Wednesday 28 December 2022

My writing year

Quiet. In 2022 I've written

  • 2 publishable poems (about 200 words) and 4 others.
  • 6 publishable stories (about 8,000 words) and about 10 others.

So far I've had 2 of these accepted though I've had 8 older pieces accepted. Total income $20.

Ever hopeful, I've 6 stories entered into competitions, 10 other stories (4 of them Flash) with magazines, and 6 poems out.

I've read (or listened to) about 200 books, twice my usual amount. I haven't avoided genre fiction.

These trends (from poetry to prose; from writing to reading) are likely to continue, I think.

Thursday 22 December 2022

Assessing poems

Orbis magazine invites readers' votes and brief comments. I never have voted, though I've been tempted to offer comments. I tend to assess in various contradictory ways. Over-simplifying, and depending on the situation, they include -

  • Bottom-up - I give points for various features (use of sound, etc) or (as in diving) combine degree of difficulty with performance
  • Top-down - I first decide whether I like the poem or not, then I list its obvious features showing how they support my opinion: e.g. if a poem has tight integration of form and content I can say that this reveals technical prowess (if I like the poem) or that the poem has stifling predictability (if I don't). A poem may be understated (if I like it), or lacking verve (if I don't).
  • Emotion - a piece may move me though I know it's not a good poem - it may not even be a poem, or I know I'm moved only because it describes something I've experienced.
  • Learning resource - a poem may open my eyes to new poetic possibilities, inspiring me to write. It may not be good.
  • Best bits - it's tempting to judge a poem by its best (often last) lines. Sometimes ("Lying in a hammock at William Duffy's farm in Pine Island Minnesota" maybe?) the last line justifies the 'blandless' of the rest of the poem.
  • Good of its type - however good some poems are, they're restricted by the type of poem they are.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Future Karaoke #2

On Dec 13 the second event of this series happened in atmospheric St John's - a hybrid event with a good physical attendance given the weather (I had intended to go, but Zoom was too tempting). The prompts this time were from Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. Kirsty Irving, Vona Groarke (in person - I think she's writer in residence there at the moment), John Greening, etc., read prose and poetry.

So I guess that concludes my year of literary events. I've seen Zoom-only, hybrid (in-person and remotely), in-person only, and residential (a weekend). People are in the main comfortable with the technology now (few "can you hear me?" interruptions) and the all important chit-chat aspect is catered for, whatever the delivery method.

Organisers of future small events have decisions to make. Some people can only attend remotely. Others like the in-person vibe and interesting venues. Hybrid might sound like the best option but it's the most challenging technologically and organisationally. Some groups are planning a programme with mix of in-person meetings and Zoom meetings. This risks splitting established groups (which may be small already) into 2, but at least it keeps most people happy most of the time. Tricky.

Tuesday 13 December 2022

Cafe Writers, 12th Dec

Yesterday I attended a Cafe Writers poetry evening. Zoom. It worked well. The format was like a standard event with 2 halves, each half beginning with open-mic (a poem or 2 minutes of prose) leading onto a headliner (Jenny Robb and Helena Nelson). Between the open-mic contributions there were brief comments by the chair (Ramona Herd, Julia Webb). At half-time, and before/after the official business, the mikes were all left unmuted, and there was a further opportunity to comment by using the chat panel. The main performers showed the text of their poems as they read them.

It's Norwich-based, and they're going to have some in-person events next year, but I suspect there'll be pressure to continue the Zoom sessions. Participants came from France, India, etc., and the guest readers were from the North. It was a snowy evening, so even the locals might have struggled to attend an in-person event.

Friday 9 December 2022

Likable characters?

Reading Goodreads reviews, especially 1-star ones, I realise, yet again, that there are many ways of engaging with texts. Some readers always seem to be in "reading on the sunbed" mode. Reviews of short story collections not uncommonly contain phrases like "I don't usually read short stories". Lately I've been reading (or listening to) far more genre novels, more novels where immersion is encouraged, so I thought I'd go over the basic questions again, as if I were in discussion with Goodreads reviewers.

