Saturday, 18 April 2015

Judging the Forward Prizes, Reading Differently

As a university lecturer and further education tutor for the last twenty years, with a focus on teaching creative writing, I have developed my ability to read appreciatively. I've come to start my workshops with "What do we like?" because I want to use that immediate, almost unthought initial response as a starting point. 

Reading for the Forward Prizes requires a different approach, that of reading for excellence. In poetry it consists of many elements, including linguistic precision, musicality, and depth of thought. I think reading nearly 200 books like this will make me a better teacher and a better reviewer--or so I hope. I've certainly already perceived a development in my thought, in my sense of my own poetics as well as what I look for in others' poetry. The two poems I worked on on the flight to the States ten days ago differ markedly from my previous writing--they're a lot longer, and one combines lines and prose, something I've never really done before. Whatever is yet to come, judging the Forward Prizes has been one of the most challenging pleasures I've experienced in a long time. 

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival, 29-31 May

The programme's now out for the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival on the weekend of 29-31 May in Cornwall. I'll be reading on Sunday afternoon with Karen McCarthy Woolf, and other readers on the weekend include Matthew Francis, David Harsent, Sinead Morrissey, Matthew Sweeney and Anthony Wilson. Tickets for all events, including workshops with Morrissey and Sweeney, are a mere £55, £42 concessions. You can find the full programme here.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Peter Riley's Due North (Shearsman, 2015), first selection

Some favourite passages:

                    ...raising the head, learning wisdom

in a form of desire, a distance to be gained, learning to wait,

           absence of question-marks, Orphic stasis.


                       ...wood smoke drifting across the fields

         dividing thought                between love and duty


Tell me-- how from the vast emptiness of the million words

the short phrase strikes the bone between the eyes,

tell me how the world is altered, so little

tell me as little as possible, tell me falsetto

        tell me all night--


Then sustain it, tell me

        what you have, lost or left

        in a language beautifully linked

that you could tell the links one by one

like the links in a silver chain, a silver

        tested and coined, fixed in the moon's side,

                   over the end of the world

and we'll get there, reach

         the flowered arbor, the chambered tomb

                             crawl into it and read the stone

with difficulty (about honour).       Then answer

Where are you from?


Tenant farmers above Halifax,

world of clarts and slopstone

and the rain singing in the yard.

from "I: Housman's Question"

And another child is born,
somnolent in white lace
and always welcome (what 
is a sky without a star in it?) 1830s urban
infant mortality rate 50% (what is a sky
without a soul in it?) soul tugging at
soul under a black sky.


stations built of overlapping chords, where we

laid our heads on the hard wooden benches and

dreamed our own cathedrals, man woman and child.

from "II: A Lost Patrimony" the year points to the stars chattering

in the morning sky with a lark's clarity, the stars fading away.


As I came into this world far from
any centre, pratensis "of the fields" so I
moved out, seeking a hand in darkness as 
a child against the wandering fires in the night fields
learning to breathe in the world's fullness
a single truth, that held a dying hand, far from any centre.


...consolation for a life of dread

as death is warmed to.


                                                          ...under the kestrel's path we moved

out and back, seasonally or daily,

                                                           going to Marks & Spencer's for a shirt

well beyond the northern limits of the nightingale.


...and wafts us out of our indulgences

to the waking place, the narrow cot, the birthing light

                          not far from the duties. Or Elektra's


from "III: The Generations. The Dispersals. Funeral Duties"

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

A commemorative bench for my parents on the Constitution Trail, Normal, Illinois

As readers of this blog will know, until his paralysis in 2007, my father loved cycling, and the creation of the Constitution Trail in Bloomington-Normal was a great event for him. He cycled on it regularly and indeed, talkative man that he was, he also made friends there. After his death in 2009, I talked with my mother about arranging for a commemorative bench on the trail, an idea that really pleased her. When she died in 2011, I wanted to include her, too, somehow. The bench is located in Fairview Park. (If you click on the photo, it should enlarge.)

I look forward to visiting the bench when I'm next in town, probably early September.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Maureen Thorson's My Resignation (Shearsman, 2014)

On Wednesday I heard Maureen Thorson read at an off-site AWP event, Saturday I bought her book at the Small Press Distribution booth at the book fair, and I've read it over the last two days. Here are some favourite passages:

O questor at the doorstep of high summer,
the weathers of a heartbreak
left me red-eyed, wary,
              transparent to the winds,

tawdry terrors
underlying my tenderness.

from "A Man for All Seasons"

You've come down where your heart lies, 
from the great cold enclosure, 
a southerly course.

             At the head of no army,
             with one smile
             and two hands to make your case.

