On Elaine Gaston’s The Lie of the Land

In ‘North Wind: Portrush’, a poem written whilst he was writer-in-residence at the University of Ulster in Coleraine (UUC) in the early ’80s, Derek Mahon memorably took the existential measure of the North Antrim seaboard:

I shall never forget the wind
On this benighted coast.
It works itself into the mind
Like the high keen of a lost
Lear-spirit in agony
Condemned for eternity
To wander cliff and cove
Without comfort, without love.[1]

Having been born and bred in the area, Elaine Gaston, from Ballycastle, east of Portrush, (and, incidentally, also an ex-UUC creative writing lecturer), knows this coast and its rural hinterland in a more down-to-earth manner than Mahon, and that knowledge imbues her debut collection with an old-fashioned but, to me, highly welcome love of landscape. (I should at this point state that I spent six years in Portrush from 1985, so Gaston writes of a part of the world that I’m familiar with, albeit as an outsider.) Right from the off, taking her cue from another fine poet from the North of Ireland, John Hewitt, Gaston charts the land as her own:

I know my way by the mossy stone,
the boggy field, the fairy thorn,
the house with the old milk churn stand,
the house which hides the bogeyman

(from ‘Early Map’)

From lines like these, which stake out an indelible sense of place, comparison could easily be drawn with Kavanagh or with Heaney (whose influence Gaston acknowledges in her notes), a feeling compounded by the poem’s beautifully-turned ending:

                    Townlands stretch to the east
and the west, the north and the south of us,

shining basalt in my mind,
falling water through my hands,
ripe blackberries on my tongue:
Drumtullagh, Dunseverick, Lisnagunogue.

The Lie of the Land moves, it seems, in a roughly chronological order, an autobiography of sorts, like many a first collection, but that works well, as it gives the collection a natural coherence. ‘Early Map’ is followed by three charming poems of childhood, in which her mother, with “her constant back”, features as a gently guiding influence. I recently saw and heard Gaston read her lovely sonnet, ‘Dunseverick’, at one of the wonderful Coffee-House Poetry evenings at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court and I was struck by the precise quality of her recall:

We splashed and charged and roared into the water,
came out mottled, numb; she squeezed dry our hair,
wrapped us in towels, shoved on windcheaters,
gave us hunks of wheaten slapped together
with a wedge of Edmund Black’s good cheddar
gone sweaty in the sun.

This is, of course, a scene that many people, myself included, could relate to, but Gaston invigorates the memory by the appropriately galloping rhythm created by the extra ‘and’ and by those perfect, musical participles – ‘mottled’, ‘shoved’, ‘slapped’, ‘gone sweaty’. These are words which both read well on the page and resound magically on the ear.

Gaston goes on to delineate for posterity, and without condescension, the ‘characters’ of her early years – ‘The Bread Man’ “who wore a winter hat / shaped like a Brown Batch”, and ‘The Vegetable Man’ who “held trays of freshly dug Queen’s, / Magilligan carrots, broad beans, turnips, parsnips, sprouts” – and the excitement (“I did anything for a book”) of ‘The Library Van’ “that called to ours every other Tuesday / about four o’clock”.

Equally excellent are some poems about/featuring her father, especially ‘Letting it Draw’:

My father taught me to make tea,
the tea only North Antrim farmers know,
in the dented metal pot where I hoked deep
for swollen leaves to spatter on the china sink.

Paradoxically, this is economical writing which says and implies so much: the respect for traditions and old ways handed down. That phrase “where I hoked deep” somehow takes on a metaphorical facet, as though, from a young age, Gaston was curious about the world and how it operates, even down to the alchemy of tea-making. Gaston’s narrative persona varies little from a straightforward depiction of events, slightly nostalgically, yet always to a point and purpose that the reader can discern. Most of the poems are written with the emotional distance that the third person brings. Sometimes, though, such as in ‘Keeping in Touch’ and ‘New Year’s Day’, an unflinching account (“Muck all over the windscreen, / cabbage and cream all over the car, / you against the steering wheel”) of the fatal car crash down a North Antrim lane of (presumably) an older sibling, Gaston uses the direct address of the second person to excellent effect.