Must you like the novel's characters? - it's common to come across comments like "The main character is irritating and pathetic". I've some sympathy with these views. After all, you the reader will be spending many hours with the characters. If you'd hate being stuck in a room with them in real life, why be stuck in a book with them, especially if you're in "holiday reading" mode. But they're characters, not real people.

Must you find them interesting? - you may not like a Martin Amis hero, but they may be interesting - not least because they're unlikable, they're unlike you. It's better for characters to be nasty than plain boring. Beside, the characters may not be the main issue of the book.

Must you empathize/identify with them? - perhaps you've experienced some of the feelings they have, even if you don't like them characters. Safely between the covers you can re-experience those emotions again, or even experience emotions you've not lived through yourself. A good writer might make you feel sorry for an unsympathetic character.

Must they not be repulsive? - it's one thing for characters not to resemble you in many ways (to like Mozart while you prefer Bach for example), it's quite another for characters to hold views on gender or race that you stridently disagree with, especially if the characters aren't punished. But maybe the characters are interesting.

Do you have to believe the characters? - suppose the characters are not like anyone you've met or can imagine? Suppose they fail the Turing test? Well, it's only a book. The plot, the thoughts or the style may matter more than the characters. Maybe it's SF.

Do you have to like the author? - Do you check before you start reading their book? Suppose there's no way to find out about the author? Suppose you like the characters anyway?

One advantage of short stories is that they don't test the readers' emotional or intellectual endurance. And a persona in a poem is rarely subjected to such questions.

Saturday 26 November 2022

Too many books

I own quite a few books and magazines. I'm a bit of a hoarder. I keep my worst excesses hidden away in the loft or in cupboards. I've been clearing the flat of someone who liked books too, and had no loft. Here's the main room after a few hours of tidying up

When we emptied cupboards (sometimes with a crowbar), bags of books fell on us. When there was no space in the room for the thousands of books, the kitchen started filling up with tottering piles.

And the bathroom was also used for storage. We found a toilet seat still in the packaging, and toilet rolls. Alas there was no water or electricity.

There were files and files of magazine, letter and newspaper cuttings, sorted into topics (one of the topics being "Tim Love"). Also in amongst the books were £30 of old pound coins. There was no single place for batteries, but at least they were labelled - e.g. "Used. Maybe a little life left?"

Books were of many types and languages. I think this is a bible in Cornish. Books have gone to local charity shops and to rural Africa in a container.

And there were exercise books filled with pages like this, written in a private code. Distances walked? Money spent? Time spent reading?

Monday 14 November 2022

Ornamentation and aura

In the old days writers would iambize their prose and dangle rhymes on their line-endings to make their words seem more significant, adding poetic words as glitter. As Samuel Johnson said, some people think that anything that doesn't look like prose must be poetry. Nowadays writers use strange punctuation, deletions, discontinuities and line-breaks instead.

There's still something about the label "poetry" that writers find tempting. And why not? Poetic license still exists. If you label a piece "poetry", readers will look for hidden meanings. The meanings will expand to match the readers' expectations. It saves the writer needing to do so much. A short text (about doing the housework, say) can go far given a big title like "Death".

But readers might not be so compliant nowadays. They might distrust the label. They might think the shortness is a cop-out.

  • They're more alert to tricks of ads, the lure of mistique, aura, etc. They know how the addition of false eyelashes and tan can trick the eye.
  • They've seen how less pretentious "memes" and "tweets" can do so much in a few words.
  • Flash now offers an alternative vehicle for anecdotes, without recourse to the "poetry" label.
  • Books like "Grief is the thing with feathers" by Max Porter show what can be done with poetic ideas when they're developed. In comparison a slim poetry book with lots of white space looks if not unfinished then certainly expensive.

Consequently I'm on my guard when I read a text that's labelled as poetry. There's less need to label texts as such nowadays (short texts can be prose), so the request for my extra attention had better be genuine.

