Monday, 11 May 2020

Poetry in the New Phase

 After seven weeks now of this strange interiorised life, I continue to be poised between thinking these home-bound spring days could well be the optimum conditions for the fruitful work-life balance a writer needs and at other moments feeling adrift in a world that often seems to be rapidly crumbling into disarray as the daily tolls of coronavirus victims continue to swell across the world and the global economy sinks into catastrophic depression. At least here, in a UK whose government could hardly have handled the crisis worse, we seem to be coming to the edge of something. Although we will have to wait to see where next this already negligent and veering ship of state will take us, we know that certain forms of easing are now in place without at the same time lockdown being lifted: positive for many people whose livelihoods have been compromised yet worrying if we are contemplating sending children back to school and allowing the inroads we have made to be eroded again.
   Books and literature seem to have been a renewed source of solace and engagement for many, or in some cases a way to pass the time or evade reality that doesn't involve the internet or TV. After an initial surge, however, apparently book-sales in general are down and it is small presses that are feeling the pinch of a shrinking market and the ongoing closure of bookshops - surely some of these will re-open now with the justification that they provide an essential service to our communities? Other independent book-sellers, of course, have been doing a sterling job of remaining open to online buyers throughout the lockdown and in some cases even extending their service to personal delivery. In already straitened circumstances, you have to admire their tenacity and determination to keep that vital stream of books and words pulsing into the life-blood of our culture.
  By definition, of course, many of these small presses are poetry publishers and its incumbent upon everyone who cares about what was up until now (and hopefully will continue to be) a thriving and vibrant UK poetry scene to support them and try to buy books directly from them rather than via Amazon (and, if you weren't aware, Abebooks, sometimes perceived as a more ethical alternative to Amazon, is also owned by Bezos's vast corporate leviathan). Some interesting independent presses I wasn't previously too familiar with have caught my eye recently as I've had more time to survey what's out there than I usually do: Longbarrow from Sheffield, for example, who describe the work they publish as exploring "the intersections between landscape, history and memory" and who have several sampler-anthologies available to read as PDFs on their website; The High Window, an online journal of international poetry, reviews and translations edited by David Cooke, well worth a browse; and Contraband Books, who describe themselves as "a Modernist press" but don't otherwise give much away on their site, other than to promote their piquant range of titles. I've also been dipping into the recent Tears in the Fence 71, which has a high count of strong and distinctive poems by the likes of Gavin Selerie, Sian Thomas and the late Reuben Woolley, lamented in his editorial piece (among other fascinating mentions) by David Caddy.
  I say more time, but as this new phase of lockdown comes into being, I have the sense that it may be slipping away from me. With both myself and my partner working remotely and our small children also at home - those delightful and irrefutable little people from Porlock, less "enemies of promise" and more the termites of any sort of long-term ambition or domestic order - the huge swathes of additional writing time that seemed to open out before at the beginning of self-isolation seem to evaporate day by day and the novel I wrote such an exhilarating first chapter of in late March has hardly swelled its word-count since then. The summery balminess of Bank Holiday Friday and Saturday turned grey and blustery on Sunday and as I stare out at the gale-swept garden, listening to the surge of the buffeted trees, I'm wondering if this is the sound of reality gradually setting in.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Poem: Indefinite Hiatus


No-one had the faintest notion 
                                                       what to do next, 
there were as many alternatives
as there were knockdown 
                                          bargains in the sale;
not that it mattered much,
                                               after all, in days 
this vaguely taped-together: 
                                                           the clouds
over the building-site 
                                       were not quite there,
dusted fingerprints on a windowpane;
a pigeon’s footsteps 
                                     through solidifying cement
have left scripts that will no doubt 
                                                             outlast us,
mistaken by future historians 
                                                    as our holy writ…

It all goes back 
                           to that endless afternoon
in Nolan’s, staving off the crash 
                                                            with another last round
on your card, the epiphanies of youth
                transpiring to sweet FA, the jukebox 
that golden oldie: 
                                Halfway through life’s fiasco,
having strayed  
                          from company policy,

