Friday, 13 October 2017

Nottingham, Cheltenham and Manchester

The Knives of Villalejo will be hitting the road again in the coming days, visiting Nottingham, Cheltenham and Manchester for three featured poet slots. Once again, I'm looking forward to meeting old friends and making new ones.

On Tuesday 17th October I'll be reading at Wired Café in Nottingham as part of the Totally Wired reading series. The event starts at 6 p.m., finishing at 8 p.m.. There's also an open mic and entry is free.

On Wednesday 18th October, meanwhile, I'll be the guest poet at Poetry Café Refreshed in Cheltenham, which is held at Smokey Joe's. On this occasion, the event will run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., admission is five pounds and there's an open mic scheduled too.

And my third date is in Manchester on Friday 20th October, when I'll be reading for Manky Poets at Chorlton Library from 7.45 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.. This time, admission will be two pounds and there'll be an open mic as well.

Here are the posters for Cheltenham and Manchester:

Monday, 9 October 2017

Roy Marshall features The Knives of Villalejo

I'm delighted to report that Roy Marshall, whose own poetry I've long admired, is featuring The Knives of Villalejo on his blog as part of a longer article with all his recent news. Roy has posted one of the poems from my collection, titled "La Visita" and has some kind words to say about the piece in question, highlighting its "brevity, apparent simplicity and understated depth". You can read his post (plus the poem) in full by following this link.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Three readings in October

Following Leicester and Cambridge last month, The Knives of Villalejo will be travelling to Nottingham, Cheltenham and Manchester this October. I've got three guest poet slots lined up as follows: Totally Wired in Nottingham (on 17th October), Poetry Café Refreshed in Cheltenham (on 18th October) and Manky Poets in Manchester (on 20th October). More details in due course...

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Terrific review in The Frogmore Papers

Excellent news today: there's a terrific review of The Knives of Villalejo in the new issue (nº90) of The Frogmore Papers. Written by Clare Best, it begins as follows:

"Matthew Stewart’s first full collection has been twenty years in the making, and is the better for it. Things are distilled to their essence. Every word counts..."

In order to read the review in full, alongside new poems by the likes of Abegail Morley and Jonathan Edwards, you can get hold of a copy via the Frogmore website here.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

A poet's dream

This afternoon, I know full well I should post about my terrific evening in Leicester on Monday, meeting lots of new and old friends such as Maria and Jonathan Taylor, Jane Commane, Roy Marshall, Rebecca Bird, Romalyn Ante and Jayne Stanton (apologies to anyone I've missed out!), all in the context of the chance to read as a guest poet at Shindig and allow the poems from The Knives of Villalejo to stretch their legs.

And I also know I should be thanking Trish Harewood for her generous hospitality, commitment to everything poetic and excellent introduction to my reading at CB Poetry in Cambridge on Tuesday: a lovely venue with more lovely people involved.

However, instead of all the above, I simply cannot resist the selfish temptation to flaunt the fulfilment of one of my dreams. Last Wednesday, while visiting Cambridge the day after my reading, I popped in to Heffers Bookshop, where I inevitably headed for the poetry section. A vain streak, almost certainly in vain, led me to run my eyes down to S for Stewart...and I couldn't believe it! Two copies of The Knives of Villalejo were there on the shelves!

I must have been making such a berk of myself that a member of staff soon approached me. On hearing my explanation that I'd never seen my collection in a bookshop before, he promptly asked me to sign both copies and he immediately placed them in a display at the entrance to the poetry section. Don't believe me? Well, I don't believe myself either, so here are the photos as everlasting proof:


Friday, 22 September 2017

Leicester and Cambridge

I'll be giving two readings from The Knives of Villalejo in the next few days as the guest poet at a couple of excellent events.

First up is the Nine Arches/Crystal Clear Creators Shindig in Leicester on Monday 25th September, where I'll be reading alongside Romalyn Ante and Rebecca Bird (plus open mic). This event will be held at The Western Pub, 70 Western Road, Leicester LE3 0GA. Entry is free and the evening will get going at 7.30p.m.. I still remember my last reading at Shindig back in 2011, when I launched my first pamphlet, Inventing Truth. The beer was great and the atmosphere better, so I'm looking forward to going back there, meeting up with lots of old friends and making a few new ones.

