wasn’t reading from it – I guess reading from a book that a ghost has written for you might seem a bit false – heaven forbid! – but she was signing her name. But only on “dedicated books.” In other words, you had to buy them in store, and once they had run out, that was it. No chance of an autograph on her back catalogue. And you could wait for an hour in the freezing cold and then find you were out of luck and the chance to “meet Katie Price” was gone until the next tour. What conversations people might have with Katie and how long each conversation would take (10 seconds tops?) is hard to imagine. Katie would obviously have to be rushed on to the next venue, the next queue, the next photo shoot. I can already imagine the reality TV series filming her as she is sped away, not forgetting to shed a few tears for the disappointed fans who had turned up in vain.

The long queue stretched from the shop down the street for about a hundred yards (this was 50 minutes since the start of the 60-minute-maximum signing). They weren't all going to get to see Katie. It was hard, impossible really, for me to feel sympathy for any of them, which is very unLenten of me.


Frances Leviston’s Guardian review of Jen Hadfield’s second collection, Nigh-no-place, certainly makes it sound worth buying. That final image she mentions would be worth the price on its own, and most of the lines she quotes sparkle with dynamic energy and imagination.

But the review is also refreshing in that it makes a few critical points. So much of what passes for reviewing in newspapers at the moment appears as no more than a gush or a sales pitch, without a hint of critical analysis, but Leviston has succeeded in giving both a flavour of the book’s obvious strengths and a hint at its occasional lapses. That’s a positive sign and, of course, the imperfections don’t at all put me off wanting to read the collection.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Piles of Books

About 6 months ago or so, I changed my poetry reading habits. I used to read anything and everything, a wide range of styles, without any real discrimination. I enjoyed the reading, of course, and I’m sure it did benefit me as a writer too. I started my poetry education later in life than many writers and it’s important to get a sense of the range that’s possible. However, I’ve narrowed my focus considerably in more recent times. I have three sections of poetry books in my office – two piles and a bookcase.

The first pile is a small one. It contains the core texts. In it are collections by poets I read almost every day. Even when I finish these books, they remain in the pile and I re-read them, browse them, study them, get to know them carefully, and I don’t get tired of them. They also inform my own writing in an integral way. They are very different from each other, but I learn from all of them. They are (in no particular order):

Tomas Transtromer
James Schuyler, and the two Carcanet ‘New York School’ anthologies.
W.S. Graham
Edwin Morgan
Denis Johnson
Wallace Stevens

The second pile is more fluid. These are other collections I’m reading at the time. I may read them more than once, or I may just be browsing, reading occasional poems. I may have already read them but feel like taking another look. Usually, I’ll concentrate on one or two of them at a time – I’m currently reading the Muldoon and recently finished the Bonnefoy. These books will often be swapped for books currently on the bookcase, something that doesn’t happen with the first pile (well, it could happen with the first pile, and probably will, but it hasn’t happened yet). At the moment, these books are:

Paul Muldoon – The End of the Poem
Tom Jones (translator) - Akhmatova
Tom Pow – Dear Alice
Paul Celan – Selected Poems
Cheryl Follon – All Your Talk
Norman MacCaig – Selected Poems
Yves Bonnefoy – Yesterday’s Wilderness Kingdom
Robert Lowell – Selected Poems
Richard Price – Greenfields
AB Jackson – Poems 1985-1995
Alison Brackenbury - 1829
Salvatore Quasimodo – Giorno dopo Giorno
Sylvia Plath – Ariel
Charles Baudelaire – The Flowers of Evil
Homage to Hat and Uncle Guido and Eliot – Tomaz Saluman

The third section is the bookcase, which contains all my poetry books. I occasionally will take a notion to read one of the books on the bookcase, but usually they first have to find their way to pile 2. Again, this is about attaining focus.

Reading everything is all very well and it served me well for several years, but I feel my current system is paying dividends, both for reading pleasure and for my own writing. I am writing less than I was a year ago, but (I think) I’m writing better.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Poetry at the Great Grog: What's Coming Up...

Here's a programme for the Great Grog poetry readings in Edinburgh from now until February 2009. The 'and one other' entries don't represent a vacant space. I'm just waiting for confirmation from a couple of people. Some brilliant evenings of live poetry lie ahead, as you can no doubt see. I owe a word of thanks to Roddy Lumsden. If he hadn't asked me to find a venue for him to read at when he was last up in Edinburgh, I probably wouldn't have bothered to get all this going. I'll give more information on the individual poets in due time, but you can google most of them:

Sunday 13th April, 2008
Tom Pow
Joy Hendry
Margaret Christie
Elizabeth Gold

Sunday 8th June, 2008

Kapka Kassabova
Mike Stocks
Eleanor Livingstone
Jim Carruth

Sunday 14th September, 2008
Michael Schmidt
Helena Nelson
Dorothy Baird
Charlotte Runcie

