Saturday 30 December 2023

Nice poetry reviews

On her substack post Victoria Moul wrote "Most reviews don’t seem to be good at making me want to buy poetry books: ... perhaps ... because they all tend to be so positive. If everything is apparently wonderful, it’s hard to trust any particular recommendation"

I think reviews are more positive nowadays. In tone they're more like comments in a face-to-face workshop with something good always said, adverse comments being sandwiched in, muted. Maybe nowadays reviewers are much more likely to know the poets, or at least they've communicated online. Or maybe reviewers feel that poetry's in such a bad way that it needs all the help it can get. This positivity (or at least lack of negativity) is especially prevalent when dealing with bereavement poems. Can there be such a thing as a bad poem about Refaat Alareer? The Poetry is in the pity I suppose.

I try to self-moderate my write-ups. After all, half of the books I read are worse than the average book I read. That's the way I rate on goodreads. The reasoning can be extended - half of the poems in a book are worse than the average poem, and half of a poem's lines are worse than the average line. Atomising a poem in that way is tricky though - lines interact with each other (jewelstones need mountings), and a poem full of beautiful phrases may be a mere "anthology of lines". But many poetry books are made of poems that can be individually assessed. If reviewers believe in the concept of ranking poems enough to list (and quote from) a collection's best pieces, why not list and quote from the worst too? It gives readers a better feel for the reviewer's prejudices, and the poet's range.

Saturday 23 December 2023

Nine Arches Press's Poetry Book Club

Last year I got all of Nine Arches Press's poetry publications in their bulk Book Club deal. I'm renewing for 2024 - see their shop for details. I got about a dozen books, some of which I wouldn't have bought individually, but at least it keeps me in touch with a variety of current poetry.

My favourites were "A Whistling of Birds" by Isobel Dixon, "Tormentil" by Ian Humphreys, and "Frieze" by Olga Dermott-Bond.

Thursday 14 December 2023

A busy month

I've attended 3 Zoom poetry events, a live prose event, a book fair, and a writers' social event.

I've had 3 poems, 2 Flashes and a short story accepted in amongst the rejections.

I've sent more things out. I've 4 stories entered into competitions, 5 stories with magazines, 7 Flashes and 12 poems out.

I've read 2 poetry books (Claire Crowther, Kosta Tsolakis), a story collection (Yan Ge) and listened to 5 novels (2 of them literary). I'm currently, belatedly, listening to "H is for Hawk".

I've extended a few drafts by a few words. I may have finished a poem.

Sunday 10 December 2023

Pindrop Press book launches - Fiona Larkin and Jonathan Totman

Fiona Larkin and Jonathan Totman shared a Zoom book launch this evening. Poems were shown as well as read out. Both read well, not saying too much between poems.

Maybe "Borderland" was my favourite Fiona Larkin piece. Seeing the texts rather distracted me - some were short-lined, others weren't and I couldn't work out why - the reading gave no clue.

Jonathan Totman's "Sessions" had therapy as a theme (the book has 50 poems, sessions last 50 minutes). They were all described as sonnets, though I think this is needlessly provocative. I like the idea of the sonnets representing the room/time constraint, and I liked the poems. Going by this sample, there's much variety of approach to the topic (not least being on either side of the desk). Maybe "On a scale of 1 to 643" was my favourite.

Saturday 2 December 2023

Norwich - City of Stories

I had a wander around Norwich, going to a zone I didn't remember. Apparently the area’s been called “Over the Water” since the 13th century.

Norwich’s nickname on publicity leaflets is the “City of Stories”. It has a puppet theatre, the Norwich University of Arts, and UEA (where Ishiguro and Ian McEwan went). And of course, there was Julian of Norwich who wrote the earliest surviving English language works known to be written by a woman (near where Dragon Hall now is).

The National Centre for Writing isn't in the creative quarter. It's in Dragon Hall, which dates from the 15th century. It’s not normally open to the public though there are many courses, some run in association with UEA. It’s the first time I’ve been inside the building. I didn’t realise how big the extension was.

I went to the Publishing Fair - local self-publishers. Some were novelists, though there were several factual books too. Later I trawled the city's bookshops. There are at least 2 charity bookshops.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Red Door Poets at Milton Keynes Lit Fest (Zoom)

Last night, online, I saw Mary Mulholland, Paul Stephenson, Lesley Sharpe, Fiona Larkin, Chris Hardy and Helen Ivory.