I found myself 
                          in a dingy bar…The piecing together
of a new enigma, 
                                      but with Yesterday’s Answers
Printed Below, never today’s 

eg. I can’t get across to my five-year-old 
                what cassette-tape is, unspooled, 
festooned from a maple 
                                              in glittering lianas,
imagined pop-songs 
                                                  to the breeze: 
there they are now, 
                                    just within earshot, 
like summer’s hushed surrender 
                                          across town,
the city muttering
                               in its threadbare sleep: 

or is that the drunken snoring
                                           of a homeless teenager
                passed out in the empty library?
                                                                         (First published on Intercapillary Space, 2013)

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Isolation and Distance

Image result for working from home  What an extraordinary state we find ourselves in: obliged to stay at home, avoid others (even family members we don't live with), cancel all social engagements and visits. The places we may like to go out to, moreover, are closed until further notice. Most of us are "working remotely" (or not remotely working) while at the same time juggling childcare because the schools and nurseries are closed (I am awkwardly typing this, for example, with my one-year old son asleep in my arms) . This sounds like something of a "nightmare situation" for many ie. those who become easily bored by sitting at home, who enjoy socialising and going out to the pub, gym or shopping-centre, even those who prefer the banter and busyness of the work-place to time spent indoors.
    Yet for most writers "self-isolating" is a necessary way of life and for some, even, a kind of prolonged spiritual discipline (Beckett wrote of art as "the apotheosis of solitude"). As for social distancing, I feel like my life-long instinctive unsociableness and avoidance of company may at last be interpreted as something other than the weird, rude behaviour of a boring loner. It may be one of the effects of aging and is almost certainly also to do with having a young family at home and moving from London to a quiet Home Counties town, but in recent years I have felt less and less temptation to go out anyway - giving up drinking this year (at least thus far) seems like letting go of one of the last few incentives to heading out to pubs or attending social events. So this governmental edict seems to ratify the direction I was veering towards anyway, and will hopefully also permit me to recover a healthier balance between writing/study time and family time than that toad work squatting on my life usually allows.
    But before I become too self-congratulatory, I should remember we are facing an unprecedented public health crisis and this should not be regarded as a holiday of any kind. Many more lives will certainly be lost and of course we should all be taking the strategies of isolation and distancing seriously. The shortage of food and basic amenities like toilet-roll in our supermarkets precipitated by selfish panic-buying is also a growing concern. When I went into town the other morning at about 8am, the shelves of the two main supermarkets were already mostly bare and I came back with a few random items (eg. poppadoms and croissants) rather than the essentials on our list, feeling like I'd been on one of those scavenging missions the characters in The Walking Dead used to go on when the series was still watchable. Because I'd left the house in a rush without showering I likened myself to scuzzy old Darryl coming home with his crossbow over one shoulder and a dirty hessian bag containing a few tins of indeterminate food-stuffs over the other. (Fortunately I didn't encounter any zombies on the high-street, although maybe these were the shambling, unthinking hordes who had already stripped the shelves.)
    From a political viewpoint, this sudden sense of blind panic and Dad's Army unpreparedness seems to reflect the nation's dawning realisation that this is a monumental crisis for a societal infrastructure which, after ten year's of swingeing austerity-cuts and siphoning of public resources into the hedge funds of affluent Tory-donors, was already to a large extent at crisis-point; chiefly of course the NHS and social care but also in the deregulated bear garden of the gig economy. We were told that the "flexible" freelance job-market was the way forward but for all those hundreds of thousands of workers living a more or less hand-to-mouth existence each month (many poets, writers, musicians and other artists among them) and whose income has just evaporated overnight, its hard to see how the government is going to be able to underwrite or recompense all their lost earnings.
   But if this period of lockdown forces us to revaluate the fragility of our current social and economic conditions, as well as making us understand the value of living on less, being less greedy and choice-driven in what we buy and sharing with our neighbours when we can (especially the more vulnerable and less fortunate members of our communities), we may look back on it as a turning-point, an opportunity to move beyond the abysmal state of anguished schism and discord which the debate over Brexit landed us in. Brexit is now relegated to the ridiculous waste of energy and rhetorical bickering it always was, and rightly so: we have more fundamental issues to confront now, like working together to ensure our own and each other's safety at this precarious time.
   "Almost all our unhappiness comes from from not knowing how to sit alone in our rooms", Pascal suggested (and I love that qualifying "almost" at the beginning). Thrown back on our own resources and own company by forces outside our control, shouldn't we now mine the positives of this situation and use this time to our best advantage by catching up on all the long-put-off writing-projects, the fat novels we started reading but abandoned, the classic movies and "must see" series we never got round to? The internet is suddenly bristling with suggestions and offers of creative activities which can help us use our downtime wisely and productively. Once we have got through this dreadful situation, let's hope we can look back on this as a time of opportunity and endeavour rather than a privation.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Roddy Retrospect

