Thursday, 15 March 2018

Sheenagh Pugh reviews The Knives of Villalejo

I've long admired Sheenagh Pugh's work as a poet and critic, so I'm very pleased to report that she's posted an excellent, insightful review of The Knives of Villalejo on her blog, where she gets to grips with the nuts and bolts of several poems, and enables me to see my own writing in a new light. You can read Sheenagh's post in full by following this link, but in the meantime here's a brief extract to give you a flavour of her views:

" "Making Paella with David", we have a child growing up and a parent attempting to let him, without interfering out of pardonable anxiety:

...Bell peppers
are staining the blade of his knife.
It's time to let ingredients 
become a dish. He taps my arm.
Together we spark the gas.

That middle sentence, "It's time to let ingredients/become a dish" is so succinct, and so perfect..."

Wednesday, 7 March 2018


The emergence of a high-quality, print-based journal is a cause for celebration in these internet-dominated times, so I was delighted to encounter Strix last year, a magazine from Leeds that specialises in poetry and short fiction. Edited by Ian Harker and Andrew Lambeth, it's now reached Issue Three, which also happens to include one of my poems. Again, that's definitely a cause for celebration down here in deepest Extremadura!

You can read more about Strix on their website, and copies of Issue Three will soon be available. I'd love to attend the launch at Hyde Park Book Club in Leeds on 19th March, but work commitments mean I'll be at the Prowein trade fair in Düsseldorf on that day.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

StAnza Festival 2018

If there's ever a chance to revive your belief in poetry, to remind you that spoken word and poems on the page can not only co-exist but feed off each other, to bring you back to old favourites and introduce you to exciting new names, it's StAnza.

The 2018 festival runs from 7th to 11th March, filling St Andrews with all things poetical. It's scheduled events, for example, that focus on the subject of "Borderlines", while "Going Dutch" concentrates on poets from the Netherlands and Flanders, all this alongside numerous other readings by poets from all over the world.

However, year after year, the overriding theme of StAnza is its inclusiveness, exploring and celebrating the whole range and spectrum of poetry today. You can find the catalogue of events, screenings and exhibitions at the festival website here.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Reconciled with contradictions, Tania Hershman's Terms and Conditions

The poetry in Tania Hershman’s first full collection, Terms and Conditions (Nine Arches Press, 2017), is riddled with strong storylines. This is perhaps to be expected, bearing in mind her background as an acclaimed short story writer. So what makes her verse different from her prose?

Well, first off, there’s her control and manipulation of line length and ending, as in the following extract from “Getting away with it”:

“…I want you
to hold my hand
for slightly longer
than is necessary…"

The statement “I want you” seems clear and strong when given a line of its own, as in this case. Of course, it’s immediately undercut and weakened by the next line. This is one of many indications that Hershman understands the nuts and bolts of poetry.

Moreover, the above extract leads us into a pivotal thematic, semantic and syntactic element of Terms and Conditions: tension. Those line endings ramp up tension, the qualifying of apparent absolutes ramps up tensions, while the development of opposites – in this case weak and strong – also ramps up tension.

To what end all this tension? This next quote is enlightening on that front. It’s from “The uncertainty principle”, in which the speaker waits for wanted/unwanted post to come through the door. The poem’s title is significant. This piece homes in on human emotions yet it references a scientific principle, striking up yet another tension between the two. Hershamn raises doubts as to science’s ability to provide insight while simultaneously seeking refuge in its resources:  

“…I could seal

the hole
with tape,

brown paper,
string. But I prefer

to make friends
with uncertainty,

keep breathing,
let it all in.”

Once more, line endings are key to an understanding of this poem. “To make friends” seems straightforward until it’s nuanced by the following line: “with uncertainty”, as the speaker becomes reconciled with apparent contradictions

In conclusion, Tania Hershman’s first full collection is characterised by the deft way she works through her relationship with life, always implicating and involving the reader in that process. By acknowledging that life is packed with tensions and opposites, by accepting and embracing their juxtaposition and coexistence, she’s able to renegotiate her own terms and conditions.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Guest poet on John Foggin's blog

I'm very grateful to John Foggin for featuring me as the guest poet today on his blog (otherwise known as The Great Fogginzo's Cobweb).

Foggin's prose style is easygoing but precise. He chats to the reader, but his words pack a punch. On this occasion, not only does he feature four poems from The Knives of Villalejo and say nice things about my poetry, but he also makes relevant and thought-provoking remarks about short poems in general. You can read his post for yourself here.

Monday, 12 February 2018

South Downs Poetry Festival 2018

On the back of two terrific events in Newcastle and Huddersfield last week, both packed with poetry lovers, book buyers and old and new friends, I'm delighted to report that my next scheduled reading from The Knives of Villalejo will take place at the South Downs Poetry Festival in Chichester on 30th May, when I'll be the guest poet at the New Park Centre.

