November news

Where to start. Probably with what I was up to last week, which was an Arvon course, at lovely Lumb Bank.

It was tutored by Mimi Khalvati and Katrina Naomi and was as inspiring as I had thought it would be. There are always many things to learn, especially from two brilliant and wise poets as Mimi and Katrina are. Fortunately, my fellow participants were a really great bunch too, so in all it felt like a real pleasure. I got my head down and made the best possible use of all that writing time. As with previous Arvons I’ve attended, the end-of-week read-round proved to be revelatory and celebratory, with the fruits of hard work so evident.

My reading of late has been my usual mixture of systematic delving into poetry collections with non-fiction on the side. I hugely enjoyed Henry Shukman’s One Blade of Grass, which made me question, in a good way, the value of writing poetry in the grand scheme of things, but also flagged up the importance of meditation: how it had helped him with the clarity of his poetic vision, back in the days when he still published poetry. It’s a real shame for me that he no longer publishes his poems, but his book explained over the course of many years’ spiritual journey why he doesn’t.

I’ve been intrigued too by the poetry of Gillian Allnutt, whose 2013 collection Indwelling I bought in Nottingham a few months ago. Her poems are sometimes so short and gnomic that I find them disconcerting, in a beneficial way. Whilst at Lumb Bank, I took the opportunity to read more of her books and will continue to seek them out. I’ve enjoyed too, a conversation she had with Emily Berry, here, and another with wonderful Geoff Hattersley, here. In the latter, Allnutt compares the gaps in her poems to the holes in her mind which she wrestles with during meditative practice. I was also interested in what she had to say about when the use of footnotes (or end-notes) might be appropriate. For me, they are generous to the reader, preferably as end-notes so that the reader has more choice over whether to read them or not. Allnutt does acknowledge that most poets take the view that the reader can simply “Google it” whenever they encounter a reference with which they are insufficiently familiar.

I’ve read two hefty biographies, of near-contemporary Germans who both hugely enriched our culture here in the UK and worldwide: Nico and WG Sebald. You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico written by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike and published by Faber quite rightly iterates the misogynistic treatment which Nico received throughout her indomitably creative years, not least at the hands of Lou Reed, and, most interestingly, has more detail from her years living in England towards the end of her life than any other period. It pushed me back towards her music, especially the trio of albums produced by John Cale – The Marble Index (1968), Desertshore (1970; co-produced by Joe Boyd) and The End (1974) – which are like nothing else ever recorded, except perhaps Agnes Buen Garnås’s collaboration with Jan Garbarek, Rosenfole. The book contrasts Nico’s dry sense of humour with her deep melancholy, which are the two personality traits which also shine forth in Carole Angier’s biography of Sebald, Speak, Silence, published by Bloomsbury. I went to an absurdly brief online interview which Angier gave under the auspices of the LRB Shop, and she explained that, whilst she had been able to draw on the recollections of many of Sebald’s childhood and adult friends, she hadn’t been able to convince Sebald’s wife to cooperate. The sense of omission is palpable in the book, but, as the first biography of him to be published, it outlines the basic facts and inspirations for his writing, which was clearly a gargantuan task alone. Angier also examines the degree to which Sebald stole, misused and appropriated others’ writings for his own. I don’t think the laying bare of these facts necessarily reduces my admiration for him as the great writer he undoubtedly was. Angier’s work was almost entirely silent on Sebald’s poetry, because she felt unqualified to write about it. I would dearly love to read a study of Sebald as a poet, as opposed to the superlative writer of unclassifiable prose.

Lastly, issue 4 of Kingfisher, a haiku journal edited by the fantastic haiku poet (and person) Tanya McDonald, has just arrived in sunny Rotherham. As with issue 3, I’m very pleased to have three haiku in it, because, as I’ve said here many times, I’ve written so few in the last couple of years. I’m grateful to John Barlow for nudging me to submit and very pleased to be alongside him, Simon Chard, Thomas Powell and a whole load of excellent haiku poets from across North America and beyond. Here’s one of my haiku from issue 3, one of the wordiest I’ve ever had published:

rain from nowhere
a short-horned cow snaffles
cobwebbed blackberries

The Friday Poem

I am delighted that my poem ‘Pathé News at the Ace of Spades’ is this week’s featured poem at The Friday Poem, here, and by the kind words of the editors, Hilary Menos and Andy Brodie, about it, not least because I’ve admired every poem they’ve published since they started the site back in the summer.