My second event, meanwhile, is on virgin territory for me, at CB1 Poetry in Cambridge on Tuesday 26th September, where I'll be reading alongside Menka Shivdasani. The starting time on this occasion will be 8p.m. at CB2 Bistro on Norfolk Street, Cambridge, entry 5/4 pounds on the door with open-mic slots also available. I've heard lovely things about the vibe at this regular event, so I'm keen to find out for myself.

You can find more information about CB1 Poetry at their website, while here's the poster for the Shindig:




Monday, 18 September 2017

Poetic fame

You win The Bridport Prize and the inaugural Bloodaxe Books National Poetry Competition. Bloodaxe then publish your first full collection and it's made a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. All this happens in the space of twelve months. Little do you know that thirty years later only a few aficionados will know your name in the poetry world.

This chronicle forms the bare bones of Deborah Randall's story, but very little more appears on Google. I encountered her first collection, The Sin Eater (Bloodaxe Books, 1988) among the remnants of Peggy Chapman-Andrews' personal library, and my curiosity was aroused. Randall's work is idiosyncratic, often drawing on the myth kitty yet also raw, earthed in harsh personal and natural landscapes. Her edgy, uneven male-persona poems are especially interesting, gnawing indirectly yet painfully at gender models.

Following the publication of that first book in 1988, Randall brought out a second collection, titled White Eyes, Dark Ages (Bloodaxe Books, 1993). Since then, I can find nothing in her name. A few pieces from her two books have been anthologised, especially by Bloodaxe, but her name has faded from the scene.

Poetic fame is ephemeral, as certain present-day, C.V.-driven careerists would do well to note. Moreover, the current maelstrom of social media means that taste moves on even more quickly than in the past. Poetry lovers can only savour, treasure and keep alive delicious discoveries like Deborah Randall's work.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Liz Lefroy reviews The Knives of Villalejo

The first review of The Knives of Villalejo is now out! Liz Lefroy has posted a beautifully written, appreciative piece on her blog, which you can read by following this link.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Peggy Chapman-Andrews

I regularly browse the shelves of the poetry section at my local secondhand bookshop in Chichester whenever I’m back in the city, so any new intake always attracts my attention. On having a look this August, however, I realized that I was especially in luck, as a number of terrific books had arrived, all from the same private collection. What’s more, they were all signed and dedicated to their previous owner, and there was even correspondence tucked inside them between the poet in question and the collector.

The books were by winners of the Bridport Prize and they were all dedicated to “Peggy”. The letters were addressed to “The Competition Secretary” and discussed prize-giving ceremonies and winners’ reactions to their awards. After getting home with my haul, I started googling and quickly discovered that these books had come from the personal library of Peggy Chapman-Andrews.

These days, most writers associate Peggy Chapman-Andrews with the first novel award in her name, which is still run by the Bridport Prize. In fact, she almost single-handedly set up the Bridport Arts Centre in 1973 and later, as a fundraising venture, the internationally acclaimed Bridport Prize. Peggy continued to help out as a volunteer even into her nineties until her death in 2013.

I feel an intense sadness that her carefully curated collection of poetry books has been broken up. The correspondence was folded and tucked inside each book with such precision. I suppose it’s inevitable that most such private libraries should end up being dispersed, but this is another example of the ephemeral and passing nature of poetic fame and reputation, as I’ll  explore further in forthcoming posts about specific volumes from Peggy Chapman-Andrews’ collection.

At least these books have found a loving home. I treasure their texts and the story behind their journey into my hands. Thank you, Peggy.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Featured on Atrium Poetry today

Atrium Poetry have today published a poem from The Knives of Villalejo, titled "That Number". You can read it by following this link, and why not browse Atrium's excellent archive while you're there...?

Monday, 21 August 2017

Two readings in September

I'm pleased to report that I've got a number of dates lined up over the coming months to give readings from The Knives of Villalejo. The first two of these will be in late September: I'll be a guest poet at Shindig in Leicester on the 25th, followed by a similar slot at CB Writers in Cambridge on the following day, the 26th. Needless to say, I'm very much looking forward to hitting the road with my first full collection!

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Two poetry bloggers on their fathers

Two of my favourite poetry bloggers have written exquisitely about their fathers in the last couple of months. Both tell us something of their respective family histories, complemented by one of their own poems. The stories and contexts might be very different, but each blogger offers their readers a moving poetic achievement. You can read Martyn Crucefix's post here and Liz Lefroy's piece here.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The price of poetry

- Two pints of bitter and two packets of crisps down The Bell
- a solitary trip to the cinema on Saturday
- off-peak ten-pin bowling for two
- a round of mini-golf for two down the park
- half a ticket to watch Aldershot Town vs Torquay United
- half a bad seat for a show at Chichester Festival Theatre

All these cost me as much (or as little) as a full collection...

