Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Payment for poetry readings?

Over the past five years I've given readings as a guest poet in Oxford, Shrewsbury, Leicester, Portsmouth, Coventry, Edinburgh, London (three times), St Andrews, Nottingham and Cheltenham, while Lewes and Bradford on Avon are coming up. In doing so, I've met a lot of lovely people, many of whom have become friends, while also introducing my work to terrific audiences.

On certain occasions I've read to no more than a dozen people, on others to packed halls. Sometimes I've been paid well, but just as often I've received no fee whatsoever. In those cases, I was delighted just to have the chance to present my poetry and maybe sell a few pamphlets to cover costs. What's more, I'll continue to read at such events when I get the chance.

However, another issue presented itself a few months ago during a conversation with a well regarded organiser of poetry readings. I was told that they only offered a fee if the poet in question made a living from their verse (even if indirectly via Creative Writing courses, etc), regardless of the quality of the poetry or the pulling power of their name. If a poet had other sources of income that weren't connected to verse, the organiser preferred to save any available funds for someone who was financially dedicated to the art.

I disagree entirely with such a position. The standard of verse, the quality of a reading and the potential audience should be the fundamental criteria, not the way poets earn a crust. What do you think?

Friday, 2 October 2015

Clarity and mystery, Wayne Price's Fossil Record

Wayne Price’s Fossil Record (Smith-Doorstep, 2015) might be his first poetry pamphlet, but he’s far from being a novice in literary terms. Price has previously published a short story collection and a novel, and this experience shows in the coherence of his poetics.

One of the outstanding poems in the collection is “Loyalties”, as it encapsulates many of Price’s qualities and techniques. For example, it opens with a generic statement before clarifying, illustrating, yet also casting doubt and qualifying via the use of specifics.

Throughout the poem, there’s a dexterous managing of pronouns that brings about an interplay between “I”, “you” and “we” in syntactic and semantic terms, both aspects working in harmony, showing a deep understanding of the nuts and bolts of narrative. However, this doesn’t mean that Price is indulging in chopped-up prose: the music, the pacing, the cadences and the line breaks are all proof of his ear for verse, as in the poem’s closing stanza:

“…He didn’t have to come between us in the end.
when I left to rent a single room
I couldn’t take him. And you
were out at work all day:
He’d have chewed the house down.
Twenty-five years. Ah, God.
Wouldn’t we let him sleep in peace
anywhere he wanted now?”

As can be seen in this extract, Price offers the reader his piercing clarity with just a hint of mystery to respect our imagination.

Fossil Record, meanwhile, refers to a tension between human interaction and nature. The title poem, for instance, invokes the elements, manmade structures and cycles of human life all within its opening two lines:

“Wind was stammering at the windows all night.
If I slept at all it was a half-sleep…”

This poem steps back from the everyday to explore that afore-mentioned tension, while it’s juxtaposed on the page with another piece that homes in on such details: “Suburban Gardens at Night”…

“…are a country of their own,
belonging to no-one. Evening after evening
they repossess themselves at the moment
the kitchen light snaps on
and blinds us to everything
beyond itself…”

Via such meticulous ordering and layout, the poet establishes an implicit dialogue between the two pieces.

In Fossil Record, Wayne Price demonstrates a control of his narrative material and a gift for verse that mean it must surely be just a question of time before he brings out a full collection. I’ll be buying it, but for the moment this pamphlet provides us with an excellent introduction to his poetry. 

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Needlewriters in Lewes

I'll be reading as a guest poet at Needlewriters in Lewes on Thursday 15th October (7 p.m. for 7.45 p.m.).

Needlewriters is a co-operative of poets and prose writers who present a reading each quarter at the Needlemakers Café in Lewes, showcasing writers in a lovely venue. Food and drink are available throughout the evening from the café.

On this occasion, I'll be reading alongside Ros Barber (who'll be featuring her prose) and poet Caroline Clark. I'm looking forward to hearing both of them for the first time and also meeting old friends. I'll be bringing along copies of both my HappenStance pamphlets for sale, but this will be one of the last chances to get hold of a copy, as Inventing Truth is already officially sold out and Tasting Notes is well on the way. You can find more details about the event on the Needlewriters website here.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Tough but tender, Rosie Miles' Cuts

A certain adjective has to be addressed from the outset when getting to grips with Rosie Miles’ first pamphlet, titled Cuts (HappenStance Press, 2015), and that’s “quirky”.

It features on the back cover blurb, and does so for a good reason. In the context of a blurb, there’s a need to give a flavour of the book in about fifty words, and “quirky” is thus an excellent point of departure for a reader of Miles’ poetry.

