Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Exile's Return" and poetic ambition

Having decided to sell some of my thousands of books on amazon, largely in response to the dreaded credit crunch we are all experiencing, I've been trawling through old boxes and crates of books, some of which I haven't seen since my days as a secondhand bookseller in Cornwall.

One of the books I found, and have subsequently been re-reading - one of the hazards of selling books as a book-lover is the painful inability to part with some titles, at least not without reading or re-reading them first - is a slightly battered paperback edition of "Exile's Return: a literary odyssey of the 1920s" by Malcolm Cowley, first published in 1934.

Below is what I came across in "Exile's Return" last night, from page 110, and decided to post up on Raw Light, for the sake of interest and any thoughts that might follow, on the always thorny subject of reviewing poetry and being ambitious for one's own work - ignoring the typically sexist assumption of the time that any poet and/or reviewer must necessarily be male.

The comments below are roughly the same as those I have made myself, in other ways and with slightly different nuances, on poetry forums in the past, and been ridiculed for. What interests me is that I can find these sentiments in books on poetry, both in "Exile's Return" and numerous others I have come across over the years, yet when I voice the same ideas myself, I meet almost blanket disagreement from my peers. So, are those who disagree trying to hide something, from me or perhaps from themselves, or do they genuinely believe that thoughtful ambition and watchfulness in a poet is a Bad Thing?

Is it perhaps that contemporary poetry has turned away from the inherent romanticism of poetic ambition - as it was understood up until about the middle years of the twentieth century - in favour of a colder, slicker, and far more professional approach, one hedged about with serious workshop attendance and qualifications in Creative Writing, for instance? That a poet is no longer 'apprenticed to the Muse' as Malcolm Cowley puts it below, but is on a career path whose landmarks include an internet site, a blog, an MA programme, a few competition wins and the obligatory arts grant - the work itself, its deepest rigours and inspirations and origins, being no longer centre stage of a poet's career but a mere by-product of the process.

From p. 110, Exile's Return by Malcom Cowley:
If [a young poet] is called upon to review a book by Joyce or Eliot, he will say certain things he believes to be accurate: they are not the things lying closest to his heart. Secretly he is wondering whether he can, whether he should, ever be great in the Joyce or Eliot fashion. What path should he follow to reach this goal? The great living authors, in the eyes of any young man apprenticed to the Muse, are a series of questions, an examination paper compiled by and submitted to himself:

1. What problems do these authors suggest?

2. With what problems are they consciously dealing?

3. Are they my own problems? Or if not, shall I make them my own?

4. What is the Joyce solution to these problems (or the Eliot, the Pound, the Gertrude Stein, the Paul Valery solution)?

5. Shall I adopt it? Reject it and seek another master? Or must I furnish a new solution myself?

And it is as if the examiner had written: Take your time, young man. Consider all questions carefully; there is all the time in the world. Don't fake or cheat; you are making these answers for yourself. Nobody will grade them but posterity.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Online review of CVB at 'Poetry in Progress'

Apologies for the long absence. Christmas preparations have caught up with me and I've been rather neglecting the blog.

But here's a lovely review of my latest collection, Camper Van Blues, at the excellent site of a fellow blogger and poet, who blogs under a pen-name - but whose real name is Marion McCready - Poetry in Progress.

Wherever you are, I wish you all a very happy Christmas and peaceful New Year.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Under the Weather

I spent most of this morning working in bed. It's so cold here, and, like many people, I can't justify running the heating when it's only me in the house. So I sat up in bed, hatted and scarved, propped up on pillows, working on a lap-tray - Sallust's Bellum Catilinae, which has to be prepared for next term; some new poems, at various stages of revision; and notes on the next issue of Horizon.

I drove to and from a poetry reading in Leicester last night, which took just under an hour each way, accompanied by Jane Commane - friend, poet and editor at Nine Arches Press - and felt fine, though aware that I didn't give of my best at the reading. Breath very high in the chest, voice constricted and thinner than usual.

On returning home, round about midnight, I felt suddenly, inexplicably shattered. I went online very briefly, threw off my togs, crawled into bed and lay there in a daze. My heart was racing, I felt sick and light-headed. When I got up to go to the bathroom, I nearly fell down the stairs, I was so dizzy and nauseous.

By the morning - 7.15am start - the sickness had receded somewhat, though I was still a little shaky. Luckily, I didn't have to be anywhere this morning, so was able to retreat back under the covers for a couple of hours. But I still couldn't resist taking some work into bed with me!

Since I'm much better now, I guess last night's reaction wasn't due to any bug, but was merely the result of exhaustion, both mental and physical. It feels like an extraordinarily long time since the more relaxed days of summer.

Perhaps I've been overdoing it lately. But no chance of rest just yet. I'm still intending to go to the Salt Christmas Party tonight at the Horse Hospital, London - bought the train tickets now, and I'll be damned if I'm going to waste them - and next week has been pencilled in for writing. Something which I refuse to give up in order to loll about watching daytime soaps under a duvet.

Being an editor - and also a student now! - is wonderful - but if I no longer have the time nor energy to prioritise my own poetry, what's it all for?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Latin & Leicester

Driving off to Leicester later this evening to read from my new book of poetry, Camper Van Blues, at the Friends Meeting House, Queen's Road, Leicester. About 7.30pm, if you're able to come along.

Jane Commane and I are travelling in together, so wish her luck. I mean, us luck.

It's a pity I'm driving, as it means I won't be able to toast - with alcohol, at least! - my good news of the day, which is that I've just had the final result through from my Open University Latin course: a Distinction, or First Class Pass.

I'm still kicking myself though for ruining a record of straight 100% scores by stupidly leaving three lines out of a translation on my last tutor-marked assignment. Although it wouldn't have made any difference to the overall bracket I was placed in, the class of pass being calculated by adding up the assignment scores along with the examination result, I do hate getting things wrong, especially through carelessness.

I'm beginning to sound a bit ... obsessive compulsive. Hmm.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

On Rhyme

Working on a new poem tonight, it occurred to me - not for the first time - that a poem without rhyme stumbles about in a kind of shadowy half-life, looking in vain for completion ... for the suggestive, resonant closure that rhyme provides.

Rhyme is what launches the poem off into space, the white space of the page, the tense, humming space of the ear. It both confirms and undoes the poet's intentions, putting its finger on significant meaning whilst simultaneously pointing beyond it into a dark glimmering barely glimpsed or understood before the poem began to take shape. An awkward position to be in. But not all rhymes are equal. The full rhyme satisfies the listener with the certainty of the absolute, but closes off further echoes and possibilities in a way which risks deadening the poem, like beating a drum that's been muffled. The half-rhyme is delicate and ever so slightly shakes the poem off-balance, but its recovery is swift and the new path - the swerve in the plan - energises and inspires. Beyond those are the quarter-rhyme or sound echo: assonance, consonance, the tease of alliteration, the eye-rhyme, the breath falling on the air as it fell a bare moment before. Together, these all play their part in creating a living entity, something no longer inert on the page, the poem by a stranger that reaches into our memories and pulls out an emotion we didn't believe we possessed or that we'd put behind us years before.

If the verb is the soul of the language, the rhyme must be the soul of the poem. Without it, nothing ascends. Nothing transcends.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Two Links and a Protest

Ben Wilkinson has an interesting blog post on Mick Imlah's T.S. Eliot-shortlisted poetry collection The Lost Leader, with link to a Newsnight discussion of the book. Catch it while you can!

He also points towards new critical perspectives he's written on poets Leontia Flynn and Zoe Skoulding for the British Council site.

Now, call me cussed, but I find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that Leontia Flynn, a poet with only two collections to her name (the second published earlier this year), should be given a spot on the British Council site when there are so many other poets, well-established poets, who are not there and are unlikely to be there for some time, if ever. Yes, Flynn's first collection won the Forward Prize in 2004 for Best First Collection, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread, but one swallow does not a summer make. Her publisher is Cape, however, a mainstream publisher with a solid reputation and a reliable presence in high street bookshops, and perhaps we don't need to look much further than that.