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

A sense of otherness, Gram Joel Davies' Bolt Down This Earth

A well produced and written first collection from an emerging publisher always represents an enticing prospect, and Gram Joel Davies’ Bolt Down This Earth (V. Press, 2017) is no exception.

Davies’ poetry relishes a sense of otherness which unsettles at first. At certain moments, conjunctions, prepositions or articles are suppressed, contractions avoided, nouns turned into verbs, everything often wrapped in the aural effect of repeated vowels. This means that the reader initially has to feel a way through these poems as if sight were blurred. However, as we get to grips with Davies’ idiosyncratic use of language, the consequence is that a perspective is eventually revealed afresh, brighter and more vivid than we could have expected.

One such example occurs in the closing lines of “The Plan”:

“…while you and I, at four a.m.,
thunder with the bedstead on the wall,

a bolt will plunge the flower bed,
the headland bitten like a scone,

and we’ll crescendo to the ocean floor –
ride the rocksled through a whooping storm.”

This extract provides two instances of nouns being converted into verbs – “thunder” and “crescendo”, while the reader would also conventionally expect a preposition after the verb “plunge”. Moreover, there’s an edgy, constant, almost enervating repetition of one vowel sound, “…bedstead…bed…headland…crescendo…”, all topped off by the inventive “rocksled” and complemented by a risky simile “like a scone” that pulls off its effect by evoking the crumbling texture and chalky appearance of the headland in question.

It does take a while for the reader to come to terms with Gram Joel Davies’ poetry, as if having to get used to a new dialect of an already-learnt language. Nevertheless, Bolt Down This Earth shows that the effort is worthwhile. Davies’ sonorous, surprising and jolting narratives are coherent, cohesive and highly unusual. They’ll challenge your expectations.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Under the Radar Issue 19

I'm very pleased to report that I have a poem in Issue 19 of Under the Radar, Nine Arches Press' flagship magazine. It's the third time I've featured in this journal (I was even in Issue One!), which continues to go from strength to strength. You can get hold of a copy for yourself here.

Friday, 21 July 2017

New Walk, the evolution from magazine to pamphlets

The disappearance of an excellent print-based journal (such as The Next Review a few months ago) is almost always to be lamented. However, New Walk's recent announcement presents us with a very different scenario, as their closure of the magazine is not an ending but an evolution toward pamphlet publishing. Moreover, this shift maintains their subscription model. In other words, instead of getting a copy of each issue of the mag, subscribers will now receive two pamphlets every six months.

New Walk's first batch of chapbooks are by John Mole and Zayneb Allak. If the production and editorial values of the journal are anything to go by, these pamphlets will be terrific to read. You can get hold of them by following this link

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

A love for words, Will Harris' All This Is Implied

Will Harris writes beautifully. Every line of his prose (as can be on his excellent blog) and poetry portrays the intense nature of his relationship with language. At times he plays with words, at others he argues with them. Sometimes he savours their touch, sometimes he pokes fun. Deep down, he just loves them.

Many critics will rightly pick up on his mixed-race heritage and knack for a limpid narrative, combined with his ambiguous sense of home and belonging. However, his love for words, running throughout his first pamphlet, All This Is Implied (HappenStance Press, 2017), is what marks Harris out as a poet on the rise who understands profoundly a fundamental aspect of his art.

It’s all very well to make such statements, but evidence is required to back them up. Here’s an example, taken from “Mother’s Country”, one of the pamphlet’s pivotal poems in thematic terms but also a significant display of poetic dexterity, as is shown by the closing lines:

“…After years of her urging
me to go, me holding back,
I have no more excuses.”

Harris’ placement of “me holding back” is exquisite. It means that the sentence’s main verb and clause are also held back, grammar mirroring semantics, while its delicate repetition of the pronoun heightens tension before delivering the poem’s final, explosive line.

Another important quality of this extract is that it it achieves its aims without any obvious fireworks or flashiness. No allusions, no startling images are required. It shows us a poet with a delicate feel for the flow of language.

