Thursday, 19 May 2022

The Dark Horse (Summer 2022)

That Gerry Cambridge guy is going to get himself into trouble one of these days. In his editorial he mentions new orthodoxies and tribalisms, and the risk of defying current trends, comparing the pressures to conform to those experienced by Milosz. He sees hope in reviews by Hofmann and Graeme Richardson - signs of independence of mind.

Maitreyabandhu's "Paid Patter: Is Poetry Worth Criticising" article continues the theme

  • "at least three trends are killing our assessment of contemporary poetry: fear and reputational risk; an overprotective poetry press unwilling to criticize new writing; and the substitution of socio-political concerns for artistic imagination"
  • "In the crowded marketplace of new poetry, a powerful theme - rape, violence prejudice - can take place of powerful poetry"
  • "A poet's work is increasing judged on whether it serves a function" which "turns poetry into versified political journalism"

He thought that "by Mahon's own standards ["Against the Clock"] is weak" though (for understandable reasons?) it was widely praised. He lists some unclubbable, independent-minded critics. He refers to Gioia's essays. In his interesting, informative introduction to "The Best American Poetry 2018", Gioia points out that in assessing the status of poetry nowadays, it's difficult to interpret the statistics, because "what they measure isn't what currently matters ... No one fully understands what is happening because poetry and its audience are changing too quickly in too many places". For example, poetry appears non-condescendingly in TV series like "The Simpsons", "Bones", "Elementary". He notes that some aspects of the poetry world haven't changed -

  • The most popular topics of the 10,000+ poems he read were, in order, Family, Childhood, Love, Poetry and Nature.
  • He notes an interest in the sonnet form - "The poetry wars of the late twentieth centry have been forgotten. Form and free verse are no longer viewed as mutually exclusive techniques".

Gioia's in his seventies so he's seen fashions come and go, seen how issues of quality end up being issues of taste. Grumpy old men (they tend to be men) may indeed be bitter and twisted because fame has passed them by, but alternatively they may be free to express their ideas because their poetry career isn't at stake. Now that younger poets tend to be creative writing tutors, they're in a particularly vulnerable position. When I write I realise I'm exposing my limitations and biases, knowing that I've nothing to lose. I try to calibrate my opinions so that half of what I read is judged to be better than average, and half is worse. For what its worth ...

  • "Sandgrain and hourglass" by Penelope Shuttle had much about her feelings for her late husband. I thought those were the weakest poems of an over-long book, but to say so would be insensitive to Shuttle and Peter Redgrove. Why take the risk?
  • "A portable paradise" by Roger Robinson gets top marks for compassionate subject matter (grief, injustice, etc) but what about the poetry? Yet it won the TS Eliot prize.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Old Cambridge

Not far from the city centre, down Mill Road, you'll find The Bath House. It was built in 1927 as an amenity for the poor who lacked their own facilities. In 1969 a sauna was added. In 1975 when it was about to close, baths cost 10p. It's mentioned in the odd biography and in literature - see for example Matt's Simpson's poem, "The Bath House". It became a community hub where I spent much time in the Friends of the Earth office.

From the Bath House follow Gwydir Street nearly to its end and you'll come to this shop front. The faded sign at the top reads "Roll on blank tapes". It must have closed decades ago because it sold blank cassette tapes. I think I might have bought a tape there. Whereas the concept of a bath house might be understood by the youth of today (from Roman history perhaps) the notion of tape may puzzle them. Part of my first job in Cambridge was to do computer back-ups onto a foot-wide reel of half-inch tape.

Monday, 2 May 2022


In Oxford, where Tolkien and CS Lewis drank. And yes, the sign shows a giant eagle carrying a ... child.

I revisited Nottingham recently. This is one of England's oldest pubs, at the foot of the castle. Nottingham is where I first joined a writers group, and where I first (briefly) performed.