As a woman who grew up in a Catholic family in the North of Ireland, it’s inevitable that Gaston has written several poems which relate directly or indirectly to the Troubles. In ‘Storm Damage’, she cleverly juxtaposes media coverage of the Great Storm of October 1987 with hoped-for news of the Birmingham Six; ‘Plastic Bullet’ relates – as a representative of all those who suffered from the effects of the security forces’ over-fond usage of firing plastic bullets – the phlegmatic attitude of a friend who was shot in the head (“she was just fifteen / a three-inch plate / where part of her skull used to be”); and elsewhere there are mentions of army checkpoints, of the casual use of violence (“a joyrider shot dead”), of a kneecapping victim, of the shootings in 2009 of two off-duty soldiers outside the Massereene Barracks in Belfast (the specular poem ‘Flashback’) and, with a large nod to Heaney, of the Disappeared. It’s in her outstanding poem ‘Rare Grooves’, though, that Gaston most effectively and movingly addresses the futility and absurdity of the military presence: it tells a superficially simple tale of Gaston (or a first-person persona) being stopped, as she drives along a quiet road through the Glens, by two soldiers, of whom one is Scottish and the other a Black Londoner:

he wants to check why
in the wilds of North Antrim
this Irish girl is blasting out
reggae records so rare
even he can’t get them

[…]

The Scottish one disnae have a baldy,
but I tell him, dinnae worrae,

on a good day from the mountain
I can see across the sea
to where he comes from.
He laughs

and suddenly we all wonder
where this scenario comes from,
so much removed from everything
this stop and search is meant to be,

so much like the film we’d rather star in.

(The film in question appears to be Terms of Endearment, as the poem makes references to Debra Winger and the moon.) The unlikely, yet natural humour of the scene is superbly brought out by Gaston’s perfectly paced unfolding of the story over 22 quatrains and is expertly reinforced by the use of colloquialisms (e.g. “disnae have a baldy”), as is the case in many of the other poems in the book. It’s a multi-layered poem, with the ‘sub-plot’ of another direct address, (seemingly) to a distant lover, and one which amply demonstrates what a skilful poet Gaston is. The variable lengths of the lines add to the tension of the situation, not just of the conflict but also of the narrator’s vulnerability, as “a woman alone, / and them not busy” on an isolated back-road. The poetic voice of women in the Troubles has perhaps been heard less over the years than those of their male counterparts, despite the excellence of poets like Colette Bryce and Sinéad Morrissey, and it’s good to see Gaston redressing the balance.

Most of all, Gaston writes particularly well of what Anne-Marie Fyfe, another tremendous Glens of Antrim poet, perceptively calls in her endorsement “the everyday complexities of north-of-Ireland life, the unrootedness of contemporary experience with its leavings and returnings, and the ineluctable shifts of the heart”: the lure of homecoming after university education in Oxford, the joy of watching her children, especially in the wonderful sonnet ‘Crows Glen, Belfast Hills’, echoing the earlier poems of her own childhood, and, of course, the beauty of the North Antrim landscape (“where land gives way / to the Atlantic”), with its fields, bracken, gorse, blackthorn, hazel, heather, downpours, “old tracks” and rugged wildness. This a rich and unmissable collection which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading. It’s worth reading it slowly, as each poem, always and expertly in apposite forms, is to be savoured. Great stuff.

Elaine Gaston, The Lie of the Land, Doire Press, 80pp., £9.

[1] From The Hunt by Night, Oxford University Press, 1982.

Haiku Workshopping and Poems About my Dad

On Wednesday, I led a workshop for the Red Door Poets, the collective of nine (including me) folk who meet every now and then at the home, in London, of one of us, M.J. Whistler. Workshopping, whilst it sounds like it’s the name of a town in Sweden, can be a tricky business, because the tutor has to ensure that the tutees gain an understanding and/or increased ability of the matter whilst not doing so in a overly didactic/dogmatic manner. I had never led a workshop on my own before, though I did lead a couple of workshops with John Barlow a few years ago. Although they had all kindly bought and read The Lammas Lands when it was published, and are all highly talented poets, the Red Door mob were largely unfamiliar with haiku, either  translated from Japanese or originally written in English, so, with the time available being limited to just three hours, I thought that there should be three principal objectives: to gain, from close reading of some excellent examples, a sense of what successful haiku do and what they don’t do; to go for a fairly brief walk (a ginko) during which we would write down observations which could either emerge as fully-formed haiku, or could be used to write some; and, generally, to increase their enjoyment of reading, and hopefully writing, haiku.