   Like many poets, I was saddened and dismayed to hear about the recent death of Roddy Lumsden. I met him at a couple of events in London, including the launch-party for Human Form where we found we shared an enthusiasm for several contemporary American poets like DA Powell and Timothy Donnelly. Such tastes give a clue to the quirky playfulness of his own distinctive voice, evinced strongly through a plethora of engaging volumes.
   But Roddy's contribution to poetry extended far beyond his own work to that of editor, critic, teacher and mentor to younger poets. Looking back to Identity Parade (2010), it still feels like an important anthology - in some ways it was my entry point into the contemporary poetry scene and I remember writing about it positively in the early days of this blog (which is indeed 10 years old this year, amazingly enough, of which more in a forthcoming post). It provides a fairly wide-ranging and enlightening survey of the last decade's generation of British and Irish poets, many of whom have gone on to become stars in today's firmament. 
     I like Roddy's introductory précis to each author, which suggest both a keen critical insight and an intimate knowledge of the contemporary poetry landscape, and also the book's preface in which he refreshingly declines to make sweeping claims about movements or tendencies but instead emphasises the "pluralist now" of this "period of exploration". This is certainly reflected in his generous selection of female poets (out-numbering, I believe, the male) and in the inclusion of some BAME writers, although less so with voices from the experimental or "post-avant" scene.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Eliot Goes Dub

Image result for roger robinson Ignoring the harsh realities of this long, frosty January - my bank account is more than empty, an entitled Etonian perjurer is misrunning the country and we are about to crash disastrously out of Europe like soon-to-be-mangled test-dummies through a windscreen - it's bracing to hear that a distinctive new non-white voice has won the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry. 
     Roger Robinson, whose victorious book A Portable Paradise is published by the small independent BAME press Peepal Tree, is not only a dub poet in the tradition of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Anthony Joseph but also (as I found out from this Guardian article) the singer with no less a band than King Midas Sound, one of several bass-heavy projects produced by Kevin Martin I used to follow. Their 2019 album Solitude is worth a listen but here's a track from Waiting for You, their 2009 debut:

Friday, 3 January 2020

Poem: Onset

No bestiary contains this predator, no field guide

It beds within you, blood-tick deep

Faltering and weltschmerz are its co-morbidities;

the day-sweats, twitched strabismus its outward signs

Skinful of formication it dogs your breathing

Ails the neocortex with agrammatical malaise.

Figure it hamfisted bailiff, thug-Erinye, Jesuit-probe

exacting payback for last night’s elevation –

the blackbox salvaged from your crashed/redacted memory 

he replays in jumpy snippets to dispossess the present tense. 

No moly countermands this but trans fats, MSG

Best you convene with your co-penitents at the bar, 

for a homeopathic tincture slow-absorbed, mulling which best fits:

Two-heads-on-you, coppersmiths, wood-mouth, yammer of cats

Footnote: The last line comprises colloquial idioms for hangover from Ireland, Sweden, France and Germany 

                                                                    (First published in The Wolf 2017)

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

A Word Extending Itself

  "And you can glance out the window for a moment, distracted by the sound of small kids playing a made-up game in a neighbor’s yard, some kind of kickball maybe, and they speak in your voice, or piggyback races on the weedy lawn, and it’s your voice you hear, essentially, under the glimmerglass sky, and you look at the things in the room, offscreen, unwebbed, the tissued grain of the deskwood alive in light, the thick lived tenor of things, the argument of things to be seen and eaten, the apple core going sepia in the lunch tray, and the dense measures of experience in a random glance, the monk’s candle reflected in the slope of the phone, hours marked in Roman numerals, and the glaze of the wax, and the curl of the braided wick, and the chipped rim of the mug that holds your yellow pencils, skewed all crazy, and the plied lives of the simplest surface, the slabbed butter melting on the crumbled bun, and the yellow of the yellow of the pencils, and you try to imagine the word on the screen becoming a thing in the world, taking all its meanings, its sense of serenities and contentments out into the streets somehow, its whisper of reconciliation, a word extending itself ever outward, the tone of agreement or treaty, the tone of repose, the sense of mollifying silence, the tone of hail and farewell, a word that carries the sunlit ardor of an object deep in drenching noon, the argument of binding touch, but it’s only a sequence of pulses on a dullish screen and all it can do is make you pensive—a word that spreads a longing through the raw sprawl of the city and out across the dreaming bourns and orchards to the solitary hills."
                                                                                              from Underworld by Don DeLillo, 1997

