Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Some ramblings

It is seventy years since the prisoners of Auschwitz were liberated by the Russian army. Of the 1.3 million held in the camp, some 7,000 were left alive. A quarter of the total murdered were children. 

The capacity for evil in humanity is an ever-present danger. It is part of our collective make-up, and we must never forget this when we talk of racial intolerance and bigotry. I detest what UKIP stand for and I believe its sentiments are on the same spectrum as the worse reaches of Facism.  But free speech and democracy are fundamental tenets of a civilised society and if UKIP thrive come the General Election in May, then thrive they will.

Against all this is a well-spring of goodness -  the capacity for what must be called love in humanity wins through despite the atrocities. It does.


I’m not a religious person, really. I enjoy entering the space of churches, and, like most people, I often feel a special, hallowed atmosphere within their walls; also graveyards, sometimes, or ruins. I love the words of the Bible, the archetypal stories, and the music. 
And yet..I have always prayed, since I was seven or eight. I remember praying for my family before we set off on a long journey. I prayed for everyone I knew, to be safe and protected. I can sometimes sense a wholeness in certain landscapes - mountains, moor and sea. But I use religious words lightly, like miracle, or angel. 

I've been reading some Walt Whitman recently and his boundless poems set me thinking about science and spirituality. Take these lines -

'Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,
'I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.'

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

Science, our ‘truth-teller’, our enlightener, is confined, ultimately, to human parameters, to the space between each ear.
And of course we use science for good and for ill - to find cures for Ebola or to build gas chambers. 
But we use it too, to reach other more spiritual places. I know the science of the solar system. We know about our ideas of the Big Bang and how the universe began. But as Whitman says, that knowledge does not hinder those feelings of immensity, or awe, when we look up into the stars.

In a sense we are all miracles. I think how difficult it is for the millions of sperm to get up past the cervix, across the womb and up the fallopian tube, how the egg only lives for hours, how just a few hundred sperm make it to her looming form and of those, just one, the strongest, luckiest, penetrates 
How in a sense all of us walking about now, on the streets and fields, sitting in traffic, how all of us are born against huge odds, we are all miracles of chance. 
Everyone is a mixture of impulse and action and everyone makes mistakes and good choices.
Sometimes it helps me to think of every person as a spiritual being, and it makes me feel closer and softer to humanity. I have recently begun to feel connected to my ancestors. They are not just dead and gone. They are still here, living through us both genetically and through the landscape.
 As Don Paterson said, writing in the Guardian a few weeks ago, we are all just ghosts, living and dead.

“...we make the dumb mistake of thinking ourselves nouns, but we are really verbs.
You might think you are a “thing” - and we certainly mourn each other’s shocking disappearance as if we are real things, which aren’t supposed to just vanish.
But look around the room: almost everything in it will survive you. We’re really ghosts - from early childhood, we have perfect knowledge of our own deaths - and we certainly must look like ghosts to the room as we come and go.”

Wednesday, 7 January 2015


The children have gone back to school and today is my first proper day to get back to writing after the melee of Christmas. What a luxury! I spent a few hours doing housework, cleaning the dishwasher (talk about procrastination!) and shilly-shallying about, half dressed for a run, before finally forcing myself outside. I only did three miles but almost immediately felt enlivened, and more positive, and more myself.
I know I am like this - I know that forcing the old body into a run and making myself write makes me happy, despite the short-term discomfort every time. But it is still hard to keep motivated. With this in mind, I thought I'd write a little about rejection.


I've just had a rejection, actually. I applied for the Guest Editorship post of Butcher's Dog magazine, and really wanted to be given the role. It's a great magazine, and it would be an illuminating window of experience. I'm bored with my paying job as a journalist and I'd like to move sideways eventually..But, no... not to be, this time. I allowed myself to feel that sort of sharp tang of disappointment for an hour or two, then moved on to fresh ideas. There are so many opportunities out there.
It was the same with the Aldeburgh Eight which I applied for last year. I really, really wanted to have that time and space and affirmation to write. I got to a certain point in the selection process, but not far enough (and that is a little encouraging). I am already thinking about applying this year. And I will!
I suppose that might come across as annoyingly upbeat, but that is how I am..I think otherwise I would stop enjoying poetry for itself.
Here is a page from last year's diary which shows a pretty standard run of rejections for me -