             Past several rivers,
             bright medals of your intention.

from "Follow the Leader"

Alphabetizing ourselves while azaleas go gaga.
Hot pink shockwaves drowning out the yard.

from "There Will Come the Great Reshelving"

The idea(l) of the unconditional

             leaves me waiting at the window
             to glimpse that singularity--

a flash in the middle distance
             the watcher and the watched one
might converge.

end of "Meet Me at the Vanishing Point"

Curious to thrive.

last line of "The Sun Sets Every Day"

Thinking of collision. Hands arranging my hair
             as red branches frame the window.
Teeth white as flashbulbs. Limbs clash,

             Petals no one tells apart.

end of "Closer Than They Appear"

Not to be alone--

             a shivery, upwelling pleasure.

end of "'Applause for This Shared Vigilance'"

Every emotion carries the seed
             of its loss, excruciating bloom.

from "Self-Portrait as Tragedienne"

              In it to win
the beautiful wreck.

end of "Jackpot"

(All along the fenceline, I uproot
              encroaching morning glories.
              I throw 
their twining corpses over my shoulder.) 

from "On Marriage"

The weather report calls for continued transcendence:
Lengthening evenings, gilding the telephone wires
as they dip over the yards, rattling slightly
with the feral hum of air conditioners.

from "Trophy Life"

When I kiss you, the night kisses back,
                           velvety, intolerable,
                           a greedy creature
lurching comically on rubbery wings.

from "Through the Looking Glass"

Whiling the green evening away in a restaurant
             located adjacent to the possible.

from "Smorgasbord"

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Lesley Saunders' The Walls Have Angels (Mulfran, 2014)

Some favourite passages:

...although some mornings
we wake in a past room
so familiar is the window
and soft-footed

like the look of a pearl
that we feel we are
the kind of stuff
continuously inhabited

by light and memories
of light, winter birds
falling out of the sky
more spirit than flesh....

from "Nightshirt"

...her face contemplative as glass....

from "Annunciation"

                                  The song in her head held

its wisteria note for the length of a question....

from "Music for Two Keyboards"

...and the slight sense of
          mistaken identity
each time the daughters
catch sight of their
vivid altered selves.

from "Psalms for the House"

                                             The blue

was something else: the cool of wall
against a woman's back, the linen
weight of her hem, and the light itself

               material as the jug of warm milk

in a corner.

from "Smalt"

...movements of the soul in vivacious flesh....

from "Shudder"

                                       Spoke without notes

in front of all these silences....

from "The Power of Light"

                    Comes a dancer

out of the Gloucestershire bluebell woods
blue-veiled with whatever it takes
to get to the truth.

from "Out of the Blue"

The air is suddenly bee-yellow,

peony-red, aflame:
there is more to this world than this world....

from "Enter the Dragon"

At the door the last visitor

must slough his dead skins
like a disreputable coat
and wait for the music.

from "Keepers"

You can purchase The Walls Have Angels at Waterstone's here for either home delivery or click and collect service.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

On not winning the Ted Hughes Award

My partner Trev and I were not long inside the Savile Club before its poshness had overpowered us--or we had someone with whom to share our views. For the first time in years I saw my former MA student Tom Weir, whose poem had placed in the top ten in the National Poetry Competition (yay, Tom!). Before long I'd met up with Peter Daniels, Rachel McCarthy, fellow shortlister Patience Agbabi, Tammy Yoseloff and many more I met that night for the first time. I became an avid poet-sighter, pointing out to my partner  John Agard, Carol Ann Duffy and Alice Oswald, among others.

Fortunately we didn't have to wait long into the night before the Ted Hughes was announced. Kei Miller and Julia Copus gave lavish descriptions of each work on the shortlist, then Carol Ann Duffy pronounced Andrew Motion the winner. I looked at Trev and shrugged my shoulders and spent much of the rest of the night receiving commiserations as well as, more happily, talking about the Forward Prizes, as I met Forward Arts Foundation employee extraordinaire Maisie Lawrence, with whom I'd had a fair bit of contact about meeting arrangements and book deliveries. 

Was I, am I disappointed? Of course, but only a little. I've greatly enjoyed being shortlisted and the new readers it seems to have brought to Imagined Sons; there have also been some new invitations for readings and workshops. It's time to get on with my reading for the Forward Prizes--and to my next collection, on which I'll say more before long. 