I may have got the titles mixed up, but I think the pieces I liked best were Mary Mulholland’s "pig town, o the shame of you", Paul Stephenson's "Button" and Fiona Larkin's "Beach". I've not seen Helen Ivory read before though I've read 2 of her books. I liked much of what she read without any particular poem standing out.

For slow listeners like me it was useful to have the text shown during the readings - about half the poets provided this facility.

I'm still thinking about the use of the chat facility. At this event the remarks were not followed up by the emcee or other attendees. Sometimes they mentioned particular poems. More often (understandably) they were lists of adjectives.

Sunday 26 November 2023

Zoom poetry readings - Acumen and break-out rooms

Acumen had an issue launch on 24th Nov. Over 30 attended. People who arrived early could chat, then there were 3 break-out rooms that people were randomly assigned to, giving us a chance to get to know some people. After a few readings (during which people were encouraged to type in the chat section) we went back to the break-out rooms with the suggestion that we could talk about the poems or about "what is poetry?" Muting and splitting was ably managed by Danielle Hope (who popped into the break-out rooms and alerted people to comments in the chat) with help from Kim Moore. The room I was in had Kim Moore and Rory Waterman, a treat in itself.

At live events during intervals, people break into clusters - some people catching up with friends, some people listening, looking around for familiar/famous faces. Break-out rooms are a simulation of this I suppose. I think the format worked well.

Saturday 25 November 2023

Some books

Rather than await an "eagerly anticipated" book, why not rummage on secondhand shelves?

Many of the books I buy are years old, found by chance in charity shops. Charity bookshops nowadays even have sections for "Short stories", which is more than some high street bookshops can manage. The books below aren't really neglected masterpieces, but they've stuck in my memory longer than the more recently published books I've read. Many of them are the author's first books, which may explain why I was impressed by them - they lack padding, and even the pieces that don't work for me have interesting parts.

Now I'm in recommendation mode, I'll mention a short story that impressed me - "Rinks without ice" by Jae Vail (The interpreter's house)

Tuesday 14 November 2023

350 today

Today I got my 350th acceptance - a triumph of longevity rather than quality, but I'll celebrate all the same. 221 poems and 129 pieces of prose. Poetry is tailing off, Flash is increasing.

Monday 6 November 2023

CB1, November

The CB1 poetry evenings go from strength to strength. Yesterday about 40 people attended, despite competition from fireworks events. No headline poets - it's all open-mic, and I think at least 25 read. The majority read from phones. There was rap, a sestina, a villanelle, poems just finished, old poems read from books. There were regulars and newcomers young and old. Few of the poems were "performance" or comic pieces.

Saturday 28 October 2023

The Dark Horse, issue 47

In this issue there's quite a lot about about how clubiness and other social pressures affect poetry writing and reviews. In his editorial, Gerry Cambridge writes

  • "poetry is most valued as the vessel for issues"
  • "The community is inclusive provided one shows that one is right thinking and holds the same values as the group. If one doesn't, unconditionally ... one ... will be covertly or openly excluded"

Edna Longley's essay wonders how The Waste Land (which she thinks good in parts) has come to take such an prominent (almost defining) position in Modernism - because Eliot was a critic? "because the academy may need The Waste Land as all things to all theories ... Latterly, the poem has even been called an ecocritique ... Ricks ingeniously or desperately proposes that Eliot's ugly images are cast back upon the reader to test our own prejudices"

NB's contrarian exploits in TLS are explored.

Kathryn Gray writes -

  • "Many poets - too many poets - spend the remainder of their careers attempting to rewrite their most successful book"
  • "In an age heavily policed by social media avatars, we are supposed to be good. Increasingly, and quite illogically, I think, we also desire our writers to be good"
  • "I wish more poets wrote in as badly behaved a fashion as they sometimes lived. ... And perhaps a readership for poetry would widen and deepen and we would see far less of the 'school project' syndrome that haunts many a collection"

Gerry Cambridge writes

  • "Criticism and reviewing are regarded as the antipathy to 'creative' work ... Nothing is gained [] by calling indifferent work good. All it does is baffle the potential audience outside the subculture and buttress the idea of poetry as a recondite arcana, over the heads of the uninvolved intelligent"

Saturday 21 October 2023

Breaking into the US market

I sometimes send stuff to US paper journals. I don't know my way around very well, and depend on online ranking lists etc. As in the UK, US paper magazines are disappearing (e.g. Tin House and Glimmer Train - 2 of the top 5 in one list), and the online replacements don't have the same impact. I think more of their journals are university based. And there's the pay-to-submit issue.

