Saturday, February 6, 2016

the terrible

On Thursday night this week I was in Birmingham to read in support of the launch of Daniel Sluman's the terrible, his striking second collection from Nine Arches Press. Daniel's book, which I've been reading and re-reading since the event, is unflinching yet tender as it faces issues of disability, mortality, love and sex - it's intense and compelling stuff. Daniel's reading from and discussion of the book was recorded, and I can recommend catching up with it here.

Daniel was quite a tough act to follow, and I also very much enjoyed hearing new work by fellow Nine Arches Poet and current Cheltenham poet in residence Angela France. The event was hosted by Birmingham City University and we had a good crowd, including students from their MA programme.
I'm also pleased to have been invited to contribute to another excellent initiative in the region, the Poetry Salons at Ledbury. Organised by the same people who bring us the Poetry Festival, these events include a reading and interview by invited poets, plus an open mic session. I will be reading on 12 April 2016, but the next event, on Tuesday 9 February, will feature Maitreyabandhu, and the following month's event with Myra Connell will take place on 8 March. The readings are held in the Panelled Room in the Master's House in Ledbury (7pm - 9pm) and entry is only £5, to include a glass of Poetry Gold cider. There's no need to book.

Finally, Cheltenham Poetry Festival is on the horizon once more. The programme will appear soon, but I'm flattered that the organisers have put my on the cover! From what I hear, it will be an excellent line-up again this year. Apart from reading with Sarah James, I'll be running a workshop on 15 May on 'Beginning and Ending the Poem'. More details to follow soon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Conceit

Gilding the Acrobats
Paul Cadmus, Gilding the Acrobats(Metropolitan Museum)

I'm pleased to announce that participants can now sign up here for my first on-line workshop with The Poetry School, on the subject of 'The Conceit'.

Some poetry takes everyday reality as its starting-point in order to reveal something about the world we know. But poetry can equally begin with a ‘what if?’ – it can create unreal or unlikely situations and then, by exploring the consequences of those situations, lead us to unexpected ideas and images.

These ‘what if?’ situations could be described as ‘conceits’ – extended metaphors that bring together disparate ideas, making the poem a kind of literary test-tube.

In this workshop, I'll be helping participants to explore how conceits can be used to open up our writing to new ways of imagining, while still remaining rooted in a concern for our human experience of the world. We will think about how the use of conceits can draw in the reader, hold their attention, and keep surprising them until the very end of the poem.

The workshop is free, but places are limited -- so sign up soon if you are interested. The workshop begins on 1 February 2016, and there will be a live chat on 12 February. I'm intrigued to see what people will create!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Why Do People Hate Poetry?

