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.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Fancy a swift one?

I am very pleased to have had a poem published by the excellent post-election poetry project New Boots and Pantisocracies. It really is amazing who you run into down the pub. Read it here!

Picture: Wikipedia

Sunday, June 14, 2015


This is, I realize, a post I would do better not to write, given the outrage surrounding this issue. But something has disturbed me about the recent kerfuffle over Craig Raine's poem Gatwick, published in the London Review of Books. I would not say it is an excellent or even a good poem, but it is a poem about desire, and about a kind of desire that many find unpalatable.
At about the same time as the controversy emerged, I was reviewing a pamphlet by a young male poet. It features a poem about a young man looking at a beautiful woman at a bus stop and fantasizing about her being drenched in milk from one of the bottles in her shopping bag. It is certainly a poem in which the 'male gaze' is the organizing element, but - given the fact that the poet and the poem are not well known - I think it is unlikely that it will cause a stir. The poem in question is probably no more voyeuristic than Raine's, but the poet does not have, or is not perceived to have Raine's power.
In the on-line debate, much has been made of the fact that the poem was published by LRB, one of the country's most prestigious literary outlets. Raine once had a well-paid academic position in an Oxford college and is now an emeritus professor. He has edited poetry for Faber and Faber and The New Statesman and published his own collections with major publishers. We do have to overlook the fact that he comes from a background that was far from privileged, but it is certainly easy to see him as a member of the male-dominated cultural establishment. The chummy reference to Tom Stoppard's sale of a holiday home in France in the poem's opening stanza doesn't help, let's face it.
The on-line criticism of Raine, as opposed to the articles in the mainstream press (including this one by Sophie Hannah), focuses sharply on his position of power as an older man within the literature industry who is perpetuating disempowering images of women in a privileged outlet that would not be available to, say, the young woman in the poem. This is especially poignant given that, from the little we know of her, she may well have literary ambitions of her own. While she is condemned to a life of drudgery in passport control, Raine gets to ogle her, publish his bad poem about the ogling, and get paid for it. It would certainly have been a better poem if Raine had been able to see and address this uncomfortable reality. Charles Whalley is right, therefore, to conclude that there is nothing 'subversive' about it.
Passengers with luggage looking at arriving-flights board
Gatwick Aiport (Image: Wikipedia)
He falls short here in comparison with a poet like Frederick Seidel: Seidel is economically and culturally privileged by anyone's standards, and is unflinching in his depictions of his own lifestyle, which seems to feature a lot of recreational sex and very expensive motorbikes. However, his poetry is, it seems to me, driven my an over-riding impulse to see things and show things as they are. Seidel says to the reader, Look at this!, and has no comforting moral resolution for us to take away with us.
There is something of this impulse in Raine's poem, I think. He does reflect upon his own position as a particular kind of desiring subject in a particular social position, and to an extent contrasts this with that of the young woman at passport control. However, as Matthew Lyons suggests, he doesn't go nearly far enough in exposing the dynamics of that social and economic relationship. He is too eager to return to ruminations on his own desire and the sayability or unsayability of that desire. Given the poem's place of publication, as many have pointed out, this doesn't look like a particularly compelling question, and leaves aside the ultimately more interesting ideas he fails to fully develop.
So, why does the negative reaction to Raine worry me? It worries me because, alongside the pertinent criticism that has certainly been formulated, there seems to be an underlying implication that people like Raine should not talk about this sort of thing. There seems to be a suggestion in some of the contributions that only the (relatively) powerless can talk about desire, and that an educated, prosperous and established poet doing so is inherently 'pervy' or 'creepy'. We may well have heard enough about this kind of male desire: that would be a fair point. However, poetry should be able to talk about anything, honestly and at times uncomfortably, whoever is writing it. We can certainly criticize Raine for failing to see clearly the situation he seeks to explore in all of its disturbing ramifications, but we should be careful before we start ruling particular subject matter off-limits for anyone.

Monday, May 4, 2015


Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2015 has been and gone. 10 days of poetry, performance, lectures, music and discussion seem to have passed by in a blur. By the end, everyone involved looked a little tired but certainly happy that the Festival had been such a success. At the last event, we quite rightly gave Anna Saunders and Robin Gilbert, the co-directors of the Festival, a loud and long round of applause for their efforts throughout the year. Without them, it simply wouldn't happen.
There were many highlights I could mention: Sean O'Brien reading from his excellent new collection, The Beautiful Librarians; Sue Rose's moving work on family, love and loss; Jo Bell launching her new book,  Kith; Michael McKimm's subtle and fascinating reflections on geology and climate change; a brilliantly accessible lecture by Stephen James of the University of Bristol on repetition in poetry; Sarah James and Angela Topping presenting their collaborative pamphlet, Hearth... but every event had something different and exciting to offer.

But festivals like this need and deserve an audience. Getting an audience, despite the presence of a wide community of poetry readers and writers in the region, requires a huge amount of effort on the part of the organisers. I wonder if this has something to do with the challenge of being part of that audience. Listening to poetry is not easy. Sitting still for an hour and listening to anything is not easy, frankly, but poetry demands of us that we are completely present, focusing intently on the words spoken to us. We are not a culture which encourages such listening. We are device-distracted and channel-hopping, entertained within an inch of our lives. Poetry does not entertain in the commonly understood sense. However, if we can find the necessary attention to give to it, it can give us pleasure in return; and there surely is a profound pleasure in hearing great work read well, to be caught up in that moment of experiencing poetry. Cheltenham Poetry Festival has offered many such experiences this year, and I'm delighted to hear that the team are already looking forward to 2016.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What's going on?

At the risk of shameless self-publicity, here are a couple of things that have been happening lately that I wanted to mention. Firstly, in terms of publications, I have a poem in the very interesting anthology Other Countries, featuring poems that re-interpret particular moments in history. My poem is about the Cuban missile crisis as viewed from Lincolnshire. Claire Trevien and Gareth Prior have done a great job editing the anthology and I've already taken part in one of the launch readings. There will be another reading at the forthcoming Cheltenham Poetry Festival.

In other news, Tears in the Fence has published my sequence of five acrostic sonnets based on the early films of Udo Kier. If you asked me what it was really all about, I couldn't tell you, but it was great fun to write, and it is a pleasure to be in this magazine, which remains one of the most interesting small literary magazines in the UK. Apart from the variety and quality of work, I value this magazine because it has introduced me to so many poets beyond the mainstream of British verse who I would otherwise have never encountered.

Finally, my anticipation grows for the launch of my first full collection of poems, Arc, with Nine Arches Press in the autumn. We are at the stage of choosing covers and author photographs, so it all seems very real now. One of the poems from the book, along with something written more recently, has just been published over at Abegail Morley's Poetry Shed blog.