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...?