Of course, there are inevitable missed steps at certain moments in the pamphlet. For instance, when straining for effect, Harris tends towards a linguistic tic of forming clumps of three consecutive stressed syllables, as in:

“…But what
forgotten harms grow spores
unseen?...”

In this case, “harms grow spores” makes things unnecessarily awkward for the reader.

Nevertheless, or maybe even as a consequence of these tiny imperfections among such delicious mouthfuls, All This Is Implied remains a joy. Above all, it’s a terrific introduction to a poet who’s sure to build a strong reputation in U.K. poetry over the coming years.  

Friday, 7 July 2017

Snippets and Snapshots V

"With a synchronised swivelling of necks
and a coughed silence, they welcome me in,
wincing as I order. Once I've sat down,
a soft hubbub resumes..."

from "Twenty Years Apart", The Knives of Villalejo (Eyewear Publishing, 2017)


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Snippets and Snapshots IV

"I dozed in his cellar. He pulled me out
at a dinner once, and waited for her
while his taut fingers smudged my dusty neck.
He couldn't bear to keep me after that..."

from "Gran Reserva", The Knives of Villalejo (Eyewear Publishing, 2017)


Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Snippets and Snapshots III

"The vat of oil must haze the air,
the batter sticky but slick.
He pipes it gently through the nozzle.
Spatulas dance as it ripples
in ring after fizzing golden ring..."

from "Chocolate con churros", The Knives of Villalejo (Eyewear Publishing, 2017)


Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Snippets and Snapshots II

"Aprils come with garlic,/Junes with peas"

from "From Farnham to Villalejo", The Knives of Villalejo (Eyewear Publishing, 2017)


Monday, 3 July 2017

Snippets and Snapshots I

"...where hillsides lean on hillsides
and lilac clouds hint at cool dusk..."

from "El Castillo de Villalejo", The Knives of Villalejo (Eyewear Publishing, 2017)


Sunday, 2 July 2017

Snippets and Snapshots

Throughout the coming week - from Monday to Friday - Rogue Strands will be running a five-part feature, Snippets and Snapshots. Every day there'll be a snippet of a poem from The Knives of Villalejo alongside a snapshot that's connected with it, the imaginary made real and the real made imaginary.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Roll up! Roll up! The Knives of Villalejo is now available...

Today brings the excellent news that The Knives of Villalejo is now available for purchase. There are two ways for you to get your hands on a copy. The first is by following this link to Eyewear Publishing's website, where you can buy it directly from them. A second option is via those internet giants (nuff said!) at Amazon. You can find their page for the book here.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Photos from the launch

Now that I'm finally back in Extremadura, I can report on last week's launch of The Knives of Villalejo at the LRB Bookshop. It was hot, far too hot, but a good crowd turned up in any case. Lots of familiar faces, plus the chance to meet several friends from social media in person for the first time. There were a number of readings from interesting books that were also being launched on the night, such as Shelley Jacques-Roche's monologue from her Risk The Pier, while I managed to give certain pieces from my collection their first public outing. Then there were sales, signings and maybe a few glasses of wine. Here's a brief selection of photos from the night, with thanks to Mat Riches for the last one:




Monday, 19 June 2017

It's the launch on Wednesday...!

Just a quick reminder: twenty years after writing its first poem, I'll be launching The Knives of Villalejo at the London Review Bookshop (14 Bury Place, WC1A 2JL) this coming Wednesday at 7 p.m.. If you're in the vicinity, I'd be delighted to see you there!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The epigraph

As my launch date moves ever closer, I'd like to share the epigraph to The Knives of Villalejo. It's taken from Julio Cortázar, who has long been best known as a prose writer but whose poetry is outstanding:

No aceptar otro orden que el de las afinidades, otra cronología que la del corazón, otro horario que el de los encuentros a deshora, los verdaderos.

One possible translation might read as follows:

No accepting of any order other than affinities, any chronology other than the heart, any schedule other than encounters at an inappropriate time, the true ones.

Monday, 5 June 2017

An exciting new poetry pamphlet publisher

The emergence of a new poetry pamphlet publisher is always good news. In the case of Against the Grain Poetry Press, that excitement is compounded by the names that are behind it - Abegail Morley, Jessica Mookherjee and Karen Dennison - and a terrific initial statement of intent (see here). What's more, their submissions window is now open...

