Launching the BEAR

Well, the BEAR is well and truly launched, at last! I want to say thank you to everyone who came along to help celebrate or sent kind wishes, and I especially want to thank my friend Katie who brought me a sketch showing my favourite drag queen Katya drawn as a bear.

You can see Richard waving near the pillar. Hullo, Richard.

It was an amazing evening. It was unnervingly warm, but it all went okay as we were able to spill out into Exmouth Markets behind the hall. We milled about at first, chattering away, everyone trying to decide whether the red-curtained room was more Twin Peaks or Moulin Rouge, and then at eight I read the first bear in my book.

Katie West took this lovely photo with the fairy lights.

After that, Richard Scott, Anna Selby and Ed Doegar all also read bears. Richard found this great Maxine Kumin poem, Anna read this Ogden Nash delight, and Ed this stunning Ingeborg Bachmann poem (in english). Everyone wanted to read this Galway Kinnell poem, but we decided it seemed a bit long and not quite appropriate for the evening in the end. They were all utterly wonderful and I was so glad to have them there to help fill the night with bears.

Richard Scott

Anna Selby

Ed Doegar

Then I read another couple of bears, got confused at having to do an encore (which I'm sure is the only time it's ever going to happen to me) and there was general merriment and happy funtimes, followed by some actual dancing. The three highlights of this for me were: Anna Kate-Bushing it across the stage to 'Hounds of Love'; everyone rushing onto the dancefloor for 'Modern Love'; and enjoying '212' in a church hall and in front of my mother-in-law with that lyric.

Amy Key let me steal this photo from her, taken from the stage.

John Canfield took this, and the other uncredited photos above. He is a wizard.

I was expecting it to feel a bit like a birth or at least a birthday, maybe - as if the book has been in gestation for a very long time, and now it is finally out and exciting! But, actually, it felt more like a wake or a launch in the viking sense, like setting the poems on fire and pushing them out to sea, out into the world beyond. I don't mean that in a sad or violent way, but in a cathartic way. It's as if those poems used to just belong to me, but now they don't, but it's a good thing, because it also means I can begin to move past them. And, despite having been a bit writer-blocked in the months leading up to the launch, I've been scribbling loads ever since, which is an enormous relief.

So thank you to everyone who came and marked the moment of the book's arrival, or passing, or passing on, or whatever it is. I want to say "Go, little book, go" but I'm not so much nervous for it, as satisfied to see it set off into the world and find its own way. It's not even a book, but is now a beast wandering happily, raising a curious snout to the air, and hopefully able to shrug off any peripheral nonsense it may encounter, because it is a goddam bear.


And the bear will be busy over the summer! I've just come back from the Kendal Poetry Festival, which I hope to write about here shortly as it was so amazing, as well as the South Yorkshire Poetry Festival, and I've got a bunch of other readings planned up and down the country soon too. You'll see the list below, and can find out more details on my events page.

Oh - I suppose I should include a link here to the actual BEAR itself too, right? Right.


Today is the official publication date for my BEAR! Bears! Bears for everyone! You can find out more on the Bloodaxe Books website here!

Seven : Five – The Final Confusion

Here we are! Part five! Jumped the shark? Let's find out! My last couple of books follow below, along with the previously errant Stephen Crane, with a few thoughts about reading poems afterwards.

First, a round-up of the different parts to the past month's reading challenge:

part 1 – Newman, Hesketh, Riviere, Newman, Brainard, Doegar, Ehin
part 2 – Hammond, McFarlane, Fowler, Un, Tamás, Wetherington, Jenks
part 3 – Morgan, Campaign in Poetry anthology, Armitage, Riley, Williams, Welton
part 4 – Prado, Moore, Lindsay, Miller, Chingonyi, Jenkins, Hazzard
part 5 – you're in it! See below:

Jay Bernard, The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink, Sweat & Tears Press, 2017)
Invented prelude to a medieval poem about Morien – a young knight who travels from Moorish lands to Camelot, in search of his father (who abandoned the Moorish princess he had promised to marry, leaving before Morien was born). Looks at early European romantic ideas of blackness and the author writes about Morien in a way in which: "the particular history that produced the author that reproduces [and in some ways contaminates] him is not inevitable." The poems themselves that tell the story are very varied in form, style and register, lots of rhetorical flourish and startling moments. Utterly contemporary in feel – mixing race, mixing gender, mixing styles of text all together to tell the story. Good to read it in one go, to hold it all together in my head. It's been shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award too.

Eds. James Davies, Tom Jenks, Scott Thurston, The Other Room Anthology 9 (Other Room Press, 2017)
Once a year the Other Room reading series in Manchester publishes an anthology of work by poets who have read there, with a focus on experimental writing. Although this was maybe a bit rougher to read all in one sitting, because there are so many ideas and styles swirling around here, there is lots of very interesting work here. Geraldine Monk's piece is an investigation on water, many seas, droplet by the very bones droplet. Sam Riviere's piece is broken down fragmented texts, timestamped a bit like live tweeting a news story maybe. Other pieces of illustrated texts, essays, more conventional framing, unconventional forms, a list of notes and names of birds in the garden... Lots to see here. Lots to show what is possible.