Not that Leontia Flynn herself is in any way undeserving of praise. I've read both her books and I'm sure many people thoroughly enjoy her poetry. But some of the omissions on the British Council website are astonishing, and it's important to periodically stop and question why the work of some poets, both there and in other places, should be ignored or dismissed, while that of others - not necessarily any better, and often indeed mediocre or negligible in comparison - is trumpeted and held up as an example of good writing.

There are other oddnesses on the British Council site too; I'm not singling Flynn out in particular. The undoubtedly talented Daljit Nagra is also there, for instance - with only one published collection behind him. With a critical perspective, no less, already in place, also written by Ben Wilkinson. But Nagra's publisher is Faber & Faber. So that must be okay.

As far as these injustices are concerned, things are changing - though slowly, very gradually - for the better. The internet is behind the greatest changes, allowing people to disseminate information about poets more quickly and readily than ever before, and to challenge accepted orthodoxies with showcases of neglected or less glamorous, less well-publicised poets. But in book publishing terms, it is still too often the name of the publisher - the logo on the spine - rather than the name of the poet, which appears to determine which collections of poetry make the prize shortlists, or are reviewed in the nationals and featured on establishment poetry sites for general readers like the British Council.

Many disagree with me, I know. And there will always be useful exceptions to be held up against my argument. But I would suggest, politely, that a desire not to rock the poetry boat is behind most such protests. Not the truth.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Geoffrey Hill Zinger!

Strictly for slavish followers of Geoffrey Hill, I found this blog earlier this evening.

Also, if you're feeling particularly slavish, there's even a GH Facebook group you can join here.

Have a very Geoffrey Christmas!

Salt Christmas Party: Friday 12th December

EVERYONE WELCOME at the Salt Publishing Christmas Party

Poetry & Short Story readings from Julia Bird, Jane Holland, Sue Hubbard and Mark Waldron. Fill your Stockings at the Salt Book Stall. Pay Bar. Secret Santa presents for all the good boys and girls!
Friday 12th December 2008
6.30 onwards – readings at 7.30ish and 8.30ish
The Horse Hospital, Colonnade, Bloomsbury,
London WC1N 1HX

Julia Bird in her debut collection, there is a poem called "Five Years Trying to Win the Flower Show Vegetable Animal Class". Entries include an aubergine bird of paradise, and a potato humpback whale with "eyes for a blowhole, and also for eyes". Like her speaker's perennially highly commended sculptures, Julia Bird's poetry dismantles the everyday and builds it into new shapes. (New Statesman)

Jane Holland's new collection, Camper Van Blues, is a book of journeys, both real and imaginary. The title sequence is a British road movie told through poems, one woman and her dog alone in a camper van, each jump-cut taking the reader further into the interior of an addictive, self-destructive personality. In a sequence of brief and highly visual poems, Holland explores a midnight landscape of motorways, truck stops and lay-bys, touching by turns on the issues of loneliness, drug abuse and living with depression.

From Sue Hubbard's new short story collection Rothko's Red … 'Belle's apartment was above a Chinese restaurant on the Lower East Side, a tiny oriental island in the once largely Jewish neighbourhood. Whilst some of the old sweat shops and tenement buildings with their heavy iron fire escapes had been taken over by young artists, or turned into Tarot reading or tattoo parlours, there was nothing hip about The Lotus Garden with its murky interior, its cheap red lanterns and lurid gilt frames containing dayglo Chinese dragons. The stairway leading from the side door up to Belle's apartment smelt of cats and boiled washing. The visit had been a sudden decision. When the Christmas card with the snow-laden pine branches had arrived, Maggie had, on the spur of the moment, phoned Belle. She needed to get away, put some distance between the sense of rejection and confusion Adam's leaving had stirred in her, and Belle had seemed genuinely pleased …'

"Mark Waldron's poems are generally short, crisp and lyrical, but they are driven by a phantasmagoria of garrulous creatures, spectres and shapeshifters, alter egos and alluring women." (Roddy Lumsden)

This is, I suppose, the official launch of Camper Van Blues, though the book's been on sale a month or so now and I've read from it at various events.

For this Christmas Party launch though, I'll be reading sometime between 7.30pm and 8pm, for those who may be thinking of coming along and would like to catch me 'in the act', as it were. Signed copies will be available!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

"A dark and lovely book ... "

I was delighted to see a recent post by David Morley on his Warwick creative writing blog, recommending my latest collection, Camper Van Blues, as a Christmas present.

"Jane is an energetic poet with good taste, and she has an engaging way of talking to the dead (poets, historical figures) as if they were in the room with her (didn’t Blake do this for real?) ..."

Many thanks to David, and to everyone who has already bought a copy of CVB. If you do have a copy - erm, and enjoyed it! - it would be wonderful if you could leave a short review on Amazon, or if you have a blog, post your thoughts there and let me know so I can provide a link to it here on Raw Light.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Poetry in Motion

Possibly the first ever televised century by a woman snooker player: the World Mixed Doubles, 1993, with the legendary Allison Fisher partnering Steve Davis and Stacey Hillyard partnering Stephen Hendry.

Dodgy quality film, but still worth watching.

Allison, of course, was the women's World Snooker Champion seven or eight times, and since emigrating to the US has gone on to make a fortune there, scooping every major prize for pool and dubbed "Duchess of Doom" by the stunned Americans.

Presumably due to the lack of sponsorship for the women's game in the UK, Stacey - feel free to correct me if you know better, as I haven't been in touch with her for years - retired from snooker soon after this and went into business instead, despite having been a World Champion herself and the first officially recorded compiler of a century break (114 in 1985, during a Bournemouth league match) by a woman.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Reading from CVB tonight at the Foundry, London

I'm off to catch the train to London in a few moments; I'll be reading from my new poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, tonight at the Foundry, Great Eastern Street.

If you're in the area, the Foundry is at:
86 Great Eastern Street
London EC2A 3JL
Old Street tube (exit3)
t 020 7739 6900

All events at the Foundry start at 7pm and are FREE!

I've also been going through the Horizon Review inbox today, making final selections for the next issue of the magazine - both an arduous and an exciting task!

Horizon is now due out late February instead of early March, as I made the decision to bring the date forward to coincide with Stephen Spender's birthday centenary, which the magazine will be celebrating with various features.

And if you're reading this, Sorlil, well done!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Leicester Poetry Reading & Magazine Launch coming up

Thursday, 11th December, 2008, doors open 7.30pm, FREE
Friends Meeting House, Queen's Road, Leicester.

Open mic and poetry night to celebrate the launch of Under The Radar issue 2, featuring:

Jane Holland - Editor of Horizon Review, reading from her latest Salt collection, Camper Van Blues.
Matt Merritt - Leicestershire poet, shares poems from his first collection, Troy Town.
Matt Nunn - Birmingham's finest poetic export, reading from his forthcoming collection, Sounds in the Grass.
Jane Commane - Warwickshire-based poet reading a selection of her recent work.

Plus open mic slots available - please arrive early to sign up for a place.
Again, anyone in the area who can make this reading, I'd be happy to see you. There will be books for sale, and I can personally vouch for the fact that Matt Nunn is very funny!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Wednesday December 3rd: "Ride the Word" at the Foundry, London

Ride the Word

Vincent de Souza, poetry
Vanessa Gebbie, short fiction
Jane Holland, poetry
Chris McCabe, poetry
Jay Merill, short fiction
also Guest Publication: The Delinquent
Speaker: Jason King, editor
Truckers' Art Exhibition
Speaker: Stefan Roman, artist

I'll be reading from my new poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, at the above reading in London next week, Wednesday December 3rd.

Please come along if you can! (There'll also be a reading in Leicester on Thursday December 11th, if that's nearer to home for you. Details to be posted up soon.)

The Foundry is at 86 Great Eastern Street London EC2A 3JL
Old Street tube (exit3) t 020 7739 6900 e info at

All events at the Foundry start at 7pm and are FREE!

The Short Story

I was skimming through some dusty old computer files the other day and came across a slightly promising file labelled Short Stories.

At some point in the past - what on earth possessed me? - I decided to try my hand at that venerable but highly complicated form, the short story. Some of my efforts were published in American anthologies a while ago and promptly fell through a hole in the universe. Others remain unpublished, probably because I'm not terribly good at sending work out once it's finished. Or perhaps because some of those stories had minor problems which had to be sorted before they could be submitted, and of course I lost interest or moved on to some new project, and so the stories were left to gather cyber dust in some abandoned file.