I've heard that some poets use colour-coded spreadsheets or electronic database of their submissions, but I am more of an ad-hoc pen and paper person. Whatever works for the writer. What is important is to keep stuff 'out there', being read and to keep writing.
As you can see, the page above runs from January to April and shows a string of rejections. But I also try to see the positive - a 'reject but encouraging' from one magazine, a 'long list' from another. Poetry is so subjective, and personal, and having one poem rejected certainly does not mean it will not be published elsewhere. I sometimes think of my poems as birds when I send them out, and will them to fly to a new home (yes I know it sounds whimsical). There is still a frisson of excitement when it comes to printing them out, and slipping them into the post box in a crisp brown envelope and noting it all in my diary.


For years, I tried to get a poem into the now sadly-defunct Smith's Knoll. I loved this magazine, its thick, creamy pages and the quality of its work.. Behold the string of rejection slips below! And yet, now I know the poems I sent were not ready. The editors were right not to choose them, and six, seven years later, I am, actually, grateful for their judgment.

I keep these rejection slips in a folder and sometimes look at them. They're not so much a record of failure as a part of my history,  testament to a sort of resilience and drive to improve.  It is still much the same now, rejection-wise,  and I started sending poems out back in 2007. One day I hope to write a poem good enough to appear in The Rialto. I'll keep on keeping on. And just occasionally, an editor might get in touch and ask me to send some work to their magazine. It's as if all those rejections were necessary to get to that point.

These are the rejection 'rules' I write by - maybe they might be useful to others.

- Don't give up - even the most talented writers get work turned away (I know this for a fact)

-Always have something 'out there'. Poems must be read to be alive.

- Don't send poems too soon (guilty of this)

 - But make sure you send them eventually

- Getting published in the 'best' magazines is not what it's all about. It's got to be in the writing and shaping and surprising

- Don't stop writing. Allow yourself to write, and give yourself time.


Roy Marshall writes beautifully and amusingly about the business of being a poet here - it's well worth a read.


Tuesday, 30 December 2014


Hello, hello.. As the year comes to a close, I have an inviting pile of reading mounting up, including Keiran Goddard's For the Chorus, Alison Brackenbury's Then and the anthologies Her Wings of Glass and The Best British Poetry 2014. But one pamphlet I have managed to read, and read again, is Wendy Pratt's Nan Hardwicke Turns into A Hare, published by Prole Books.

Cover illustration copyright the author

This is compelling, powerful and unsettling writing that moves between a lyrical exploration of loss  and a witching woman, Nan Hardwicke, with her shape-shifting lives.
Wendy's title poem, Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare is one of those poems that gets into your bones -
with exquisite lines such as: 'I slipped / into the hare like a nude foot / into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones / to one side to make room for my shape / so I could settle myself like a child within her.'
Who is the host and who is the carrier? Who is carrying whom?

It's one of those perfect poems that is somehow right in itself, like a perfect melody, or composition.
I've been working on a couple of hare poems but in Wendy's the hare-ishness is just there, alive and beating. 
The whole small book (of just 14 poems) explores transformation and grief, and the idea of self within self, the hunter and the hunted. I am so glad I discovered it and urge you to buy a copy. I hope that isn't too gushy, but they are special poems.

And now ... hey, New Year is almost here. I hope anyone reading this has a joyful, bright and healthy 2015 and raise a toast to good times ahead.

I put this little quote from TS Eliot's Four Quartets in my diary at the start of 2014  - 

'For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.'

May all the quietened voices sing strong..

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Two more reviews

Mel Pryor's Drawn on Water is one of the new Eyewear 20/20 pamphlet series.
What stands out for me is Pryor's delicately balanced eye and ear - there's a precision in her language and use of form that makes these poems a pleasure to read, and then read again, more deeply.  They give much, without showing off.
Pryor writes clearly about pregnancy and parenthood and long-term spouse-dom while remaining original. Yes, you might think, "typical women's themes" but no -
take this unusual metaphor which yokes a specific stage of foetal development while the narrator is map reading in the Lake District - an ambitious conceptual leap that someone like Elizabeth Bishop or Jo Shapcott might make -

'I'm sure I felt a shift of love/ inside me, the cells of his back/move to their perfect slot / a mole form on his spine like a small lake/ just then, when I found where we were...(Back)

or this wonderful description of a new-born child -

'...a boy, / a five pound four ounce ravel of son' (Emergency Birth) -

It made me think of limbs and cords all tangled and bundled like thick, wet rope; wonderful.

