New Networks for Nature

This Thursday to Saturday saw the ninth annual New Networks for Nature symposium, and the sixth to be held at the Arts Centre in Stamford, Lincolnshire. I went, as is customary, with my fellow haiku poets John Barlow and Simon Chard. I’ve been to all of the previous symposia except last year’s and been privileged to perform at two of them – alongside John, and then with Martin Lucas too – but mainly I go to listen, to be informed and come away knowing that there are some incredible things to raise awareness of nature and its perilous state.

This year’s symposium felt the most relaxed one yet. The gallery at the Arts Centre was hung with the marvellous exhibition of Carry Akroyd’s lithographs and linocuts which incorporate and respond to poems by John Clare, who knew Stamford well. Unfortunately, thanks to work, I missed the opening event on Thursday evening, an apparently lively discussion between splendid Patrick Barkham and Tim Smit, the founder of the Eden Project. But I was up and at ’em on Friday to see the day kicked off with a fabulous session in which Doug Allan, Helen Scales and ever-wonderful Philip Hoare gave us three different views of the oceans, highlighting, respectively, the depletion of the ice mass which forms the ‘terra firma’ of the Arctic, the travails of the humphead (or Napoleon) wrasse, and close encounters with a variety of cetaceans, including sperm whales and orcas. All three are natural, engaging performers who are passionate about their interests.

The annual debate, this time between two dairy farmers (Micky Astor and Robert Craig) and Davy McCracken, Professor of Agricultural Ecology, was, disappointingly, more of a general agreement than a debate and certainly didn’t match the ferocious and intellectually thrilling duel between George Monbiot and Tony Juniper in 2015.

My highlight of Friday afternoon was the showing of two short films by Emily Richardson, including one, entitled Cobra Mist, filmed among the eerie shingle of Orford Ness, accompanied by a tremendous pounding industrial soundscape by Benedict Drew.

Saturday’s programme was as richly varied and surprising as Friday’s, and started with the entertaining performance by members of Stamford Arts Centre resident Shoestring Theatre troupe of an extract from a play by Steve Waters, who introduced the piece and was very eloquent on the issue of how to produce drama addressing ‘environmental issues’ without being didactic and/or dull.

What of poetry in all this, I hear you ask? There was some actual poetry – Katrina Porteous reciting, for the fourth time at New Networks, a few of her Northumbria poems, and in Derek Niemann’s reading of his poetic prose – but there was arguably more, and better, poetry to be had in some of the presentations and film, including Jack Perks’s amazing footage of grayling sex (as you do), and musical performance from Mike Edwards on Didgeridoo and Sam Lee singing folk songs.

In all, it was great fun, as it invariably is, and no doubt we’ll return for the 10th symposium next year.


The Yorkshire Grey and other stuff

At Yorkshire Grey 1 Nov 2017

So here I am in full, er, pause mode at The Yorkshire Grey a week or two ago, where I read, followed by Chris Hardy and Chrys Salt. It was a smashing evening, and the three of us were heartened to receive lots of kind feedback from the lively and engaged audience about how enjoyable it was. With
Dino Mahoney as compere, it was never going to be a dull evening.

Last week, I went to Faber HQ to see Ishion Hutchinson read, rather movingly, from his collection House of Lords and Commons and talk about it very eloquently in conversation with Matthew Hollis. It, too, was a really enjoyable evening and I’m going to sneak the book up my list to read.

Mentioning Matthew Hollis brings me round to Edward Thomas, whose death, at the Battle of Arras, in 1917 has been commemorated again, on this weekend of Remembrance just gone, even though he died in April of that year. I’ve been re-reading Thomas’s poems of late, as well as working my way steadily through my edition of the Collected MacNeice, which my brother Adrian bought me for Christmas back in 1985. I’ve always liked MacNeice’s urbane, slightly louche detachment, and I daresay his rather knowing narrative ‘voice’ has been more of an influence on my own voice than I’d realised. But that aside, he was a great, immensely readable poet, with a tremendous range.