I started with a list of 13 features of what I regard as good haiku and then we went through 17 English-language haiku, by the likes of David Cobb, Alison Williams, Robert Spiess, Peggy Willis Lyles, Caroline Gourlay, etc. I tried to let the group come up with their thoughts about each haiku and prompted them only when I felt it was necessary, though, being very perceptive and intelligent people, they ‘got’ the haiku in nearly every case. As I was at pains to say, my feeling is, and always has been, that haiku come from a different part of the brain to longer poems as they are about being ‘in the moment’ and are less consciously polished. That doesn’t, of course, mean that haiku can’t be edited in order to improve them, but somehow the best haiku have the uncanny knack of seeming as though they are spontaneous reactions to direct observation/experience. That was certainly exemplified by some of the featured haiku, such as this one by John Barlow (from Waiting for the Seventh Wave, Snapshot Press, 2006):

day’s end . . .
loch water laps
the tethered canoes

On the surface – pun intended – of this haiku, there isn’t a lot going on, but I’d argue that it’s a marvellously balanced poem which conjures up a deeply resonant sense of melancholic beauty, very firmly in the haiku tradition. One of the group suggested that the ellipsis was superfluous and, whilst you could indeed argue a case for that, I offered my alternate view that it allows the reader space to pause and really absorb the fact that it’s a very specific time of day, with darkness coming on and, perhaps, a brightly setting sun. We discussed the fine verb use, which is so often key to a haiku’s success or otherwise: here, ‘laps’ is perfect, being simultaneously quiet and onomatopoeic, and having the secondary meaning of ‘going all the way around’. we then talked about the adjective, which is also spot-on: it’s as if the canoes are roped up not just to stop them from being carried away across the water, but also from actively drifting away, i.e. as though the canoes would have some kind of existential freedom to move of their own accord if they weren’t tethered. You may think I’m being daft at reading it like that! It’s important, too, to iterate that the haiku sounds as lovely on the ear as it looks on the page. It’s also a bit wabi sabi, a concept which the group latched on to with very pleasing glee and which was exemplified by another, but very different, haiku, by Cor van den Heuvel – ‘all night diner / jukebox lights in the dented top / of an old salt shaker’.

Among the other haiku we looked at was another one by Barlow, (from Wing Beats, Snapshot Press, 2008):

depths of the wood
the bullfinch’s breast

empties of song

Again, we focused very carefully on the language used; that surprising opening phrase, with its emphasis on ‘depths’, which chimingly, yet subtly rhymes with the first syllable of ‘empties’, and which puts the reader firmly in the scene, a long way from civilisation, so that when it comes the bullfinch’s song is all the more powerful and affecting.  (It seems timely to add that Barlow and I both discovered from a presentation given by Tim Birkhead, at one of the New Networks for Nature conferences, that the bullfinch has the largest testicles in proportion to its body-size of any bird.) The subtlety of the haiku also resides in the phrasing of the second and third lines too – the specification that it’s the bird’s breast (and its implicit distinctive redness) which is emptying of song gives the reader the sense that the creature is really busting its lungs, like its life depends upon it; and ‘empties of song’ is, as we noted, just the loveliest phrase, seemingly simple yet beautifully precise. The need for precision, rather than generalisation, in haiku can’t be stated enough. In the same manner as ‘day’s end’, this haiku looks, reads and sounds perfectly poised, with no wasted words and without any showiness; in short, it is a wonderful example of how haiku can be high art.

Our haiku walk, down to the rose gardens beside St Luke’s church in Chelsea, had to be brief, not just because the weather was less than clement, but also because, paradoxically, and as we often found when we were on Pascale Petit’s Tate Modern poetry courses, the less time allocated to write in a workshop or creative-writing situation, the better one tends to write. The group wrote really well and it will be very interesting to see their haiku when we meet next.

When we returned to the house, we looked at some senryu, which are haiku that are concerned with human foibles, often in a comic and self-deprecating way. A particular favourite of the group was Matt Morden’s sardonic ‘end of my tether / some bastard on the radio / talks about god’ (from Martin Lucas’s Stepping Stones, British Haiku Society, 2007), about which we had a lively discussion as to whether the first line rendered ‘bastard’ superfluous (most of us felt that it not only adds to the Meldrewesque comedy of the poem but gives a better stress in the middle line than simply writing, say, ‘someone on the radio’ would have done). In all, we had great fun and it was a really enjoyable session, to which everyone contributed. As a workshop leader, you can’t ask for more than that.

***

Meanwhile, thanks to Sharon Larkin, two poems from my forthcoming poetry collection’s final section, which features a sequence of poems about my dad, have recently been published on the Good Dadhood poetry site.