Me in Liverpool. Liverpool has some grand pubs. The pub nearest to where I lived wasn't grand. It claimed to have banned John Lennon. I recall seeing Carol Ann Duffy at the bar of the Everyman. My clearest drinking memories are of the Casa "nightclub" - its curries and soggy carpets.

Bury St Edmunds, not so far from Cambridge. In the city centre is one of England's smallest pubs - 15ft by 7ft. I did a tour of the nearby Greene King brewery.

I've never understood the Lennon fad. This is Prague in 2017.

A scene from a museum in Stoke. This is how I recall what some pubs were like. Saloon/Public bars have gone too.

A comedy club in London where a son was one of the newcomers. When all 3 lights above the stage come on, the performer has to go off. Suppose poetry reading were the same?

An advantage of having a son doing a degree in Edinburgh is that the festival accomodation isn't a problem. Here's the staircase of a pub on the Fringe

This is in Kiruna, the most Northern town in Sweden - 67°N. I didn't go there, but a son passed by.

Monday, 25 April 2022


Spurred by having 4 acceptances so far this year I've sent another batch off. In the post I have 10 stories (4 in competitions), 8 Flash pieces and 11 poems. A few of these pieces are so old that their style is back in fashion. My lifetime success rates are about 30% for poems and 15% for stories, but of course some pieces need to sent out several times so I'm not expecting many of these to be accepted. 3 would be about par.

I think 2 of the poems (they're newish ones) are amongst my better work. I think several of the stories should have been published by now. Few are new, but I like them. I've read many story collections recently, and I think my best pieces are better than the collections' worst. I don't do simul submissions, nor have I saturated the US market. I'll try those options if all this batch fail.

Why do I put myself through this ordeal? Because I'd like to have a pamphlet of poems and a book of stories/Flash published, and I think I need more acknowledgements. I have too few good Flashes for a book, so I'm tempted by the idea of mixing Flash and short stories in a single collection. I'm seeing this mix more often nowadays - readers seem ready for it.

Monday, 4 April 2022


When I arrived it was snowing, but I continued my plan to explore the city on foot. Over the 3 days I saw the Old Town (with lots of small shops that weren't all touristy - an SF shop for example), the Vasa Museum (better than I expected), Stockholm public library, Swedish History Museum, Museum of Medieval Stockholm, Millesgarden Museum. Moderna Museet (Modern Art), National museum, City Hall (but not inside), and the City Museum. I had a meal at the traditional Pelican Restaurant, saw a deer in full daylight cross the road where I was staying to graze in a front garden, and I saw a big, gloomy computer gaming hall. I went to Södertälje and Nynäshamn. It was a cashless and almost litterless holiday. Note -

  • The pronunciation takes some getting use to. For example I was staying in Älvsjö which is pronounced something like Elefey
  • You won't be able to exit a big supermarket unless you use the QRcode on the receipt.

At the Swedish History Museum I wrote "love" in runes.

I found only a couple of second-hand shops. This one on Södermalm island has a branch near Cambridge.

Millesgarden was a house and sculpture park (like Henry Moore's in England). The couple who owned the place were both artists. The view from their terraces has changed since their time.

Because of the language I couldn't deduce much about the literature scene - a shame because I once appeared in The Stockholm Review of Literature. But I did notice this author - Fredrika Bremer - depicted on a Norway plane.

Saturday, 26 March 2022

States of Independence, 2022

I went to Leicester today to attend the first "post-covid" States of Independence. A few people were missing that I hoped to see, but I bought a few books (from Green Bottle Press, Indigo Dreams, and Scratch Books) and went to a worthwhile talk about small presses. It was interesting to hear about how they operated.

  • The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses rewards the best fiction published by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees - it's helped with promoting books.
  • Epoque Press's long-listed author had previously been rejected 176 times. When choosing what to publish, the author's social media footprint isn't a factor!
  • Fitzcarraldo Editions, one of the more successful small presses, will publish an author's 2nd book if the 1st sells more than 500 copies. With big publishers, at least 5,000 copies are needed. The average figure for literary fiction sales is more like 200.