The recent controversy over the coverage of Sarah Howe's T. S. Eliot prize win has highlighted again the problems the British press has in discussing poetry. Katy Evans-Bush has analysed the sexism of much of the coverage in an article for the Guardian here, and that is clearly the central issue which needs addressing in this context.
However, apart from Howe's having dared to be young, female and of Chinese heritage, the portrait of her in The Sunday Times also chimes in with that strain of cultural journalism which turns a defensive attitude to poetry into a kind of passive aggression, with cliches about difficulty, elitism and lack of commercial viability to the fore. Poets will be familiar with these assertions, which are offered to them all too readily when they are outed as practitioners of the art in polite company. 'Oh, I've never really got poetry. All too clever for me. And I don't suppose you can make a living out of it, can you.' Sometimes, this is prefaced with a sorry, as if not liking poetry was a mild personal fault; at other times the tone is defiant, as if the very fact of appreciating and even creating poetry was an implicit criticism of all of those who don't.
Imagine substituting poetry for some other minority art in these exchanges. Would your first reaction on meeting a person training for the ballet be to tell them that you don't really get it, that you found it too elitist, that the dancer was never going to make a living out of it? I'm guessing that this would not be the case. Some polite questions about how it was all going and what the dancer's prospects were, perhaps, but nobody would feel it necessary to issue a statement on their own personal distaste for what is, after all, an art which only a small proportion of the population appreciate.
Ben Lerner has written very interestingly here and in a recent book about what he calls 'the hatred of poetry'. His argument, however, focuses very much on poets themselves and intellectuals of various stripes, exploring the notion that, compared to what it ideally wants to achieve, poetry is always to some extent a failure. His argument is a fascinating one and picks up on a neglected strain in thinking about poetry in order to launch a defense of what poetry can do. However, I'm not sure he helps us to understand the widespread hostility towards poetry in a society largely made up of people who do not think about it very much at all. Why is it that it is fine to mention going to the opera or an exhibition of video installations, but any hint of a visit to a poetry reading invites an open declaration of hostility. Most people aren't that bothered about opera or video installations, either (you certainly won't fine me sitting through the Ring Cycle) but nobody feels the need to feel defensive about their lack of engagement in those cases.
My own personal explanation is that other minority arts are not encumbered with the perception that they are educational. Poetry never lost its place on the school curriculum, despite a decline in its public profile, a situation which some poets have benefited from in terms of royalties and paid work with schools. However, when school is the only forum in which young people encounter poetry, the individual poem becomes a kind of test, a sort of overly-complex crossword clue which has to be decoded in order (literally) to make the grade. The novel arguably suffers from this treatment, too. But the young people are exposed to novels in other ways -- they can read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games for pleasure of their own accord and separate that pleasure from the grim accumulation of points in a school test. This, I think, is the reason for the defensiveness many people feel. Not only might you read poetry at them, they might well have to answer questions later about what it all meant. The idea that you might enjoy a piece of art without being able to discuss its deeper meaning in the appropriate academic terms -- as we manage to do every day reading novels, watching movies and listening to music -- does not seem to be extended to poetry.
Reading at a TableThis is clearly a shame. Contrary to many of the authors discussed by Lerner, I actually enjoy poetry. Reading it gives me genuine pleasure, and is certainly easier than writing it.
I don't always know exactly why I enjoy it, either. Reading Matthew Caley's new collection, Rake, recently, I was struck by just how much joy it brought me. Not necessarily because of anything Caley was saying, but because of its wit, its euphony, its ability to surprise, because of all of those things which, put into the dry language of criticism, are not adequately communicated. Let's just say that, on reading (and re-reading), I smiled. I probably couldn't write a decent exam answer on any of the poems (thank heavens I don't have to), but that's not what the poems are there for.
My experience has been that, when exposed to good poetry without the threat of a written test, most intelligent people enjoy what they hear. And most people I have met are certainly intelligent enough to experience that enjoyment. Yes, perhaps our education system could do more to allow people to engage with poetry, so that they could experience that enjoyment for themselves, but until you can get an A+ for having a good time, poetry might well benefit from being taken off the curriculum.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Two readings for February

Poetry people are hardy, resilient folk, so I'm sure some of them won't mind braving the plummeting temperatures and the dark nights of February to enjoy these two forthcoming events.

Firstly, on the evening of Thursday 4th February, I'll be reading with Angela France and Daniel Sluman to support the launch of Daniel's second collection, The Terrible, from Nine Arches Press. His first collection, Absence Has a Weight of Its Own, which I reviewed earlier on this blog, promises much for this new book -- expect passionate honesty and imagery wielded with astonishing precision. Tickets for the event, which is hosted by the Institute for Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University, can be had for free here.

Then, on Tuesday 16th February, I'll be reading as part of the Polari Literary Salon hosted by Paul Burston at the South Bank Centre, where the headline readers will be Jonathan Harvey and Chris Green. It will be an interesting experience to be the only poet on the bill.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

This week I'm looking forward to reading at Cheltenham's Poetry Cafe - Refreshed in the retro atmosphere of Smokey Joe's dinner. Apart from the poetry (there is always an excellent open mic) you can enjoy their lovely food, including some indulgent milkshakes.

Thanks to Roger Turner and Sharon Larkin for inviting me and producing this great poster!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

First review of Arc - and some new work

As many of you will know, Arc is now well and truly launched - and has even received its first (very positive) review by Robert Peake, whose recent collection The Knowledge I very much admire. You can read the review in full here at Huffington Post.

Now the collection is out there, it feels to an extent like I am starting again from scratch; although I do also feel like I am writing with a clearer sense of where the work will lead in due course, namely to a second collection at some point in the future. I'm not sure how this will change what I do, if at all, but I have found myself moving more towards writing longer sequences of poems, and I have a notion that any second book might well be made up largely of such sequences. The 14-20 line poem has its own challenges, but I'm also keen to explore wider canvasses.

One such sequence, called (perhaps rather off-puttingly) '10 Decapitations', has just appeared in Long Poem Magazine and I'm eagerly awaiting my contributor's copy as I write this. Three new individual poems are also on their way into the world with Poetry Salzburg Review this autumn.

For anyone in Gloucestershire and the surrounding area, my next reading will be at Star Anise Arts Cafe in Stroud on the evening of Friday 20 November. The event is free, and also features Lesley Ingram, reading from her amazing book, Scumbled.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Arc is nearly here...

I have just finished looking at the page proofs for my forthcoming collection, Arc, with Nine Arches Press. The cover image by Eleanor Bennett is a corker, I think. Of the several hundred lovely pictures by Eleanor which I looked through, this one was the one which immediately caught my eye. I can't quite say why I think it works for the book, but maybe because I immediately thought: I've never seen a poetry book with a cover like that!