For the Poetry Biz Writing School programme, my latest writing partner is the wonderful Mr Keith Hutson. Keith is known for his fantastic ‘Troupers’ sonnets about odd but true Music Hall acts who trod the boards of the UK’s finest variety theatres, but he writes other, equally brilliant poems too, which explore themes such as masculinity, aspiration and blue-collar work. At the moment, we’re looking at the poems of Hopkins and the lyrics of WS Gilbert and exchanging poems for each other’s constructive criticism. Keith’s pamphlet Routines is great value, in every way.

Finally, I’m delighted to see that my book is up on the Eyewear Publishing website, in august company.





So this time tomorrow I’ll be at the London Review Bookshop and will get my mitts on my book. I’ve spent so long dreaming of that happening that I can’t barely believe that it really is. But Amazon says that the book is out, so it must be.

There are many people that I ought to thank, so I’ll try and list some of them here. (All the poets named are ones whose poetry I much admire and have learnt from, but I am thanking them in other capacities.)

First of all, Martin Lynch, who was Writer-in-Residence when I was 19 years old at university, and who kindly took the time to read my poems and comment favourably upon them when they were probably a load of tosh. Within a few months I’d had poems published in Ireland, the USA and Britain, so I thought I was well on the way, but then life intervened for many years . . .

Then there was Katherine Gallagher, who, at British Haiku Society events 10 or more years ago, always used to ask me if I wrote longer poems and encouraged me to do so.

Pascale Petit, whose ‘Poetry from Art’ courses at Tate Modern and, once very memorably, Tate Britain, from 2008 to 2013, and Poetry School ‘Advanced Poetry’ course, were tremendously inspiring, not just to me but a whole host of other poets, many of whom have gone on to produce pamphlets and collections. Pascale had the rare knack of encouraging everyone in her classes, but without favouritism.

My friend Hamish Ironside rightly said that I ought to learn how to try different forms as well as free verse and, happily, Clare Pollard was about to start a year-long Poetry School course on ‘Form’; so I signed up and found that, completely contrary to my expectations, the restrictions of the various forms, be they sonnets, terza rima, ballads, etc., were, paradoxically, liberating. Clare’s enthusiasm for form was contagious, and tackling forms I would previously have run a mile from undoubtedly helped me to develop as a poet.

Hamish and another friend Roy Kelly, both very fine poets, gave me invaluable feedback on my poems which helped me prepare my full manuscript for the 2013 Poetry School / Pighog Press pamphlet competition, for which I was shortlisted. Even though I didn’t win, being shortlisted was endorsement enough that I was on the right track.

Two years ago, I started meeting up regularly with eight other poets, all of whom had attended Pascale’s Tate and/or Poetry School classes, to workshop poems for a couple of hours: Hanne Busck-Nielsen, Tom Cunliffe, Beatríz Echeverri, Katie Griffiths, Chris Hardy, Elizabeth Horsley, Gillie Robic and MJ Whistler. The feedback and friendship of what became the Red Door Poets were invaluable.

Last year I attended a few of the monthly Poetry Business Saturday workshop sessions in Sheffield led by Ann and Peter Sansom, and I was delighted to find that not only were they very fruitful in sparking new poems in the morning but the standard of poems for critiquing (and the standard of critique itself) in the afternoon was impressively high. Not long after, I applied for, and was thrilled to receive a place on, the Poetry Business Writing School programme 2017/2018. Thus far, the programme has made me become much more disciplined in my writing, so that it’s become a proper, daily practice, and my fellow participants have been a great help in critiquing my poems.

Finally, my biggest thanks are to Todd Swift for investing his faith, funding, advocacy and commitment in, and on behalf of, my poetry.