On Potter and Football

About eight years ago I persuaded myself that I’d only improve as a poet if I restricted my reading exclusively to a wide range of poetry and, despite the odd fond gaze at novels glimpsed on buses, trains and my shelves, I just about stuck to that for a good few years. I believe that doing so enormously helped me, as much by osmosis as by systematic study, to gain a better understanding of how ‘good’ poems work and of what they omit as much as what they include. Having achieved a seemingly reasonable level of poetic competence a couple of years ago, I relaxed that exclusivity. Now my choices of reading matter – whether poetry, fiction, memoir or what have you – are squarely based upon how they can help me to develop further as a poet. Belatedly, I’ve fully realised that time is short and I have to use it wisely, or at least more wisely than I used to.

In that spirit, this week I’ve been reading the six scripts, published by Faber, for Dennis Potter’s 1986 classic BBC serial The Singing Detective, mainly to immerse myself in the highest-quality dialogue and monologue. In some of my narrative / anecdotal poems, I do occasionally include some dialogue and, even though most of us all have regular conversations with others as well as ourselves, it’s hard to write well in poems without it sounding unnatural, and/or wholly out of step with the narrative voice in which the poem is written. Who better to learn from than Potter, I figured, given what a genius he was, and a revolutionary one at that. But, unsurprisingly, I’ve been sucked into the beauty of the narrative, or narratives, which loop round with Potter’s trademark use of flashback, many interwoven layers and lip-synching to old songs, in this case from the mid-’40s. I’ve also been struck by the Beckettian care with which Potter specified the directions. Amongst all that are his sardonic, at times riotous (tragi)comic lines, most notably through the quips, asides and thoughts of the hospitalised pulp-novelist protagonist Philip Marlow (as played by the Great Gambon in the BBC serial). In one famous scene, Marlow is being greased all over for his psoriasis by the glamorous Nurse Mills (played by Joanne Whalley) and is doing all he can to avoid an erection by thinking of the most banal subjects including:

Gardeners’ Question Time, chaired by Peter Hall. Plastic pitch at Queens Park Rangers. Fog Phillips on a horse. [. . .] The Fifth Beatle. David Owen and Shirley Williams, [. . .] Ludovic Kennedy!

The full list indicates how, despite his highly ambivalent nostalgia for an England that’s long gone, Potter was always contemporary and culturally aware.

The mention of QPR’s ‘Omniturf’ pitch takes me right back to the 1st September 1981 when, as a season-ticket holder in the just-redeveloped Loft, I was there to see the first professional football match in Britain to be played on an artificial surface. Rangers being Rangers, they lost that game, 2–1 to Luton, but otherwise they flourished in those years, under the visionary management of Terry Venables, who some while before had co-authored a strangely prophetic pulp novel entitled They Used to Play on Grass. Having moved from Palace to become Rangers’ boss, Venables built on foundations laid by Tommy Docherty by poaching half of Palace’s would-be ‘Team of the Eighties’ and got them to the 1982 Cup Final, in which, against (then) First Division Spurs, they played poorly yet scraped a 1–1 draw; then totally out-played Spurs in the replay and were unlucky to lose to an early penalty, pretty much Spurs’ only shot of the game.

The momentum that Cup-run gave them took that Rangers side – which included great players like goal-poacher extraordinaire Clive Allen, Simon Stainrod and all his tricks, elegant Glenn Roeder, Terry Fenwick (who later was one of the England defenders whom Maradona left in his wake in the goal he scored with his foot in the Mexico ’86 World Cup Quarter Final), midfield schemer John Gregory, Tony Currie (by then playing as a libero because he hadn’t the legs to run about much) and buccaneering old-school centre-half Bob Hazell – on to the Second Division title in 1982/83. The following year, they were fifth in the top flight, and then, out of the blue, Venables was lured to Barcelona to become ‘El Tel’. Consequently, Rangers flirted with relegation for a few years before establishing themselves as the top team in London under Gerry Francis. In all, they spent 13 consecutive seasons in the top flight from ’83/’84, were founder-members of the Premier League and could, and did, beat any and every other team home and away (except Forest at the City Ground, where they’ve still never won); most famously a 6–0 stuffing of Chelsea in 1986 and the New Year’s Day massacre of 1992 when they won 4–1 at Old Trafford, live on ITV. Happy days, but I digress . . .