At her best Pryor is dryly humorous and tender, exemplified best in the feisty and deliciously precise Rattus rattus which was chosen by Kathleen Jamie as one of the winners of the Mslexia Poetry competition -

'...the eye blobs creaming in the orient heat/ of ninety five at least, the lower coat/
more grubby than the gunk it mouldered in...' (Rattus rattus).
I love 'nature' writing that captures the creature in an original way, and this works.
Drawn on Water is one of the most enjoyable pamphlets I have read in a while and I look forward to reading Pryor's work in the future.


I have been waiting for Rowyda Amin's Desert Sunflowers for what seems like years after enjoying her poems in various magazines - and it is a beaut. Rowyda was the winner of the Venture Award in the same year as I was runner-up and Flipped Eye have published an attractive pamphlet in their (slightly oddly named) Flap series.

These are international poems, poems without borders or hemmed in by convention. Amin pushes at the boundaries of the surreal, but never gets fatally carried away.

I love the intoxicating abandonment of the language in the opening poem 'Genius Loci' - which personifies the voice of an ecstatic tramp (I think) and is also a an examination of the strait-jacket of 9 to 5 conformity -

'I, the one-man band, clockless animal, whistling Tarzan, crap in
the grass, rapture dalliance on benches, chuckle in my yellow
beard a fuzz of tasty syllables.'

Amin is a poet in love with the possibilities of language and she runs with it like a burning torch. She is also unafraid of ambiguity and has a sly humour which manifests in startling imagery -

'On my birthday, my mother takes delivery
of a baby capuchin.'

'Monkey Daughter'.

Unforgettable images include the "chattering" of "daffodil teeth" and carrots described as "gilded girls' under "green lace and dandelion".

Perhaps my favourite poem is 'Polly' which articulates more about the human relation to captured animals than many other more famous nature poems. I won't quote it in parts, for it would spoil it. Buy and enjoy.

Thursday, 27 November 2014


I've been writing a poem about barnacles today. It was 'homework' from the course I am doing - to begin a poem in the 'voice' of any animal, with a variation of these lines from 'The Cows on Killing Day' by Les Murray -
'All me are standing on feed. The sky is shining.'

If I had to come up with a favourite poetry collection, Les Murray's Translations from the Natural World would probably be it. He manages to get inside the mind of a creature, using a paradoxical mixture of observational truth and artifice/art (language). His best poems make the animal hyper-real.
For me, there are few others poets who can work this magic of convicingly, and often beautifully, inhabiting the mind of the non-human 'other' - Liz Berry, Alice Oswald and Ted Hughes (Wodwo) come to mind - and when it works, I am transfixed. As an example, take Les Murray's Bat's Ultrasound here with its wonderful crazy music -


I also found this exquisite poem by Les Murray on his site, uncollected. I hope it's ok to share it.

Mother Sea Lion
My pup has become myself
yet I'm still present

My breasts have vanished.
My pup has grown them on herself.

Tenderly we rub whiskers.
She, me, both still present.

I plunge, dive deep in the Clench.
My blood erects. Familiar joy.

Coming out, I swim the beach-shingle.
Blood subsides. Yet I enjoy still.

Anyway, I decided to write about barnacles. Here are a few opening lines from my draft -

Us grinding on granite, all nipply
holding fist-force, rock down
giant stamp into hollow, our hollow
shaped to our foot, our home. Us waiting
for the onrush, the cold tickle up and under
us orchestra -

us shift and whip our feathers
out into the soup, goodies flowing, down our tongue
us a thousand million voices
us up for it, us take it in, the good flow. 