On Editing and Being Edited

There was a time when I subscribed to Francis Bacon’s credo, as related in his fascinating interviews with David Sylvester, that every work of art should have some imperfection, either intrinsic or a deliberate fouling, otherwise one would have reached a state of perfection and the game would be up. I don’t believe that notion in the slightest anymore.

As a poet, I am absolutely clear in my belief that any poem I write should be as good as I can make it; that I must query every word, phrase, syntactical unit and item of punctuation I use and then edit accordingly and thoroughly. To do any less than that would, I feel, be an abdication of my responsibility. What responsibility do I mean? Well, let’s face it: inflicting any form of creative writing – whether published or self-published – upon the world implies and demands a degree of arrogance in the implicit presumption that someone else will be interested enough to read and engage with it, so that de facto carries with it a responsibility to the reader. That responsibility deepens over time as one’s writing improves, to the point where when then has to collect the writings into a whole, whether as a collection of poems, short stories or what-have-you.

All that (and what follows) might sound as though I’m stating the bleedin’ obvious, but I’m constantly amazed by the fact that so many haiku submissions I receive for Presence, and most of the books of haiku and related forms which are sent to me for review, are poorly edited. The writer has to be their own first and most important editor, and that’s especially true for any haiku poet who may be inclined to seek to record the moment accurately at the expense of the poetry of what they are writing. For some haiku poets, the often-quoted dictum of Allen Ginsberg, of ‘first thought, best thought’ excuses any accountability on their part, or that of the publisher, to take a proper look at the work they’re churning out. In other words, they believe that any attempt at revising the wording will kill off the sense of spontaneity, of being in ‘the moment’, which their haiku is attempting to convey.

It’s true that sometimes a haiku can arrive fully-formed as the distillation of ‘the haiku moment’ to the extent that that initial draft can’t be improved by editing; statistically, though, those circumstances are rare. It is imperative to remember that the immediacy and freshness of a poem for the readers derives not from whether it fully depicts the writer’s experience, since they cannot know what that was unless they too were present, but from the power generated by the right words working together in partnership to create a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts and which is expressed in the best aural and visual form. It follows, then, that strict adherence to the exactness of the original ‘a-ha’ moment encourages laziness and a lack of willingness to reflect fully on the poetic merit of the writing and whether it fulfils Coleridge’s test of ‘the best words in their best order’.

Not though that I’m advocating the opposite extreme either, of writing haiku which have no experiential basis whatsoever: for me, ‘desk’ haiku are an absurd waste of space. When John Barlow and I invited submissions for Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku 10 years ago, we were dismayed to receive, from a well-known British Haiku Society member of the time, a ludicrous haiku about hummingbirds which was patently, and rather comically, falsified.

I’ve written before of my belief that it’s ridiculously easy for poets to get their haiku published in specialist haiku journals. In my experience, most haiku journal editors, being by and large a kindly bunch of people, set the bar for acceptance much too low – often by accepting at least one haiku from each submission regardless of quality in order to encourage beginners, when politely making editorial suggestions and guiding them towards best practice instead would be much more beneficial for everyone concerned. One wouldn’t expect someone picking up a violin for the first time to be able to knock out a concerto. As well as not benefitting the overall readership of the journal, such a low threshold negates the need for apprentice poets to work hard at learning their craft and to build the critical resilience required to improve their self-editing ability and then their poetic output. Surely if Malcolm Gladwell’s  rule that it takes up to 10,000 hours of practice to achieve greatness is anywhere near correct, then that applies to writing haiku as much as it does to any creative activity. 

By contrast, the ‘mainstream’ poetry world – or at least my involvement with and within it, which is almost exclusively limited to the UK – is much more demanding and rightly so. Journal editors are more likely to undertake their duties conscientiously by rejecting work which they feel isn’t yet word-perfect and isn’t overall isn’t as good as it can be. To get to a level where her or his poems are more likely than not to be published by reputable poetry journals, a poet has to learn to become resilient and face each rejection with a determined and forensic re-examination of the rejected poem(s), and to read the work of other poets, both canonical and contemporary, deeply and widely in order to provide a contrast and comparison. Of course, there will be occasions where the poet may feel that the editor has ‘got it wrong’ or just has different personal tastes, but arrogantly believing that one is always right and the editor is wrong can only ever leave a poet stumbling in the dark.

