Thursday, September 29, 2005

don't mention the war

A fascinating story in the news today is that of 82 year old Walter Wolfgang, a pensioner/activist expelled from the Labour Party Conference for shouting 'Nonsense!' at Foreign Secretary Jack Straw during a speech about the government's decision to go to war in Iraq. The television coverage of this small and rather frail-looking old man being forcibly dragged from his seat and removed from the Conference hall made superb television and - even though the poor man must have been terribly distressed at the time - provided some wonderful publicity for Mr Wolfgang's cause. Indeed, the pensioner looked rather triumphant today, getting his three minutes of national airtime on the topic of Iraq ... and a personal apology from various Labour bigwigs including Tony Blair himself, who admitted the stewards had been 'a little bit over-zealous'. Ah, the almost forgotten art of understatement.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Pool Balls and Postage Stamps

As a former world-ranked snooker player myself, I was recently amused to discover that the current U.S. Women’s Professional Pool Tour is being dominated by ex-snooker playing British pros. There are several British women playing 9-ball pool out there at the moment, including - as far as I’m aware - Allison Fisher, Karen Corr, Kelly Fisher, Kim Shaw, Sarah Ellerby and Julie Kelly. It’s true that after playing snooker, a pool table is about the size of a postage stamp. But you’d still think the Americans would triumph over British players simply by virtue of being on their own territory, playing their own game.

The British ex-snooker players – Allison Fisher in particular, aka the Duchess of Doom – seem to have been taking home the big purses from most of the official U.S. pool tournaments over the past few years, with many of the finals televised and backed by big-name sponsors. They're also making money on the side with highly lucrative exhibition matches, personal coaching and sponsorship deals, while the unfortunate American girls struggle to compete with those snooker-honed cue actions.

Perhaps I should drop the writing and fly out there, start hustling ...

Bringing the House Down?

Poetry News: for lovers of poetry in performance and other live word events, the Bringing the House Down Festival begins this Friday in London before moving on to other British cities and Europe. Here are the details ...

Bringing the House Down
Friday 30 September, 8pm
Shaw Theatre, Novotel, 100 Euston Road, London, NW1 2AJ
Door: £8/£6 (concs)
Advance Tickets: 0870 033 2600
Email Queries

And here's the pre-tour publicity:

The Bringing the House Down Festival begins with a star-studded line up at London’s 400-seater Shaw Theatre. The night will feature the lyrical shaman, urbanspirit; international slam sensation and verbal trickster, Jive Poetic; the sassy, political Mahogany Browne; energetic mystic, Skorpio; acclaimed poet, vocal gymnast and performer, Zena Edwards; and the laid-back smoothness of former US National Slam champion Boogieman. Join us for a word feast of immeasurable proportions; poetry that fills like a six-course meal, delivered as quick as a takeaway.

For touring dates, click here. If anyone actually manages to catch the show, do leave your comments below.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Last Chance for Blast-Off!

I've just had an email from the Poetry Society, reminding me that tomorrow is the last day for voting on which poem should be blasted off into space. Choose from their selection or suggest your own choice.

To visit the Poetry Society site and place your vote, click here.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

online poetry school

I've just found a useful link on the Poetry Society home page to the new online Poetry School, which offers workshops, courses, special events and other support to new or improving writers. This is what they say about themselves ...

The Poetry School

The Poetry School was founded in 1997 by three poets - Mimi Khalvati, Jane Duran and Pascale Petit - to teach poetry to adults. We offer a comprehensive range of courses and workshops exploring key elements of poetic practice, complemented by stimulating lectures, discussions and seminars with some of the most renowned poets working today.

The School started life in London and continues to flourish there. Our courses take place in a variety of venues round the city from pubs to galleries, architects’ practices to Quaker meeting houses. As the School has grown, we have established teaching centres in Exeter, Manchester and York, and also offer activities in Aldeburgh, Bath, Dorchester, Ledbury, Lewes, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland and Winchester.