Friday, 2 June 2017

Forthcoming readings

Apart from the London launch of The Knives of Villalejo on 21st June, I've got a number of other readings lined up this autumn and into 2018, while there's already one event scheduled for 2019. More details to come over the next few months.

I gave readings in Portsmouth, Lewes, Nottingham, Shrewsbury, Leicester, Coventry, London (three times), St Andrews, Edinburgh, Cheltenham and Oxford from my HappenStance pamphlets, and I'll be delighted to get back on the road with my first full collection. I'm available for extra dates, so if you organise an event yourself (or know of anyone who does), please do get in touch and we'll work something out.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

What makes for a good cover?

When sifting through the ever-varying pile of poetry books on my desk, I wince at some of the covers, while others just seem to demand that I should dive in and start reading, so what makes for a good one?

Like so much in packaging and presentation, it's subjective. As I know from designing wine labels, everyone's taste is different, and one important point is to know your target audience. And then there's the question of balance: eye-catching but not garishly so, an attractive font but not over the top.

However, for me, perhaps the most pivotal point is how the cover images and design relate to the book's title. If they are disparate, that won't draw anybody in, while a simple physical reflection or depiction of the title doesn't bring much to the party either. My favourite covers are those that clearly fit within a publisher's house style and build on the idea of stablemates, complementing the title, hinting at the book's contents, enticing the reader along.

All of the above is on my mind when I consider the cover that Edwin Smet at Eyewear has designed for The Knives of Villalejo. Of course, I'm totally biased! What do you think...?



Sunday, 21 May 2017

Recasting old territory, Simon Armitage's New Cemetery

At first sight, this review might seem a contradiction in terms. If Rogue Strands tends to concentrate on poetry from beyond the big publishers, why feature Simon Armitage, who’s among the most renowned contemporary poets in the U.K.?

Well, the reason is easily clarified. Today’s focus is not on his recent publication from Faber, but on New Cemetery, his collection from propolis books. They are an imprint that’s been created under the auspices of The Book Hive, one of the best independent bookshops in the country and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the Norwich area.

New Cemetery is unusual in several ways. First off, there’s the physical aspect. At a distance, from the other side of a room, it might resemble a desktop diary, but closer inspection shows it’s a gorgeous artefact with extremely high production values. Some people might be sniffy about paying almost thirteen pounds for nineteen pages of actual verse, but you’re getting far more than that for your money. The quality of the paper is palpable and the typesetting impeccable, while the artwork is limpid and complements the verse with a stark, naïf quality.

All of the above leads us on to the verse itself, which is also unusual. It might initially seem a break with Armitage’s trajectory: a book-length sequence that’s written in three-line stanzas without a clear narrative drive. Collage effects are achieved by juxtaposing physical descriptions with ruminations on life and writing, all interwoven with illustrations. Nevertheless, a detailed reading of New Cemetery yields unexpected connections with Armitage’s previous work, all alongside indications of a new way forward for him.

Whether you like it or not, Armitage’s first full collection, Zoom!, was a landmark in late 20th-century U.K. poetry. What’s also clear is that his following books struggled to match its incredible energy, intimate and social connections with its surroundings, and intoxicating immediacy. Instead, book by book, Armitage’s verse gradually seemed to step back somewhat from everyday life so as to understand it better, taking a route that led away from Zoom! New Cemetery, meanwhile, finds the poet reconnecting with the physical and aesthetic territory of his first collection, but approaching it from a different direction.

New Cemetery homes in on the West Yorkshire countryside via a shed where the writer works. Nearby, the local council have begun peeling back turf to turn a former cow-field into the new cemetery of the title. This book is littered with local and personal landmarks, as the poet blends physical observations with layered meditations.

And what about the fizzing syntax of Zoom!? Or the conscious stretching and straining for effect of Armitage’s later collections? In New Cemetery, both are replaced by short. sparse, pared-back lines that reflect the poet’s re-found ease with his own use of language, as in the following extract:

“but no amount
            of deranged swinging
                        can begin to unlock

the dead from the living.
            The winds of the world
                        blast and rattle

that private wood,
            and the wishbone rides
                        in the tuning fork.