Sunday 6 November 2022

What the author thinks

  • I'm in a rich writing phase at the moment - Time will tell. If you go through a phase of relaxing immediate self-criticism you can write a lot, and you may think it good, but you may only be postponing the inevitable radical editing.
  • Thankyou for your insightful review. At last someone "gets it" - Years ago I went to a workshop where someone read out a first-person piece concerning first love. It sounded Adrian Mole-like to me, and people commented that they were amused by the main character's naivity - their age unclear, but presumably teenage. Alas, the piece was deadly serious autobiography. Critics should have said it was a sensitive exploration of twentysomething love.
    At another workshop, the poet was praised for their ironic use of clichés. After, the poet admitted that they hadn't realised that the images were clichés.
    Suppose a clever whodunnit by a middle-aged man is packed with middle-aged men who pretty young women keep falling for? Suppose a poem collection has many self-sabotage pieces but the poet's announced theme is about fate being unfair? Suppose the "I" is right in all the poems, though the other characters only realise that later? Suppose the rhyme-scheme goes to pieces whenever the poet has something serious to say? Would these comments ever be considered insightful by an author?
    If the critic dutifully reads the blurb and reports on the intended meanings, quoting the phrases that most emphasise those meanings, the author will be delighted. Maybe that's the reviewer's intention.

Thursday 27 October 2022

Periodical priorities

  • "We don’t read submissions blind and that’s not going to change. I’m unconvinced that’s a particularly helpful strategy for ensuring balance" - Kathryn Gray (Bad Lilies). Anonymity is often suggested as a means to ensure fairness, but I can see that it hinders balance. I think that overall I'm in favour of some positive discrimination. If (say) only 10% of a poem in a magazine are by women, women might be unlikely to send to that magazine and the ratio won't improve. The self-perpetuating loop has to be broken somehow. All the same, I'd like to think that blind submissions are something to strive towards.
  • "we will publish poems that shock and unsettle. These poems will speak of trauma and injustice, because that is the world we live in. We will prioritize work that deals with issues of migration, economic injustice and freedom of speech" - André Naffis-Sahely (Poetry London editorial, Summer 2021). I don't know about the shock/unsettle aspect, but the magazine content matched the manifesto as far as I could tell. The prioritisation extended to the reviews, it seemed to me. I made a note of what received any adverse criticism. Issues are good, and are discussed at the expense of the poetry. Issue-less poetry by males was the most vulnerable.

Wednesday 12 October 2022


For a few months I've been blitzing the magazines - I've 13 stories, 3 flashes and 7 poems doing the rounds, some at places that charge submission fees. So far it hasn't gone well - just 3 acceptances, though I'm in profit having got $20 for a flash. I'm hoping to match my 2017 performance when I had 11 of my 17 poems published and 5 out of 14 stories - better than my lifetime acceptance rates of 1 in 3 for poems and 1 in 6 for prose. In the graph the blue line shows the number of poems written and the pink line shows poems accepted.

I've little left to send off - 1 good story and 2 so-so ones, 3 sub-200 flashes which are ok, and 2 poems that somebody might like - so while I await the rejections I'm trying to write new stuff because to some extent success in magazines is a numbers game: the more you send off, the more acceptances you get. Quantity as well as quality has always been an issue for me - many years I don't manage to write a poem a month. On the other hand, the graph above shows what might happen if I relax quality control: 2013 stands out as a year where I wrote far more than I published - I wrote more than usual but it was rubbish.

Saturday 8 October 2022

Future Karaoke #1

On June 7th at Anglia Ruskin University Jon Stone organised an event where people picked an animal from the list he provided and wrote a poem inspired by it. It was a hybrid evening - there were Zoom participants and listeners.

The series of events is a chance for ARU students to meet local writers - and maybe one day for the other university to join in too. Readers included Claudine Toutoungi, Anne Berkeley, Kirsty Irving, etc. In future there might be video poems, or a live/video hybrid.

Having now attended 3 poetry events in a fortnight I'm beginning to form some generalisations about how much I'll like a open mic poem based on the age/gender of poet, type of introduction, length of poem etc. I know I have a terribly short attention span when listening to poems, but all the same, some of the pieces sounded long to me, even the ones that the poets described as "short". When a poet approaches the mike saying "Just 2 short poems. Is that ok?" trouble's ahead. Or more ominous still, "this began as a poem but it turned into a short story".

