Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gawain: "Sithen the sege"

Sithen the sege and the assaut
               was sesed at Troye

                 – that city
a heap of half-burnt timbers and ashes, smoking still –

This poem has now been removed to allow later publication elsewhere. Many thanks for all comments!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Gawain sequence & an angry squeak

My exams are finally over and I can return to writing the historical novel that I was entangled with before revision began in earnest. This summer will be given over, by and large, to writing prose. The thought gives me pause, and no little emotional anguish. I'm beginning to realise that I simply can't afford to write poetry. It doesn't pay well enough - if anything at all, in the majority of cases - and with the economic downturn, I don't have the luxury of being able to work without at least the potential prospect of payment.

I've spent the past two decades without a regular income: first, as a semi-pro snooker player, then as a full-time poet. The handful of novels I've published in the past ten years have been genre, written under a pen-name, low-paid, as my numerous attempts at mainstream fiction since Kissing the Pink (Sceptre, 1999) have proved impossible to place. Yet I seem reasonably talented at writing the shorter, genre novel. Which is just as well, frankly. Since my Gregory Award in 1996, I've published five collections of poetry - three long, two short; the money I've received from sales of all five poetry collections would not even amount to the money garnered from one genre novel.

I enjoy writing prose. It can be a rich and highly entertaining canvas to work on, even in the relatively narrow field of genre fiction. But poetry is - and always has been, since I was a young child - my vocation. I had hoped that the next few years would see me working more fruitfully in poetry. But a recent application for a poetry 'job' for which I was more than qualified, and which would have secured me enough money over the next two years to continue writing without fear of eviction, was turned down out of hand. In the meantime, like many people at the moment, I've reached a critical point cash-wise and can't ignore my financial problems any longer.

So, as I mentioned earlier, I'm going to post up the unpublished Gawain sequence poems I've written so far - removing a few of them later, as I may yet send some of them out to magazines - and then make a stab at actually writing some new ones, which I will then post up as drafts whenever they appear in my notebook. Two of the early Gawain poems have already been posted here, and a few have been accepted for publication elsewhere, but the rest are fair game.

I'll start either tomorrow at at the weekend, then post up one Gawain poem every other day, until I run out of poems. And what will happen then?

Friday, May 22, 2009

SALT's Natural Habitat is Fast Disappearing ... Can You Save SALT?

Sorry about the sidebar overlap. Just click PLAY and the sidebar will be covered.

"Please go to and buy ONE BOOK today. Because we don't want to say goodbye to SALT PUBLISHING forever."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Just One Book!

My own publishers, Salt Publishing, as some of you may know, has hit some very hard times recently, due in part to discontinued grants from the Arts Council. This has happened to a number of publishers, both small and large, across the Uk, and probably worldwide too.

Earlier today Salt Publishing announced that all their forthcoming 2009 titles were to be axed, and only backlist titles would be available via Print on Demand. I was aware of the situation beforehand, and thought all was lost. I have since heard, however, that they are trying to save the 2009 list by a combination of methods. One substantial method is by encouraging people to buy books from Salt.

If you would like to help save the 2009 list, and possibly keep Salt Publishing financially viable into next year as well, please follow the suggestions below:

Here's how you can help us to save Salt.


1. Please buy just one book, right now. We don't mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you'll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store and help us keep going.

UK and International
Salt Shop

Salt Shop USA

2. Share this note on your Facebook and MySpace profile. Tell your friends. If we can spread the word about our cash crisis, we can hopefully find more sales and save our literary publishing. Remember, it's just one book, that's all it takes to save us. Please do it now.

Brighton Pilgrimage

Okay, found a poem to while away the hours.

Brighton Pilgrimage is a longish poem about someone I used to know, whom I admired very much and whose early life fascinated me. And that's all I have to say about that.