New Cemetery might first appear an insignificant volume in the context of Simon Armitage’s work. Nevertheless, its importance shouldn’t be underestimated. By recasting old territory in the light of maturity, the poet has successfully pushed back his own boundaries and found a direction to be explored in future volumes. As such, this little book isn’t just a curiosity; it’s pivotal to our understanding of Armitage’s development.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The launch of The knives of Villalejo

A spot of advance warning: The knives of Villalejo will be launching at the London Review Bookshop (14 Bury Place, WC1A 2JL) on Wednesday 21st June at 7 p.m.. I'll be giving a reading alongside other Eyewear poets. If you're in the area, I'd be delighted to see you there!

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Atrium Poetry

Atrium is a new U.K.-based poetry webzine, run by Holly Magill and Claire Walker. They aim to publish a new poem twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, and you can already read their first selections here. Moreover, they're also on the lookout for top-notch new poems, so why not send them a submission if you're a poet yourself?

Of course, I have to declare a vested interest, as they'll be featuring a poem from my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, at some point in the coming months. More details on that in due course...

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Kathryn Gray's route to a second full collection

Ever since the publication of her first full collection, The Never-Never (Seren Books), back in 2004, I've been a firm fan of Kathryn Gray's poetry. In fact, I'd go as far as to state that The Never-Never bolstered my poetic beliefs at a crucial moment of self-doubt. Here, finally, was excellent contemporary work that hit my sweet spot. Moreover, it was recognised by a many critics and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. For me, it represented the first hint of a pivotal sea change in British poetry that showed me my own approach might finally be welcomed in certain quarters.

And since then, I've always kept a keen eye out for more poems from Kathryn Gray. How would her work develop? The problem was that none seemed to emerge. By reading her blog, I discovered that she'd hit a "hiatus" or "block", as she fought to find a way to move her poetry forward. This admission of (and wrestling with) such matters is in itself an act of bravery! Furthermore, it's also a reminder for struggling poets that public anointing of initial success doesn't automatically bring with it an easy path to the process of writing. What does, however, mark Gray out, is her ability to recognise the problem and refuse to churn out a quick second collection that would have been a pale reflection/reworking of what had come before.

Instead, she waited. And waited. And that was even braver! As a consequence, I was absolutely delighted to see the publication of her new Rack Press pamphlet, Flowers, earlier this year, and then her latest blog post, titled Love Again. It's a terrific reflection on her struggle back into writing poetry, on her own complicated relationship with the genre. What's more, a second full collection does now seem in the offing. That's a book I'd queue up to buy.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Surroundings Two

When I started Rogue Strands back in 2009, my main points of reference were poetry blogs from two HappenStance pamphleteers who've since gone on to publish multiple full collections: Matt Merritt at Polyolbion and Rob Mackenzie at Surroundings. The latter petered out in 2014, but I'm delighted to report that Rob's now started a new blog, aptly titled Surroundings Two. It's kicked off with a couple of excellent posts that you can read here.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Blind tasting and blind reading

As a wine professional, I have to admit to a degree of ambivalence when it comes to blind tasting, the supposed art of spotting a wine (region, grape, maybe even producer and vintage) purely on the back of sniffing and slurping the contents of a glass. It too often feels like a contest for bragging rights. However, it does have certain benefits, especially when a blind comparison of a little-known wine and a famous product results in a challenge to expectations via surprising conclusions. Moreover, it often underlines my view that while there might be a lot of very well made wines out there, very few of them are different enough. In other words, I can't spot most wines blind, only the ones I love or hate!

Much the same is true of poetry: amid the huge homogeneous mass of well-produced verse out there, it's incredibly difficult to guess the identity behind a new poem in a blind reading unless there's a real idiosyncrasy at work. Nevertheless, a PPCE is sometimes a useful tool so long as it's undertaken with a huge pinch of salt.. That's not an Oxford degree, just a Poetry Palate Calibration Exercise. And then I go around claiming I loathe acronyms...

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Five poems in The Poetry Shed

I'm very grateful to Abegail Morley for featuring five of my poems in The Poetry Shed today (see here). All of them are from The Knives of Villalejo, my forthcoming first full collection. My pieces at And Other Poems last week revolved around the theme of home, while these five in The Poetry Shed focus on loss.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Vividly textured, Giles Turnbull's Dressing Up

Giles Turnbull’s pamphlet, Dressing Up (Cinnamon Press, 2017), is set apart by the vivid texturing and layering of its imagery and narrative drive.