Incidentally, Potter’s inclusion of football extended to Marlow confessing to being a Fulham fan, in those pre-Al-Fayed times when Fulham were floundering about and generally going nowhere. Potter was steeped in the culture of his times, and I would contend that no other writer, or artist per se, of his period got close to matching Potter’s ability to make great art out of the historical reality of Britain from the ’30s to the downfall of Thatcher. My dad, who sometimes had execrable though always catholic tastes, loved Potter’s plays and serials, and none more so than The Singing Detective. All the performances were superb, chief of which, of course, was that of Michael Gambon, for whom the role of world-weary Marlow, in all his guises – psoriatic patient, private ’tec and crooner – was tailor-made. Gambon’s ability to shift from menace to (black) humour in a nano-second was, and is, a rare gift. He was also very funny in a late ’70s ITV sitcom called The Other One, in which, alongside Richard Briers, he played a rather misanthropic character who could almost have been a precursor of Marlow, with the catchphrase “I’m a lone wolf, Ralph”. You probably had to have seen it . . .

What I sense from Potter’s dialogue was that the more he tried to make it sound unnatural, the better it was, given that the converse of that is paradoxically true. Maybe!

 

April miscellany

So that was a busy old month, not that it’s quite over. The launch of the excellent annual Eyewear anthology was the hoot I’d expected it to be, with the laughter matched by the high quality of the poets and their poems. Here’s a grainy pic of me in full flow:

me at Windmill

The first meeting of the Poetry Business Writing School in Sheffield was marvellous and the day flew by in a welter of poem-writing exercises in the morning and workshopping of a poem each in the afternoon. The forensic dissection of what I’d hitherto thought was an all but final draft of my poem was probably the best piece of workshop assistance I’ve ever had. Before we said our goodbyes until the next meeting in June, we were all allotted a new partner with whom we will exchange poems and feedback by email over the next few weeks. I am so childishly excited about being involved in this programme.

I’ve been steadily re-reading Roy Fisher, coincidentally now a set poet for our Writing School homework; reading Thomas Hardy’s poems by the Thames during work  lunchtimes, which feels really quite decadent; and dipping into our two set main Writing School texts, which are brick-sized anthologies full of goodies. For good measure, I’ve also worked my way steadily through Sylvia Plath’s journals, which showed just how dedicated she was to writing poems, systematically sending them out to magazines and then sending them out elsewhere if they came back with rejections slips. The picture she painted of Hughes, especially in one long and very funny passage, was of a man who farted, belched, scratched his balls and picked his nose all day long. You have to wonder how he got any writing done.

This Thursday evening, I’ll be going to Jill Abram’s latest Stablemates session at Waterstone’s, Piccadilly, which promises to be a corker.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be running a haiku workshop for the Red Door Poets, a small collective of nine poets of whom I’m one. We were brought together by all having regularly attended Pascale Petit‘s now-legendary courses at Tate Modern and/or the Poetry School. We meet, roughly once a fortnight, behind the red door to the home of M.J. Whistler, to workshop new poets, and it’s been invaluable for all of us to have that regular feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. You can’t beat a bit of constructive criticism. Not even with a big stick, as they say in Norn Iron.

Finally, here’s a recent poem of mine, on the Football Poets website.

On Goose Fair Night by Kathy Pimlott

When I was in my early teens, having gorged on football annuals, my dad’s Wisden collection, biographies of old cricketers and pap fiction by the likes of James Herbert, the first ‘proper’ books I read were the early, Nottingham-based novels and short stories of Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Key to the Door; and, later, even the weird dystopia of Travels in Nihilon (in which national service in the armed forces is compulsory not for the young and fit, but, instead, for senior citizens, who, by virtue of their age, are judged to be expendable). From Sillitoe, I progressed to other Kitchen Sink-ers like John Braine before my brother happily got me to read On the Road and the rest of Kerouac’s oeuvre, and then I went on to read, among others, the greatest Notts. writer, D.H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, Milan Kundera, Brian Moore, etc. (Sadly, the gender stereotyping of those days meant that I read few women writers until I went to university and very merrily worked my way through the goodies in the library.)

Anyhow, I instantly took a liking to Sillitoe’s pithy prose and pithier dialogue, wrought in a dialect sharply removed from my soft, southern Estuary-English attuned ears – his characters were always saying “allus” and such like. Here was a writer who dealt in the lives of those whom the Murdoch press and government ministers lamentably now label as ‘ordinary working people’, and who did so without gloss; even tackling – in his fine story ‘The Match’ – football and domestic violence.

