Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Song Of The Clyde

Artist, Douglas Robertson, asked me if he could post my poem, Nuclear Submarines, from The Opposite of Cabbage, to his blog along with an image of one of his carvings, Song of the Clyde. You can see the result here. I love the carving. Goes with the poem perfectly.

De-Cabbage Lemon Monkey Bins

My De-Cabbage Yourself Salt Cyclone Virtual Book Tour has made its fifth stop at Claire’s One Night Stanzas blog. I post a few lines from the first poem I ever wrote (more than enough!), and consider questions on influence, pamphlet publication, blogging and publishers.

I’m taking a half-time break now from the tour (and from this blog), but I’ll be back on Thursday 16th July at Bernardine Evaristo’s Blog.


I’m back from London and my reading at the Lemon Monkey last night with Andrew Philip, Katy Evans-Bush and Yang Lian (also Pascale Petit and Brian Holton translating). I am now totally knackered, but I’ll say that it was a cool venue, the audience seemed into the whole thing, all the readings went very well, and I met plenty of great people at the venue and at the bar afterwards. I bought Yang Lian’s Riding Pisces. We didn’t get to bed until very late and I was up early this morning to catch the train to Edinburgh where I had a meeting this afternoon. I managed to read over half of Selima Hill’s new collection, Fruitcake on the way up. It’s something else…


Got back to find that the bin men have come. The bins along my street have finally been emptied. Cause enough for celebration.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

London Calling 2

In memory of the tragic death of a pop legend at only 50-years-old, a man who was deeply influential during the last decades of the 20th century and whose music I still love today – well, here he is below:

Fantastic stuff. The song segues into my London trip tomorrow with Andrew Philip where we’ll be joined in the Lemon Monkey Café, 188 Stoke Newington High Street from 7-9pm, by Katy Evans-Bush and Yang Lian. Hope any poetry fans around London who are free that evening will drop in. Entry is free but we will have books to sell. However, sneaking out the back door without buying anything is permitted, as long as we don’t notice. Otherwise we will send our monkeys after you with an artillery of lemons.

I just found a very interesting article by poet, Pascale Petit, on translating Yang Lian, followed by the poem she translated. Pascale will also be at the event to read her translation.

Here’s the event’s Facebook page.


I should add that tomorrow, in addition to travelling to London, I will also be appearing at Claire Askew’s One Night Stanzas as part of my De-Cabbage Yourself! Cyclone tour. I’ll try to link directly to the post tomorrow if there’s time.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Edinburgh's Bin Dispute

Our rubbish bin, which should have been emptied on Friday, is still full, in common with everyone in our street and most of west Edinburgh. The reason is a protest by bin men which, they say, will see the Royal Mile "piled high" with uncollected rubbish. And my street too by the looks of it. Not that they don’t have something to complain about, mind you, but I hope the pay dispute gets sorted quickly. It’s not so much that I mind the street being full of bins (as long as they are closed properly, which not all are). But we’ve nowhere to put our rubbish…Perhaps I could make something with it, some kind of trash-robot.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Transparent Poems

Billy Collins claims that people don’t read poetry because most of it is so bad.

"One of the reasons people don't read as much poetry anymore is the fault of the poets," he said. "It's not the public's fault. There's an awful lot of bad poetry out there. I'd say about 87 percent of the poetry in America isn't worth reading."

On Facebook, the obvious jokes have already been made e.g. “87%? I didn’t realise Billy Collins had written that much!” Given that only 2% of Collins’s poems are any good (he paints by numbers far, far too often), he’s doing far worse than the national average. It is also true that 13% seems a high figure for poetry worth reading, given how much poetry is out there, but the figure is arbitrary, or perhaps ironic (given the associations of the number 13), so no point in quibbling. But now we know – it’s not the public’s fault that they desire celebrity kiss-and-tells rather than the latest young poetry thing. The fault isn’t with money, power, advertising, distribution and the manufacturing of taste either, it’s all down to those useless poets who aren’t doing their jobs properly! What comes next is the interesting part:

It's the other 13 percent, Collins said, that he lives for. "Poetry should be transparent. Transparent poems tend to teach themselves."