Thursday 6 October 2022

National Poetry Day

I went to the event at Waterstones, Cambridge. Mina Gorji was the headliner, and "Environment" the subject. Some CB1 mainstays were there too. I thought Lindsay Fursland's set worked best in the situation - punchy and entertaining. The open mike session was varied - not all the pieces were too long, though several of the introductions were. Nice to see a full house.

Wednesday 28 September 2022

CB1: John Greening

On 27th September I went to see John Greening at CB1. Evenings there can sometimes be rather quiet (attendance figures depend on the weather, if it's during term, etc) but yesterday there were well over 30 people - standing room only. For the open-mic I read an updated version of my recent "Oh I do like to be" poem from Acumen, not knowing at the time that I was sitting next to Susan Mackervoy, who'd written a review that was in the same issue.

John Greening was aimable, providing helpful commentary on his poems. As I've said elsewhere, he's published many (20?) books and pamphlets, has done collaborations, and writes some long poems, which are all features which instinctively put me on my guard - irrationally, because he's won the Bridport for heaven's sake. I liked his Egyptian poem, but I still wasn't convinced by his poem (really a list of short poems) about a totem pole, or another list poem involving types of wood.

Friday 23 September 2022

Sloppy writing?

Some phrases from books that I've recently heard/read attracted my attention, not least because some authors repeatedly used them. None of these phrases were in a character's voice. In some (but not all) instances I think the redundant words are helpful.

  • Tears welled up in her eyes - Where else could they well? Isn't "Tears welled up" enough?
  • She let out an audible sigh - Or "She sighed", because all sighs are audible?
  • There was nothing there - Or "Nothing was there"?
  • Outside, the wind was rapping on the window panes - We know the wind isn't inside, but beginning with "Outside" effectively shifts readers' attention.
  • She had a fiercely stubborn look on her face - Or "She looked fiercely stubborn" though I suppose you could have a look elsewhere than on the face. All the same, it sounds more "tell" than "show".
  • He nodded to himself - The person in question was talking to someone and had just come to a conclusion about something - i.e. the nod wasn't a communication. But the expression sounds strange.
  • He thought to himself - Who else could he think to?

Monday 19 September 2022


When someone asked me once how I decided whether to buy a book, I said I look at the acknowledgements. He didn't know what I meant, which is no surprise - he, like most people, only reads novels.

Yes, poetry books and short story collections can contain thankyous to family, teachers and friends, but they also have a list of places where the works were previously published. A glance gives me a fair idea of the writer's standing.

Some authors seem to have focussed on competitions, mentioning appearances in short/long lists. For example, in "Sightings", Elisabeth Sennitt Clough lists 14 prizes and commendations that the poems won.

Others are in some themed/regional anthologies, a market I've never looked at.

Some authors have an extensive list, showing that most if not all of the works have been published before. I view with suspicion books where the list is short - if the pieces haven't gone through the periodical filtering process, I wonder if they're good enough for a book.

Some story writers thank by name the magazine editors who accepted their pieces - not something I've ever done. These editors sometimes suggest revisions so I suppose it makes sense.

The books I'm most likely to buy are those whose acknowledgements page mentions several magazines I've been in, and some I've tried but failed to be accepted in. I'm also tempted by mentions of Bridport and National Poetry Competition shortlistings.

Monday 12 September 2022

Signed books

Buying second hand books means you sometimes get a bonus. Here are a few I've found.

Thursday 25 August 2022

From "Games Authors Play" by Peter Hutchinson (Methuen, 1983)

About the puzzles that authors set for readers. Here are a few quotes as a reminder that fashions change.

  • "the detective story proper only begins with Edgar Allan Poe and his Chevalier Dupin" (p.24)
  • "The nature of allegory has changed over the centuries, developing from its medieval and Renaissance mode (in which correspondences between certain abstraction or generalisations and the figures of the new plot were straightforward and rather naive) to a more 'subversive' kind after the end of the seventeenth century. It then became a more satirical form, in which a political aim was often apparent" (p.54)
  • "Social games would seem to have preceded sporting ones as a popular form of parallel in literature, but the emphasis now seems to fall rather on sport" (p.68)
  • Updike's "The Centaur" ends with a "Mythological Index", "a long list of mythological figures who may be seen to feature in the novel, together with the page number(s) on which they supposedly appear" (p.75)
  • "Historical periods of intense intellectual activity and self-discovery seem to have provided the best moments for paradox to flourish. As a self-conscious, overtly intellectual, often ingenuous exercise of the mental faculties, it requires a responsive audience as much as a brilliant exponent" (p.87)
  • "The Elizabethans readily employed puns in such serious contexts; our own age prefers them as jokes" (p.104)

Friday 12 August 2022


I've been looking at genre and have begun to make notes. Here are snippets.