I have trouble understanding currently fashionable US poetry, so it's the short story market I focus on. There's a wide range of journals. The most recent one that I was in paid me $20 for a piece of Flash and sent me (expensively, unexpectedly) a contributor's copy, cover price $18. But it's only 290th in one list I found, and in another list it's categorised as Tier 4, Respected: usually small circulation, one or more “notable” prize mentions, sometimes payment.

Anyway, I'll continue trying. I use John Fox's list, Erika Krouse's list etc, which are based on BAP (Best American Poetry) and BASS appearances. A Pushcart nomination would suit me just fine. I check my pieces for UK references before sending off and find that most have something I need to change - local colour is all very well, but obscure nostalgia is deadwood.

Friday 6 October 2023

Writing and AI

I think the majority of literary competition guidelines now include a statement on AI. Usually AI isn't allowed, though the wording tends to be along the lines that they'll delete the accepted online piece if AI use is subsequently discovered.

Cult. Magazine has an enlightened (or resigned?) attitude - "If AI tools were used to make your submission, please inform us how you used the tool and why". Such pieces are collaborations of sorts. They benefit from the work of others, but so do pieces that were the result of workshop exercises, or pieces that are "after" another work.

It's hard to know where to draw the line. I use a self-written style checker on some of my prose to check on sentence lengths and work frequencies. No generation is involved. I could write programs to do various OuLiPo works for me (N+7, etc) leaving me to judge the best ones to send off, but it doesn't interest me.

Sunday 17 September 2023

Poetry trends - Metaphors

In Acumen 107 (Sep 2023), Andrew Gleary writes "There are poets who would use metaphor had not all metaphors been workshopped out of their writing because metaphor is presently unfashionable".

Maybe so. Metaphors go in and out of fashion. There are extreme views about their value -

  • "the damn function of simile, always a displacement of what is happening ... I hate the metaphors", Robert Creeley
  • "Metaphor is the whole of poetry. ... Poetry is simply made of metaphor ... Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing", Robert Frost

20th century UK Poetry had Surrealism, [political] Realism, The Apocalyptics (Dylan Thomas et al), The Movement, and Martian poetry (Craig Raine, etc). One could interpret each as a reaction to the previous movement, though no doubt influences were more complex than that.

If metaphor is unfashionable nowadays, it may be because the poet and the poem's subject matter have a higher priority. It feels to me that we're in an age where previously suppressed voices are being given space. Minorities (by virtue of race, sexuality, mentality, etc) are out of their niches and have something to say which can be as important as how it is said.

Wednesday 13 September 2023


Some bookshops I've seen in my travels -

  • Dublin

  • Holland

  • Turin

  • Edinburgh

  • Istanbul

  • Sweden

  • Egypt

  • Glasgow

  • Nottingham (5 leaves)

  • An ex-bookshop, with pictures of books

Wednesday 6 September 2023

Stockholm and Lombardy

In Sweden I went straight to the university town of Uppsala before having a little taste of the archipelago - Artipelag, Vaxholm, etc. I've read a novel about the second-home life-style in the area. I can see its attractions. Back in town I went to the Photography museum and a smart suburban university campus. I went to 3 big charity shops. One had an Alan Titchmarsh novel in English. I resisted.

From there I flew to Bergamo where I visited some places in Lombardy that I've known for 30 years or so. 10 degrees hotter than Sweden. We had beer and a meal on a hill overlooking Lecco. We dropped some donations off at the museum of local history - a ration book, a sewing machine, a wooden plate. In a village I found a book-exchange cabinet with just the sort of page-turner thriller I can cope with in Italian. So I've enough reading material for a while.