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Rabat revisited

I went there in the early 1980s, Interrailing. I was at a loose end. I recall little about the visit except that on the journey there I met students going home from Paris. One of them hosted me. I helped briefly at his family's stall, speaking French all the time.

I went again in 2017 by chance, during a tour by minibus with a group - our silver wedding anniversary treat. I popped to the railway station (now very smart) while the group were resting, and looked at the rail tracks that had led me back home after my exotic adventure all those years before.

One meaning of the term storification is the imposing of a story structure onto raw historical facts - being selective and even changing the order of events. One story would be that the older self meets the young self. Perhaps the young self wouldn't recognise the older one who'd tell him not to worry, it'll all be wonderful in the end, like a dream. Or perhaps the older one merely recalls the freedom of his earlier life, the not-knowing what will happen next. Maybe he'll re-introduce some of those features into his life now that retirement's looming. Perhaps when he returns to the group he's known for a week or so he'll surprise them, breaking out of the role he's too easily slipped into.

And I remember another thing about that train trip in the 80s - the Moroccans sang the Cat Stevens song "Father and Son", the one that goes "It's not time to make a change". I was puzzled at the time how they knew his music. I didn't know that Stevens had converted.

Tuesday, 15 March 2022

The road not taken

I once thought I might combine being a freelance computer (games) programmer with writing. My partner then was a self-employed artist. It seemed a good combination to me. Here she is, sat outside our kitchen before she left to live in London.

She once sat under a tree and drew this while I read. I'm sure she could have supported herself somehow. I couldn't have - my lifetime writing income is about £1,200, and my computer games career fizzled out after being self-sufficient for a year or so. But it would have been fun trying.

Friday, 11 March 2022

Jigsaw puzzles

Life is a puzzle. From left to right - Varenna, where I was married; Wareham, where my father was born.
Then some we designed ourselves - my son's wedding; a Morocco holiday; my grand-daughter; my Zoom/Teams backdrop.
Making a puzzle of something and reconstructing it is one way of getting to know it better. Sometimes the details matter, details that get lost in the whole.

Monday, 21 February 2022

Glitch Poetics

In the Dec-Jan 2015-16 issue of Art Monthly, there's an article by Nathan Jones. Here's the start - "Technological breakdowns stop us at the moment of dissolution into a mesh of media, tools and technologies, offering us a fleeting moment of insight about the things we use and how we relate to them. In this sense, our experience of media is precisely - and perhaps uniquely - the experience of their failure".

Artists like Caroline Bergvall "force and accentuate errors in language ... to extend what language can say into the formerly unspeakable territory of its own production". "What I am calling glitch poetics operates to extend and make critically available the liminal moment of our relationship with technologies through language".

Bergvall mumbled recordings, "Inhabiting the accidental slippage and the inherent noise of analogue recording as purposive tactic". Others have used predictive text to "overload the desire of the technological algorithms for ever-greater intimacy and complicity".

Finally we learn that "at the frontier of language and technology, artists are extending what is sayable in order to articulate the formerly withdrawn but now increasing coercive apparatuses which are involved in saying and in doing. By engaging with timeless questions about the interior self and exterior self in language, these artists are addressing increasingly insistent issues raised by computational prostheses".

He describes a performance by Scourti as "containing many words of apparent significance, phrases which gestured towards making a statement of some kind, but the cumulative effect being one of circularity and incoherence ... it continually appears to make sense yet ultimately says nothing at all".

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Mixed genre poetry books

It's not so unusual for prose writers to write poetry too. They used to publish them in separate books. The situation's less clear nowadays. For example, consider "Certain Windows" by Dan Burt (Lintott Press, 2011). It's 64 pages long, with poems from PN Review and the TLS. There's a 35-page prose autobiography of his early years. How did such a situation arise?