But I've finally decided to dust them off, see if anything can be fixed, and send them out. But where should I submit them?

It's notoriously hard to place short stories, especially non-genre, i.e. 'literary' stories, which most of these unpublished ones are. I'm sure some of the regular readers of this blog could advise me with a few places, in print or online, which take short stories. Preferably places which pay, but I'd be happy with non-paying places for the moment, on the grounds that any publication is better than none!

I notice, for instance, that the estimable Mslexia has a short story competition open at the moment.

So maybe after my cyber-dusting, or rearranging, or complete disembowelling, and last minute polishing, one or maybe even two of these offerings may make their way over to Mslexia in the hope of catching the judge's eye. This, regardless of the fact that all competition wins are utterly random. (Though, of course, when you win one yourself, it was all down to talent!)

Stories can be up to 2,200 words on any topic.
Judge: Helen Simpson
First prize: £2,000 plus a one week retreat and a day with a Virago editor.
Second Prize: £500
Third Prize: £250
3 x other finalists: £100 each
Fee: £8 per story
Deadline: 23rd January 2009
Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann will read all the winning stories.

Visit Mslexia for details of how to enter.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A "Wild" Gawain

I mentioned a while back that I was interested in translating Gawain, since it's one of my favourite pre-Modern English texts, but that since everyone is doing it these days, there seemed little point in jumping on an overcrowded bandwagon.

Well, I've suddenly found an "in" to the project, and written ten poems towards it so far, mostly over the past week or so. Sequences always flow well for me once I'm into the thick of them, and although other work has now interrupted my writing, I have good hopes of getting back to this one soon without losing interest.

What I've done is not started a translation, per se, but written some short sequential responses to Gawain. Though perhaps a better description would be to call it a "wild" or parallel version.

My "wild" version mixes past and present - one of my favourite gimmicks at the moment - so I have a contemporary Gawain story and a medieval Gawain story, interwoven in a sequence of new poems. These poems both follow the thread of the original narrative and depart from it by showing scenes that don't appear there but are mentioned - off-stage scenes, as it were - or that are entirely new.

Sometimes I throw in phrases from the medieval text, or hint at them in passing, but generally, this is all original work. As usual, no guarantees that the sequence will work out and be published in the future. But it's started me writing again with energy after a dry period, and I'm happy enough with that.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


It's my birthday tomorrow - 21 again! - so I'm celebrating it here by posting up this rather marvellous compilation of kd lang stills alongside her smoky version of The Joker:

And to follow that, this is a birthday-related poem from my first poetry collection, published by Bloodaxe Books in 1997, The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman:

Cherchez la Femme

There is rain
on the windows when I am born
no cries
into a cold November.
The midwife is Caribbean,
complaining of these British winters
even as I slide
into her arms.

Rain becomes my season.
I walk out under the dark clouds
like a missionary
preaching the world of the wet.
I kneel on the earth,
put my face to the dampness
like a child
hidden in her mother's skirt.

Later, unable to wear lace,
I finger photographs
of beautiful women.
Run my hands along lapels,
loving the coarseness of a country tweed,
the brisk crease of a man's shirt.
I sit apart,
smoke French cigarettes,

my room dark with desire.
Each night it falls at my window
like sharp insistent rain.
My desire is insatiable.
It has many names.
Watching through streaked glass,
I know none of them.

Winners of the Stephen Spender Prize 2008

My apologies for not blogging this past week. I have the best excuse in the world; I was writing. Eight poems in the last seven days, to be precise. Which is particularly pleasing, given that poetry had slowed to a trickle for me in recent months (following the somewhat apocryphal deluge of the summer).

The sudden outpouring is due to a new sequence, of course. Sequences always get me writing with more ease and fluidity. More on that later, since though I've rushed in with the first few poems, the overall structure is still in the process of being shaped in my mind.

So, back to the Stephen Spender Prize 2008.

Joint Winners of the 14s-and-under prize:
Paula Alonso-Lalanda - 'Let's go to the Market!' by Gloria Fuertes (Spanish)
Scarlett Koller - 'Roundelay' by Charles d'Orleans (French)

Winners of the 18-and-under category:
Daniel Galbraith (FIRST) - Amores I.V. by Ovid (Latin)
Iwona Luszowicz (SECOND) - 'In Remembrance of Marie A.' by Bertolt Brecht (German)
Rupert Mercer (THIRD) - Catullus VIII (Latin)

Winners of the Open Category:
Imogen Halstead (FIRST) - Amores 1.1. by Ovid (Latin)
Jane Draycott (SECOND) - an extract from Pearl (Middle English)
Emily Jeremiah - 'Theorem' by Eeva-Liisa Manner (Finnish)
Timothy Allen - 'Broken Heart, New Lament' by Nguyen Du (Vietnamese)

The winner of the Open category, Imogen Halstead, is currently in China and couldn't make the award ceremony. So Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate, agreed to read the poem in her place. To make her win even more astounding, Imogen is actually 18, and was the original winner in the 18-and-under category. However, the judges decided that her presence there was so powerful as to be unfair to the other poems entered, so she was 'bumped up', in the words of one judge, to win the adult category instead.

For me though, the most powerful and mesmerising poems of the evening undoubtedly came from Daniel Galbraith and Rupert Mercer, talented young writers in the 18-and-under category with two highly idiosyncratic translations from the Latin, and Jane Draycott, whose extract from 'Pearl' was beautifully and sparingly written.

After the readings, we mingled. The awards were being held at the Venezuelan Embassy in central London, a packed hall with tiered seating and a generous raised platform for the performers. Some extraordinarily tasty red wine was served, and a selection of canapés. Lady Spender was there, along with a smattering of other Spenders, Valerie Eliot (the widow of T.S. Eliot), and other luminaries of the poetry world, including Josephine Balmer, one of the judges and herself a fine poet and classicist.

I spoke at length to Matthew Spender, founder of the new 14-and-under category, whose speech had strongly criticised the government as 'not sympathetic to the idea of studying foreign languages in schools'. He considers these prizes for younger translators a 'reproach' to the government for their apathy, and I have to agree with him.

Heaventree Press founding editor Jon Morley, who published my 'Lament of the Wanderer' translation earlier this year, was also there that night, along with Susan Bassnett, a pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick. Susan was one of the Stephen Spender Prize judges, and is herself an expert in a number of languages, including an old favourite of mine, Anglo-Saxon.

Taking the train back to the Midlands together, the party atmosphere continued for another hour, with an enthusiastic discussion of translations, 'poets we have known', and what each of us is currently working on.

Home just before midnight, I then had to hurriedly dash off a Middle English translation for a class the next morning. It was Chaucer, the wonderfully obscene Miller's Tale. From the sublime to the ridiculous!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Stephen Spender Translation Awards

Well, I'm going to brave the inclement weather and dash down to London tonight for the Stephen Spender Translation Awards. I've had a bad chest for the past week, so it's been touch and go whether I could take up the invitation to attend, as editor of Horizon Review, but I've finally decided that I will make the attempt.

Stephen Spender, of course, was not only a great English poet of the last century, but was also one of the founders of the original Horizon, back in the 1940s. And I'm interested in the translation awards, not least because I was intending to enter for the Awards this year but didn't manage to finish my translation in time for the deadline.

So I'm naturally very keen to go tonight and get a feel for the standard, because there's always next year ... !

Definitely a good night to take an umbrella though.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Healthy Food Riddles for Tescos

Sometimes I run and drip,
sometimes I’m still and cloudy.
You may have seen me with a bear.
I wish I could fly
like those who made me.
I’m the only comb
you mustn’t put in your hair.

What am I?

This riddle is intended for 5-10 yr olds, so shouldn't be too tricky!

More riddle poems, written for Tescos as part of my Warwick Poet Laureateship, here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Having Been Tagged

I've been tagged, apparently! From what I can tell, being tagged is the blogging (or should that be 'blogal'?) equivalent of playing paint-ball and getting hit in the backside with a large splodge of pink.

So I'm supposed to link to the person who 'tagged' me. Write 6 random things about myself here. Then 'tag' six other victims.