Two points here. Transparency? I guess he must mean lack of opacity and mystery. Poetry must be clear and obvious. If that were the case, the argument goes, people would read it in far greater numbers. The argument, by extension, also suggests that if all literary novels were written with the style of a Dan Brown, more people would read them too, and that if all short stories were written in the mode of a Jeffrey Archer, popularity for the form would explode. Nonsense, of course, and undesirable. I’d even argue that poems which are too transparent and lack all sense of mystery are part of the problem, not a solution.

The second point comes from this phrase, “Transparent poems tend to teach themselves.” Is poetry about teaching? Perhaps transparent poems are. What else can they do? There’s a clear message to impart, and that’s it. Readers can all go home now and watch TV. No point in buying that collection either, as the teaching has been done. We are now moral citizens for having read this wonderful transparent poem! But surely good poems invite readers into an experience, which may be intensified on subsequent visits because all those things that weren’t immediately transparent begin to rise to the surface?

Of course, there are many terrible poems out there. There are also many terrible novels, but that doesn’t seem to stop people reading. There are many terrible movies too and people flock to the cinemas and DVD stores. There are many terrible albums, but people haven’t given up on searching out the good stuff. Poetry’s relative lack of popularity isn’t anything to do with either lack of quality or transparency, it’s because there isn’t much money at stake. If there were, we’d all have to slim to size-zero, wear implants in the relevant places, and write poems to be edited by committee. Laughs would have to come every thirty seconds and every poem would require a happy ending. Hollywood would make movies of poems with Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens taking the lead roles. Posters of Geoffrey Hill would adorn millions of teenage walls, although the surgery would make him look more like Brad Pitt.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

London Calling

Next Monday evening, 29th June from 7-9pm, I’ll be reading in London, at the Lemon Monkey, an atmospheric licensed café in Stoke Newington, along with Andrew Philip, Katy Evans-Bush, and Yang Lian.

As Andy mentions on his blog, it’s something of an honour for us to read with a poet like Yang Lian and I’m very much looking forward to it. Katy has been running around the place with leaflets and publicity, so we’re hopeful of a good audience. Here’s the event’s Facebook page for all you FB people. It is the London launch for both my and Andy’s collection, so we’ll be carting some copies down. Let’s hope it’s not too hot, seeing as we’re carrying around all those hardbacks.

(photo by Ewan-M, under a creative commons license)

Michael Marks Awards - Result Tonight

Tonight, the result of the inaugural Michael Marks Awards for poetry pamphlet publishing will be announced. For obvious reasons, I hope HappenStance win, but the shortlist (Oystercatcher, Templar, and tall-lighthouse) is very strong. Any of them would make deserving winners.

It is good to see a Scottish-based publishing house on a UK shortlist (another barren year for young Scottish poets at the Eric Gregory Awards, I’m afraid). It’s a shame HappenStance hasn’t been given more recognition within Scotland in this kind of way – by shortlists and awards, by the SAC, and so on. Isn’t it slightly ironic that a new UK-wide award with a prize-giving ceremony in London has immediately picked up on the worth of what HappenStance has been doing?


Early this morning I drafted an article asking where power lies in the Scottish poetry world, but it’s not quite right yet, especially given how controversial such a subject might prove to be. However, I will post it when it’s ready, which might not be until mid-July.

Monday, June 22, 2009

De-Cabbage Yourself! - Step 4

(photo by Ginger Me, used under a Creative Commons License)

My Cyclone Tour in support of The Opposite of Cabbage has landed in the Bahamas this week, at Nicolette Bethel’s Scavella’s Blogsphere (she also, incidentally, edits the fine webzine of Caribbean poetry, tongues of the ocean). You can hear what I think of workshops and of how the Internet has affected poetry. Then I highlight three poems from the book, link to a wonderful live performance by Portishead, and read two poems. Finally, I contemplate the future, the little I can see of it.