Part of the 2018 programme is already up on the festival website (see here, even though it still mentions 2017 at the top). Suffice to say, I'm absolutely chuffed to have the chance to read in the city where I'm based when in the U.K..

Friday, 2 February 2018

Readings in Newcastle and Huddersfield

I've got two readings coming up next week: Newcastle on Wednesday 7th February and Huddersfield the following evening. Here are the details!

Red Squirrel Press organise an annual fundraiser in aid of the Lit & Phil in Newcastle. This year, it'll be taking place on Wednesday 7th February at the Literary and Philiosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, entry 3 pounds, starting at 7 p.m. I'm very grateful to Sheila Wakefield for the invitation to read as the guest poet at this event alongside Red Squirrel poets/authors Tom Kelly, Ellen Phethean and Colin Will.

On Thursday 8th February, meanwhile, I'll be reading at Albert Poets in Huddersfield with Stephanie Bowgett, who kindly invited me, Anthony Costello  and Mandy Sutter. This reading will take place at The Albert in Victoria Lane from 8 p.m. onwards. On this occasion, entry is free.

I'm looking forward to exploring interesting places, as well as seeing lovely people I've only ever met over the internet. What's more, I'm relishing the chance to read at two iconic venues that are packed with poetry history in very different ways...!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Pivotal details, Roy Marshall's The Great Animator

I’ve been a fan of Roy Marshall’s poetry ever since I read and reviewed (see here) his first pamphlet, Gopagilla, which Crystal Clear Creators published back in 2012. He’s now on his second full collection, The Great Animator (Shoestring Press, 2017), and his development has been startling.

The Great Animator brings us a poet in full maturity. First off, there’s Marshall’s talent for producing endings that provide satisfaction but then unsettle and open out beyond the text. One such instance can be found in the final lines of “Expresso”:

“…His heart, once as easily excited by this dark syrup
as by a lover’s touch, has grown steady, accustomed.”

This extract also provides us with a fine example of Marshall’s mastery of cadence. He has a keen sense of the weight of every syllable, together with a delicate control over the ebb and flow of language.

The collection is packed with terrific narratives. Moreover, Marshall has learnt to home in on the pivotal details that make a story come alive, as in “Thaw”, in which the first stanza sees a grandson waiting outside “by a patch of snow/that’s losing its grip on gravel. The final stanza, meanwhile, invokes a mother’s offer of “a little ice-cream” to an ill grandmother, leading through to another excellent ending:

“…She nods, though both of you know
it’ll melt untouched while she sleeps.”

In this poem, Marshall is inviting the reader to compare and contrast two different thaws, all tied with the drip-drip of three generations. The invitation, of course, is implicit.

Perhaps the most striking poems in The Great Animator are those that portray Marshall’s work as a Coronary Care Nurse. Their strongest quality is their invocation of empathy, as they enable us to connect with the person that lies behind the health professional, casting new light on the patient-doctor/nurse relationship. One such poem is “Carrying the Arrest Bleep”. Again, its final lines are terrific:

“…and when the registrar asks
if we agree to stop, I meet
his eye, and nod.”

The above extract offers us yet another of Marshall’s “pivotal details”: the human meeting of eyes, as the people behind the jobs are revealed.

In The Great Animator, Roy Marshall demonstrates the technical and thematic skills of a mature poet. He’s come to trust not just himself but his readers. The least we can do is get hold of a copy and be thankful for the generosity of his poems.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Artificial battle lines

And so yet again the poetry world is spoiling for an internal fight, aiming for civil war instead of forming a common front to take on the fact that millions of people ignore the genre’s existence.

Everything is kicking off on the back of an article titled The Cult of the Noble Amateur in PN Review. Written by Rebecca Watts, it dissects the poetry of Holly McNish and has provoked umpteen discussions on social media.

Artificial battle lines are being drawn (on this occasion spoken word vs written verse, accessibility vs elitism) rather than opportunities being taken. A huge new audience/readership for poetry has developed and is growing, day after day, thanks to the emergence of new ways of reaching people. This can only be positive for all poets, whatever their tastes. Moreover, major publishing houses are encountering new income streams and prominence on bookshop shelves for verse that will inevitably feed back in to all the poets on their list, whatever their aesthetic stance and method.

Here’s an analogy with the wine trade: many young people here in Extremadura drink lager. They find oak-aged red wine a step too far from beer. Over the past few years, a number of wineries (mine included) have brought out fresh, low-alcohol white wines that are aimed at this market. These white wines have taken off and become incredibly successful.