Thursday, 18 July 2019


Having becoming a father again in April (which explains the lack of activity on this blog in the last 3 months), I thought I would post this marvellous poem by the Australian poet Geoffrey Lehmann, a beautifully balanced tribute to the joys and frustrations of parenthood (love the wry twist on the opening line of Howl at the beginning). This is for all the mothers and fathers of young children out there, as a comical celebration of the enormously demanding yet immensely rewarding work we all do:
I have held what I hoped would become the best minds of a generation
Over the gutter outside an Italian coffee shop watching the small
Warm urine splatter on the asphalt – impatient to rejoin
An almond torta and a cappuccino at a formica table.
I have been a single parent with three children at a Chinese restaurant
The eldest five years old and each in turn demanding
My company as they fussed in toilets and my pork saté went cold.
They rarely went all at once; each child required an individual
Moment of inspiration – and when their toilet pilgrimage was ended
I have tried to eat the remnants of my meal with twisting children
Beneath the table, screaming and grabbing in a scrimmage.
I have been wiping clean the fold between young buttocks as a pizza
I hoped to finish was cleared from a red and white checked table cloth.
I have been pouring wine for women I was hoping to impress
When a daughter ran for help through guests urgently holding out
Her gift, a potty, which I took with the same courtesy
As she gave it, grateful to dispose of its contents so simply
In a flurry of water released by the pushing of a button.
I have been butted by heads which have told me to go away and I have done so,
My mouth has been wrenched by small hands wanting to reach down to my tonsils
As I lay in bed on Sunday mornings and the sun shone through the slats
Of dusty blinds. I have helpfully carried dilly-dalliers up steps
Who indignantly ran straight down and walked up by themselves.
My arms have become exhausted, bouncing young animals until they fell asleep
In my lap listening to Buxtehude. ‘Too cold,’ I have been told,
As I handed a piece of fruit from the refrigerator, and for weeks had to warm
Refrigerated apples in the microwave so milk teeth cutting green
Carbohydrate did not chill. I have pleasurably smacked small bottoms
Which have climbed up and arched themselves on my lap wanting the report
And tingle of my palm. I have known large round heads that bumped
And rubbed themselves against my forehead, and affectionate noses
That loved to displace inconvenient snot from themselves onto me.
The demands of their bodies have taken me to unfamiliar geographies.
I have explored the white tiles and stainless steel benches of restaurants kitchens
And guided short legs across rinsed floors smelling of detergent
Past men in white with heads lowered and cleavers dissecting and assembling
Mounds of sparkling pink flesh – and located the remote dark shrine
Of a toilet behind boxes of coarse green vegetables and long white radishes.
I have badgered half-asleep children along backstreets at night, carrying
Whom I could to my van. I have stumbled with them sleeping in my arms
Up concrete steps on winter nights after eating in Greek restaurants,
Counting each body, then slamming the door of my van and taking
My own body, the last of my tasks, to a cold bed free of arguments.
I have lived in the extreme latitudes of child rearing, the blizzard
Of the temper tantrum and my own not always wise or honourable response,
The midnight sun of the child calling for attention late at night,
And have longed for the white courtyards and mediterranean calm of middle age.
Now these small bodies are becoming civilised people claiming they are not
Ashamed of a parent’s overgrown garden and unpainted ceilings
Which a new arrival, with an infant’s forthrightness, complains are ‘old’.
And the father of this tribe sleeps in a bed which is warm with arguments.
Their bones elongate and put on weight and they draw away into space.
Their faces lengthen with responsibility and their own concerns.
I could clutch as they recede and fret for the push of miniature persons.
And claim them as children of my flesh – but my own body is where I must live.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Guest Poet: Robert Taylor

   I'm pleased to post a recent prose-poem by Brighton poet Robert Taylor this morning. I was very taken by the way it wedges strands of interior monologue and glimpses of lyric accord against caustic observational shards blurring into political invective, the tenuous voice of individual consciousness increasingly marginalised by anomie, austerity and media-logorrhea. Timely to note a whole new wave of poetry responding to the unprecedentedly intolerable state of disrepair the government has left our infrastructure and welfare state in, too preoccupied with the ongoing catastrophe of Brexit to lift a finger of assistance or even acknowledge the levels of personal disaffection and privation their policies are causing.