[Next Monday, 29th June, I’m back in Edinburgh with Clare Askew at One Night Stanzas.]

Sunday, June 21, 2009

New Opposite Of Cabbage Reviews

I am very pleased about Barbara Smith’s review of The Opposite of Cabbage. It really is very nice of her to do that. Thanks!

The book has also been reviewed by Ben Wilkinson in Magma, issue 44 along with two other collections by Mark Doty and John Agard. Andrew Philip’s The Ambulance Box is reviewed in the same issue, by Rosie Shepperd. I haven’t seen the issue (or the reviews) yet, but it should arrive in the next week or so. The launch for it is tomorrow in London at the Troubadour Cafè.

I’ve just read an article on Fiona Robyn’s blog on the subject of good and bad reviews. She is quite right. If a reviewer says your book is the best book ever written (as one reviewer did say of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, for example) or that it is the biggest load of crap he/she has ever read, or indeed anything in between, the author isn’t obliged to believe any of them.

Good reviews are very useful, especially for new authors, because they get your book into people’s line of vision. Blog reviews, in particular, seem even to help sell copies! That’s not to be sniffed at, especially in the world of poetry where books don’t usually sell in huge numbers. But the quote Fiona gives at the end of her post from Dereke Bruce seems like a healthy attitude to me.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Salt Discount

Throughout June, there’s a massive 33% off at Salt’s online shop with coupon code G3SRT453. So if The Opposite of Cabbage or any other Salt book appeals to you, this is a good time to take a look.

Ashbery vs Marvell

I was fascinated to find this post by poet and blogger, Andrew Christ, which compares poems by John Ashbery and Andrew Marvell, which may not be the most obvious pairing, but makes plenty of sense. Good stuff, I think, well worth reading.

He also has an earlier article on reading John Ashbery, mainly pointing to other good online essays on strategies for reading Ashbery.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Project:2

I guess a Christian-based Arts Festival may not strike every reader of this blog as something they’d want to rush out and go to. Well, fair enough! But this one will be high quality, inclusive, and no doubt inspiring for anyone interested in contemporary spirituality.

Introducing - The Project:2. It’s the first event in working towards something even bigger, although the programme, spanning three venues on one day, is ambitious and intriguing.

It’s happening this Saturday, 20th June in Edinburgh. Andrew Philip and I will be performing poems at 2-2.30pm (at ‘The Lot’, Grassmarket, Edinburgh) and then at the Pleasance Cabaret Bar from 7.30-8pm. There is a huge amount going on all around us. Tickets can be booked for the afternoon, evening, or both. Word is that they are disappearing fast, so don't hang about.

Word Power Reading - 20th June

.....................................(photo by Gary Thomson, used under a Creative Commons License)

Come to Word Power, 43-45 West Nicolson Street, this Saturday for a feast of poetry. Starts at 12 noon sharp, finishes at 1pm. And it’s free!

Matt Merritt lives near Leicester. His first collection, Troy Town, was published in March 2008 by Arrowhead Press and his chapbook, Making The Most Of The Light, in 2005 by Happenstance Press.

Rob A. Mackenzie’s chapbook, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005. His first collection, The Opposite of Cabbage was published by Salt in March 2009.

Andrew Philip has published two poetry pamphlets with HappenStance Press—Tonguefire and Andrew Philip: A Sampler. The Ambulance Box, his first book of poems, was published in March by Salt.

James W Wood’s pamphlet, The Theory of Everything, was published by Happenstance Press in 2006, and Inextinguishable by Knucker Press in 2008.