It took me the best part of five years for my poem to find its final shape and wording, so I’m very pleased that I persevered with it.

When it opened in the early ’30s, the Ace of Spades was England’s first roadhouse–nightclub, where the Kingston by-pass section of the A3 heads south, towards the countryside and on to Portsmouth. The roundabout at Hook is still known as the Ace of Spades.

OPOI reviews of Claire Booker and Ian Crockatt

Amongst the latest batch of ‘one point of interest’ (OPOI) reviews at Sphinx are two by me, on Claire Booker’s The Bone that Sang (Indigo Dreams) here, and Ian Crockatt’s Skald (Arc) here.

Dipping into OPOI reviews makes for a pleasant digression, as they are just the right length to give the potential reader of the pamphlet enough of a flavour to pique their interest (or not, as the case may occasionally be), and because some of the more regular reviewers have their own distinctive voices.

My thanks, as always, to Nell Nelson for publishing my reviews and editing them so skilfully.

The clocks going back

Fokkina McDonnell’s post on her ever-fabulous blog today – here – prompted me to dig out this poem, from The Evening Entertainment:


As Dad lolls down in the care-home armchair,
cleft double chin almost touching his shirt,
I ease him upright and, for what it’s worth,

unstrap his watch to wind it back an hour:
that Dad no longer knows the day, the month
or year is probably neither here nor there.

An un-drunk milky tea squats on a plate.
‘I was a crack shot; especially at
the Bren, but it was much too accurate.’

By night, he gets half-dressed for going out:
‘To interrogate a Russian spy, caught
red-handed with a nuclear secret.’

I ask him if he’ll eat his slice of cake.
‘I’m off to the school to teach them to waltz.’
The lead clinician laughs for laughter’s sake.

On Jonathan Davidson and James Caruth

Having enjoyed reading Jonathan Davidson’s On Poetry (as much, probably, as Glyn Maxwell’s very different book of the same name) and A Commonplace, I very much enjoyed Ruth Yates’s interview with him, here.

I especially related to these sentences:

I would, therefore, describe my role as simply a writer who wants to be read. There’s a novelty. Not to win, to be praised, to be advanced, to be ennobled, to be deified, to be paid, even, but simply to be quietly read by those who might quietly find pleasure in such reading.

I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments. Yes, prizes and competitions help to oil the poetry economy, but as a poet and a reader there’s nothing more I aspire to than to be read and to enjoy reading.

In the summer, I was one of about 15 poets/readers who met up with Jonathan at Grindleford station for a walk round Padley Gorge, interspersed by Jonathan reading his and other poets’ poems, in the spirit of A Commonplace. It was a memorable poetry occasion and the sort of thing which ought to happen more often. After almost two years of Zoom readings and workshops, it felt very special indeed to get out in the open ait with like-minded souls to enjoy Jonathan’s drollery, fine poems and good taste in other poetry.

I felt much the same the Sunday before last when I went into Sheffield to see/hear Peter Sansom introduce two more Smith Doorstop poets, David Wilson and James (Jim) Caruth. I hadn’t read David’s collection beforehand, but I had read Jim’s. It’s a bit like going to a gig – if you know the songs before, then your excitement at hearing them performed live will be enhanced, not least because you won’t know what’s on the set list. Anyone who knows Jim will tell you that he has the most mellifluous Belfast brogue, so when he reads out his brilliant poems, it’s as rich a poetry treat as anyone could have. His collection Speechless at Inch is sensationally good, but no doubt, for whatever reasons, it won’t get nowhere near any award lists. No matter – it’s an immersive and enriching experience for any reader and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The recent online launch, with Jane Clarke also reading, is available here – Jim’s reading starts about 25 minutes in.


On Wednesday, 13th October, at 7.30pm British Summer Time, I’ll be one of the two guest readers (the other is Maggie Sawkins) at the launch of Greg Freeman’s collection, Marples Must Go!, published by Dempsey and Windle.

I admire Greg’s poetry very much, and admire him as someone who does a great deal of good for the poetry community. His poetic and geographical milieu is similar to mine – he grew up in a road where my dad and grandparents also lived for a few years, near Surbiton Lagoon, and he went to the secondary school opposite the one I went to, a few years apart!