Well, I haven't finished but it's been fun. When I was little I made nature scrapbooks with facts about animals in an exercise book. That impulse continues with these facts I found out about barnacles today.
They are sessile suspension feeders, class cirripedia (meaning curl-footed). Their calcite shell is formed of six plates and they reach into the water with long feathery legs, known as cirri, which they beat regularly to draw in plankton (this made me think of can-can dancers) - they lie on their backs with legs upwards.
Barnacles have no heart, a single eye (the operculum) which is thought to sense the difference between light and dark (though how would we know?) - their primary sense is touch.
They pass through five 'instars'  (developmental stages) and have the longest penis to body ratio in the animal kingdom. They have also been around for aeons, are hermaphrodite and mate using spermcasting (as it sounds). They look for wettability and assess the biofilm when deciding where to live.
Well, there you go - rather random but I love facts like that, and I know next time I'm in Devon I shall look at barnacles with deeper respect.
Thanks for reading

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

pamphlet micro-reviews

I've missed writing my blog this month; it's been busy. But here are some thoughts on three very different pamphlets I've read and enjoyed. I'd also like to say that I know these reviews are overwhelmingly positive. This is self-selecting - I am writing about these pamphlets, because I am inspired by them. I also personally know, and like, the authors, but that becomes incidental when reading their work.

First up is Declan Ryan, number 12 of the Faber New Poets, who count exciting poets such as Fiona Benson (no. 1) and Zaffar Kunial (11) among their number.
These are slender, exquisitely designed 'taster notes' if you will, of poets yet to publish a full collection, and they provide an excellent introduction to their work under the prestigious Faber & Faber imprint.
In Ryan's case, there are only ten poems in his rather lovely canary yellow offering which makes it a pleasure to absorb from cover to cover, especially if, like me, you can only concentrate for so long.
Many of these poems wear a deceptive lightness of tone that remind me of Hugo Williams, written with a tenderness at-one-remove, through emotional and/or physical distances:

'Just after rain,
sunlight stood between us
like a whitewashed wall.' (Trinity Hospital)

Real and imagined walls, and distances between lovers enhance the tenderness of address - often made in the second person - and direct questions invoke an immediate emotional response in the reader -

'When I get home will you read to me
in your new orange dress,
and lie that it's for the first time?' (Postcard from Australia)

Ryan is observer and custodian of the finest details of appearance and behaviour,  which makes reading his poems a 'felt' experience as much as an intellectual exercise.
I like it that there is no obfuscating, no need to hide in showiness. He displays a deft engagement with wider sociocultural matters including race, religion, music and environmental peril, mashing and mixing sources and voices. But it is his writing about love that stands out for me.
Writing of love's 'complicating touches', he unleashes a direct clout to the head and heart - duck, or prepared to be floored -

'I'm in my room, listening to your voice.
When this was live
you were in front of me, on stage,
in a red dress with a triangle cut in the back,
exactly the right size for my hand.' (Transmission)

I really look forward to seeing what he does next.

*Reviews of Mel Pryor's Drawn on Water and Rowyda Amin's Desert Sunflowers to follow shortly.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Self-promotional poetry updates

Well hello! Where is this year going? It is raining and raining today and the earth is absorbing it, shrinking back into winter regeneration. Not yet cold, but sodden. The animals are packing down.
I like it, indeed.


I am very pleased to have a poem in Best British Poetry 2014, edited by Mark Ford and Roddy Lumsden. According to the publishers, Salt, this anthology 'presents the finest and most engaging poems found in literary magazines and webzines over the past year. 
'The material gathered represents the rich variety of current UK poetry. Each poem is accompanied by a note by the poet explaining the inspiration for the poem.'
I'm heartened to have my poem, Messenger, included and look forward to reading the other contributions when the book is published this month.
Other news, I've got a few readings coming up.  I'll be reading a couple of poems at the launch of South Bank Poetry in the Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden on Friday 21st November.
I'm also reading at the launch of a new anthology, Her Wings of Glass, at the Second Light festival in London on November 22nd.
And on the 10th December, I'm joining Lorraine Mariner (reading from her brilliant new Picador collection, There Will Be No More Nonsense) and Kelley Swain (reading from her wonderful new collection Atlantic) at the Made in Greenwich Gallery, in ... Greenwich. 
I'm looking forward to all these events, and hope to maybe even see a few of you there. Thanks for reading.