Sunday 27 August 2023

Stephen Hammond

I was a literary co-executor for a friend, Stephen Hammond. He didn't use e-mail or the web as far as I know. Now, thanks to his brother, he has a posthumous web site - and his "Selected Stories" are on Amazon. His brother John wrote "The stories are humorous and entertaining, sometimes biting social satire taking on fairy tales, children's thrilling adventures, recent alternative history and fantasy."

I think Terry Gilliam (Monty Python) might be another point of reference. I've seen 2 books which reminded me rather of Steve's stuff -

  • Spaghetti Fiction (Phil Doran) - very "small press". Disappeared without trace I think. There are many passages that Steve could have written - e.g. "Sergeant, pull over into The Eagle. I need a pint of beer, not to mention a decent bloody writer with a plot and a purpose in mind other than this bloody awful post-modernist drivel with deliberate withholding of meaning instead of properly thought out structure", etc
  • Mostly hero (Anna Burns). Published by Faber, but only after the author had successfully published something more conventional - "It is a rather curious post-modern subversion of fairytale and comic-book storytelling."

Tuesday 15 August 2023

Flash Fiction trends

Since attending the Flash Fiction Festival I've had a chance to read the books I bought there, and to think about the state of UK Flash. Among those at the conference were people who've helped to promote and popularise Flash. I think they're doing a good job. I feel that Flash is expanding its scope and that influences/sub-genres are being clarified.

Last year at the festival I felt that I could identify some people who had clearly come from the poetry side, and people who had previously written short stories. At this festival there was more explicit recognition of these two directions, with workshops looking at the influence of poetry on Flash, etc. Anecdotes are at one end of a spectrum whose other end might be the prose-poem or formalist prose.

This year I talked to more scientists/programmers than I did last year, and Tania Hershman was one of the speakers. Maybe that's another influence that's making inroads.

The Novella-in-Flash (NiF) has been around for a while. This year it's really taken off. I've not read one yet. Michael Loveday was at the festival. His craft guide "Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash: from Blank Page to Finished Manuscript" came out last year.

The best book I bought was Christopher Allen's "Other household toxins". I wouldn't recommend it to novel readers, or even short story readers.

Sunday 6 August 2023

CB1 is back!

CB1, Cambridge's live poetry gathering, has returned at a new venue - the Town and Gown in the city centre (where the Arts Cinema used to be). Over 30 people were there, and there's room for more. No guest poet this time - it was all open mic, with no shortage of people willing to perform.

Perhaps this is what people really want - a place where once a month they can perform for free, free of criticism, with a chance to have a drink and a chat afterwards with like-minded people.

Maybe guest poets put people off - why pay to listen to someone you don't much like and who uses up valuable open mic time? Open mic evenings are easier to organise too, I should think.

The room is goth/cellar style with a glitter-ball, which is becoming rather standard for poetry venues. I like it. My only worry is that there aren't enough chances to chat (i.e. exchange poetry information) with people. Open mic evenings are all very well, but they don't have the edge (or quality control) that Slam Competitions do.

Monday 31 July 2023

Tori Amos

Until a couple of years ago I knew little about the singer-songwriter Tori Amos. She's now responsible for more of my earworms than any other performer. I watch her often on YouTube, comparing performances.

People used to tell me she was like Kate Bush. My favourite Kate Bush song is "Under the Ivy", which is one of her more Amosish pieces. I think that she has the artistic aspirations of Amos. Bush is less confessional though, and sexuality isn't her topic or vehicle. Janis Ian in "Watercolors" has some of Amos' anger, self-criticism, and social awareness. Joni Mitchell's "Blue" album (perhaps still my favourite record) has the reflection and self-questioning that Amos displays. Amos has more control over her voice than all of them.

Janis Joplin and Bjork throw themselves into their songs. Amos sometimes does too, in her own way. The tremble in her voice may be an act, but sometimes I wonder if she's going to get to the end of a song in one piece.

How much are my judgements affected by the fact that I'm a heterosexual male? Pass. My favourites are "Hey Jupiter", "Baker Baker", "Winter", "Icicle", and "Precious things". "i i e e e" from "Live Sessions 1998" showcases her singing and playing. "Putting the Damage on" is sometimes earwormy. I'm not so keen on "Crucify", "Pretty good year" or "Cornflake girl" though they show her versatility. And I like most of her covers too.