From "Romance: Find your pigeonhole" Jess Morency, Writing Magazine" (March 2022) -

  • "Regency romance is a complete genre in its own right ... and there's now comedy Regency too" - Linda Hill
  • "I think [chick lit] died in the 1990s" - Anne Williams. Others say it's contemporary romance with fewer characters and themes
  • "All romance is women's fiction" - Jess Morency
  • "all rom-coms are chick lit; not all chick lit has romance" - Lisa Firth
  • In the 1990s, "publishers were asking authors to transcribe books from first to third person as the former was seen as 'too chick lit'" - Jenny Bent


"The historical novel flourished in the mid-20th century but it went completely out of fashion", Alison Weir, "Writing Magazine (June 2018)"

"it's easier than any other genre. The research gives you so much. Place, time, events. You have to move your characters on the stage you've already built" - Isabel Allende

Myth, Legend, Fairy Tale

Myths have gods and deal with cosmic Good/Evil. Legends have superheroes and deal with culture/society. Fairy Tales deal with personal happiness at different stages of life – defeating evil parents (i.e. Kings/Queens), finding a partner (a Prince/Princess), or preserving family life.


  • NSFW - not safe for work
  • PWP - porn without plot
  • #Drarry - Draco and Harry Potter relationship
  • #crossover

Wednesday 27 July 2022


There's a lot about Florence Nightingale in Derby (her family had a house there) but she's not the only famous female with a Derby connection.

This is Amen Alley, one of the narrowest roads I've seen in a city centre. Further out of town there's Brian Clough Way, running between Derby and Nottingham.

The only historical Derby author I've heard of is Samuel Richardson ("Pamela"). Apparently he tried to hide his humble origins. In contrast, I take every opportunity to photograph my name in lights, even if the lights aren't on. These letters were outside a cotton mill.

Sunday 24 July 2022

Narrative or pattern?

It happens to me most obtrusively when writing Flash. It starts when I add call-backs - allusions to earlier in the story. Then I notice emerging themes - old vs young, here vs there, etc - and accentuate them. Before long I have a net of connections and intersecting leit-motifs. Even if the narrative survives the re-writes, the readers' attention is bound to be distracted, bouncing back and forwards through the text.

Not all the connections are psychologically significant. Some are irrelevant to the plot, working independently of it - gratuitous coincidences, one might say.

Maybe a film equivalent is Peter Greenaway's Drowning by Numbers where, amongst many other patterns and allusions, the integers from 1 to 100 are shown (on the backs of sports shirts, etc) or spoken.

Pointing out to detractors that these come as a bonus doesn't often help, which is why during rewrites I sometimes remove the patterns that I've so carefully constructed. I've even deformalized poetry to suit current tastes. But fashions come and go, so I keep old versions.

Monday 11 July 2022

Flash fiction festival, 2022

I took the plunge and attended the Flash Fiction Festival - a packed 2 days where I went to talks by Ingrid Jendrzejewski, Venessa Gebbie, Stephanie Carty, Carrie Etter, Nancy Stohlman, and KB Carle, ably organised by Jude Higgins, Diane Simmons et al who kept the atmosphere friendly. People from several countries were there. It was structured like an academic conference, with parallel sessions of talks and workshops. It was at a theological college in Bristol - with a bar and karioke. Not much accommodation available, so I camped on their lawn (telling the kids I was festival camping). About 100 delegates all told. I'd met a few of them already and knew a few others by name, so I networked without trouble for a change.

While I was waiting for the first session to begin and the presenter was trying to get projection working, she said "give me a command line and I'm fine". She mentioned emacs. It made me feel at home.