I'm going to write the 6 random things below, because I'm a raving egotist and it's always fun for me to talk about myself. But I'm going to shy clear of tagging another six people, as I'm vaguely worried that I'll tag someone who'll consider me a damn nuisance and never speak to me again because of it.

Luckily for Bo, who tagged me, I could never consider him a nuisance, being one of my oldest friends now (in the nicest sense), and besides which I owe him a dinner. Several dinners, if truth be told.

So he gets away with it ...

Meanwhile, 6 random facts about myself, starting with the most obvious:

I was once ranked 24th in the world for women's snooker

I can't make pastry. Well, I can, but few would want to eat the results.

I've flown at Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) on Concorde - London to New York - and seen the curvature of the earth. How many people will ever be able to say that?

My all-time favourite book is probably A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. (Harry Potter's an interesting character, but he can't compete with Ged.)

I used to run a secondhand bookshop called 'The Little Camel Bookshop'.

Family aside, given the choice between being in company and being alone, I nearly always prefer solitude.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Camper Van Blues

My third full-length collection, Camper Van Blues, has now been launched by Salt Publishing!

There should be an official reading from it at some point but for now I will be reading at the Troubadour (Old Brompton Road, London) next Monday 3rd November, as part of the Seam Magazine launch, and again on December 3rd, which is a Wednesday, with Ride the Word at The Old Foundry, also in London.

If anyone can make the Troubadour reading on Monday, I'd be pleased to see you there. Though it sounds like it may be a very popular night, so do get there early, which means by about 7.30, I think.

Other readers at the Troubadour this Monday include: Anne Berkeley, Michael Laskey, Helen Ivory, Chris Beckett, Katy Evans-Bush, John Greening, Esther Morgan, Peter Howard and Hisham Matar.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Is Verse Drama Dead?

Becket, pictured in a stained glass window at Canterbury Cathedral
We hear occasionally of new verse dramas being produced on radio or on the stage but never with any great trumpeting along the lines of 'Verse drama is back!'

Many of us would think of T.S. Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral' as one of the last critically acclaimed verse dramas; not exactly a recent work though, is it? Verse drama simply isn't popular. It makes people uncomfortable.

Speaking verse? As a character in a play? The concept itself sounds old-fashioned and highfalutin. As though the playwright is a little too big for his/her costume drama boots. None of us are Shakespeare or Racine, after all.

So although verse drama is still being written, it tends to be sidelined whenever it resurfaces in public - nothing of any real importance, pleasantly arty and worthwhile, perhaps, but not to be lingered over by the critics.

Can we shake off that 'worthy but dull' image of the verse drama? How do we turn around the predictable 'lovely but I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole' reaction of so many producers and publishers?

Is the effort worth making, or is verse drama irretrievably dead?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Forget technique, forget impressing us: write from the heart, write with your own voice

I won't embarrass the poets by naming them, but at a London poetry reading the other night I really did want to leave before the end. Which is rare for me, someone who has sat through some of the most excruciatingly bad poetry ever produced on this planet. But it really was almost more than I could bear.

Sitting at the back, where a hurried exit would have been spotted by friends, including some of the poets themselves, there were moments when I felt like an animal caught in a trap, desperate enough to consider gnawing my own leg off in order to escape.

The poets whose work particularly offended me were introduced to us as brilliant, innovative, talented, highly thought of, the best young ... etc.

And then they stood up and read reams of tiresome poetry clotted with pointlessly arcane references, foreign words they embarrassingly couldn't pronounce correctly, Latinate phrases for the simplest thoughts - 'ambulate' was used instead of 'walk' at one stage - and all of it in tones of such grave, deliberative pretention, I feared they were in fact eighty-year-old retired church wardens trapped in the bodies of healthy twenty-somethings.

For pity's sake, I wanted to say, write from the heart. Forget technique, forget Greek prosody, forget trying to impress us with your erudition. Life is what impresses us. Give us life in your poetry, raw and beautiful and - above all - honest, and we will forgive you any number of faults.

The voice you need is your own. So use it; not someone else's, least of all poets who have been dead for hundreds or even thousands of years.

But of course, they wouldn't have listened even if I'd stood up there and then to tell them. Because other teachers had been there before me, well-meaning but not up to the task teachers, and poisoned their minds and their talent, to the extent that their poetry has - not surprisingly - died. All that's left is the fossilised husk they read out to us that night, and the instinct to bolster their own work with the words of other, more dynamic, long-dead poets.

I hope to hear them again in the future and be proved wrong.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

"Start the Week" this Monday, 9am

Just to let you know I'll be talking about Horizon Review on "Start the Week" this Monday, 20th October - at 9am, if you're ever up that early on a Monday! - which is BBC Radio 4's flagship arts programme.

The other guests with me this Monday are Rupert Goold, theatre director - who's currently directing Pete Postlethwaite in King Lear, along with Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Audience at the Gielgud Theatre, Pinter at the Duke of York AND Oliver! at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane - also Duncan Wu, writer and biographer (his most recent work is a biography of William Hazlitt) and Jackie Wullschlager, chief art critic for the Financial Times, who's just written a comprehensive tome on the Russian emigré artist Chagall.

If you miss it on Monday, "Start the Week" should be available for about a week using the Listen Again facility on the BBC Radio 4 website.

I'll be visiting the Poetry Library at the South Bank afterwards, having lunch with poet, critic and creative writing tutor George Ttoouli at the Poetry Society, and generally swanning about London in search of lattés and good poetry.

Ah, the life of a literary editor ...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

To Translate or Innovate?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x

It may be possible to do both, but I've been wondering recently whether I should do some translation work next or write something completely new.

I'm studying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original Middle English this month, so of course my fingers are itching to write a new and truly contemporary version of that - sure, everyone says of each new translation of SGGK that it's 'contemporary' but I mean genuinely so, with contemporary references instead of axes and helmets etc. and not following the original form - but whenever I start to consider how I might come at that poem in an original way, I remember someone saying to me recently that everybody seems to be translating these ancient and venerable poems at the moment instead of writing brand new epics. Almost as though poets are scared of pushing ahead into new poetic territories right now, and prefer to look back instead at what's already been achieved.

So part of me is keen to make a new translation or version of some ancient work, and part of me is excited by the thought of creating something utterly new.

But what?

Friday, October 10, 2008

End of the Laureateship

So, about a week ago, I very cheerfully handed over the Warwick Poet Laureateship to Cathy Whittaker, who will hold that post from 2008 - 09, and am now free as a bird. She says, ironically. In fact, I have so many irons in the fire right now, I'm in serious danger of burning my little pinkies.

I'm now studying at Warwick part-time (part-time has actually worked out as four days a week though, so it's more like full than part-time), sending out my teen fantasy novel in the hope of finding a buyer, continuing to work on new poems, editing issue two of Horizon Review, and possibly adapting my long poem "On Warwick Castle" for the stage.

In other words, life is challenging at the moment (especially when it comes to finding somewhere to park at Warwick University!) and far more pressured than before. Hence the absence of blogging in recent weeks.

Indeed, I've had to turn down several offers of work this month alone because I simply don't have time to squeeze in any more commitments. But no doubt as the year moves on I'll grow accustomed to this more rapid pace of life and feel able to take on new projects. For which, watch this space!

During my Laureateship, I wrote my long poem, "On Warwick Castle", and published that last week along with other Warwick-related poems in a pamphlet from Nine Arches Press, plus wrote several locally commissioned pieces, as well as six riddle poems for Tescos and sixteen poems to accompany Anand Chhabra's photographs in the Warwick Words Poetry & Photography Exhibition. I also visited a few schools in the region as Poet Laureate, and performed at a number of social events, including a rather delicious fish and chip fund-raising supper at the medieval Lord Leycester Hospital in Warwick.

Meanwhile, although I shall miss being so closely involved with poetry in the Warwickshire region, I'm excited to be turning back to my own personal writing projects, and wish the new Laureate, Cathy Whittaker, all the very best in her year ahead!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

How on earth do you pronounce that?

Okay, yes, I'm ridiculously snowed under with work and study, and can't blog, even to bring you up to speed with the great sea-changes that have taken place in my life recently.

Instead, with apologies, I bring you a site I stumbled across today when checking how to pronounce a French place-name: Forvo.