All of the pieces I like are over 25 years old. More recent songs like "Speaking with Trees" sound like re-hashes. I'd rather have a new rendering of "Precious things". Writers who use their early life as source material can run out of inspiration. Some other writers, even if they're not always autobiographical, get their best ideas early and spend the rest of their lives raiding their early notebooks - I think Dylan Thomas did that. Such artists in their later years sometimes produce themed, committed work (concept albums, etc) to compensate for their lack of inspiration, it seems to me.

I've read Janis Ian's autobiography, which I found interesting. She was praised on TV by Leonard Bernstein when she was about 16. She's one of the few live acts I've seen. She wrote that when she first heard Don McLean's "Starry, starry night" she played it dozens of times non-stop thinking it the most perfect song ever. I recall having a crush on that song too. I've read a biography of Joni Mitchell, and I liked that. I've not read an Amos book yet, though I'm looking out for one.

Monday 24 July 2023

Writers HQ

I've noticed that several recent prose prizewinners have something in common - they belong to UK-based WritersHQ - You can use many of their resources without joining them - e.g.

Donations are welcomed, though joining needn't cost anything - the reason for joining is that passing stories around for comment by members count as "private communication" so they can subsequently be sent out to magazines/competitions. Joining also gives you access to "Swipe Write for beta readers" - a way to find like-minded writers to swap stories with.

They run "retreats" too. For example, in Milton Keynes one Saturday a month, 10-4, there's a gathering (no workshopping or teaching, just a chance to claim some "me time") for £45 (which includes lunch and bottomless coffee).

If you want professional support, see - one option is an 8,000 word critique + Zoom session costing £250.

Sunday 16 July 2023

Flash Fiction Festival, 2023

I liked last year's conference so much that I went again this year, seeing many people I've met before. When I set off at 5.30 on Saturday morning for Bristol, I saw a snail on the car roof - an omen of weather to come. After a useful day of workshops I slept in my tent while a storm raged, waking in a puddle, and having to do some bailing. On Sunday I went to more workshops that showed me how much I need to improve my close reading. I read at the launch of "51 and a half games and ideas for writers with example responses".

The books I got were "51 and a half games and ideas for writers with example responses" (Vanessa Gebbie), "Scratching the Sands (NFFD anthology 2023)", "Other household toxins" (Christopher Allen), "The yet unknowing world" (Fiona J.Macintosh), and "with one eye on the cows (Bath Flash Fiction Volume 4)". There were well over a dozen novella-in-flash books at the bookshop - a growth sector.

Friday 14 July 2023

A few acceptances and many submissions

I'm ticking over at about 1 a month. Recently there's been

  • Side effects (And other poems)
  • Pick-up (Flashflood)
  • "A promising writer" (Flash) in "51 and a half games and ideas for writers" (Vanessa Gebbie)

In the post I have -

  • 9 Stories, 3 of them in competitions. I think my best stories remain unpublished so I'll keep plugging away.
  • 9 Flashes. Unlike the stories and poems, most of these were written in the last year.
  • 12 Poems. Most of these go back a long way - decades even.

Friday 23 June 2023

A quiet time

It's been a quiet few weeks. I've been writing prose. Poetry has dried up, so I've been raiding my old stuff. Early in May I had 36 pieces in the post, which made a month of rejections inevitable. 3 successes (and £20!) kept me going, along with the allotment. Here's what's growing so far -

Potatoes60 plants
Pumpkins/Courgettes15 plants
Berlotti beans20 plants
French beans9 plants
Rhubarb5 plants
Raspberries2 bushes
Redcurrants10 bushes

Wednesday 26 April 2023

Poetry at Ely, 25th April

I went to an evening of poetry with Sarah Mnatzaganian, Kathy Pimlott, and Ramona Herdman at Topping & Company, Ely. The poets all read accessible, conversational pieces with edgy humour. I don't know how typical that is of their works. Of the three, perhaps I have the most in common with Ramona Herdman - we both have allotments, degrees from UEA and publications from HappenStance and Nine Arches Press. Lachlan Mackinnon was in the audience I think. He's local, but there were people who'd come from Nottingham, London, etc.

The streets were quiet after. I like Ely - the contrast of cathedral, market square and riverside life - marina, boat houses and houseboats.

