Friday, 17 February 2017

Understated and underrated, Stuart Pickford's Swimming with Jellyfish

Rather than throwing all sorts of fireworks and overt technical virtuosity at his poems, Stuart Pickford specialises in the tightrope-walking art of simplicity. 

Throughout Swimming with Jellyfish (Smith-Doorstep, 2016), his second full collection, Pickford demonstrates over and over again that straightforward language can actually heighten the dramatic tension of a poem when in the hands of a special talent. It’s often forgotten that such simplicity can be more laden with danger than supposedly riskier poetic techniques, as failure tends to be starker when undecorated.  

Pickford’s main thematic concern is the cycles of life. In this respect, he’s especially strong on fathers and sons. Individual poems provide delicious portrayals of such relationships, as in “Cocker”:

“My dad called me Cocker
when I was young, not son.
I didn’t want my friends
to hear him say it.
Then, for years, nothing.
But recently, kneeling
to pick up his legs
to swing them into the footwell,
the word’s come back”

Within this piece, there’s a gorgeous, painful evocation of the son’s shifting perspective and changing role as time goes by. Layers of dramatic riches and tension are imperceptibly peeled back.

Moreover, thematic complexity is heightened further once individual poems are compared and contrasted within the context of the collection as a whole. For example, the above-mentioned “Cocker” connects beautifully with “The End of George’s Last Football Season”, in which the speaker is now a father instead of a son, before one specific father is united with umpteen others:

“…as I drive out of town, every rec
Is haunted by a dad watching his son…”

Pickford reaches beyond the incident in question, using it as a point of departure for an imaginative journey. However, his generalising statement would be far less powerful without its preceding anecdote. Both add to each other.

Swimming with Jellyfish doesn’t yet seem to have attracted the critical acclaim that it merits. Understated and underrated, Stuart Pickford’s poetry deserves a wide readership. Here’s hoping this collection becomes a slow-burning success. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Letting go

And so the time has come to let the poems go. Some of them have been with me for well over a decade, while others only pitched up a few months ago. They've all been pretty decent company through thick and thin, these landmarks in my life. I just hope they find some new friends when the book comes out in June...

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Will Harris' poetry blog

Thanks are due to Helena Nelson for pointing me (via Twitter and Facebook) in the direction of Will Harris' poetry blog. I was already an admirer of the examples of Harris' verse that I'd spotted in magazines - it demonstrates an excellent eye for a turn of phrase and a striking cadence - but I hadn't picked up on his blog.

It turns out that Harris writes great prose too, an ease of reading combined with a layered depth. What's more, he's capable of denouncing racism in one post and drawing out the riches of Larkin's poetry in another. From my perspective, that's impressive and coherent. This is a blog to follow!

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Riven by tensions, Paul Stephenson's The Days That Followed Paris

Paul Stephenson’s pamphlet, The Days That Followed Paris (HappenStance Press, 2016), is riven by tensions: traditional versus modern, collective versus individual, local versus international, all revolving around one date - 13th November 2015 - which also forms a pivotal subtitle to the chapbook.

Of course, the afore-mentioned date is that of the terrorist attacks in France. As a consequence, it has entered the collective consciousness with personal connotations for every individual, just like 9/11 and 7/7. Paul Stephenson lived through these attacks as an ex-pat in Paris itself. As I can confirm from my own experience, such moments are when you feel most acutely that you’re foreign, and this heightened sense of dislocation runs throughout Stephenson’s chapbook.

His first poem, “Safety Feature”, sets the tone:

“Facebook knows my whereabouts:
It looks like you’re in the area affected
by the Paris Terror Attacks…

…Xavier is safe.
Ricardo is safe.
Scott is safe.

Kate is safe.
Emily is safe.
Jason has yet to confirm.”

This piece uses Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic names to highlight the international make-up of this extremely French city, just as later poems mention “…the Algerian waiter…” or “…a Parisian man, a Swedish girl…”, all alongside the invocation of emblematic locations such as the Place de la République, Gare Saint Lazare and Montparnasse. Stephenson is taking the supposed security and safety of well-recognised places so as to subvert them and include the reader in his sense of dislocation.

Stephenson’s poetry has always combined accessibility with experimentation, clear narrative drive with the shifting sands of uncertainty and doubt, and his techniques lend themselves superbly to these poems of terrifying days when assumed truths are suddenly, terrifyingly undermined, as in the key poem, “Fraternité”:

“…A brother who pleads for you to give yourself up,
            swears he noticied nothing strange
and claims you’re normal. A brother who shrugs, shows
the whites of his palms, pushes
the door behind him.”

The poet is taking a crucial term from the French revolution, a term that most of us previously thought we could define, and he’s layering it with new implications, unsettling the reader via the thematic potential of his story in tandem with his line endings, dangling verbs that then swing shut with a jolt just like the door of the final line.

Paul Stephenson first published a small selection of these poems in The Compass, not long after the Paris attacks. Even now, I recall the shock and buzz of reading them for the first time. The passing of time could have diminished their impact, bearing in mind that they revolve around specific events that are being replaced in our consciousness by new horrors. However, that very fact is a fundamental reason why they retain their power and even hit harder when I read them today. They portray contemporary concerns that affect all of us. As individuals, we share their collective tension.

The Days That Followed Paris is a pamphlet of far more political relevance than most overtly political poetry. Its subtlety reaches the heart as well as the head, undercutting facile convictions and opening us up to the life-blood of doubt.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Giles Turnbull's poetry blog

Rogue Strands is always on the look-out for new poetry blogs, so it was a pleasure to discover Giles Turnbull's venture a few weeks ago.

Giles is a blind poet living in Wales. His blog does tackle important issues relating to his blindness, such as the use of awkward terminology, the difficulties involved in reading texts in certain formats and the unique challenge of giving a poetry reading in public. However, it also offers its readers a wide range of interesting articles on poetry in general.. There are posts, for example, on whether men or women make better poetry readers (!), on the relationship between poetry and music, on political poetry, etc, etc. All in all, it's a terrific addition to the U.K. poetry blog scene!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

U.K. poetry pamphlet competitions at Sphinx

If poetry pamphlets are your thing, Sphinx has become a point of reference for the U.K. scene: its website is absolutely jam-packed with reviews and features on chapbooks. Only last week, it published a comprehensive list of U.K. poetry pamphlet competitions (see here), all ready for your shiny new manuscript in 2017...

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Mary Evans Picture Library: Poems and Pictures

The publication of my poems feels like the wait for a bus: I stand alone, shivering, gloveless and miserable for what seems like an age until, all of a sudden, a whole load of them come along at the same time.

Following my four poems on Clear Poetry and two pieces at Good Dadhood earlier this week, I'm very happy to find the Mary Evans Picture Library are today featuring my poem Milko (first published in London Magazine) alongside a highly appropriate photo that reminds me of my suburban childhood.

My work has been published on their Poems and Pictures blog, which also houses a superb archive of verse by the likes of Pippa Little, Lorraine Mariner and Tamar Yoseloff, among many others, all combined in each case with a complementary picture. I'm grateful to Gill Stoker for her invitation to take part, but it's worth mentioning that this excellent project invites unsolicited submissions...