Right now, not only have we managed to wean a whole host of beer drinkers on to wine, growing the market, but more and more of these consumers are also starting to move on to the reds they used to eschew, using those whites as a stepping stone. Of course, a newly acquired taste for those oak-aged red wines doesn’t mean they should turn their noses up at the fresh white wines they used to drink. There’s a moment, a place and a mood for both.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Review in The North

The new issue of The North (nº59) is now out and features an excellent review of The Knives of Villalejo. I'm very grateful to D.A. Prince for her extremely kind words. If you want to read it in full, alongside a host of other reviews and original poems, you can get hold of a copy over at The Poetry Business website. For the moment, here's a quote that I'll savour:

"...There is a richness and depth in this collection, far more than its relatively short length might suggest...Despite the vivid pictures of his own life Stewart’s concentration does not exclude the reader; instead, it opens up ways of examining what gives texture to all our days. Short poems, and a short collection but within The Knives of Villalejo there is a resonance beyond many longer, wordier volumes."

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Feminine muscularity, Naomi Jaffa's The Last Hour of Sleep

Naomi Jaffa is perhaps best known for her old job as Director of the Poetry Trust and driving force behind the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. However, she’s also a poet herself. I was dimly aware of this fact, but Anthony Wilson’s recommendation of her recent pamphlet, Driver, brought my interest into focus. Of course, being contrary, I decided to begin exploring her work by going back to the start and getting hold of her first chapbook, The Last Hour of Sleep, which was published by Five Leaves back in 2003.

It’s a remarkable book. A detailing of its qualities might theoretically provide insufficient insight, but there is a definite usefulness in listing them, as its surprising juxtapositions and delicately achieved combinations of theme and technique are key to any understanding of The Last Hour of Sleep. In Jaffa’s hands, the everyday becomes disturbing, the ordinary becomes startling, bold expressions of sexuality become matter-of-fact, clear-cut emotions become loaded with ambiguity, straightforward lines become complex.

The ending to “Weekend” provides one such example:

“…That winter, another weekend, holed-up beside a lake
in a log cabin in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, you opted out

of our fantasy with us and your best friend, Richard. I still wonder
what you felt looking down through the banisters,

why you risked leaving us in front of the fire, seeing
much too clearly what you were missing.”

Such long lines are notoriously difficult to pace and control, but Jaffa’s sense of cadence is surefooted here. Moreover, her juggling of pronouns and prepositions is so clear and precise that it almost goes unnoticed. And then there’s the incredibly skilled manipulation of “risked”. Jaffa turns the verb on its head, making the reader wonder just who was risking more, what they were risking, whether this piece itself is a fantasy or reality. The poem’s feminine muscularity is striking.

The Last Hour of Sleep is packed with such instances of verbs being invested with fresh meanings, as in the following extract from “Unrehearsed”:

“…When skin no longer breathes it yellows and grows cold,
one-sided conversation soon runs dry,
trousers stain and smell without embarrassment.
Everything and nothing is too late…”

Of course, breathing wouldn’t initially be associated with skin. However, Jaffa pulls off the achievement of jolting the reader with this surprise before making it feel natural and inevitable, thus reinvigorating and strengthening the verb’s power.

This extract also highlights Jaffa’s deft use of juxtapositions. Not only is an everyday detail followed by the invocation of abstracts but those two apparently opposing abstracts – nothing and everything - are conflated and given the same quality.

The Last Hour of Sleep is an exceptional pamphlet. It goes without saying that I’ll be seeking out Driver as soon as possible, while a full collection from Naomi Jaffa would be a thing of wonder.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Necessary poems

There's a school of thought that claims poems can only be any good if they "need" to be written. The argument goes that any poem arisen from a prompt, exercise, workshop, etc, is inherently flawed because there wasn't a necessity of expression at its source.

The opposing argument, however, would have it that many poems can become necessary. From this perspective, an inconsequential or artificial starting point is irrelevant to the degree of necessity that's expressed by the finished product. In this respect, I'd personally suggest that the dichotomy should be nuanced to reflect the difference between a writer's need to write a poem and a reader's need to read it.

However, my own conclusion goes further. I've seen rubbish that's been written out of so-called necessity, while I've seen exceptional poems that were written out of exercises. It all depends, like always, on the individual poet's capacity for taking a point of departure and taking it on a journey.

One such example can be found in Paul Stephenson's terrific recent pamphlet, Selfie with Waterlilies. He clearly states that many of those poems in the afore-mentioned chapbook were born out of workshops, yet that doesn't make them any less authentic or moving. The success of a piece still depends on the poet's capacity to make leaps and thus engage the reader, whatever the source. That's the key to writing a necessary poem.