However, for a reviewer “quirky” is one of those dangerous words that lends itself to critical shorthand and stereotypical assumptions. It’s such a generic term that its use requires clarification of the specifics. In the case of Rosie Miles’ verse, it refers to her idiosyncratic playing-off of counterpoints, as in the following extract from the pamphlet’s title poem:

“…In time the money saved from the entire population
undertaking major procedures on each other in the kitchen

(with only a negligible rise in mortality rates)
will be used to commission a state-of-the-art laser can opener

connected to a computer the size of just one tin of baked beans
which nonetheless will have parts with such precision

your lover will be able to put you to sleep
and open up the serrated edges of your heart.”

Miles is drawing on tensions between the objective and the subjective, the distant and the intimate, the exterior and the interior, sarcasm and sincerity. Her so-called quirkiness lies in her ability to surprise us by making unusual connections that then seem inevitable, offering up a tough but tender vision of life.

Another instance of the same technique can be found in “Cluedo”:

“...Was it Father Tomkins, in the chapel
with the poisoned communion cup?

Head Gardener Judd, in the shed
with the mud-spattered hoe?

Or even his good wife Mary
with the fish knife, in the kitchen?

It was me. In the bedroom.
With my heart of gilt and an iron rose."

Nevertheless, Miles doesn’t just rely on this one device. She’s also excellent in shorter pieces, where she goes straight for the emotional guts of the poem, such as in “Strathallan Dew”. Perhaps my own favourite is “The door has been open for some time”:

“but I would rather stay here
with my candle and my husk of bread

keeping watch over the setting silt,
counting how many layers of stone
are needed to make a wall.

Who knows what the light is like out there
or whether they have bakers.”

Yet again, this poem finds Miles making glorious connections that set off thoughts and emotions.

Cuts at first might seem a disparate collection. In fact, it’s held together by a hard-earned understanding and harnessing by the poet of her own imagination. Rosie Miles' generosity delivers those insights to the reader, enriching us as it does so.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Compass poetry magazine

New poetry e-zines seem to be springing up on a daily basis these days, just as others fall dormant after an initial burst of enthusiasm. This phenomenon reflects an unsettling and scary speeding-up of time. Verse appears and is then submerged far too quickly after having been crafted for months or years.

In such a context, it’s significant to encounter an e-zine that announces its first issue with the following declaration of editorial intent:

“..Last autumn the editors were chatting about poetry and the internet and it struck us that there didn’t appear to be a strong issue-based poetry magazine coming out of the UK, the web’s equivalent of some of the wonderful print magazines which we all enjoy. We very much hope that this site you are browsing fills that gap...” 

I’m referring to The Compass. A key point here is not only this ambitious statement but the fact that the people behind it (Lindsey Holland, Andrew Forster and Kim Moore) are significant figures in the U.K. poetry scene. Moreover, their work on Issue One of the magazine backs up their words.

The afore-mentioned issue is packed with excellent poems. Personal favourites include new pieces by Maria Taylor, Charlotte Gann and Jonathan Edwards, but there’s plenty more original, top-notch verse to explore. The reviews section, meanwhile, also opens up avenues for future reading with in-depth explorations of several intriguing collections.

In summary, The Compass is already a major addition to the U.K. poetry scene and looks like being around for a long time to come. I’ll certainly be reading every issue!

Friday, 11 September 2015

And the answer is...Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell is one of my Spanish partner's favourite novelists, but she's also an exceptional poet. I'm using the present tense here for her verse, as there's no evidence to the contrary.

I first mentioned Maggie O'Farrell's poems on Rogue Strands back in 2009, praising them as follows:

"...they're visually explosive, musical and carry a strong narrative drive. Most of all, their voice is distinctive..."

O'Farrell hasn't published any new verse for well over a decade and has never brought out a collection. Her work appeared in journals and won prizes such as the Tabla 1996 competition with "My grandmother accepts", which I quoted a couple of days ago.  That poem, for example, seems even better in the context of its having been written before her twenty-fifth birthday. 

Has she carried on writing verse in between her ecellent novels? If so, she could still emerge as a major poet.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

A mystery quote

Here's a mystery quote from one of my favourite poets:

"...She sat silent in her father's house,
learning Swahili from a book with pages fragile as onion skins
and making her trousseau in scandalous coral-coloured silk...

...The day we buried her the sky drooped
with a cloud, low and soft as a goose belly.
In each clod of earth that fell on her coffin
I could hear the popping stab
of a needle pushing into silk
held taut between determined fingers."

I'll be back later on this week to reveal their identity. In the meantime, any guesses...?!