The website seems very professional and the list of tutors features many high-profile poets. It might be worth a browse if you're hoping to improve your work to publication standard or just wish to find out more about contemporary poetry. One of the special events in particular caught my eye; trips around London to visit the haunts of famous poets like John Donne, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, presumably also looking at the impact of place on their poetry. Sounds fascinating. Click here for more details.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

first poem in space

This year's theme for National Poetry Day is The Future, so the Poetry Society have been encouraging people to vote online for one of a shortlist of contemporary poems to be sent into space as representative of earth's poetry. No foreign language poets in this selection, I note, even in translation. But you may love the shortlist, so go, look, read, cast your vote. It's also possible to nominate a poem not on the list, so if none of the poems on offer fire your rockets, you can still make your personal choice known. I'm not sure when the deadline is for voting, but the winning poem will presumably be announced on October 6th, National Poetry Day.

though a glass, darkly

This afternoon, after hideous complications during the morning had frazzled my nerves, I waited for what felt like an eternity behind a teenage girl at a cash dispenser only for her to be joined by another teenage girl who promptly got out her own card. I snapped at them both in terms which would be familiar to a sailor and stomped off without even waiting for her to finish. Then, in an area of my local library which is intended for under-5s, I was trying to control my various tiny and rather noisy offspring when a child of about eight years old approached me in a superior manner and asked if I could possibly keep my children quiet. I asked, in return, if she would like a poke in the eye. She went off without pressing the point any further, but watched me cautiously for the next half hour as though I were mad. Which I probably was, at that moment. And then I had to come home and continue writing the novel which I had so magnificently failed to write during the day. Happy times ...

Saturday, September 17, 2005

the emperor's new clothes

BLADE 6: The Emperor’s New Clothes Summer 1997

It’s been a while since I was closely involved in the small press scene, so I’ve been trawling the net with considerable interest over the past few months, looking at which poetry magazines are still afloat and which have folded, which have sprung up out of nowhere and which have changed hands or allegiances, as well as spotting various names of poets who were promising newcomers a few years ago and are now regulars on the festival circuit or celebrating their first - or even second! - full-length collections.

I took time out from poetry to start a new family, which I don’t regret, but I feel that the ground shifted while I wasn’t looking, that the view is no longer the same. Or perhaps it wasn’t the ground that shifted, but me; poetry is the same-old, same-old. I’m the one who has changed.

Blade was my creation, a critical poetry magazine that came out of a desire to get my hands dirty and my name known at the same time. It ran to nine issues. Looking back at its demise, I know that I screwed up, that things went seriously wrong and I handled the situation badly. I should have taken a step back, maybe let someone else edit the magazine for a few issues while I sorted my head out, but I was exhausted and pissed off, and the person doing the administration side of things went awol towards the end - the only thing that wasn’t my fault! - which meant subscribers’ and contributors’ addresses disappeared into the ether along with the bank balance, and I decided enough was enough. So Blade never made it to Issue Ten.

People were disappointed. That was inevitable and difficult for me to handle. It was a time I remember with little fondness, being a sort of King Lear moment in my life where I teetered on the brink of madness and was only saved by the few people I still had around me - my oldest friends and my family.

BLADE 6: Back Cover. Click on the image to enlarge.

In spite of those problems, I’m still proud of what I achieved with Blade in its heyday. It was forthright and challenging and bold for its time.

I produced the entire first issue myself - hand-printing, collating and stapling 100 copies of a 44 page magazine with a card cover. After that, I gave up the home-made look and it went to the printers. But Issue One is still one of my favourites, a little over-enthusiastic and naive though it may seem in retrospect, but featuring some marvellous poems by Brendan Kennelly, Martin Stannard, Geoff Hattersley, Maura Dooley, Mario Petrucci and Amanda Dalton, amongst many other talented poets. Not bad for a first issue edited from the Isle of Man by a complete novice.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


I recently bought a scanner-cum-photocopier-cum-printer and have been playing with it this morning, scanning in various things that I needed on my computer. Which gives me an opportunity for a shameless plug. The above cover is from my first collection of poetry which can be ordered online from the likes of amazon.

I was fortunate enough to win an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors before I hit thirty and was too old to qualify. When I was called in for my interview, they picked one particular poem out of the bunch I'd submitted and asked 'What made you write this poem?' Too terrified to lie, I was honest. 'I needed 30 poems for the submission. I only had 29, so I sat down and banged that one out on the typewriter, put it straight into the envelope and posted them all off.'

That poem, Spin Cycle, was the only one of my early poems which made it into my first collection with Bloodaxe. I just wish 'banging them out' still worked that well ...