All the words in the world. Pronounced correctly.

How useful is that?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The TLS, Horizon Review, and Throckmorton's Bookshop

I'm very happy to say that Horizon Review made the back page of the TLS this week. My colourful past as editor was flagged up for comment rather than any of the many excellent - some of them award-winning - poets, writers and critics in this first issue, but all publicity is good publicity, as they say.

I'm now selecting new poetry for the second issue, commissioning new critical articles, and looking for literary reviewers. This last is proving harder than I'd imagined. It appears I know only poets and poetry-lovers.

So if you're highly literate and critically engaged - or at least prepared to be - and fancy a crack at reviewing some brand-new literary novels later this year or early next, give me a shout.

I read some of my new work at the Atherstone Arts Festival, Warwckshire, today. Wine was enjoyed afterwards by myself, my fellow readers, and some of the audience in Throckmorton's Bookshop. An excellent bookshop to visit if you're in the area, and not least because they stock several of my books!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Critics Inc.

CHROMA: Want to learn how to review Poetry?

Found this fascinating. A London-based Poetry School course on how to review poetry, with well-known critic Charles Bainbridge. A very worthy thing, I suspect, teaching people how to review.

If it was even remotely possible, which it isn't, I'd take this course myself. It sounds marvellous and I bet some of the post-class pub conversations would be worth the trip too. If you think cramming fifteen poets onto one table at the pub could make for a bitchy conversation, just imagine the potential ding-dong between fifteen poetry critics.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

On the Delicate Art of Blurb Writing

Found this deliciously ironic blurb on the back of Faber's Poet-to-Poet Series edition of Hart Crane's poetry selected by Maurice Riordan:

Harold Hart Crane was born in 1899. He spent much of his life in New York City, where he worked irregularly as a copywriter. White Buildings, his first collection, appeared in 1926 and his most famous work, The Bridge, in 1930. A reaction against the pessimism in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, it is a love song to the myth of America and its optimism encapsulates the excitement and energy of the Jazz Age. Hart Crane committed suicide in 1932.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Leap from the crags, brave boy"

The Dhoon

Leap from the crags, brave boy
The musing hills have kept thee long
But they have made thee strong
And fed thee with the fullness of their joy
And given direction that thou might'st return
To me who yearn
At foot of this great steep
Leap! Leap!
So the stream leapt
Into his mother's arms
Who wept
A space

Then calmed her sweet alarms
And smiled to see him as he slept
Wrapt in that dear embrace
And with the brooding of her tepid breast
Cherished his mountain chillness
O, then what a rest!
O, everywhere what stillness.

That was the Victorian Manx poet T.E. Brown writing about one of the Isle of Man's most secluded but spectacular National Glens, the Dhoon.

I'm afraid that I can't be bothered to get the formatting right - I could be here all night, fiddling with it - so apologies to dear old TE, for whom 'A garden is a lovesome thing, god wot!'

The photograph above shows me sitting 'midst the bluebells in Dhoon Glen and was taken in the spring of 2000 by the late Roly Drower, musician, poet and political activist, with whom I was in a relationship at the time.

I was recently contemplating changing that photograph as the 'official' picture on my home page - since it's nearly ten years out of date now - and felt rather sad, remembering the happy circumstances in which it was taken and knowing I couldn't hang on to it forever.

The TE Brown poem seemed startling apposite when I came across it on the Dhoon Glen site, which is why I've reproduced it here, unashamedly corny though it is: 'Leap from the crags, brave boy/The musing hills have kept thee long ... //O, then what a rest!/O, everywhere what stillness.'

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

5000 page views in the first 48 hours

The first issue of Horizon Review appears to have been well-received so far and is certainly bringing in the hits.

Some excellent stats here from Chris Hamilton-Emery on the Booktrade info page.

Meanwhile, back at the word-face, this week I have:

offered some new poetry books for review to various magazines

started - but not yet finished - a tongue-in-cheek 1000 word article on poem titles for Mimesis

written two more poems

emailed 10 finished poems across to the organisers for the Warwick Festival Photography and Poetry Exhibition that's planned for early October

enrolled at Warwick University for a BA in English & Cultural Studies

made final arrangements to read at the Atherstone Arts Festival on Saturday 27th September

continued reading Simon Barraclough's Los Alamos Mon Amour (which I'm reviewing for Under the Radar)

blogged up some Warwick Words Festival and Birmingham Books Festival events on my Warwick Poet Laureate blog

booked a restaurant for Friday night - my husband's 43rd birthday! - which will be our first meal out together in months

emailed all publishers with books under review in HR with a link to the reviews pages

begun commissioning articles and reviews for the second issue of Horizon Review

set myself to learn some deponent verb forms in Latin - OU examination coming up on October 8th!

printed out the first three chapters of my Young Adult fantasy novel, for some last minute revisions before it wings its way to a highly recommended literary agent next week

managed to slot in some new last-minute names to read at next month's Festival Poetry Cafe in Warwick

groaned over forgetting again to review Brendan Cleary's pamphlet for Write out Loud

got more than five hours' sleep on at least TWO occasions so far!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ultima Thule, from CVB

Ultima Thule

Cool, the lochside road and still. Leaves already lifting at my approach, frail under the shedding trees; sheer plenitude of road, a brim-filled bowl of light spilling white into the distance. The stag’s head swivels to an antlered mask, broad-legged, sinewy centaur’s neck: lord of silence, archangel above a stubbled field.

He leaps out from the plot, heart muscle singing with blood, springing from statue to flesh-arrow slicing blue shadows. Afterwards, in winged mirrors, the road at my back blanches and steadies.

A new prose poem of mine, to be published in Camper Van Blues, Salt Publishing, October 2008

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Horizon Review: launch issue now online

The new arts magazine I'm editing for Salt Publishing, Horizon Review, is now live online.

Forgive me while I collapse into a corner and dribble for a few hours.

Then it's back to work.

I wrote a poem yesterday which I suspect may turn out to be the cornerstone of my next collection. It came to me abruptly, right out of left field, while I was desperately busy doing something else, as the best poems so often do. And it's kind of fitting that it should arrive this weekend, as I not only see Horizon Review launched but also a stunning advertisement for my next full-length poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, go up on the Salt website.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Los Alamos Mon Amour

Reading this new Forward-shortlisted debut poetry collection by Simon Barraclough at the moment, and also sharing it with my husband, who keeps surreptitiously stealing it from me in moments of domestic distraction, i.e. while wrestling with the preparation of a typically late supper or collecting the children's school uniforms for washing.

Can't say much else, as I'm reviewing Los Alamos Mon Amour for Under the Radar, and would prefer to keep my thoughts for that sparkly new publication.

But I certainly admire the title. And this hardback with its stunning cover illustration, as a physical object, is beautiful to behold and own.

Ride the Word: New Writing from Salt hits London

Friday, September 12, 2008

Back to Babel: Tomlinson's "Poetry and Metamorphosis"

We began talking about metaphor and allegory over on the poetry forum this week, but events overtook us and the thread had to be closed. Before that happened, I had intended to quote from Charles Tomlinson's Clarke Lectures on Poetry and Metamorphosis, but since the thread's no longer with us, I thought Raw Light was as good a place as any to kick off a discussion of metaphor in that context.

Tomlinson's Clark Lectures were published by Cambridge University Press in 1983 - I found a nice First Edition on the secondhand book stall at last year's Aldeburgh Festival on our wild eastern coastline, hence the gratuitous photograph above of a giant, metal Coquille St Jacques - and I'm taking the liberty of quoting quite a substantial amount from his essay 'T.S. Eliot: Meaning and Metamorphosis' in the hope that it will spur people into seeking out a copy of the book for themselves.

Please note, I've also taken the liberty of breaking Tomlinson's rather dense paragraphs here into shorter paragraphs for ease of reading on-screen. You can buy the book itself, in a 2003 edition from Carcanet Press, here.

'I am no longer concerned with metaphors but with metamorphosis.' Thus Georges Braque in Cahiers D'Art. His words might stand as epigraph not only to the modernist phase in painting, fragmenting reality to reconstitute it in non-imitative forms, but also to certain aspects of the collage-poems of Pound and Eliot. Literature will go on to concern itself with metaphors, of course, though what Braque seems to mean by metaphor in painting is that by realistically imitating the appearance of an object, by letting your imitation stand in place of that object, you are denying the creative mind its full plastic power.