The most interesting thing about this particular poem for me is that I am the pilgrim of the title, I am the one driving the car at the opening of the poem, and yet the narratorial voice gradually shifts into hers, or an imaginary amalgam of hers and mine, although at the end I do seem to come back to myself somewhat. I suppose much of that is about smoke and mirrors, especially where some of the many puns, double-entendres and significant images are concerned.

There is much I like about my earlier self as a poet, and much that I wish I could recapture: freshness, confidence, lyrical and imaginative strength, plus a startling lack of inhibition, probably due to an amusing misunderstanding of how poems are read. But there's also a naivety and an awkwardness of phrasing and line-breaking that I wouldn't want to return to.

And the last stanza needs to be rewritten.

Brighton Pilgrimage was among my earliest longer poems - having cut my teeth on the standard sub-40, moving beyond a page in length was a bit of an exciting departure for me - and was first published in The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman (Bloodaxe, 1997).

Brighton Pilgrimage

She drives down through the dawn:
Brighton streets, traffic-lights, railings,
the Indian summer of the Pavilion,
white-washed terraced houses,
green lawns dotted with sprinklers,
surrounded by wallflowers, roses.
A long police patrol car on its beat.

Coming out onto the promenade,
sea becomes a flicker in the mirror,
a long incessant flash of silver
at her shoulder, indicating left
and casting off along the coast.
Not stopping to read the signs,
the place-names, green arrows,

but following the drift of the wind,
due west. She adjusts the mirror;
fumbles, eyes straight ahead, for
her sunglasses on the dashboard.
It was like a dream she once had,
a landscape of the mind, useless
as a now unbeaten track, stopped

like a clock, tickless, unchiming,
not even the second hand moving.
She has driven all night. It is
morning, late spring or summer,
birds drifting out over driftwood
on the long line of the beach,
a man in shirt-sleeves, staring.

The end of the promenade is
a safety-marker, warning-buoy.
Then a cafe, open for business -
a woman out on the step, sweeping.
The sign says: 'All Day Breakfast'.
Two black dogs lie at the roadside
like strange bookends, motionless.

This is the place it started from:
an oak tree root, it winds out
from its origins like a snake,
moving in all directions at once.
She cannot resist, cannot stop.
She is the figure on the beach,
too distant to contact, a dot

halfway between the tidewall
and the tide. The water turns.
It does not have indolence
of stars, the sophistication
of a satellite in sling-shot orbit,
but in the shallows, the slow
brackish water of the rockpool,

it is the enemy of time, still
unchanged, forever turning.
This mirrored millpond sea,
this copper-coloured coast,
the strangle-hold of estuary,
have stood stock still for years
in ebb and flow monotony.

The villages have grown to towns
of course, with schools, shops,
penny arcades, the sprawl
of make-shift modern bungalows.
But not this view, the estuary
pulled into rhythm by the sea -
nothing here has changed.

Deserted factories, each window
broken by a different stone
along the jagged water's edge.
House-boats moored uneasily,
up to their shoulders in silt,
their painted timbers peeling
from the frame, water-logged.

No other sign of life,
no welcome for a woman
who takes that winding road
along the waterside, looks
out to sea and sees herself
beside an ancient traffic-light
still turning green to red,

stopping an invisible flow
of traffic from the right.
She waits, conditioned to
instruction without cause.
This peace, this timeless blue,
evaded her for thirty years
like sleep; its dark circles

are bruising her eyes.
She wants to stop the car
beside the blanket of the sea,
walk into its white folds
like a child, but the lights
ahead are turning green;
she keeps on driving.

This is the picket fence,
the gate, the garden wall,
a small green square of lawn
where she bent her head
back in the lap of the daisies,
first looked up at the sun
and was made fierce by it.

Like a tall ship in a bottle,
she had to learn to fold herself
into the rigid glass of home,
although the sea had always
beckoned, running beside her
like a shadow on water,
ship-thrown, spray-blown.

Here in this narrow street,
she first perfected cuckoo-
calls, dubbed the briar patch
the wild dog-rose and called
herself by different names -
but none would ever fit
until she found her own.