More information, if you need any, at the link.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Utter! In Edinburgh

How about that? I'm in a poster. You might also spot the brilliant Tim Turnbull (centre) and Tim Wells (bottom left) there if you look closely (click on the image for an enlarged version). I will do my very best to live up to the "captivating humorists" tag.

It's all happening from 8-29 August during the Edinburgh Festival and I'll be performing poems on various dates. The complete Utter! programme is out, which looks great (and free). I'll publicise it again nearer the time.

Live Poetry in Edinburgh

The final Poetry at the... before summer was excellent (the next reading will be on September 8th). Allan Crosbie, Katy Evans-Bush, Andrew Philip and Zorras all did really well, each reading an effective contrast to the one before it. Katy has blogged about it in the middle of a long and funny post about her train journey home.

The audience was fairly small. The weather was horrible, which might have kept some people indoors, but it’s still worrying for a reading series promoter like me. I want the poets to have a good crowd because I think they are worth hearing – otherwise I wouldn’t book them. I also need people to come to make the reading series financially viable. Until April of this year, audience numbers were generally healthy, but two small crowds in a row have left me wondering whether I can keep the event going. I can’t if it continues like this. To complicate things further, I have to ask for £4 (£3 concessions) now rather than the existing £3 (£2 concessions).

I’ve decided to keep things moving until the end of the year, at least. That means September, October and November but, if people don’t come in greater numbers, I’ll have to stop the readings. Things have changed in the last couple of years in Edinburgh. There are far more venues for live poetry than there were, but I do think that ‘Poetry at the…’ is one of the best (well, I would say the best, but I’m clearly partisan). Good things all come to an end though. There’s no point in battling on and becoming stale and unwanted.

I am considering whether there needs to be a revamp at ‘Poetry at the…’ Maybe a few changes might re-awaken interest. There are several possibilities:

1. other acts in addition to poetry
2. one main poet doing a longer set, and another few doing shorter sets
3. music as well as poetry
4. a few ‘resident’ poets who read regularly in addition to guests
5. occasional open mics
6. fundraising activities, such as competitions and raffles
7. a paid mentoring scheme in which poets associated with ‘Poetry at the…’ could give advice on people’s poems – some money going to poets, some money going to finance the reading series.
8. workshops – same idea as item 7

In many ways, I feel the event is good as it is, but it needs to attract a more regular crowd who never want to miss an evening. Whether any of these things are needed or would have the desired effect, I’m not sure, but I’m giving it all thought.

Monday, June 15, 2009

De-Cabbage Yourself! - Step 3

I’m now on the third step on my Cyclone Blog Tour.

This week, I’ve landed in Wales, with Ivy Alvarez at Dumbfoundry, where I answer questions on one-sentence poems, languages, leaving echoes, the use of humour in poetry, and what it’s like to see your book for the first time.

For Step 1 of the tour, see here at Very Like a Whale.

Step 2 was at Poetry in Progress.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fourth Taster for June

The fourth and final taster from this month’s all-star line-up at the Jekyll & Hyde bar (112 Hanover Street, Edinburgh) on Sunday 14th June is from Allan Crosbie. You can read a poem and bio from him now, a previously unpublished poem too.

The event, as ever, starts at 8pm and finishes around 10.15pm. It costs £3 with a £2 concession. The other poets are Andrew Philip, Katy Evans-Bush, and Zorras

I’ll have to raise the price from September, probably to £4 with a £3 concession. Would anyone not be prepared to pay that to hear such quality poetry? Maybe. A few people last month arrived late, missed the first two poets, and asked me for a discount. Considering the price is so low anyway, I was taken aback, although I did take a pound off the price for them…

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Ambulance Boxer

Andrew Philip has begun his Cyclone virtual book tour at the SPL blog. Who thought up these questions? Whoever was responsible, it’s an entertaining interview.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Buying Poetry At Magma

I’ve posted a new article at the Magma blog called What makes you buy a poetry collection?, which picks up on comments made at the tail-end of the discussion there on reviews.