I wrote an endorsement for Greg’s book, as follows:

The sharp, entertaining poems in Marples Must Go! encompass a cornucopia of themes – first love, music, the newspaper trade, cycling, am-dram and holidays – but also the corruption, pigheadedness and racism of politicians, past and present, intent on ‘making mugs of us all’. In this richly enjoyable collection, Greg Freeman celebrates the best – and skewers the worst – of England.

Autumn almanac

It feels like a long time since I’ve rambled on about what I’ve been up to, so here goes.

As well as reviews for Sphinx, I’ve written two 2,000-word essays, which will appear in the next few months. Both involved a lot of intense reading, of course, which was more enjoyable than my routine reading, probably because it was consciously more purposeful. (Not that I ever read as passively as, say, I watch the telly, but the older you get the easier it becomes to tune out, of course.)

In an average week, I guess I read two poetry collections (and/or journals), but I rarely get so engaged with any of them that I read them straight through again immediately after. That happened to me last week, though, when I read Country Music by Will Burns, published by Offord Road Books. It wasn’t that (m)any of the poems were so individually brilliant that they jumped out at me; rather it was their cumulative power, how they are beautifully crafted to cohere with one another and form a whole. At their best, they have that quality which Michael Donaghy’s poems had, of seeming both impeccably honed and effortlessly natural. Like Donaghy, Burns is a bit of a muso (the Chilton of the Chilterns perhaps?) as attested by the title of his collection, his collaborations with Hannah Peel, and his appearances on the eclectic bills of Caught By the River shows. His poems make reference to the late great Townes Van Zandt, Chet Baker, Warren Zevon, Merle Haggard (twice) and Elvis. I especially enjoyed a trio of sonnets – ‘Bastard Service’, ‘True Service’ and ‘Wild Service’ – which convey an unexpectedly edgy edgelands feel to (presumably) Buckinghamshire. Above all, there’s just a simpatico, warmly melancholic tone about his poems which makes me enjoy them so much.

A week or two before the same thing happened with Stephen Payne’s equally exceptional The Windmill Proof, published by Happenstance. Stephen has a brilliant gift for form, derived, I think, from close attention to the poetry of Frost in particular. Again, though, his tone is so charming. I am in awe of Stephen’s cleverness, but, as in his first collection, he wears his erudition lightly. And for every poem which involves mathematics or physics there’s another delightful one which involves, for example, a random encounter (‘The Mousetail Man’), swimming (‘The Pool’ and ‘The River Swimmer’) or bowls (‘Crown Green Bowls’). The Happenstance online launch for the book, incidentally, was by far the best and warmest poetry event I’ve attended this year.

A few poems in to Speechless at Inch (Smith Doorstop), the first full collection by James (Jim) Caruth and I have that same feeling of reading a book which I know I’ll want to re-read in order to take a closer look at how the poems tick.

Other collections I’ve enjoyed in the last six months or so, since Lyn and I upped sticks to Rotherham, include these: The Historians by Eavan Boland (Carcanet); Boy in Various Poses by Lewis Buxton (Nine Arches); Beautiful Nowhere by Louisa Campbell(Boatwhistle); The Years by Tom Duddy (Happenstance); do not be lulled by the dainty starlike blossom by Rachael Matthews (The Emma Press); Tigress by Jessica Mookherjee (Nine Arches); Fury by David Morley (Carcanet); The Long Habit of Living by M.R. Peacocke (Happenstance); The Coming-Down Time by Robert Selby (Shoestring); and Letters Home by Jennifer Wong (Nine Arches).

Of older collections, I’ve especially enjoyed The Never-Never by Kathryn Gray (Seren), Berg by Hilary Menos (Seren), The Brink by Jacob Polley (Picador) and After Nature by WG Sebald, tr. Michael Hamburger (Hamish Hamilton), the pleasure of which I had been deliberately deferring for ages.

It would also be remiss of me to mention a trio of excellent books by poetry friends of mine: Marples Must Go! by Greg Freeman (Dempsey & Windle); Key to the Highway by Chris Hardy (Shoestring); and the remarkable and marvellous When Listening Isn’t Enough by Rodney Wood (self-published, but that’s the loss of publishers out there).

Now I have a stack of what look like wonderful books, plus the latest issue of 14, to keep me busy in the next while.

On the actual poetry-writing front, in roughly as many months I’ve written only five poems which will make the cut if and when another collection of my poems appears, but I tell myself it’s all about quality not quantity.