With the engine running,
she sits, watches the curtain
twitch, lets the sun bounce
back off the dark windows.
She wakes, shakes herself
like a dog out of water,
and fumbles for first gear.

She turns and takes the inland
road. Where does the line
begin, drawn through the time
of the journey, the stopping-in,
the moving-out, the destination?
In the slant of her rear-view mirror,
the sea always a blur, beginning.

Now playing: "As I lay me down to sleep" from Sophie B. Hawkins
via FoxyTunes

Monday, May 18, 2009

Today feels like a good day to ...

Move into prose!

In eight days' time, my exams will be over and I'll be free at last to carry on with the historical novel I'd been joyfully writing before the need for revision caught up with me.

I still plan to post up a poem a day for a month this summer or maybe autumn - all depends on how much time is available to me when not novel-writing - but for the foreseeable future, I shall be concentrating on prose.

Anyone care to join me?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The TITANIC CAFE closes its doors and hits the rocks ...

The Titanic Cafe closes its doors and hits the rocks or: Knife, fork and bulldozer ultra modern retail outlet complex development scenario with flowers is the latest pamphlet out from intrepid new Midlands poetry publishers, Nine Arches Press.

This shiny new offering is from David Hart, so well-known on the Midlands poetry scene that he almost requires no introduction, but for those readers beyond our little region, Hart is a kind of mesmeric, shamanic figure with an Old Testament-style grey beard, poetic idiom and gestures worthy of the great eccentric - mostly northern - mavericks of the last century: Jon Silkin, Ken Smith, Basil Bunting, Barry MacSweeney and their ilk, if rather more jovial than those particular poets had a reputation for being.

So what of this new pamphlet? Well, it consists of a single long poem, demonstrating Nine Arches' continuing commitment to British experimental writing outside the mainstream that both makes sense to normal folk who might come across it - hoorah for that! - and addresses Big Issues rather than what the poet had for lunch. Though, of course, this being a poem about a cafe, lunch does come into it. And tea: strong, sweet, and plenty of it. But what of the poetry itself?

Titanic Cafe is just stunning. Just stunning. I sat down and read the poem in bursts: slipped first towards the end, pulled in by a phrase that caught my eye, trawled backwards a few pages, frowned as I realised the enormity and scope of what I was reading, hurriedly turned to the beginning, leapt ahead uncontrollably, checked myself and went back again, more slowly this time, lost myself somewhere in the middle and couldn't have been happier.

Titanic Cafe is one of the most lightly achieved, unpretentious, mordantly ironic, and relevant contemporary poems I have ever read. It possesses gravitas in spadefuls, yet never fails to laugh at its own futility as a gesture against change - this is the poet as King Canute, both pointing ironically and weeping as the waves sweep in around him, or the bulldozers in this case.

The poem concerns an ancient, tumbledown cafe in Birmingham, which was demolished in 2007 to make way for a giant Sainsbury's shopping complex. With the discipline of a true artist, David Hart treats his subject with a deep and loving nostalgia that is never allowed to dissolve into sentimentality. The result is a poetic call to arms which accepts the inevitability of change whilst stopping to salute fallen comrades like Titanic Cafe in the hope that something, at least, of its spirit and ethos may be encouraged to remain in this world; a call to the memory of a steaming tea urn, or a much-used greasy spoon, in these days of counter queues, hygienic serve-yourself plastic cups and pre-packed, mass-produced snacks.

In pursuit of his nostalgic homage, Hart employs a cornucopia of poetic - and daringly anti-poetic - effects: lists, italics, capital letters, vocal asides, end rhyme, internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, local history, mythological references, dictionary definitions, botanical lore, imagined and real conversations, bureaucratic development-speak, publicity posters, billboard messages, statistics, long-dead poets and their inspirations (Offa looms large in this poem, with shades of Geoffrey Hill behind him, though here clearly Hart's own monarch), plus blocks of 'real' poetry, whatever I might mean by that tricksy comment. You'll need to buy the pamphlet to draw your own conclusions on that.