For me, then, reading Kathy Pimlott’s well-produced Emma Press pamphlet from last year, Goose Fair Night, is a return of sorts to the pleasure I gained from ‘hearing’ Sillitoe’s rich Nottingham voice. Though Pimlott has been resident in the heart of London’s West End for many years, the majority of the pamphlet’s 22 poems take their cue from her upbringing in the East Midlands. The opening poem, ‘You Bring Out the Nottingham in Me’, from which the pamphlet’s title derives, nicely sets the tone. It can’t have been easy for Pimlott to decide which place-names, memories and other details to include in the poem and which to omit; yet the finished poem is a warm-hearted and funny paean to how the city’s annual Goose Fair used to be:     

My scent is Dangerous October, hot engine oil,
hot sugar, Mouse Town must. In electric dark
beyond the caravans, I take on all just

for the glory and floor them tenderly to rock ‘n’ roll,
chain and lever growl and lovely screams.

References to Ned Ludd, Lawrence and, of course, Brian Clough (‘With you I’m Clough-strut right’) round off a poem that, though set long ago, is full of life and pride. The pamphlet is threaded with six affectionate and excellent poems concerning Pimlott’s maternal grandmother, Enid. All six cover aspects of Enid’s character and life, including working in service, her childhood as the eldest of nine, courtship by and marriage to a ‘dapper six-foot blonde’ who ‘turned cocky, a strutting nasty drunk’, and her role as grandmotherly dispenser of sound, experience-based and occasionally idiosyncratic advice, veering from how to eat a lollipop to how to avoid abduction and worse. Enid’s common sense approach – depicted from the outset, in the first of the six, ‘Enid and the Peas’ (‘[. . . ] don’t prong them individually. / You use your knife to squash them to your fork’) – and her ability to retain and recount old memories are endearing. The spacing of these poems at intervals allows the reader, after the first of them, to encounter Enid as an old friend; a force of nature rendered skilfully and believably by Pimlott: 

                               The grown-ups will
be lively, drunk and playing Peggy Lee,
while upstairs, we’ll have the story

of your dash with a bowl on pig-killing day,
of how you fainted under the cane.
You tell me about bombed bodies
stacked in the swimming baths,

your mam’s red hair, long enough
to sit on, how the doctor made her
cut it off to cure her headaches.

(from ‘Enid and Me’)

The accretion of detail in Enid’s litany of memories adds up to far more than just poetry-as-life-writing because it presents in the spotlight a portrait of an unsung working-class woman; and in a time where more than a few poets seem compelled to devote much of their energy to writing fact- and post-fact-stuffed Wiki-poems about ‘celebs’, it’s refreshing to read clear, unembellished poetry about people whose lives are less commonly written about in anything other than patronising tones. In this poem, as elsewhere in the pamphlet, Pimlott’s deployment of verb tenses bestows a sense of timelessness: firstly, through the future tense, as if the scene is about to be played in accordance with habit, and then via the shift to the present tense.

In other poems, Pimlott tackles a delightful miscellany of themes: female lives and female friendship and solidarity in particular – both objectively (in ‘Soho Hens’, with its gorgeous observation of ‘They jostle like a silvery balloon / bouquet tethered to a jittery child’, and in ‘Apprentice Cutter’) and subjectively (in ‘Out with the Girls’, with its comical pathos of ‘No one sits next to us. // Perhaps they think we will unwrap / egg sandwiches’); the pleasures of a childhood holiday in Cornwall; a day out in Brighton; the mysteries of jam-making (‘A bluebottle, cruising the cavity, left off its hum to liquefy and lay / and in no time at all blind maggots / fell from the architrave into the sink’ – from ‘Preserving’); and much else.

In her lively and perceptive introduction, Clare Pollard rightly highlights Pimlott’s “female working-class sensibility” and “the unremarkable, in-between places that she illuminates with her attention”, but what’s perhaps most impressive is that Pimlott seems to know instinctively how much information to impart and, crucially, how to impart it. As I alluded to earlier, Pimlott doesn’t ‘poeticize’ her poems and is wisely content to let her extraordinary stories and observations unfold in a concise, mostly judgement-free narrative voice. Likewise, Pimlott sticks to fairly safe forms – mostly stanzaic or block poems, with the odd unrhymed sonnet and an eight-couplet poem which indicates the influence of Mimi Khalvati. Pimlott only extends her range in the central poem, ‘All the Way Here’, a sequence of six tightly-crafted sketches of place, in both Nottingham and London; but it doesn’t really matter, as the pamphlet possesses a very pleasing unity, in which the poems, none of which is less than good, cohere to make a memorable and highly enjoyable debut. Here’s hoping a full collection will be hot on its heels.