By metamorphosis, as distinct from metaphor in Braque's sense, the mind could transform that object into a less predictable, a more variously faceted image. Music, which does not concern itself in any exact sense of the meaning, also, in the hands of Schoenberg, followed the way of fragmentation, building new wholes out of its atonalized constituents, venturing on new sound paths. In both visual and literary art, the notions of fragmentation and metamorphosis travel together, as at the climax of The Waste Land within sight of Babel:

Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon
- O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
                     Shantih shantih shantih

Do we hear that any longer, or have we lost the Babelic din it makes to the rumble of a thousand commentaries? Five languages, and their differing metrical forms - or bits of them. Read aloud like this, without warning, the famous climax recalls, perhaps, our forgotten first reading, as the mind re-adjusts itelf to take in and differentiate all that sheer noise, and attempts to reconstitute noise as meaning. In the reconstituting, we help to complete a metamorphosis.

Literary art was always like this - to some degree; so that what we are reading now reshapes what we have read up to this point. But Eliot foreshortens the process, speeds it up, involves you in the crisis of it, and the languages are a part of that. From our first reading, scarcely possible to recall, perhaps what still remains in the memory is a sense of pleasant bewilderment, and something of that same sense returns each time we re-hear these lines and re-focus their meaning. If our act of reading is an act of metamorphosing the fragments towards a whole, metamorphosis also belongs in the passage as a directly stated theme:

nel foco che gli affina

- into the fire which refines them. This Dantescan fire changes and purified - in a word, metamorphoses; and the sliver of Dante gives place immediately to another myth of metamorphosis, that of Philomela and Procne:

Quando fiam uti chelidon

- when shall I become like the swallow?

Some interesting things here. In particular there is some useful discussion to be had from this section: 'In the reconstituting, we help to complete a metamorphosis ... what we are reading now reshapes what we have read up to this point.' The act of reading, in other words, is itself about transformation. How does a poet read? In particular, how does a poet read his or her own work, as well as that of other poets? Because it seems to me that Tomlinson is referring here to the mysterious process of poetic influence as much as to the impact on a reader that such deeply layered and complex poetry might have.

Influence is about individual memory, after all, and this idea of retaining a residual memory of our first impressions of such important texts - important for ourselves, that is, not merely in terms of a literary value judgement - has enormous implications for the poet. It means that language and cadence and all the various supportive structures of the poetic line become entangled with one particular moment, one proto-reading, which may or may not even be an accurate or sensitive one, but which may be involuntarily recalled, resurrected, on later readings or brought back to life in our own work with the deliberate twist of a phrase into something hauntingly familiar yet at the same time defiantly different - "So I assumed a double part, and cried / And heard another's voice cry: 'What! are you here?'" - or - in a less self-aware poet's work - the unconscious copying of a style so powerful it has swamped and subsumed the individual voice.

My own eye, falling on 'Quando fiam uti chelido' ('When shall I become as the swallow?) couldn't help but resurrect my early brushes with Italian, pulling the word 'fiamma' out of the ether - 'flame'. Did that particular connection between 'fiam' and 'fiamma' come about because I was thinking of Dante's Inferno, Eliot's purifying fire, or simply because the mind has to worry at these partial words - or what may seem to us like partial words, presented in a language we don't know as fluently as our own - until a possible solution or meaning presents itself?

Whichever it is, this combination of eye, ear and memory amounts to a powerful influence over the individual mind and to the continuing synthesis of such influences - linguistic, poetic, or ranging wider, philosophical, historical, spiritual - until we are nothing but a mass of idea and language-producing nerve-endings constantly reacting to the inferences and echoes of words, words, words. A Babelic existence, in fact, as Tomlinson puts it.

And could that be a definition of the metaphor? Substituting one thing for another, making these tenuous but dynamic connections which may or may not be there in reality, always looking at things aslant rather than head-on, in case we're turned to stone in some foolish attempt to take language too literally ...


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Poetry: Not Funny?

And just when I begin to suspect there's no humour left in poetry, I'm proven wrong. How refreshing!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Hard Working Weekend

Carnaval at Dunkirk: Colin Dick, a Coventry artist

No rest for the wicked. I've finished the six riddle poems for Tescos and now have to start on the remainder of the photography and poetry exhibition poems. About fifteen of them, to be written in the next fortnight.

I'm also hard at work sorting out last minute stuff for Horizon Review, the new magazine coming out of Salt Publishing that I'm editing. I thought it would be easier than a print magazine, but there's actually an enormous amount of work to do 'on-screen' just preparing the files for transfer to Salt. Each one has to be combed through for typos and other errors. Each one has to be renamed for clarity and emailed in the correct order in batches. Each contributor file needs to be accompanied by the correct photograph and biographical information, all of which have to be sourced from various different places in the Horizon in-box.

Then there are the 'art' photographs - about twenty photographs of Colin Dick's paintings, of between 1 and 3 MB each, to accompany a critical article on his life's work - which need to be resized to ease transfer and uploading to the Horizon site. The resizing procedure can take up to ten minutes per photograph, as I have little memory available on my rather small Mac and don't have the most up-to-date software for the process. So I'm not looking forward to that!

I still have several reviews to read through before tonight, and a few other issues which need to be dealt with before I can start the file transfer process. And at some point this afternoon we have to duck out for a couple of hours to visit my husband's elderly mother who has just been moved to an old people's home, suffering from Alzheimer's.

So, not an easy Sunday here in rainy Warwickshire.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


I'm writing six riddle poems for Tescos this week, which is something I've never done before - though it was my idea, so I can't really complain. It's for a children's Food Riddle competition that will take place in the Warwick branch of Tescos over the long weekend of the Warwick Words Festival, 2nd - 5th October.

Riddle poems were very popular with the Anglo-Saxons, of course, and Tolkien carried on that tradition in The Hobbit ('What's it got in its pocketses, my precioussss?' etc.), but they've since fallen out of favour with the majority of poets.

I have no idea what possessed me to think it was a good idea to write a load of food riddles when the Tescos poetry project was first mooted, in connection with my Warwick Laureateship. But I agreed to do it and must now produce them as arranged - by the end of this week, anyway.

But where to start?

Sylvia Plath's Horoscope

We've been discussing poetry and astrology on the poetry forum this week. Whilst looking up something else, I came across Sylvia Plath's chart online, and thought it would make a nice start to the week. (Quite without irony; being a Scorpio myself, such things are lovely little dainties to me.)

Hope the chart is legible. I've also copied out the basic planetary positions for clarity. It seems at first glance quite a free-flowing chart, as opposed to the chart of an intense and conflicted poet and serial suicide-attempter, though I imagine that unaspected 8th house Moon in Libra can't have sat well with the darker elements in her make-up.

According to this site, her birth date is: Sylvia Plath, born 1932 October 27 at 0210PM, Boston, Massachusetts (42N22 71W04 5W), and they are using the Koch House system, for those familiar with astrology. (I'm assuming the P stands for Pacific? Not post-meridian, which surely couldn't make sense here. And how can their red line stand for conjunct? That definitely makes no sense, looking at the chart. Very odd.)

Sun -- 4 Scorpio 10
Moon -- 8 Libra 30
Mercury -- 21 Scorpio 28
Venus -- 23 Virgo 39
Mars -- 21 Leo 14
Jupiter -- 16 Virgo 00
Saturn -- 28 Capricorn 34
Uranus -- 20 Aries 54 Rx
Neptune -- 9 Virgo 41
Pluto -- 23 Cancer 22 Rx
Chiron -- 26 Taurus 58 Rx
Node -- 14 Pisces 21
Ascendant -- 29 Aquarius 21
Midheaven -- 13 Sagittarius 44

Monday, September 01, 2008

Day Tripping

This is the poem that opens the 'Camper Van Blues' sequence in my new collection. It is amongst my personal favourites in the book, and sets the intended tone of the collection perfectly, which is by turns one of nihilism, vatic utterance, emotional restlessness, and irony.