Early on in the poems, colour and tone often play a prominent role, as in the following examples:

“Light seeps in…”

“…icy white…”

“…the colour of sunburn…”

“…spinning in dark and light…”

“…effervescent green…”

“…the colour of traffic lights…”

Combined with this light visual touch, apparently simple, clear-cut narratives acquire multiple potential meanings and ramifications in Turnbull’s poetry. Ambivalent and ambiguous counterpoints provide the key to depth. Here are a couple of terrific endings to illustrate this point:

“…the future
beginning with the windings of yesterday’s clocks.”

“…so much coming from apparent failure.”

And now on to a pivotal point when reading this pamphlet, one that takes me back to an old chestnut: the intrinsic or extrinsic approach to a text. I’ve always viewed such a separation as a waste of time, as an academic exercise, and this case is no exception.

What do I mean by the above? Well, this incredibly visual verse was written by a person who has gone blind. Can we enjoy and value it without knowing that fact? Of course. Is our appreciation enriching by the knowledge? Of course. Is it warped? Of course not, so long as we ensure any absurd preconceptions are banished.

While I really enjoyed Giles Turnbull’s pamphlet, I also like reading his blog and his interviews (such as this one with Sabotage) almost as much. In Dressing Up, many of his experiences as a poet who has lost his sight remain implicit and in the background, while they come to the fore in those afore-mentioned prose features.

Perhaps Turnbull’s next challenge is to turn his terrific anecdotes into poetry. I’d love to read a poem about his magic glasses…!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Three poems at And Other Poems

I'm delighted to report that Josephine Corcoran is today featuring my work over at her excellent And Other Poems. She's posted three pieces from my forthcoming first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, and you can read them by following this link. While there, why not explore the rest of And Other Poems, one of the most scrupulously curated selections of contemporary poetry on the web?

Saturday, 25 March 2017

What about that title?

The title of my first full collection, due out on 21st June with Eyewear Publishing, is The Knives of Villalejo. A launch and several readings are already scheduled. More details in due course...

Friday, 17 March 2017

A glossary of wine terms

Wine and poetry have much in common. For instance, the difficulty of promotional language is a shared thorn. Back covers and back labels both display a dodgy code that the potential purchaser has to decipher.

As a consequence and as a nod towards the Prowein fair in Düsseldorf, where I'll be exhibiting this weekend for the seventeenth year in succession, here's my incomplete and tongue-in-cheek glossary of wine terms on the back of having written dozens of back labels, tasting notes and brochures in my day job. I do hope it helps next time you're browsing the shelves at your local merchant!

Chewy........Rough

Intense........Overwhelming

Fun.............Rubbish

Thin............Mean

Ripe............Jammy

Tasty...........Tannic

Broad..........Flabby

Sappy..........Green

Vibrant............Too alcoholic

Warming.........Far too alcoholic

Smooth...........Good dollop of residual sugar

Soft.................Even better dollop of residual sugar

Citrus..............Barely any fruit

Fresh..............Verging on acidic

Moreish..........Acidic

Brisk...............More acidic

Tangy..............Even more acidic

Lip-smacking...Far too acidic

Juicy................Fruit bomb with no acidity

Easy-drinking...Lightweight and dull

Ethereal...........Terrific after four glasses

Powerful..........One-dimensional

Rich.................Gloopy and soupy

Lingering..........For far too long

Sunday, 12 March 2017

A glossary of poetry terms

What do blurbs and reviews really mean when they invoke certain terms? What critical shorthand are they using? Do these terms needs translating to enable readers to reach their "true" meaning?

There is clearly a need a guide to be produced as a public service for readers of contemporary verse, so Rogue Strands hereby presents its glossary of poetry terms, all carried out with my tongue firmly wedged in my cheek. Before anyone takes umbrage at the mention of a word that was used on their back cover or in one of their critical pieces, please note that several of these jewels have been attached to my poetry in the past, while others have cropped up in my reviews on this blog.

Feel free to add your own to the comments section at the end of this post...!