                                                  Annual Leave

1st winter plumage of gulls and waders
Your eyes have gathered up 
off the rippled sunlit mud 
of the tidal river for your occipital lobe to lovingly arrange in beautiful plates and the wash of skies and tops of buildings also being registered from smut-spatter window race and swish of forward motion somewhere under you. 

Not a ringtone doesn’t grate like blackboard scrape today, but if the voice behind you answers this with ‘yeah, I’m on the train’ you might snap the ear-wincing drink holder/tray from off the seat in front. 
So much for all of that: so what. 

Later on. Back indoors again, the resumed frenzies of adjacent refurbishing machinery; power tools your mind can’t differentiate. For a minute they/it grinds, teasing, to abrupt silence only to resume in full redoubling tumult - incessant as the self-excoriations, ensconced, ruptured shut, scotched after the petty agon of return; the endless tiny collisions to get home 

 - you can’t remember at what point each encounter with the street came to seem continuous onrush of hostility, of rancour, or the pre-emptive strikes of swiftly shot glares. That which is perceived. And every twenty, thirty yards another shelterless encampment: an utterness of abandonment. The motherless pietàs. You are not a violent person but on the Tory Party you wish some form of actual collective death. 

But hey, somehow, you made your way from station to fumbling the sticking lock with vague anticipation’s crouching dread of franked, brown-enveloped hate mail waiting for you on the hallway floor. You the working poor. Marked 2nd class. 

Then, in your flat with curtains drawn: a circumventing further inference from passage of daylight hints of the galloping cavalcade of watched and watching clocks and watches. Hurtle of money the permanent hurt.

The pitched, mechanical screaming, when did it replace, as the accompaniment to sparse codings in your axons, the summer sound of distant engine burring warm through the gentle blue, the dying fall, of light aircraft’s slow receding, inflections lapsing in air like they were gearshifts in the cochlea itself; the kindlier sense of solitude what’s past confers to equivocate perceptions of the seemingly identical phenomena?

The din through the wall at length shuts down and soon, you’re aware, abiding constancy of tinnitus resumes its level squealing pitch - it’s every bit as violent if you let yourself tune in. Try to ‘refocus’, ‘find your centre’ ..you hear generic Facebook advice: ‘avoid negative people. They hold you back’ You concentrate diligently on avoiding yourself...

What can you do? Try to be kinder. To yourself. To others. Forgive and ‘be in the now’ (as though there were alternatives). 

Great Wall of China winding in a hazed and endless distance, the ridged spinal taper of any infinite monitor lizard. The fluttered stand  of pale green rushes skirting the marsh, the floppy fringes that run the length of a huge pale green iguana’s back like an old biker’s jacket sleeve. This was your meditation. So what: so much for that. 

There is no such thing as the present. You are bitched and entailed to the lizard stump, guttering in the adrenal sump, cortisone lapping at the base of your beating throat. The present is merely this panicky surge between 
what just happened and 
what will happen next 

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Tranquil Labyrinth

 In a world which seems to be spinning further off its axis every time you turn on the news and the fabric of our society feels like its coming apart at the seams, with many high streets degenerating into rows of charity shops, thrift stores and boarded-up facades (to the colossal indifference of our equally derelict MPs), one takes refuge in simple, tactile pleasures. 
    What a relief, for example, to come across an independent bookshop on a high-street in Hertfordshire which not only has new, discounted and secondhand books but also an adjoining record shop on one side and its own separate coffee shop on the other side: the amazing David's in Letchworth Garden City. I had been there twice before and had been impressed enough without realising that there's also an upstairs to the bookshop, a tranquil labyrinth of well-stocked secondhand shelves that could restore the sanity of the most Brexit-fatigued, world-weary soul.