There are already 19 comments. There main change in buying habits over the last decade has been fuelled by the Internet – no doubt about that – but what works there and what doesn’t so much is intriguing. Also, it seems that bookshops still play an important role for many people. The thread is like free market research for publishers.

Monday, June 08, 2009

De-Cabbage Yourself! - Step 2

I’ve taken the second step on my Cyclone Blog Tour.

This week, I’ve landed in sunny Dunoon on the west coast of Scotland over at Poetry in Progress. I answer (or at least try to answer) questions on poetry and religion, Czech poet Miroslav Holub, nature poetry, and the role of the body in creating a poem.

For Step 1 of the tour, see here at Very Like a Whale. Next week, I’m in Wales with Ivy Alvarez and Dumbfoundry.

European Elections

Here are the Scottish results in the European elections:

Scottish National Party - 29.1%
Labour - 20.8%
Conservative - 16.8%
Liberal Democrats - 11.5%
Greens - 7.3%
UKIP - 5.2%
BNP - 2.5%

Pretty good, I think. At least the fascists have been given a good kicking here, although that’s partly because the names of the far-right parties (UK Independence Party, and British National Party) are hardly likely to appeal to a Scottish electorate (for foreign readers, the Scottish National Party are a left-of-centre group, whose policies include Scottish independence, but within Europe, and a tolerant, multicultural society)! Racism is as alive in Scotland as anywhere else, and those results give no reason for complacency.

The BNP won two seats in England – the first time ever a far-right party has achieved that, which is worrying. Some people are dismissing it as a protest vote. I disagree and think it shows that BNP (and UKIP, who came second overall in the UK – what?!!) propaganda against Europe, especially eastern Europe has succeeded (“they’re stealing our jobs!” – yeah, right. You mean the jobs you don’t want to do – everything from heavy labour to NHS dentistry…). Casual racism against Eastern Europeans is rife. I hear it all the time, almost as much as I used to hear it against asylum seekers, or whichever foreigners the tabloid press are scapegoating at any given time.

Harriet Harman has said that voters were obviously furious with Labour due to the expenses scandal. I think Labour are in complete denial. They either have no clue why voters have abandoned them or don’t want to admit it, perhaps not even to themselves. Voters have voted against Labour because:

a) Afghanistan and Iraq and all the lies surrounding that.
b) They are sick of spin. They are sick of excuses. They are sick of Labour politicians apologising for mistakes – because even that sounds like spin, a way of getting people on their side, as opposed to genuine regret
c) Gordon Brown, a very nice guy by all accounts, is a useless leader. Why Labour are so slow to depose him is beyond my comprehension. The next election may be lost anyway, but the only way they will have even a small chance is to pick a more able leader.

Of course, the Conservatives will be even worse, but many new voters won’t have experienced life under the Tories. There’s nothing like a Conservative Government at Westminster to send Scotland on a rush to independence and, therefore, on a major collision course with London. Interesting times ahead.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Qarrtsiluni And Online Magazines

Over on qarrtsiluni, my poem, The New Economy, has just gone up, part of the unfolding Economy-themed issue. It’s pure satire, narrative, plain style – very different from my usual fare. You can hear me read it too. I have another poem, ‘Bank Holiday’, which qarrtsiluni will publish within the next couple of months.

On the subject on magazines online, I was interested to read the thoughts of Rattle editor, Tim Green, on publishing online, here and here. qarrtsiluni, of course, does exactly what he’s suggesting – it uses a blog format to build up an issue gradually. There’s also Caribbean-based zine, tongues of the ocean, which posts a few new poems every Sunday over several months until an issue is complete.