Friday 21 April 2023

The reader-writer relationship

I think my attitude to the reader-writer contract is pretty standard. A reader looks at a text and decides on an initial reading strategy, taking into account genre, length, shape, reputation of author etc. Experienced readers are more likely to adjust their strategy, or adopt a sub-strategy. Readers may give up if their strategy isn't working. They may decide that the piece isn't good [of its type - the type the reader perhaps wrongly assumes] or that the author has deliberately misled them. They may find the deception irritating or playful.

Sometimes authors give advice on how to their texts might be read. In her recent "More than Weeds" L.Kiew writes "I do not italicise words because none of them are 'other', 'exotic' or 'foreign' to me ... I believe that all comunication is to some extent partial and problematic; and poetry is to me one of the least dogmatic of the artforms ... readers are curious and able to enjoy the sounds and shapes, to dig out meaning from context, and to explore using the many tools and resources [that] are available online". I like it when authors try to help in this way - I don't think it "collapses polysemy", it makes me trust the author and read on. But I don't think writers should assume that readers will be curious rather than irritated.

Of course, a book might succeed despite an author's intentions (a piece meant to be taken serious may best be read as a comedy) or the advice may be part of the game.

I use obscurity as a device, and I've some understanding about the uses of obscurity (see my poetry and obscurity article for example) but over the years I've come to distrust authors more often. I'm less willing to battle through obscurity if I see no purpose in it other than trying to mask the author's inadequacies - i.e. if I think the author without aesthetic loss could have reduced the muddle, I wonder what their game is. I'd like more authors to appreciate the disadvantages of using obscurity - e.g. that readers might stop reading, might think the author thoughtless, elitist, or rude.

Amongst the newer examples of obscurity I see nowadays is when in the same book a poet uses various alternatives to line-breaks, and sometimes uses inline spaces instead of commas. If a poet makes readers think that there's a purpose (meaning) to something, the poet shouldn't be surprised when readers are frustrated to discover that there is no reason why "/" is used in one poem, "|" in another and line-breaks in another. Poetry layouts can all too easily become obscure - even good old line-breaks are often puzzling enough.

For some other viewpoints see -

Tuesday 18 April 2023

Freston Tower

I had the 5th floor of Freston Tower all to myself for 3 nights. It's said to be the nation's oldest folly. Built in the 1500s it overlooks the Orwell estuary.

From the top you can see Orwell bridge, wading birds (Bar-tailed godwits, Oyster-catchers etc) and, if you're lucky, your own shadow. Not an ivory tower, more a writers retreat with exercise built into the life-style. The spiral staircases and a 30 mile cycle ride kept me fit. Sun, hailstones and lots of mud.

We walked down the coast to see Arthur Ransome's house. I've not read his books, some of which were set in the area.

Further down the coast from Pin Mill was a little village of houseboats. Unlike those I've seen on the Cam some of these had big new superstructures, and didn't look mobile. One was called "The Ark".

Further down still were abandoned boats. 2 men with tripods and cameras were there. I can see the attraction of the setting.

This museum was a surprise - the naval training establishment closed in 1976. The view from it of Harwich container port appealed to 2 men with a tripod and drone.

Sunday 9 April 2023

Bath to Bournemouth bike ride

A gentle 2 days starting at a mile long tunnel, going via Frome, Longleat, Shaftesbury, Blandford Forum and Wimbourne to Poole and finally Bournemouth Pier.

On the edge of Frome we saw the house of Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) who also had a part in Stingray. The town centre had a trendy street.

At Gillingham, on the way to Shaftesbury, we saw a bridge that Constable painted. Golden Lane at Shaftesbury has been painted and jigsawed many times.

Bournemouth on Easter Saturday was lively. Saw a fox crossing a residential street at about 5:30pm.

Wednesday 5 April 2023

Jon Stone at Cambridge Writers

Jon Stone was the speaker at last night's hybrid Cambridge Writers meeting. He told us about the kind of poetry that interested him, and read out a "manifesto" before reading some examples. He's interested in dissolving boundaries - between writer and reader, between authors (hence collaborations), between genres, and between games and poetry.