In the preparation of my soon-to-be-published poetry collection, I’ve recently undergone a rigorous editing process at the hands of the Eyewear Publishing team and it has been one of the most creatively rewarding experiences of my poetry life. I entered it with enough self-belief that my collection was well-honed, over a very long time, and that every poem, whether previously published or not, had enough about it to be included (though two poems subsequently fell by the wayside for particular reasons), but also in the spirit that Eyewear, as a consistently excellent independent poetry publisher, know what they’re doing. Naturally, I felt a bit daunted and exposed by the editing process, but that was entirely as it should be. After all, readers of the eventual book will query my word-choices and some will query every comma and semi-colon, so it is incumbent upon me as the writer and upon Eyewear as the publisher to leave nothing to chance and instead shape all the poems, and the way they gel as a whole, into the best state possible.

In the event, although the wording and punctuation of many poems were rightly and understandably queried, few actually needed any substantial amendments, and we reached a consensus fairly painlessly. The sequencing of the poems was helpfully altered as a result, though, and the book now contains 62 poems in three sections, which I think work well in their range of themes, subject-matter and emotion, and in their mixture of contemporary and historical times. Obviously, it remains to be seen whether readers will agree.


On Ciaran Carson’s The Star Factory

It’s a strange and shameful thing to me that until fairly recently I’d read none of Ciaran Carson’s poetry collections, though one rarely stumbles upon his poetry in bookshops in England, either as new or (especially) in second-hand or charity bookshops (no doubt his brilliance makes the owners of his books loth to part with them). The reason why that’s odd isn’t just because I spent six of my formative years in County Antrim, but because when I’m reading him I get the feeling that I’ve been waiting all my life to read him, and almost as if the subject-matter is so close to my own concerns that I know what’s coming next, to the extent that his writing is a distillation of my own thoughts. That feeling is amplified even more in Carson’s prose works, or at least the two of which I’ve read: his utterly wonderful 2009 novel, The Pen Friend, which I read at a pivotal point in my life, in the summer of 2014, and this, another book of genius, The Star Factory, from 1997.

It’s written in such remarkably mellifluous English that it’s hard to credit that English wasn’t Carson’s first language, and contains a vast, agreeable vocabulary encompassing words like ‘melismatic’, ‘avoirdupois’, ‘Augean’ and the like. Ostensibly, it’s part-memoir and part-exploration of Belfast, the city Carson knows so well, and how it has changed over time, but such a synopsis doesn’t begin to do it justice. One might consider that The Star Factory could be classified as a ‘psychogeographical’ work, in the manner of Iain Sinclair (with whom, incidentally, I had a conversation, at the Tate symposium on WG Sebald in 2006, about the Met. Police helicopters flying from High Beach, in Epping Forest, whence John Clare escaped all the way home to Northamptonshire on foot in 1841, to the skies over Walthamstow), but it’s much less mannered and knowing than the writings of Sinclair; and it’s crammed full of a rich accumulation of knowledge and a love of storytelling, handed down from his father, somewhat in the manner of Sebald’s great four ‘novels’, particularly The Rings of Saturn, or Borges’s books, though this is more overtly a memoir than fiction, despite a scattering of dreams and excerpts from other people’s books. It was written and published, like Sebald’s, just before the internet changed knowledge – or access to it at any rate – forever, at a point in time when the ‘word-processor’ was replacing the typewriter. I remember well in my first proper job, with Kingston Council, in 1992, sharing one word-processor between a team of 13 of us, but how preferable it was to fight to gain access to that primitive machine than to have to essay a trip to speak to the ladies of the Typing Pool, perhaps the worst kind of nightmare for a shy-ish young man to endure.