Stephen Crane, Poems (Chatto & Windus, 1972)
Finally here, out of the bag and unpacked. I like this. I also, again, cannot remember when on earth I bought this lovely pink and teal seventies edition. He died in 1900, and was best known for his American Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. I think that's as much as I remember ever knowing about him, and I don't recall ever having read his poems before. They are sparse, succinct, title-less short verses, with no particularly visible interest in rhyme or any particular form. He takes abstractions, such as war, love, god, and anthropomorphises them in a sort of slight symbolic or impressionistic way. I think that's why these poems get described as "timeless". There's not a huge amount of detail of the age, as it focuses on people's impulses more than their specific contexts. They feel like poems about how he sees the world. God is both dead and alive. There are spirits. But for the most part it feels very-- human. A heavy cynicism, or perhaps realism, especially where war is concerned. Here is a short poem I especially liked, a nice way to end:

Phew. Well, that's that then. Let me point out Jo Bell and Jacqueline Saphra again who have been doing their own NaPoReMo activities too. I have a few thoughts about it all, jumbled around, in no particular order.

If I read one book or pamphlet of poems a day for the whole year, that would be 365 publications.

174 poetry publications, all published in 2017, were catalogued by the Poetry Library in the first four months of this year. So perhaps three times that number, ie of 522 publications, might be catalogued by the end of the year. So one a day would mean I was only 70% through the year's new publications.

That said, the Poetry Library lists 1158 poetry publications published in 2016, so it might be more like only about 30% I could manage.

I have no idea how much poetry anyone else is reading. I know I read more when I'm focused on a very specific project. I know I read less when I'm binge-watching a new show on Netflix.

I miss prose. I've barely read any prose this month, so will be glad to start mixing it up again. I wonder what the poetry to prose ratio is for other other poets?

There are so many different kinds of poetry. And I don't find one kind inherently better or worse, or more or less serious, than another.

I like that anything resembling genre in poetry isn't limited to a specific kind of poem. Lyric poems can be politically engaged, experimental writing can be hilarious, rhyming poems can be tragic, etc. (Well, duh.)

Writing something useful to characterise each publication is tricky. I find it easier to focus on the shapes on the pages sometimes, the visible style. But things get spiced up sometimes by ambition or theme, and occasionally also by biography, but less frequently.

Much poetry benefits from being read in one big intensive burst, so it all sticks and clangs and chimes in the head against itself at once. Much poetry requires you to saunter back into it afterwards, pull up a poem and spend a lot of time with it.

Some poems I like because they tell me stories. Some poems I like because they challenge the way I think about the way we tell things to each other. These are often two different types of poems.

Many collections are designed to be read all at once. Many are, well, a collection of largely disconnected poems, and it doesn't matter if you just read them one at a time.

Good poems get better the more you read them, mostly.

Reading books all at once is quicker than reading them over time. There is a finite amount of time allotted to you in life and you should only spend it on the things you really want to.

Man, there's a lot of interesting and diverse poetry out there.

Seven Days IV: The Voyage Home

Home sweet home, jetlag sweet jetlag. Went to do a reading in town last night and almost forgot my poems. Sleep now, please, please, let me sleep.

I'm going to have leave you hanging until Tuesday for Stephen Crane and the last instalment, the last few days of April. Crane is buried in the bottom of my bag somewhere from last week's convention. A few days left to fit him in though – it'll be okay.

Here are this week's seven (and fyi click here for parts one, two and three of this NaPoReMo thing):

Adélia Prado, Selected Poems: The Mystical Rose (Bloodaxe, 2014)
Poetry as a protagonist. Talks to poetry about god. Talks about god. Poetry is god. Talks from a conservative religious background in Brazil. Talks about lust and sex from this perspective. All first person. All about desire and personality and observation. As you move through the poems chronologically it feels like love comes out more and more, as does graphic desire and celebration, and the use of characters – all given somehow as gifts of words, as a way to try and find god, perhaps.

Fiona Moore, Night Letter (HappenStance Press, 2015)
Hauntings and blue ghostly middle-of-the-night musings. London landscape and urban nature, but being alone in it. A pamphlet with lots of different shapes of poems, united by the sense of sleeplessness and grief. A sort of 'later on' grief, less raw, but no less devastating. Beautifully crafted. Why doesn't Fiona have a book out yet? Fiona should have a book out.

Sarah Lindsay, Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower (Copper Canyon Press, 2013)
Similarities in a way to the Prado above, at least in terms of the flow of the free verse and the sense of searching, but this collection feels like its world requires ecological attention and better conservation practices more than it needs god. Though it is about faith too, in moments, in a way. Also: science. Dark humour. Poetry of naturaul history and curiosities made lyrical. Snotflowers, octopi, cosmic turtles and, gradually, humans. And history. The deteriorating inscription later on (losing words, and more words, over time, in each poem) is a great endnote. Someone recommended this to me and I can't remember who. (ABJ?) Thank you, friend, this was a wonderful read.