He pointed out that poetry's more suited to games than prose is - it already has rules, it has units (lines, stanzas) that can be recombined, it already has an audience prepared to put work in, and there's little marketing pressure. He saw himself working in a niche within the niche of poetry, both as a participant and a publisher.

Sunday 2 April 2023

Cambridge's CB1 is closing

CB1 held its last poetry event - at least for a while - tonight. It's been going for well over a decade. I've attended it at various venues, among them CB1 (an Internet Cafe), The Boat house pub, CB2, and most recently the Blue Moon pub. Among the guest poets have been Patience Agbabi, Emily Berry, Roddy Lumsden, Don Paterson, Hugo Williams, etc. (recordings are online) and the open-mic sessions have always been fun.

Saturday 18 March 2023

States of Independence (2023)

I went to States of Independence in Leicester today. I caught up with D.A. Prince and Roy Marshall (both as charming as ever), and went to some talks. Most interesting was one about AI and creativity.

  • Simon Perril looked at the history of creativity, asking "Is self-expression all there is?". He mentioned Chatterton, Dada, Oulipo, Flarf, found poetry etc. I hadn't seen "Tree of Codes" by Jonathan Safran Foer. Curation, recycling, and re-contextualing have always been part of the tradition (moreso in pre-copyright times - often the norm). What happens when writers put together pre-existing phrases rather than pre-existing words?
  • Prof Tracy Harwood followed this up by showing milestones in the progression of AI - Lovelace, Turing, Deep Blue - then concentrated on art and writing. The art examples especially impressed me. Photoshop-like effects are where the style/content separation ideas took off. Some artists using AI describe the results as collaborations, which is fair enough.

Before, I passed an axe-throwing place near the city centre. After, I visited West End (Narborough Road) for the first time. I didn't know it existed. I've only gone along the Golden Mile before. I wasn't hungry but next time I am, I'll know where to go.

Sunday 5 March 2023

CB1 - Peter Daniels

Tonight Peter Daniels was the main act at CB1. He and I have had pamphlets published by HappenStance. There the similarities end - "Peter Daniels has won many prizes including the Arvon and TLS poetry competitions and has published several collections and pamphlets including two Poetry Business prizewinners". Performers often read from their phones nowadays. It was heartening to see that Peter read from real books containing multi-colour post-its. In the first half he read some of his translations of Vladislav Khodasevich. I bought "My Tin Watermelon", his 2109 Salt book.

The open-mic poems certainly had their moments - "Two years aren't enough to quench the why", "When the rain bongoed ... on the roof" etc.

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Cephalopress Writers in Conversation: Alexandra Fössinger

Yesterday I attended a Zoom event featuring Alexandra Fössinger. There was discussion between poet and publishers with just a few poems, then a Q+A session. I think the format worked well.

She revealed that there was a significant backstory to her recent book, "Contrapasso". Does knowing the backstory help with appreciating the poems? Not especially, but I was interested to know that she had felt the need to conceal details, and distance herself from the story (by writing in English, etc). She said she hadn't realised that she'd concealed so much and had made an effort during rewrites to be less obscure, but she liked the idea of leaving areas that readers might get lost in. A difficult balance.

Whenever a poem is driven by intense emotion it must be hard for the poet to assess its effect on the reader. I don't trust my evaluation of such poems that I write, and am wary of sending them away - justifiably in most cases, in retrospect. But achieving that objectivity can take years. Might as well let editors make earlier decisions.

Sunday 26 February 2023


I went to Coventry yesterday. I haven't been there since it was UK City of Culture in 2021. And I've never visited Fargo Village - a bit like a little Camden Lock but with more containers.

I didn't know about The Philip Larkin pub either, or Dippy the dinosaur. But I knew about the roofless cathedral, the medieval (restored) buildings that survived the wartime bombings, the canals etc. It's an interesting city to wander around. The house where my grandfather lived as a children no longer exists. Even the street has gone.

I knew about Godiva of course (there's a taylor's shop named after her) but I'd forgotten about Peeping Tom. On the drive home I popped into Rugby (Rubert Brooke's birthplace; a statue of him's there) and Market Harborough (with its "improve the time" sundial).