Kathy Pimlott, Goose Fair Night, The Emma Press, 36pp., £6.50.

What I think about when I think about haiku

As issue number 57 of Presence hits the doormats of its subscribers in the UK and overseas, I’ve been thinking about my own relationship with haiku and how it’s changed in the last three years, for reasons which will become clear.

My first published haiku appeared, in the fledgling British Haiku Society’s pre-Blithe Spirit quarterly, way back in 1990, when I was still living in Portrush. It was three or four years later, after I’d moved back to London, that I ventured to some of the Society’s events, at Daiwa House, and met, among others, Annie Bachini, David Cobb, Katherine Gallagher, Tony Marcoff, Alan Summers and Diana Webb – all of whom were kind and helpful to me – and others. Thereafter, I attended most of the Society’s conferences – sometimes with barely a dozen of others – in some lovely places. In those years, I also became good friends with a number of haiku poets of my generation, particularly John Barlow, Martin Lucas and Matt Morden. From 2003 or so until 2008, I was part of the Society’s Committee, when Martin was President (a ridiculous title, which ought to have been abolished in favour of something less pretentious). Unfortunately, despite Martin’s valiant efforts to improve the way the Society operated, there were two individuals, one in particular, who were hell-bent on opposing virtually any suggestion, even the offer, from a member who was a professional web designer, to overhaul the Society’s then pitifully outmoded website for free. Sadly, Martin and I, and others, left both the Committee and the Society because of that thoughtless duo’s actions.

In the mid-Noughties or so, Martin roped me in as Reviews Editor for Presence, which he and David Steele had started in 1996. That involved me writing and commissioning  most of the reviews, though Martin himself usually contributed a few per issue too. For a good long while, I enjoyed writing reviews. I tried, and still try, to offer constructive criticism and to give the journal’s readers my views, without any of the sugar-coating that has traditionally passed for reviewing in other haiku journals. If only it were that easy. To be blunt, it’s a tiring role, because the overall standard of English-language haiku, tanka and haibun books in the UK and elsewhere has always been, and remains, disappointingly low. Haiku and tanka poets – though perhaps less so for haibuneers – seldom seem to take the trouble to learn their craft properly before touting a flimsy collection of not-very-good poems to a vanity publisher who is more than happy to publish it for the right money. And let’s be clear: the overwhelming majority of publishers who will publish single-author haiku, tanka and haibun collections are pay-to-publish merchants who, unless I’m seriously mistaken, take barely the slightest interest, if any, in editing the books which they put out. (I sometimes wonder if Snapshot, which will be the subject of a future post of mine, is the only exception, although I’m pretty sure it isn’t.) I don’t blame the authors for wanting to get into print, but the publishers ought to tell them, as necessary, to wait a while and come back when they’ve honed their poems into a cohesive and higher-quality whole.

It’s completely understandable that such a situation has arisen, since the English-language haiku pond is small, that of tanka is smaller and that of haibun smaller still, thus commercial publishers specialising in these forms will never be commonplace. It’s fair to say, too, that unlike in the larger poetry world where there are so many highly gifted poets who have grafted at their craft over many years, the haiku, tanka and haibun ponds aren’t exactly crammed with poets whose output is regularly of a quality to be celebrated and therefore likely to bring about high sales figures. That’s not to say that there aren’t some excellent poets lurking in those ponds, so to speak; it’s the consistency that varies so much. Being such short forms, haiku and tanka lend themselves to being put ‘out there’ too soon, without the benefit of the writer’s reflection – I’ve been guilty of that myself many times – and the accessibility of social media has inevitably made matters worse. It doesn’t help either that the quality of criticism in the specialist journals is too often woefully lacking in well-reasoned argument and forensic detail, and frequently consists solely of bafflingly unjustified gushing which does nothing more than mislead the easily misled.

Of course, journal editors also play their part: the fact is that it’s much, much, much too easy for a new/ish writer to get their haiku or tanka accepted by most journal editors. Part of the reason for that may be that most editors are easy-going folk who want to encourage novice poets, rather than deter them, especially if, as is invariably the case,  they’re subscribers; moreover, with a bit of determination the basic skills of haiku and tanka aren’t exactly difficult to acquire. I should probably temper that last statement with a wise one of Martin’s: “Haiku isn’t as easy as just looking; and it isn’t as easy as it looks” (I can’t remember where he wrote that).