Jane Commane, the tireless editor and publisher of Nine Arches, has guided me through the process of putting the book together with great skill, and has made suggestions which have challenged me to look at a number of the poems with new eyes. I'm sure the collection will be better for it, and also for her having weeded out a few poems that, because they had been published or mentioned in poetry prize long-lists, I thought absolutely had to go in. There is a big difference, I have learned, between a poem which can stand alone and one which can carry its weight in a full-length collection.

In some ways, revisiting the book before publication has been like looking at old photographs -- some of the poems were written a number of years ago, in fact one or two were among the first things I ever wrote and thought might be worth keeping, whereas some were written specifically with the collection in mind to expand an existing theme or sequence. There are also poems which didn't make the final cut, but which I can still see in the collection, like ghostly palimpsests. None of this has to matter to the reader, I hope. While I may remember where it was that I wrote a particular piece, or why, or where it was published or won a prize, the poems will now have to fend for themselves without me.

As I know from the experience of publishing my pamphlet, Gaud, it will be up to readers now to decide what these poems are all about and what they are worth. That's scary, exciting and oddly liberating. I'm curious to see what becomes of them, but at the same time I feel ready to start writing in earnest again. I'm delighted to have a book coming out with such a wonderful publisher as Nine Arches, and I look forward to selling as many copies as possible and meeting lots of the book's readers, but the most important thing about writing poetry (at least for me) remains the process of making the poems themselves. The experience of sending Gaud out into the world has also taught me that you can't predict how other people will respond. My pamphlet had reactions that ranged from hostility to indifference to genuine enthusiasm, and of course it went on to win a prestigious prize; all of which is a reminder that, while always listening to views of people you respect, it isn't healthy to write with the critics sitting on your shoulder or to care whether everyone is going to like what you do. One of my favourite quotations about art remains an exchange from Daniel Kehlmann's novel Kaminksy and Me, where the narrator asks the eponymous artist why he no longer shows his pictures when he is so important. Kaminsky replies: 'Being important isn't important. Painting is important.' That's a motto any creative person can live by.

Apart from looking after me so well and producing such a handsome-looking book, Jane Commane has also been busy organising readings for me and for other Nine Arches Poets in the coming months. The first and most important event will be the launch of the collection, along with books by Sarah James, David Hart and Myra Connell, on 18 September at Midlands Arts Centre. Tickets are free, but can be booked here. After that, I'll be taking part in an 'Ode Trip' on a vintage bus as part of Birmingham Literature Festival on 11 October. I'll also be reading at Swindon Poetry Festival on 2 October, and more events will follow. I hope to see some of you there!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Pride poem

This year's Pride march and celebrations have been more widely reported this year than at any time I can remember. Here's a poem from my forthcoming collection, Arc, about Pride nearly two decades ago. It was also on the long list for the Ver poetry prize last year and is featured in the competition anthology.

Gay Pride Festival, Clapham Common, 1996

I remember, chiefly, that shocking light,
how we squinted up from the earth,
bleached by the very summer that floored us –

how through that light emerged those thin-armed
boys from my class, proclaiming themselves
the heralds of memory, even that one

I’d hit for calling me queer. Now
our lustrous presence was all the proof
required. We sucked at cans of Red Stripe,

lounged in glare like exiles thrown
on a luminous shore, scuffing at it,
heel by heel, until the dust

threw up another move. Come
to think, we already had the people
we needed – hawkers of ironic

T-shirts and merchants of the old
religion, saving us all in brand new
drag. But then someone was grabbing

the mic. A thousand balloons cut loose
from their net, a pulsing vermilion
arc, while men made little huddles

of grief in twos and threes, their faces
tight with fat and beautiful tears.
I stalked to the edge of the crowd, chippy

as some lad who just missed out
on the war. A whole new country was set
before me, refusing to be ignored.

Friday, June 26, 2015

On the (back) cover

I've been reviewing for a while now, and occasionally my reviews get cited by publishers on their websites. Nevertheless, I was pleased to note, on purchasing a copy of Peter Riley's Due North from Shearsman, that they had decided to use a quote from my piece at Sabotage Reviews about his pamphlet The Ascent of Kinder Scout on the back cover. I'm looking forward to setting aside a day to engage with Riley's sequence, of which the earlier pamphlet forms one part.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The 100th Post

Can this really be the 100th post on this blog?

This seems like a good moment to take stock and reflect on the blogging experience.

As luck would have it, I have a guest post over at the Lunar Poetry blog where I do just that. You can read it here.