Friday 17 February 2023

Judging short story competitions

The Bristol short story prize in 2022 attracted 2,545 entries. With a word limit of 4,000 words, that’s getting on for 10 million words to read. How is a winner found? It’s a lot of effort, which is reflected in the entry fee for story competitions – often 50% higher than the fee for poetry. And the reading is usually shared out.

Tracy Fells wrote in 2021 that “the hardest part of any competition is getting past the early readers.” First impressions matter – it’s like speed dating. Many entries are eliminated at this stage because they don’t follow the rules. And a weak beginning might be sufficient excuse to dump a piece, especially after a long day of reading.

In the Bristol competition less than 1% of the stories get through to the short-list, so getting that far is worth mentioning in CVs. Given the range of tastes of the judges, and margins of error, there’s no guarantee that all the “best” stories will get through. I recall one judge of another competition, subsequently seeing a non-shortlisted piece in print, saying that if they’d seen the piece as a judge it would have won a prize.

To impress in the final stage of judging, speed-dating tricks alone won’t work – there needs to be more to the story than meets the eye. If there’s more than one judge at the final stage, the winning entry may be a compromise. Long ago in a Stand magazine poetry competition the 2 judges disagreed so much that in the end they each produced a list of prizewinners. More recently a short Flash piece won a story competition, which upset some entrants. Since then, more competitions have a minimum word limit as well as a maximum one.

To check on the first-stage judges, some stories acknowledged to be good could be added to the entries.

The final-stage judges want to be asked again, and the competition organisers want more entries next time, so there’s pressure towards selecting winners that losers won’t object to. Often the more daring pieces are only commended, however good they are.

Monday 13 February 2023


I like tight plots and neat endings. I like other structures too of course, but not the endings that look as if the author ran out of puff. Michael Donaghy used to get away with tight pieces but they seem out of fashion nowadays, especially in poetry, partly as a consequence of Forms being used less, and partly because more poems are in a voice, and people don't organise their thoughts neatly. There's more ostentatious unravelling than modest attempts to tidy up a little corner of the world. Certainty is suspect. Openness gives readers the chance to think that there's more to it than meets the eye.

Open-endedness isn't easy to do well. Multiple unspecified possibilities are easy to hint at. A character may finally gaze at the horizon, throw away a map, or close the door behind them, pause, then walk on - signifying a new start into the unknown. Or maybe an either/or option is ahead - a character may be deciding whether to say "yes" to a proposal, or to run. Harder is to somehow make the ending shed new light on the earlier content.

Tuesday 31 January 2023

Hardy Country

I visited Hardy's Wessex last weekend. His National Trust cottage wasn't open, but I managed to visit his Casterbridge (Dorchester) and some other locations.

Weymouth (Hardy's Budmouth). This is a Bathing Machine (a changing room that could be wheeled in and out of the water). There are many palm trees down there.

Puddletown (Hardy's Weatherbury)

Wareham isn't in Hardy's book, though it's on the Hardy Way. My father was born there. The Quay is the subject of more than one jigsaw.

Corfe Castle, on the Hardy Way, isn't in his books either. It's another popular jigsaw and photography subject. It's halfway between my father's birthplace and Swanage, my mother's. A car like the one in the jigsaw was parked down the road towards Swanage.

Swanage (Hardy's Knollsea). Here's a concrete pillbox, crab and lobster pots, and a folly from London. The ships that took Portland stone to London were ballasted with odds and ends for the return journey - bollards, etc.

The Globe, on the edge of Swanage. Sudan is huge.

Thursday 12 January 2023

Portsmouth Jigsaw

I'm into jigsaws, so I was pleased when I got a jigsaw of Portsmouth (where I was born) for Christmas. I left the place long ago. I don't recognise all the features on the jigsaw. Here are some that I do

Dickens' birthplace (my birthplace is only a few hundred metres away).

The school I attended for 7 years has changed its name to Portsmouth College from (elitist?) Southern Grammar School.

The Guildhall where I came 3rd in the UK U-18s chess championship

South Parade Pier, where I had a vacation cleaning job that I cycled 5 mile to, early in the mornings.

The Victory, which my father was responsible for. He was invited to a Buckingham Palace party.

The hospital where my father died.

Fratton Park - I went there just before Xmas. Two of my siblings are season-ticket holders

An end-of-the-beach snack bar which is open all winter. The jigsaw was bought there.