(for Becky

You’ve been blackberrying again.
I take your blouse
and watch it turn

through the white suds
in the drum, rinse-hold,
spinning slowly through the cycle.

I hear you up above,
bouncing on the bed
to reach the oval mirror,

see the purple stains
around your mouth and chin,
blackness under nails

and in your hair.
Soon, like your swan-necked sister,
you will not have to stretch

on tiptoe for the sink
or grip the rail
when coming down the stairs.

You say ‘When?’
I do not have the answers.
Just the slow loop

of your blouse
growing heavy with water,
as one cycle ends
and waits upon another.

Monday, September 12, 2005


I wrote a poem yesterday about daddy-long-legs. Crane flies, in other words. The countryside is alive with them at this time of year; just hanging the washing out, hundreds sprang up out of the grass as I approached, taking to the air with their strange faery-like wings and those long legs splayed out like sky-divers'. And I can't open the windows at night in case they come in, hordes of them, flickering around the lights and getting in my hair, so the kitchen gets steamed up and I lose my temper, scooping the annoying little insects up and throwing them out of the door whenever I get the chance. It seems they are everywhere this year. It felt a little Hughesian to be writing about crane flies; there's something mythical about them, perhaps even nightmarish when they come into the house in such numbers, that they seem to fit perfectly into Ted Hughes' vision of the natural world. Besides, I've just found his poem A Cranefly in September, from Season Songs, with its astonishing description of her 'jointed bamboo fuselage', so accurately observed. But still, these are Warwickshire craneflies. Practically a different species.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

john skelton & night blue fruit at the tin angel

"For though my ryme be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rayne beaten,
Rusty and moughte eaten,
It hath in it some pyth."

I recently discovered a poetry performance venue in Coventry, called Night Blue Fruit and hosted by the Heaventree Press. It's essentially an open mic evening at the Tin Angel - a small and intimate bar on Medieval Spon Street in old Coventry - and something about the night's atmosphere kicked me back into revisiting John Skelton's work, who was a self-styled poet laureate back in the days of Henry VIII. I was thinking of one of his poems in particular, the gloriously scurrilous and jaunty Elinour Rumming, a poem of some 620 short lines dealing with the landlady and clientele of a disreputable Tudor ale house.

All through the evening at Night Blue Fruit, through the windows of the Tin Angel, we could see girls in high heels, short skirts, low-cut tops etc., out on the razzle, some of them drunk, others grazing on chips and kebabs in between night clubs. They would yell at each other, laugh as they staggered across the road for a taxi, while inside the Tin Angel the poetry continued to flow. By the time I got home there was a long poem brewing away inside me, a modern-day Elinour Rumming about poets and drunken girls and the English language ... though, of course, these things never work out the way you envisage them.

I sat up well into the early hours to finish it; a dangerous policy when you've had a few drinks. But the poem was still halfway decent in the morning, which is a good sign that you haven't entirely wasted your time. I've tinkered with it since, cut some sections which weren't working, and inserted some additional sections which came into my head later. Naturally, it's a performance piece rather than what some might call a traditional poem. But would Skelton have considered that there was a difference between the two?

Over the centuries, many critics have dismissed poems like Elinour Rumming as not lyrical enough to be taken seriously or accepted into the mainstream. But I think their energy and the dynamic challenges such poems pose to the English language more than make up for a lack of formalism. That's what Skelton was about, after all; keeping English on its toes, constantly shocking and surprising us with what it can do when stretched and subverted. Some of his work is so modern, experimental and tongue-in-cheek that it's difficult to remember it was written in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century.

Here's the beginning of Skelton's famous satirical epic Phyllyp Sparowe, parodying the Offices for the Dead:

Pla ce bo,
Who is there, who?
Di le xi,
Dame Margery;
Fa, re, my, my,
Wherfore and why, why?
For the sowle of Philip Sparowe,
That was late slayn at Carowe,
Among the Nones Blake,
For that swete soules sake,
And for all sparowes soules,
Set in our bedrolles,
Pater noster qui,
With an Ave Mari,
And with the corner of a Crede,
The more shallbe your mede.

Whan I remember agayn
How mi Philyp was slayn,
Never half the payne
Was betwene you twayne,
Pyramus and Thesbe,
As than befell to me:
I wept and I wayled,
The tears downe hayled;
But nothing it avayled
To call Phylyp agayne,
Whom Gyb our cat hath slayne ...