Unsettling...........Unsettled

Accessible..........Facile

Challenging.........Gobbledygook

Wide-ranging......No clear voice

Risk-taking..........Uneven

Elegant................Sniffy

Evocative............Over-the-top images

Surreal.................Incoherent

Disturbing............Creepy

Spare...................Loads of white space for your money

Powerful..............Desperate to move you

Long-awaited.......Forgotten in the midst of countless Facebook feeds

Fraught................Confessional

Fierce..................Scary

Compassionate....Tear-jerking

Sensuous.............Overload on soft consonants

Bold....................Candidate for therapy

Brave..................Substitute for therapy

Restrained...........Repressed

Triumphant..........Cocky

Redemptive.........Yet another True Life Story

Melancholy.........Miserable

Skilled................Workmanlike

Glittering.............Flashy

Breathtaking........Dead flashy

Thrilling...............Even flashier

Understated........Dull

Haunting.............Nightmarish

Adept.................Forced

Ambitious...........Failed

Strange...............Bonkers

Dangerous..........Dead bonkers

Dizzying..............Even more bonkers

Acclaimed..........Marketed

Accomplished.....Neat and tidy

Vital...................Narcissistic

Inspired..............Exaggerated

Necessary..........Confessional

Vivid..................Overloaded

Assured..............Arrogant

Virtuoso..............Dead arrogant

Compelling..........Car crash

Witty...................Desperate to raise a smile

Distinct................Desperate to be different

Fresh...................Desperate to be new and innovative

Memorable..........Unforgettably dire

Lyrical..................Sing-song

Musical.................Dead sing-song

Wry......................Resigned

Tender..................Mawkish

Affecting................Dead mawkish

Moving..................Even more mawkish

Immediate..............Unedited

Acute....................Obsessed

Developed.............Verging on repetitive

Mature...................Repetitive

Authentic................Diary extracts

Everyday................Mundane

Serendipitous..........Contrived

Expressionistic.........Packed with clichés

Limpid.....................Prosaic

Monday, 6 March 2017

What's in a title?

Once I've got a poem to its "first final" draft, i.e. the point at which it moves from my handwritten notebook to a typed-up piece of paper, I often ask a couple of trusted friends for their opinion as a point of departure for the next stage in its development. Last month, I got a terrific comment back. My friend told me "I like the poem, Matthew, but the title's dead".

What did she mean by that? Well, my interpretation is that it wasn't contributing anything, not drawing the reader in, not adding an extra layer. It was there because it had to be, as if labelled "for internal use only". I immediately went back to the poem in question and renegotiated that title, always bearing the reader in mind..

Of course, what goes for an individual piece also goes for the title of a book. Which brings me to the issue in hand: the title of my forthcoming first full collection. What were the criteria? Not dead, as per the previously mentioned poem, memorable but not too wacky, relevant but not just explanatory, intriguing but not plain mysterious. However, most of all, I asked myself a key question: "would you buy a book with that title?"

So what was the result? Well, that's for a separate post...

Sunday, 26 February 2017

StAnza is coming!

With a myriad of poetry events to suit every taste, fabulous venues and a terrific social scene, all in the lovely setting of St Andrews, StAnza has become one of the foremost poetry festivals around. This year, it's running from 1st to 5th March, and you can browse the extensive programme here. I wish I could make it up there myself. Maybe next year, Matthew, maybe next year...

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...

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Good Dadhood

Good Dadhood is an exciting new poetry project that's just been launched by Sharon Larkin. She explains the idea perfectly in her introduction:

Here, poets are going to be celebrating fathers – their own, their grandfathers, step-fathers, foster fathers.  Or someone else’s exemplary Dad. Or perhaps you are a Good Dad yourself – or are trying to be – and have already put your positive experiences of fatherhood into a poem, or now feel inspired to do so.

I'm delighted to be featuring today with two poems from my full collection manuscript (you can read them by following this link). An earlier version of Al Anochecer was originally published in The Next Review, while At Chipiona previously appeared in New Walk. Here they are on the internet for the first time!

While you've over at Good Dadhood, why not have a look at Sharon's submission guidelines? She's currently looking for more poets to form part of the project.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Clear Poetry

Amid the myriad of poetry e-zines that have emerged over the past few years, it's becoming more and more difficult for their creators to establish a clear editorial identity for them. That's why Ben Banyard's description of Clear Poetry is so refreshing:

"This blog is aimed at encouraging an appreciation of, and an engagement with, contemporary poetry. The poems you’ll find here are my personal choice and I feel that they are approachable, accessible and downright astonishing!"

You might disagree with his aesthetic, but it nails its colours to the mast from the off. My own views do very much align with his, so I'm pleased to report that I'm currently the Featured Poet at Clear Poetry with four poems that you can view by following this link. Moreover, while you're there, why not explore the treasure trove of verse in its archive, which includes the likes of Alison Brackenbury, Geoff Hattersley, Roy Marshall, etc, etc...?