Many decades ago, there were places in the US/UK that published snippets of prose - I think Readers Digest had little pieces for example. But these outlets dried up so the authors of these short texts, if they wanted them published, had to send them to poetry magazines. Of course, prose-poetry existed, but that term was reserved for surreal, discontinuous works. So what they did was add line-breaks. Also popular was the idea of making all the stanzas the same size of rectangle, as if there was a metrical/rhyming pattern. Read Paul Durcan's poems to see how it's done.

Then Flash emerged, providing a natural home for short narratives again. Various other short prose formats became popular too. Authors of short pieces no longer needed to add gratuitous line-breaks. Some authors have taken advantage of this. Carolyn Forché has re-published her famous "The Colonel" poem as prose. Don Paterson publishes books of aphorisms

I think it's time that editors questioned line-breaks that do little, just as they challenge words and lines that don't pull their weight. Some editors do, but line-breaks have so many putative purposes (many so subtle that I can't see them) that editors tend to leave the layout alone.

Just to add to the fun, there's a trend to use "/" instead of a line-break. Some people use multiple spaces between words. In addition more people than ever are writing poetry with an aim to be published, so it's no surprise that people are spreading into less traditional areas of poetry, straying into hybrid zones.

The conflation of short prose with poetry has led to more books having a mix of poetry and prose. E.g. -

  • Helen Tookey's "City of Departures" (Carcanet, 2021) begins with poems, but ends with pages that are unashamedly prose.
  • "Citizen" by Claudia Rankine won poetry prizes but much of it wasn't trying to be poetry, it seems to me.
  • "Small Hours" by Lachlan Mackinnon (Faber, 2010) ends with a long section of text which I'd call prose. Some reviewers said so too.

Nowadays poetry readers seem capable of not caring about line-breaks. When they start reading a poem I think they decide whether it's the sort of piece where line-breaks matter and read the piece accordingly. Neither do they care much if there's obvious prose in a poetry book. I suspect it's been going on covertly for a while. I read a U.A. Fanthorpe book recently. It looked like a mixture of poetry and prose. Her famous "Not my Best Side" is like the prose I try to write. I doubt if the Trades Description Act can be applied. That said, I think Poetry judges could be braver.

If you can't beat them, join them. I have prose and poetry versions of some pieces. I’ve short-lined and long-lined versions of poems. I've even (shame on me) taken a paragraph from a story of mine, added some line-breaks, and had it published in a poetry mag.

Friday, 14 January 2022

2 poetry podcasts

Both these podcasts tackle a poem or 2 per episode, but in different ways.

Frank Skinner is a well-known UK comedian with hidden depths. He does a good solo job with a range of poems old and new, some of them rather challenging. His target audience includes people who don't usually read modern poetry - he's aware of which aspects they may disapprove of. He's enthusiastic, not pretentious, and doesn't hesitate to reveal aspects of his personal life if it helps illuminate the piece. In his most recent episode he talks about 2 poems from Caroline Bird's "The Air Year", making me realise I'd missed some points - e.g in the title poem "the mime scene" alludes to "the crime scene".

In "Poem Talk" an avant-garde poem is discussed by 3 or 4 American academics who help each other try to understand the piece. A recording by the poet is played. They often come to no firm conclusions. I learn much from their comments, which at times seem very generous. They're fairly honest about their puzzlement though they never go as far as blaming the poet.

Monday, 3 January 2022


You've seen the plot before. The local police have been told not to apprehend a criminal but keep him under surveillance because Interpol want to catch the whole network. But an ambitious, impetuous young cop who's unaware of the big picture arrests the criminal because he thinks the criminal's getting away.

Apprehending a poem can have the same plot. Committing yourself to the first interpretation ensures that you get the bird in the hand, but you might miss out on many more that two other possibilities in the bush.

So follow at a distance. Wait for it to make contact with more significant agents. Try to picture the whole network. The first idea you have may be the easiest to find because it's the most superficial. Don't think that the title says it all. Don't think that the rhymes are what it's all about. Remember that even low-level operatives are cunning enough to lead you down blind alleys.