Frustratingly, I can't do the HTML effectively enough to manage the indents, but many of these lines do indent, and that really makes a difference to the poem's dynamics and fluidity on the page. I'm afraid you'll have to buy the book from Salt - next month? - in order to see how it's supposed to be presented. Meanwhile, this is the basic text.

Since I was unable to place it in any of the magazines I sent it to, this is Day Tripping's first outing in public. It was a disappointment to me that nobody wanted to publish it - though I agree it's not a great poem - but at least I can give it some respect on Raw Light, if nowhere else.

Day Tripping

Wasted again, I’m slumped
over a fold-up table
in a battered charabanc
by a Stygian river
listening to nothing.

Slumped on both elbows
in whiskeyed vestments,
hair lank with the addict’s
unwashed sheen:
three months now
unable to pray, or pay rent
or put pen to paper.

Slumped, unseen
behind the stained blind
of a flyscreen
I listen to the wind-shear song
of nothing
the thin translucent whine
of nothing
until my bones begin to smoke
my eyeballs roll up white
and sing.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Pond: a poem from Camper Van Blues (due soon from Salt Publishing)

(for Yvonne)

Up to your thighs in our new garden pond —
or what will be a pond by half past five —
you seem less human, more amphibian.

To make inert black plastic come alive
with forms that creep, crawl, swim and reproduce,
you heave yourself around collapsing sides

with the ingenuity of an Odysseus.
Soil bouncing blindly off your spade like light,
you tack the liner down that’s working loose.

This muddy sluice is all we’ll have tonight.
The after-dinner speech is ‘Stocking Fish’.
Meanwhile, the garden’s a construction site.

It won’t be long before we come to wish
we’d never started this, both unprepared
to excavate so broad and deep a ditch.

You level up. The pond is nearly there,
one thing we can’t divide now if we part:
a permanence whose origins we share;
the leaky moon inside a sinking heart.

First published in Poetry Review

Apologies to those who may have read this poem before when I posted it up last September. I'm off on my annual writing retreat first thing in the morning and have much packing to do.

I shall post up a previously unseen poem on my return, promise!


The inside of my mind right now ...

Friday, August 22, 2008

On Friendship

Why does truth always sound more ironic than lies? Or is that just my jaded ear? Thus Oscar Wilde: 'True friends stab you in the front.'

Find other quotations by writers on the delicate art of friendship at the Arvon Foundation blog.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A fulcrum, a punctum, a narrative incongruity, a volta and a tonal shift

In response to recent POF forum discussions of risk in poetry and the higher echelons of poetic technique - amongst the more unlikely terms mentioned by Roddy Lumsden were "a fulcrum, a punctum, a narrative incongruity, a volta and a tonal shift" - I felt the urge to post up the following stab of Lorca as a first-strike response. I've quoted this particularly apposite passage before, but it's worth repeating.

There is also Ms. Baroque's blog for an alternative view of such discussions.

(By the way, looking up 'punctum', I discovered that it's the word used to describe a little prick or puncture hole.)

"The muse arouses the intellect, and brings colonnaded landscapes and a false taste of laurel. Very often intellect is poetry's enemy because it is too much given to imitation, because it lifts the poet to a throne of sharp edges and makes him oblivious of the fact that he may suddenly be devoured by ants or a great arsenic lobster may fall on his head."

---------- LORCA: 'Theory and Function of the Duende'

Well, exactly.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On Warwick: poems from the Laureateship

I've just sent off the final draft of my manuscript to Nine Arches Press, who have very kindly taken me on as their debut publication later this year, bringing out a pamphlet of my Warwick Laureate poems to coincide with the Warwick Words Festival.

It's only a very short pamphlet, but quite varied in content. There's my long poem, 'On Warwick Castle', and various pieces of commissioned writing from bodies within Warwickshire, plus some required writing for the Laureateship. That last category includes a selection of poems that will be exhibited alongside the photos which inspired them (taken by Anand Chhabra) at the Festival Poetry & Photography Exhibition.

The whole pamphlet will be called, very simply, 'On Warwick'. Once I know what the cover will look like, I'll post it up here. Possibly with an extract.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Under the Radar: poetry magazine launch

I'll be reading tomorrow night at this very special event:


Tuesday, August 19th, 2008, from 7.30pm
Kozi Bar,
Market Place, Warwick

Celebrate the launch of our first issue of Under the Radar and the founding of
Nine Arches Press, with a heady brew of poets, wine and song.

Special guest poets:
Jane Holland - Warwick's very own poet laureate.
Simon Turner - Leamington-based new modernist poet.
Matt Nunn - Birmingham's finest poetic export.

Join us for the first ever Shindig! event in Warwickshire - a new kind of poetry event, a veritable feast of music and the spoken word.

Nine Arches Press

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Warwick Words: Poetry & Photography Exhibition

Warwick Words Festival Poetry & Photography Exhbition
Art & Wine Gallery, Jury Street

Free Entry
Opening times:
Thurs 2nd October 10am – 6pm
Fri 3rd & Sat 4th October 10am – 10pm
Sun 5th October 11am – 5pm

This summer, I've joined forces with Anand Chhabra, Artist-in-Residence at Spencer Yard, Leamington Spa, in a collaborative project of poetry and photography.

Anand has captured people and places around Warwickshire, not with hi-tech photographic equipment but with a £20 Holga camera, demonstrating how to take "artistic, street-style pictures inexpensively".

I'm in the process of writing a series of poems to accompany the photographs. The whole project is due to be exhibited at a Warwick art gallery over the Warwick Words Festival long weekend in October.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Always start with the second stanza, he said

At one time, one of the poetry books most likely to be found on - or sometimes under - my coffee table was Ian McMillan's marvellous Dad, the Donkey's on Fire. A highly recommended poetry collection, not least because much of it is side-splittingly hilarious. My husband and I still quote 'The Continuity Girl is Dead' to each other when spotting editing mistakes in films. And the short-short story about the commuter absentmindedly putting his unlidded takeaway coffee into his briefcase before boarding the train ... well, I used to cry with laughter on reading that, even after I'd read it so many times I could practically recite it from memory.

Sadly, I can't quote from it more fully, for fear of making mistakes, as I no longer own Dad, the Donkey's On Fire (so if anyone wants to buy it for me for Christmas, I'd be very grateful). A friend who shall remain nameless 'borrowed' my copy a few years ago, and never returned it.

But, in case you were wondering, there is an excellent reason why I've mentioned it here today. And that is Ian McMillan's very funny and insightful poem 'Stone, I presume', where he discusses always starting poems with the second stanza.

You see, I'm off on my annual writing retreat at the end of next week, armed with a partial manuscript of my novel and an assortment of useful books. And today, trying desperately to muddle through the chaos I left my novel in after last time, I remembered, in a sudden flash, Ian McMillan's incisive line: 'always start with the second stanza'.

And I threw away the first chapter. Just like that.

So now chapter two is the new chapter one, and everything else moves up. And the whole book is so much tighter now, I could almost kiss Ian McMillan. Except he wouldn't understand and would probably write a poem about it later in which I figured as some sort of mad bag-lady, attacking him in the street after a poetry reading and attempting to plant a wet one on his cheek.

So what's good for donkeys is good for poets. Or rather, what's good for poems is good for novels too. And if anyone has 'Stone, I presume' to hand, please do quote the relevant lines in the Comments box below.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Anecdotal Evidence: `Humor, Imagination, and Manners'

Thanks to Rob over on Surroundings for this one: Patrick Kurp, an American writer and blogger, discussing the concept of the humorous critic. Or rather, humour and the critic, which is perhaps not the same thing.

To illustrate his point, Krup quotes a 1931 New Yorker review by Dorothy Parker of Theodore Dreiser:

I am unable to feel that a writer can be complete without humor. And I don’t mean by that, and you know it perfectly well, the creation or the appreciation of things comic. I mean that the possession of a sense of humor entails the sense of selection, the civilized fear of going too far. A little humor leavens the lump, surely, but it does more than that. It keeps you, from your respect for the humor of others, from making a dull jackass of yourself.

Find Patrick Krup's blog here.

I decided some years ago that I wanted to write poetry criticism as well as poetry. Life, of course, caught up with me in the form of several children. Then poetry had its way too, even though I'd assumed by then that it had finished with me for good.