The ubiquity of social media hasn’t helped either, in that new and more experienced  haiku and tanka poets often receive undue, unqualified praise on Facebook, Twitter, etc., which, however well-intentioned such encouragement may be, serves to reinforce an entirely inappropriate sense of exalted ability on the poets’ part if it isn’t offset by a grounding dose of realism.

I suspect my problem is that the more I’ve become part of the ‘mainstream’ – as if haiku is somehow deviant! – poetry world, the more I’ve subconsciously distanced myself from haiku. For starters, the editorial standards are, on the whole, much higher in longer-form poetry journals than in haiku ones and the former mostly accept poems only when they are good enough, and because they have something interesting and/or different about them. By contrast, an awful lot of published haiku, as Martin so eloquently pointed out,  follow the same old wearying formula, which means that comparatively few truly sparkle. Naturally the possibility of being dazzlingly original within three lines or fewer (or four in Stephen Gill’s case) is de facto much less than in longer-form poetry; nevertheless, if you suspect your haiku isn’t saying something refreshing, please do us all a favour and don’t let it loose upon the world until you’ve polished it into something worthwhile. Think very carefully about your verb choices, the use of articles, adjectives and poetic devices like alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme and much else. Now and then, a really fine haiku may drop out of nowhere fully formed, but in nearly all instances you will have to treat your first draft as just the starting-point. Anyone who thinks that Allen Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” dictum guarantees greatness every single time is deluded.

But enough of ranting. Why do I bother to continue my involvement with haiku, I hear you ask. Well, my engagement with Presence is first and foremost an emotional one. It’s three years now since Martin disappeared. and regulars readers of the journal, many of whom were also deeply affected by the news of Martin’s death, will be aware of how much he’s missed, not only as a friend and highly talented, intelligent and funny man, but because of how Presence was moulded in his brilliantly creative image. At Martin’s funeral, Ian Storr and I decided, with the blessing of Martin’s family, to keep Presence going and I like to think we, plus Stuart Quine and now Alison Williams, have brought to our eight co-edited issues the same spirit of community that Martin had engendered over the years. Despite my current haiku ennui, and even though Martin himself talked several times about ceasing Presence, I can’t bring myself to stop being a member of the team. Just before Martin died, he and I had floated the idea of holding an event to celebrate the then upcoming fiftieth issue – I felt very strongly that getting to that landmark was a major achievement, considering the journal’s lack of subsidy and that most small poetry magazines fold after a few issues. So somehow, given that Martin didn’t live to see #50 published, I feel like I shouldn’t relinquish my part in making Presence tick, or the reviewing role at least, even if it makes me sound like a cracked record. So unless anything radical happens anytime soon, I’ll carry on carrying on in my own stubborn way, however painful that is for all concerned!

Having had two of my own collections published, almost 10 years apart, and with a third ‘in the can’, I like to think I’ve written a fair selection of haiku which will endure. Right now, though, I’m happily stuck in longer-form poetry ‘mind’, which I find is more cerebrally creative and less instinctive than ‘haiku mind’, so I’ve written only a couple of haiku so far this year. That doesn’t mean I’ve gone off haiku forever; it just means that I’m giving it a little bit of distance – I may not love it in the way I once did, but I’m still close friends with it! As soon as submissions for Presence 58 start arriving in a fortnight’s time, I daresay I’ll be back to my normal self.

On the Poetry Business Writing School and the Eyewear anthology launch

In less than two weeks’ time, I’ll be joining my fellow participants on the Poetry Business Writing School, led by Ann and Peter Sansom. I’m really thrilled to have been selected to take part. It’s for poets working towards their second collection. We’ve been paired up to give each other emailed feedback on poems in progress – and that’s already been a very fruitful exercise – before we all meet in person. I know from attending Poetry Business workshops that Ann and Peter, who are wonderful poets themselves of course, are brilliant at getting poets to write well and at offering insightful and helpful constructive feedback. With the added input from some excellent poets, it should make for a fabulous 18 months’-worth of writing, reading, discussion and what-not.

Meanwhile, this Sunday, I’ll be one of the readers at the launch of Eyewear Publishing’s Best New British and Irish Poets anthology for 2017, edited by Luke Kennard. I’m chuffed to be in the anthology for the second year running. This year, my poem is ‘Duckwalking in West Berlin’, featuring events which happened 30 years ago. Details of the launch are here. With the great Todd Swift as MC and Luke himself among the featured readers, I’m sure it will be a fantastic afternoon.