I visited and stayed in Belfast many times in the late ’80s, including most of the summer of ’86 in the area of East Belfast celebrated on Astral Weeks and 1985’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, featuring the lovely oboe of Kate St John, who had, a year or two before, also greatly helped to render beautiful Julian Cope’s second solo album. Belfast felt just the right size for a city – a feeling which I’ve since had in Sheffield too – and, though I was nearly always acutely conscious that being English in some parts of Belfast was considerably more dangerous than it was in Portrush, I liked it very much. I’ve not been there since 1991, when my then girlfriend and I visited a friend of ours briefly being held on remand in Crumlin Road gaol, but reading The Star Factory has triggered so many memories of places I went and hadn’t thought about for years, most notably the old Smithfield Market second-hand book dealers and the Corn Market, where I remember acquiring very ’80s blond highlights and an equally dodgy Top Man suit. In my memory, the Smithfield books may have conflated with the small bookshop at Coleraine station owned and run by an affable, brown-corduroy-jacket-and-cardigan-wearing chap called Liam, whose mass of frizzy hair made him look like he spent an hour with his hands around Van de Graaf generator every morning. From Liam I bought many a Pan edition of the short stories of John O’Hara, who was long out of fashion even then, and a first British edition of On the Road which I stupidly lent to one of my university housemates and never got back.

But I digress. Among the charming childhood memories which Carson brings to the surface and the etymology and nuances of Irish words, phrases and names (including Belfast itself), The Star Factory contains the likely suspects – the Titanic (about which my dad had pretty much every book ever written, for some reason only known to him), the marvellous Odd Man Out (the novel as well as the film, featuring the curious Oirish accent of James Mason, who hailed from Huddersfield and was schooled at Marlborough College, where he was in the year below MacNeice), Gallahers’ cigarette factory, linen mills, Milltown Cemetery, The Crown, the Europa, the often invisible divide between ‘Catholic’ areas and ‘Protestant’ ones, the oddity of being a Catholic with the surname Carson, etc., – but also many beautiful lyrical passages, concerning more obscure matters, including Carson’s fondness for bridges (who doesn’t like a nice bridge?), and, long before they became in vogue, murmurations of starlings:

Coordinated, countless sentences of starlings flit and sway in baroque paragraphs across the darkening sky, as they compose exploded founts of type. It is coming up to the time of the year when the clocks go back. An autumn chill is in the air, and shadows lengthen in the inky Lagan. The multitudes come home to roost in serried nooks and crannies, under eaves, on pediments and capitals, stilled and castellated on the tops of ornamental porticos, cornices and window-sills, in sooty alcoves and gazebo turrets, lining the balustraded parapets, perched on the spokes of cartwheel windows and weighing down the hands of the Albert Memorial Clock. (p.237)

I’ve also lately been reading two of Carson’s poetry collections The Irish for No and First Language and been repeatedly struck at how one would be hard-pressed at times to distinguish using the ear (and not the eye) his poetry from his prose, and to delineate where one ends and the other begins – though not because his poetry is prosaic, but because his natural inclination is to tell stories, much in the way that John Berger’s was. Interestingly, Carson’s usage of the phrase ‘exploded founts of type’ in the passage above is a repeat of the wording in perhaps his best-known poem, ‘Belfast Confetti’, published in The Irish for No three years before The Star Factory appeared: ‘Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks, / Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And the explosion / Itself – an asterisk on the map.’ Whilst writers are perfectly at liberty to repeat themselves, one wonders if the echo here is deliberate or not. Although I’ve been kicking myself for not properly having begun to read Carson’s writings before 2014, I suspect that sometimes you have to be a certain age to appreciate fully the harmonious admixture of content and style of a truly wonderful writer. The joy for me is that I have so many more of his books to track down and read. Carson will be 70 next year and I hope he receives the festschrift that he’s due.

Ciaran Carson, The Star Factory, Granta, 1997.