Flash has emerged over the last few years. It's still finding a place for itself (though of course it's been around since Kafka, the Bible etc). It's interesting watching a new "genre" in the process of carving its niche - some people come to it from the poetry world, and some from short stories. People say that the quality has shot up over the last decade. There are quite a few Flash books out now. I've also seen books that are explicit poetry/Flash and short-story/Flash combinations.

A term that I heard in 3 sessions which I hadn't heard before was "hermit crab" where content slips inside a (perhaps unrelated, perhaps ironic) form. A piece called "Recipe for War" can be set out as a recipe. There are many standardised templates that can be used as forms - instructions for games, adverts, letters, shopping list, school reports, horoscope, crosswords, etc. Pieces like this used to appear in poetry magazines, but that always seemed a miscategorisation to me.

Saturday 2 July 2022

Mike Dawes, poetry and complexity

Mike Dawes is a percussive finger-style guitarist. On a youtube clip he describes his work as comprising many simple layers (bass, vocals, etc). On a guitar there are several ways to play a particular note. Depending on how a guitar is tuned, the note may be available on a open string. By pressing on another string it may be available by conventionally plucking with the right hand or, more unusually, by plucking the other part of the string between the fret and the end - either with the left or right hand. The technical challenge is choosing the best way to play a note given the other notes that need to be played simultaneously or soon.

Maybe there's some gratuitous showmanship when both of his hands jump up and down the strings, but he has a clean style and metronomic precision. Sometimes it's not possible to play every note of every layer - missing items can be suggested (instead of a percussive beat, a note in the melody line is played more loudly) or left for the listener to fill in. Sometimes a single note may belong to more than one layer. Sometimes it's possible to add flourishes.

Now here's the analogy. In a poem the poet may try to convey multiple/layered meanings - reason and emotion, etc - while also giving physical descriptions or narrative. It can't all be done at once. The task is often compared to juggling - "keeping all the balls in the air" - but maybe Dawes' guitar playing is a closer analogy. Once the percussive beats are established, there's no need to play every one - the odd reminder will do. And even the deaf can see artistry in the dancing fingers.

The following poem isn't perhaps the best demonstration, but at least it's mine.

Crows' nests
Autumn's X-ray reveals them,
the trees suddenly old,
the crows gone, spreading.

The title could refer to birds or to the sailors' lookout. The first stanza wants us to see the leafless trees as X-ray images, which gives "spreading" a double meaning. So already we have 3 scenarios (birds, lookout, illness) on the go, none of them complex. Can all 3 be sustained?

Through long summer evenings
you heard them but said nothing

This could refer to the birds, though it's more likely to refer to the person ignoring early signs of the illness

Now you want to hide away there,
sleepless nights alone waiting
This is about the illness, and wanting to hide in the lookout
for the first sight of land,
the darkness flapping
so close to you, so huge

The lookout again, hoping for good news, hearing the flapping sails, and the birds are back, the crows having their customary ominous meaning.

Monday 27 June 2022

This month's signs

These are some signs that I happened to pass this month -

Hidden away in Chelmsford. I've a photo of another marconi plaque - London, I think.

This was a more interesting event than it may at first appear

At/near Welham Green. An odd event that isn't famous.

This was in the front wall of a house in Wisbech.

St Ivo, the Persian bishop who gave his name to St Ives (Cambs). Though I've visited the town often, I don't recall seeing this place.

Sunday 12 June 2022

And now ... Instagram

I started using e-mail maybe 40 years ago. Now I've started using Instagram and I've bought a site which I'll gradually develop. Here's a list of where I am -

Names are a bit random - if I had my time again I'd change them. My usage of these facilities is rather haphazard too - my videos have ended up on Facebook, and my photos are scattered.

Saturday 4 June 2022

CB1 poetry, May 2022

I did an open-mic slot last Tuesday at the CB1 poetry event in Cambridge. Real people in a real pub, with real poets in the audience (Anne Berkeley, Andrea Porter, etc). Jon Stone was the main act. He's now a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University. He's hoping to organise some evening events at ARU in a venue with a computer plus projection facilities, making multi-media presentations possible. I might turn up for an open-mic slot there with my memory stick.

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.