Also intriguing to read the list he mentions of top literary magazines online (who in the hell comes up with these ‘top online this and that…’ lists?), which neglects to mention Rattle, qarrtsiluni, Salt Magazine, Magma, QuickMuse, Shadow Train and Horizon Review (see my sidebar under ‘literary magazines’ for links) among others. Perhaps Salt and Horizon are too recent to qualify.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Comments At Magma

My article at the Magma blog on poetry reviewing has given rise to a really interesting discussion. There are 39 comments so far, and all of them are worth reading and thinking about. Some are even a little bit extra special.

The Alternative Orange Prize

Congratulations to Bernardine Evaristo, whose novel, Blonde Roots, has won the ‘alternative Orange prize’. A group of six specially-appointed 16-19 year-olds read all the books on the Orange longlist and chose Blonde Roots as their favourite. Bernardine is very supportive of other writers and was kind enough to write the endorsement on the cover of The Opposite of Cabbage. It’s great to see her novel getting such recognition from younger readers. The winner of the official Orange Prize will be announced later today. What’s intriguing is that the young people’s shortlist contained none of the books in the official shortlist. I was amused to read in the Guardian:

‘They weren't impressed with the final six books on the official shortlist, with comments on the online teen book community Spinebreakers, which recruited the readers, ranging from "don't like the shortlist. It just looks like a bunch of books women would read", to "shoddy work grownups" and "grrr I'm not happy with the judges' shortlist! Not happy at all."’

I haven’t read the short-listed books to judge the veracity of those claims, but they are interesting, especially, “It just looks like a bunch of books women would read” (italics my own, as I’m sure that is what’s meant). Heh.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Second Taster For 14th June

On 14th June at the Jekyll & Hyde (112 Hanover Street, Edinburgh) from 8pm, Andrew Philip, Katy Evans-Bush, Allan Crosbie and Zorras will be reading from their work. I say “reading”, but Zorras use guitar, drums, megaphones, and whatever else they can lay their hands on. I’ve just added a bio and video link for Zorras on the ‘Poetry at the…’ site.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Cerrie At CBeebies

A few months back, Cerrie Burnell was appointed as a presenter with the BBC’s channel for small children, CBeebies. She was born with one arm and doesn’t try to disguise the fact. This led to a small number of parents complaining to the BBC. They claimed their children were scared of her. They feared it might give their children nightmares. They didn’t know how to explain why she only had one arm. They felt the BBC were only doing it to be politically correct, even at the expense of their children.

My feeling was that the complaints reflected more on the parents’ fears, their own inability to cope with difference, their own discomfort with disability, their own lack of communication skills. I don’t think children tend to be bothered in the slightest by this kind of thing.

However, I wondered about my own daughter. She is autistic – very intelligent and high-functioning, but nonetheless, she likes things to be ‘correct.’ She’s not the biggest fan of incompleteness and I wondered how she would react. Well, she didn’t seem to notice at all at first, although she perhaps did and never said anything. The months went by and nothing was ever mentioned.

A few nights ago, we were watching CBeebies together and she said to me, completely out of the blue, “Cerrie’s only got one arm.” I asked her if she minded that. “No,” she replied. There was a pause of about a minute. She then said, “I wish I only had one arm too.”

So, worried parents who are afraid your children might have nightmares – there’s your answer…

Monday, June 01, 2009

De-Cabbage Yourself! - Step 1

Monday morning means stop 1 of the De-Cabbage Yourself Experience! at Nic Sebastian’s Very Like a Whale blog. I answer five questions – on Scottishness, cabbages, ordering a collection, urban poems, and emotional involvement. Grateful thanks to Nic!

I’ve just received three questions from Marion at Poetry in Progress where I’ll be next Monday – some difficult ones, which will probably take me a week to answer. But these are the best kind of questions.

On a related note, here’s an update on Salt’s ‘Just One Book’ campaign. Great to hear of the success so far, even if there’s still some way to go. But you’ll see that Salt are offering a huge 33% off all books throughout June. To take advantage of the offer, use the coupon code G3SRT453 when in the checkout. If you’re splashing out by spending £30 or $30, shipping is free too.