But things are beginning to open out for me again, and people everywhere seem to be discussing the role of the critic, and talking seriously about criticism again, after several decades of not really bothering much about it, as though criticism was poetry's embarrassing second cousin, the one who's never invited to those lavish family get-togethers at Christmas but might find a box of anonymous hand-me-downs on the doorstep every now and then.

Maybe 2009 will be a year of critical writing for me. If so, I have just the right project in mind. Where, fingers crossed, I shall not make 'a dull jackass' of myself. Assuming I can help it, that is.

Writing 'Fifth': the creative process

‘Fifth’, which was written over several months in 2004 and published in my last collection, Boudicca & Co (Salt, 2006), is a poem of special significance for me because it represents my first tentative attempt at writing a poem after more than three years of complete writer's block.

The poem is about my last and fifth pregnancy, hence the title. The title itself alternated early on between ‘Fifth’, the more prosaic ‘Number Five’, and ‘Indigo’, my daughter’s name. ‘Indigo’ was too personal (I feel it’s a mistake to use names in poems, or too many personal details, if only because some distance between a poem and the poet’s reality needs to be maintained for artistic reasons) and ‘Number Five’ felt too clumsy, so ‘Fifth’ it was.

The early on-screen draft which follows - I used to revise my first few drafts on screen, a practice I later abandoned for the hands-on feel of pen and paper - shows how the poem shifts and shortens before reaching its final published form. Though some stanzas were lost and others moved about, it does retain its basic form, i.e. the quatrain structure.

At one stage, beginning to lose confidence in ever finding the best close to this poem, I did experiment with longer stanzas. But, as with so many decisions made in the intense chill of editing, it did not take and I slipped, with some relief, back to quatrains.

First, here's an early draft of ‘Fifth’:

I meant to stop at two, then three,
then a fourth appeared.
Perhaps I could try hiding
under the covers, or not washing.

Three days since the blood failed,
and the test turns blue,
a miniature sea between my hands,
nine months to the far horizon.

The midwives press down hard
into my flesh: two fingers higher
than before. The cold rim
of a fetal trumpet listens for a beat.

This must be a girl again, I’m sick
as a drunk all morning
and the world tilts when I walk
like a ship sliding in a bottle.

Twelve weeks and my waist begins
to thicken. I still can’t hold
anything down, and the boys
are too heavy to carry upstairs.

Five months on, it feels
like a fish tickling, this tiny hand
or foot, dredged up
against my diaphragm.

At full term plus ten, my waters
are broken. Maybe an hour
goes past with me crouched there,
moaning and rocking.

At last her body slithers, long
and wet, from the depths,
eyes screwed up tight
and her mouth hauled open.

This draft is a reasonable narrative poem, but not what I wanted. In search of a more solid ‘out’ to the poem - and thinking a joke might provide a neat conclusion - I shunted the first stanza here down to become the final stanza.

Luckily something better occurred to me later and back it came, returning as stanza 2. Following that change, the original second stanza, ‘Three days since the blood failed’, moved up to pole position as the new opening.

That’s quite unusual for me; even when I really mess about with the guts of a poem, the first few lines rarely change, as though they have set the tone and changing them would wreck the whole poem. Here though, the edit worked.

Stanza 3 got the chop altogether. My instinct was to keep the poem’s focus on me and my unborn baby, and the presence of a midwife felt like an intrusion. Stanzas 3, 4 and 5 then moved up, with 5 undergoing extensive revisions as the end of the poem loomed and I pushed for a new, stronger conclusion. With this in mind, 7 and 8 were also jettisoned in favour of a tighter final stanza.

These revisions meant rethinking my original intentions. In this early draft, you can see how I was trying to follow the pregnancy from a postive test result right through to the labour ward. But when I removed the midwife and shifted the poem’s focus to my relationship with the unborn baby, the actual birth became irrelevant. The title and general tone implied a happy outcome anyway, so reinforcing that was unnecessary.

Unfortunately, this left me with one of the toughest dilemmas of all, i.e. how best to close the poem?

Here, I laid the poem aside for a few months. I returned to it periodically during that time, making minor changes - there’s always one more comma to be pruned - but found no conclusive solution.

Eventually it struck me that there’s something mystical about a woman’s relationship with her invisible - yet omnipresent - unborn baby, a mysticism which was not reflected by this early draft. With hindsight, I think this was for two reasons: first, the poem’s neat quatrain structure had dictated a commonsense tone, and second, my lack of confidence had prevented me from manipulating and adapting that form to my own purposes.

You have to remember that I hadn’t written a poem for over three years when ‘Fifth’ suddenly came to me, out of the blue. In such reduced circumstances any poem is miraculous. So I was reluctant to mess too much with those early drafts, however pedestrian, in case I jinxed my return to poetry.

These days I might say ‘let’s see what happens with couplets’ or ‘let’s turn the poem on its head, see whether that works.’ But at this stage I wasn’t interested in being adventurous; I was just struggling to produce something workmanlike and possibly even publishable.

To achieve that, I looked at the images and motifs of the original draft, hunting for ways to expand and develop them into a stronger ending. The most obvious motif was dictated both by the proto-title, ‘Indigo’, and the initial blue of the pregnancy test, giving me: ‘sea’, ‘blue’, ‘horizon’, ‘ship’, (sea-)‘sick’, ‘fish’, ‘waters’, ‘rocking’, ‘wet’, ‘depths’ and even ‘hauled’.

It was only a short leap from there to ‘pearl’, which then suggested ‘shell’, both of which worked in the context of a pregnancy. ‘Pearl’ was also useful for both its sacred and its parental connotations (I’m thinking here of early Christian imagery, and the poignant medieval poem ‘Pearl’). And every child knows that a shell is a mystical object; once the home of long vanished sea-creatures, you can hold a shell to your ear to hear the whisper of invisible seas.

With such resonances in place, shaping the elusive final stanzas became easier.

So here’s ‘Fifth’, as it appeared in my second collection, ‘Boudicca & Co’ (Salt, 2006):

Three days since the blood failed,
and the test turns blue,
a miniature sea between my hands,
nine months to the far horizon.

This must be a girl again, I’m sick
as a drunk all morning
and the world tilts when I walk
like a ship sliding in a bottle.

Twelve weeks and my waist begins
to thicken. I can’t hold
anything down, and the boys
are too heavy to carry upstairs.

I meant to stop at two, then three,
then a fourth appeared.
Perhaps I could try hiding
under the covers, or not washing.

This stubborn foot wedged high
under my diaphragm is
more than a fish by thirty weeks:
it’s a rich pearl pushing

against an opalescent shell, a poem,
a number, sonic reality;
refusing to be got rid of, cleaving
like a shadow, part of me.

As you can see, the order of the stanzas has been rearranged yet again and the poem is now only six quatrains long (the earliest drafts had nine). And although the quatrains had been more or less unrhymed throughout, suddenly a strong rhyme has appeared, instinctively, to close the poem by coupling ‘reality’ with ‘part of me’.

But the most interesting result of these revisions is that ‘Fifth’ now feels like two poems in one. The first is light-hearted in tone and mainly concerned with the dragging changes of a pregnant woman’s body. The second later poem feels more complex, an introspective on ‘what is hidden’ and how an unborn child can inhabit and even swamp a woman’s psyche.

At the end, I even hint at the growing impossibility of termination - tests had wrongly told us the baby would be Down’s Syndrome, making this pregnancy a particularly emotional one. So the choice of an archaic word like ‘cleave’ feels very deliberate, suggesting for me an unbreakable bond of flesh and blood, the ancient concept of kinship as something which takes precedence over all other considerations, including disability. And these two poems have been welded together by the revision process into one - more or less - organic whole.

It’s possible, then, to trace in these changes not only the path of a single poem but also the progress of a returning poet. If the early stanzas feel a little crude and closed, they are just workmanlike enough to withstand the necessary bashes and collisons of the revision process. And the closing stanzas, written after my first clumsy enthusiasm had faded, are reaching towards a more open and suggestive poetry, the sort of work the poet could only dimly - alas! - remember at that stage.

So the finished poem has a title, a definable shape, a satisfactory opening and conclusion, and has survived the dangerous throes of revision. Not brilliant, but an auspicious birth nonetheless!