Thanks to everyone who sent kind messages over the past weeks about the book and the award. I don't think I've ever felt such strong support for my work, which is so heartening as I look to the future. Many, many thanks.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Togara Muzanenhamo's Gumiguru (Carcanet, 2014)

Here are some favourite passages:

All day the work, shuffling steps into shuffled clearings,
beetles and crickets rising off cordite clicks sparking
off stone, bearded chin sequinned with sweat.

from "In the Music of Labour"

                                                       Silence is not simple,
the road, almost a ritual passage to an evening
         descending on you with a passionate fear.

the end of "Cirrus"

...the dark scream of ghosts
sung wild off the moon's charred, white breath.

the end of "Nagapie"

...the sun hauling amnesia in.

from "Amnesia"

                The wind sings through the grass, parrots rise
from bare trees, yet youth still whispers some reprise
his hunched shadow won't easily surrender or forget.


...the sky nailed wet with stars.

from "Portrait off a Water Trough"

and life, air and nature glowing slow beneath a task
          sung heavy with the golden harvest of smoke.

end of "The Coucal and the Smoker"

Race and power rotating on the axes of money.


                                                                           ...a laughter
reversed--dark as echoes of grief flowering on every lapel.


          ...the Piper's sweet needling flute drawing us to nod
deep into a sparkle where panic raised its jewelled hood
with its black imperious summons, the angered demigod
hypnotically licking time off every sweet layer of the sun
till the brass bell woke us with the gong of its lobed tongue.


                                                 ...the heat at work on the tar,
the city's streets slow and soft with submission.

from "Gates of Dawn"

           It's true, we'd walked through something dark;
and though the sun set like a weeping wound, the stark
nature of our joy drew us up, and almost embarrassed us.

end of "Savannah Chapel"

                                     Sunlight bounced hard
up off the ground, wild fermented fruit sweetening
the heat.

from "The Fig-route"

Each warm draught like the pant of a dog.


     And the nights now are for fear, great gasping fields of darkness without stars--whole hours of quicksand for the dying.


     There was a safety and imagined danger in this game; he stood at the edge of the pool like a machine manufacturing joy as we ran into his arms like components into the assembly line--to be flung into absolute completion, again.


...their poise, a poise of pure ease.


     No weight could question my strength--my hands locked over my father's chest, his back on my stomach, his loose head, as we carried him into the clinic.


Soon, there will be a full moon, and at first it will be blood red as the sun is now, and blunt like the crown of a stillborn.


...having no choice but to trust the dark.


     The buzzards lifted to a dead tree. Monstrous wingspans flapping over new stars and planets. What had I done?

from "Gumiguru"

A weak, sulking rain draws a thin curtain across the lake,

silver gossamer over Norton town.

from "Water"

Pale signatures of dust scrawl the sky, the whispered strokes

vanishing into a blue canvas. 

from "The Reduction"

        The sun a red miserable glow faint with a silence
this season gives, a spiritual silence wet with flying ants staining
        broken glass, the delicate song of rain
singing through broken trusses, up to where pain
              opens its wings to soar through skies quietened by height.

end of "Facsimile of a Quiet Country"

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A new review of Imagined Sons on the Magma blog

You can read a new review of Imagined Sons by issue 63 co-editor Lisa Kelly here, but I'm happy to give away the conclusion: "...the poems seed their own dynamic by continuing to work on the imagination after the book is shut. That, surely, is one of the most important things poetry can do. O’Donoghue [quoted on the cover] might just be right." 

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Claire Crowther's On Narrowness (Shearsman, 2015)

Some favourite passages:

Mosquitoes charged me with their sour sugar
outside the vinegar house. Six years, ten years,
sixty, it ferments from oak to juniper
to chestnut to cherry and back to oak wood barrels,
balsamic vinegar separating itself
from a hundred year old mother sediment.

opening stanza of "The Apology"

...till we both are
woken by pain with its orange beak.

end of "Separation"

I cling to you tighter 
than a striped shell
on a fennel stalk.

last stanza of "Snail"

A translator can add only humility
to the original.

from "TB Hospital, 1944"

         She watched a ship
slip into pearl while sunset

picked up importance.

from "Alcyone"

His rage fermented into speechlessness.

 from "The Night of Misrule"

What do you make of this dangerous space,
the gutter? Children commandeer it and conjure
what they can from such silken dust as is
human and poor.

opening stanza of "Graffitista"

...a goddess bereft of
her creation, summoning
my existence to her high sound.

* whole 
halo of seeds.

from "A Dormative for Strings"

Not a wolf. Surely there is not
a wolf. Some other. I must be guarded.

end of "Opponent"

...if I get lost in End Erring,
find me. I'll be ankling over
stones. At least my backpack,
external organ full of function,
and my marks on snowy bark,
finally at ease with repetition, 
find them, find them.

end of "A Wanderer in End Erring Wood"

Our friends are scrambling towards the top stone stretched
like wall. I hope they sit on it and wave.
The wind has mounted those yew trees.
They're not upright nor our friends.

opening stanza of "Rockborne"