Sunday 12th October, 2008
Kei Miller
Hamish Whyte
Rob A. Mackenzie
(+ one other)

Sunday 9th November, 2008
A.B. Jackson
Colin Will
Patricia Ace
James W. Wood

Sunday 8th February 2009
Tim Turnbull
Andrew Philip
Andrew Shields
(+ one other)

I hope that some readers of this blog will make it along to these events. I'm always pleased to hear from people who would like to read, by the way - email me if you're interested. I'm going to form a small committee to make the decisions on who reads after February (other than those few who have already been booked of course).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Get ready for love

Happy Valentine's Day! A little Nick Cave will go down very well, I'm sure...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Britishness on Radio 3

For those of you interested in cultural perspectives on Britain: from Monday (last night) on BBC Radio 3 there is a series of radio essays on the theme of Britishness seen through the eyes of foreign writers living here. There are 4 of these, every night at 11pm, and the last one, on Valentine's Day, is written and read by Kapka Kassabova, who will be reading her poems at the Great Grog in June. The other writers are James Berry (very interesting Caribbean poet), whose programme happened yesterday, Nadeem Aslam (Pakistani novelist, author of Map for Lost Lovers) and Eva Hoffman (author of the memoir Lost in Translation).

You can hear these broadcasts by going to the Radio 3 Listen Again feature. Click on the Radio 3 iPlayer and then on ‘The Essay’ (under ‘e’, not ‘t’ in the alphabetical list). I’m not sure whether this works outside the UK, but you can always try.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Poetry at the Great Grog Report

After a beautiful sunny day in Edinburgh yesterday, the haar (sea-mist) fell over Edinburgh about 3.30pm and immediately the temperature dropped, the air dampened, and the whole city was shrouded in cloud. The audience was smaller for Poetry at the Great Grog than I had hoped, but perhaps some people are still wandering about in the fog trying to find the bar, trying to find any bar.

It didn’t affect the readers who were all terrific. One good thing about them is their lack of ego. No one cared who went on first, last or in between, but the order they read in worked really well. They each write very different poems and are excellent readers. The result yesterday evening was predictably superb, but quality was the only predictable thing.

First was Cheryl Follon whose poems are packed full of sonic explosions and breathless rhythms – it’s hard to imagine a more dynamic start to a poetry reading. Second was Christie Williamson. I had met Christie a few times but had never heard him read and knew his work less than any of the others, but he was simply a revelation: funny, pointed, and well crafted poems, both in English and in Shetlandic dialect. Third was Hazel Frew. Hazel’s poems set a meditative tone, the diction precise and illuminating. Really strong work. Finally, Sandy Hutchison, whose range is as wide as any poet writing today, gave a reading that was witty, surprising and uncategorisable. He sang too, between poems.

So another cracking night at the Grog. Everyone I spoke to in the audience was blown away by the performances. The haar hasn’t yet lifted but for a few hours last night it was summer again.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Biggles was Real!

Apparently, one in three UK citizens in a recent survey think Biggles was real, and one in four believe Winston Churchill was a fictional character.

I wonder what percentage of UK citizens think that surveys themselves are fictional, albeit entertaining. No one has ever asked me such questions for a survey.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Burns Supper

I’m off to a Burns Supper tonight, possibly the last one of the entire season. I have to give the ‘immortal memory’. Normally, I don’t like these much but I’m using it to say that everyone should read poetry - not just Robert Burns, but contemporary poetry – because we are diminished as individuals and as a society when good contemporary poetry is largely unread by otherwise intelligent people. I’ll find out how that goes down…(!)

And yes, there will be dancing. And a very cheap bar. I have to work tomorrow morning. Remember…remember… I have to work tomorrow.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Great Grog Site and a Scales Dog Launch

Mainly for people anywhere near Edinburgh, but also for those with an interest in live poetry anywhere, I’d like to draw your attention to my new Poetry at the Great Grog site/blog.

You can find details there of the next event on Sunday 10 February (from 7.45pm/8pm or so, featuring Cheryl Follon, Hazel Frew, Sandy Hutchison, and Christie Williamson.

Over the next few months, readers will include AB Jackson, Kapka Kassabova, Helena Nelson, Michael Schmidt, Mike Stocks, Colin Will, and a host of other excellent poets.


In addition, Sandy Hutchison’s new volume of new and selected poems, Scales Dog, will be launched in Glasgow tomorrow evening, Sunday 3 February from 7.30pm - 10.00pm at the Polish Club, 5 Parkgrove Terrace, Glasgow, G3 7SD. There will be poetry and also music from something called the ‘Mr Scales Big Band,’ which sounds unmissable. Unfortunately, I will have to miss it, as I have a prior engagement that night, but no one else in the vicinity should be anywhere else.