The theatre of THE BEST TEA IN THE UK
        is falling down,
the canal isn't deep enough for the TITANIC CAFE
to sink without trace, there'd be a fine mess.
            All but ready to collapse
            of its own volition. Listen,
a child on a longboat along from Bournville asks,
    What's that?! 'It's a
planks and struts and frames by numbers temple
            to the God of Advertising
where you could buy God's Own Tea
till the God of Storm
                        took it away almost.'

To add to these delights, the 36 page pamphlet is handsomely produced in a smart dark grey card, with excellent black lettering, a fold-out map, and a large number of full-colour plates depicting the life and death of the Titanic Cafe, photographs taken by David Hart. There are also copious, fascinating notes and relevant quotations at the back, some of which almost constitute a prose poem in themselves. I urge everyone to buy a copy and show it to all their friends, to demonstrate the relevance and great good sense of contemporary poetry in the face of all kinds of other nonsense.

Gone now, the Knife and Fork Titanic
without the dignity of sinking even
in shallow water, but knocked down
            and taken away
                in a lorry.
The new Sainsbury's will sell hot tea
              so that's okay.

David Hart's glorious TITANIC CAFE is available now from Nine Arches Press and online booksellers such as Amazon and costs - all those full colour plates, remember! - £8. You can find out more about David Hart at the Nine Arches site, or at his somewhat infrequent blog.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Groovy or Cheesy, it's the Books Slideshow

I only wish I could find my Lament of the Wanderer online somewhere. Maybe when I do, I'll add that. And Brief History, which is also absent but surely deserves a place in this cheesy Holland hall of fame.

I love these gadgets!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Poetry Voice - may it be damned forever

Just been watching another poet, well-known to me, on YouTube and wondering why on earth the insidious Poetry Voice is still so widespread amongst our kind, when it so clearly blights and destroys the poetry it touches? I've blogged about this before but it continues to annoy me.

It's like a sickness, the overwhelming urge to read aloud in this effeminate, floating, breathy voice that so many seem to adopt when performing their poetry to an audience. The meaning and impact of the poetry is suffocated or swallowed up in that voice, and all that's left as you walk away afterwards is the memory of someone "breathing" the ends of their lines, like a diseased lung rasping on a death-bed.

The Poetry Voice is hideously artificial and very far from musical (which is presumably the idea behind it, to drag poetry closer to the rise and fall of music). It does nothing for poetry. At best, it puts the unfortunate listener to sleep or makes them want to escape to the bar as soon as possible.

Whatever happened to poetry that is spoken with honesty, to the raw power of a poet's true and natural voice - not the floating cadences of some piously intoning priest?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

My Po Mo

I've been writing nothing but prose recently, and have exams coming up at the end of this month, so poetry has been the poor relation this spring.

It takes me ages to get back into writing poetry after a few months away from the habit. To counteract that effect, I'd rather like to try a month of poems in June or maybe July: writing one poem a day if possible, or every other day if that's too difficult. And posting them up here on Raw Light. I can always delete them after a few days, and just leave the first few lines behind. That's acceptable practice, isn't it?

July would probably be best, as June will be filled with all those things I'm putting off until after my exams. It would be an excellent discipline, I think. Though I'm not sure it will result in any good poems.

Monday, May 04, 2009

"Spoken Spring" - poetry reading this week

Poetry and Open Mic event for Warwick Words.

Join host Jane Holland for an evening of petty chit-chat and poetry readings by Warwick Poet Laureate 2009, Catherine Whittaker, Don Barnard, Jane Commane and Jacqui Rowe followed by an Open Mic.

Thursday 7 May at 7.30pm Kozi Bar, Market Place Warwick, Warwickshire.

Tickets: £5.00 (includes glass of wine/juice on arrival)

Free Poetry Surgeries with Catherine Whittaker from 6.00pm - please call 07944 768607 to book a place.