Kei Miller, Kingdom of Empty Bellies (The Heaventree Press, 2005)
Early Kei book here, and very interesting. So many familiar themes – the lives of women, devotion, the experience of Caribbean life. And use of patois too, perhaps a little less so than in later works. Feels like building. An ode for a Jamaican monkey escaped from the zoo. A run of 'Rum Bar Stories' written after cocktail recipes. A lot of intimate portraits, stepping stones along a narrative way. Such good endings.

Kayo Chingonyi, The Colour of James Brown's Scream (Akashic Books, 2016)
I wanted to bring this pamphlet out as a warmup for Kayo's first collection that's coming out next month. Very musical, both in the sense that he talks a lot about music, growing up with it, and also in the sense that he's running words up against each other in interesting musical ways. (The first four words are "drum-brush of fabric" – the uhs, the bs, the rs, the punctuating ic...) Some poems from the 'calling a spade a spade' sequence here too, which I love, which is so charged, and which I hope there will be more of in the full collection too.

Louis Jenkins, North of the Cities (Will o' the Wisp Books, 2007)
This book is a mystery. I have no idea how I came by it. A collection of prose poems by Louis Jenkins from Duluth, who I don't think I've seen read before. Ah wait. He read at the Aldeburgh festival in 2007 – I must have picked it up at the festival bookshop years later, tempted by the prosiness of the poems. These are lovely, gentle, plainspeaking prose poems, with a nice section in the middle that focuses on animals. Fine dry humour. Squirrels and baseball.

Oli Hazzard, Craig Syfyrddin, or Edmund's Tump (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2017)
A pamphlet mixture of texts: sort of diary-style and note-form annotations seemingly from various climbs up the tump (a hill in Wales – the notes I think are all about approaching it from different directions, under different conditions), interspersed with linebroken verse. A sort of non-repetitive look at repeating events, or journeys, and how they are layered on top of each other, like history is layered on top of itself in any given single place. Pip pip. Very good indeed. Want to go back in and slink around in it for a bit. Sleepy recollection prompts me to search, and finds that you can listen to it here, too, when he was on The Verb reading it last year.

That's me for now. Last few books for the end of April coming along on Tuesday, along with a few thoughts about how to read poems. Or, at least, how I read poems.

Seven Days Part 3 The Revenge

Well, balls. It's six books and an intro page this week, apologies. I haven't quite finished the seventh yet, as the travelling and comicon I'm at have interrupted things, perhaps unexpectedly. Chicago is great but the jetlag is less so. But I think you'll like the intro page though - it ends very grandly.

Previous posts for this National Poetry Month reading endeavour are here and here, and explain the nonsense of what I'm doing...

JO Morgan, In Casting Off (HappenStance, 2015)
A strange sort of love story, told across the whole book in separate poems. A remote coastal village, and somehow a love of the remote, of the sea, of the brutal realities of life and death, all woven in. Lyrical, delicate, very musical in the way the words chime against each other. Like a folktale almost, or a set of folk whispers. Seals and bears and the shedding of skins.

Eds. Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright, Campaign in Poetry (Emma Press, 2015)
A meaty pamphlet anthology, published between the last election and the referendum, but I wanted to bring it out again as it seems timely. An incitement to write about politics, to engage, to avoid being didactic. Lots of playful metaphors and nuanced delving: historial, political, colonial, contemporary. All strong pieces. Poets include Kayo Chingonyi, Mona Arshi, Luke Kennard, Jon Stone, Holly Hopkins and lots more.

Simon Armitage, New Cemetery (Propolis Books, 2017)
Not the new collection, but a beautiful tall thin black and white illustrated hardback I picked up in the Waterloo Foyles. A new cemetery, and a new poetry sequence, under construction. A whole drift of thoughts connected, running in tercets. Like all the best fictions, opens with a map. It addresses the reader directly throughout. Each spread is a new abstraction of line and colour behind the words. The poet is in his shed. The poet thinks about lovers locking their wishes onto the railings at Pont Neuf. The poet thinks about the new cemetery being built in the hills. Simple. Abstract. Visual. Stark.

Denise Riley, Dry Air (Virago, 1985)
Lots about text here. The perfect poetry to read on a journey, in transit, in between countries. A disruption of language, often, a disruption of received rules of the use of language to shift emphasis, perspective. Some selections from other volumes, Marxism for Infants and No Fee, some versions of Hölderlin. Pieces about gender, feminism, history, purpose, family - lots of moments and images. Places. Ambitions. A feeling of being lost and trying to piece things together with words. It's great. To be held more than just once in the lap on a long-haul flight.

CK Williams, The Singing (Bloodaxe, 2003)
I know lots of individual CK Williams poems, but not many full collections, so here's one, one of many from a long career. He has a very familiar colloquial sort of voice. He's a good storyteller, but constructs it all carefully in regular formal structures. Lots of symbolism (clear, not surreal). I was interrupted reading the third section, which is a nine-page elegy for artist Bruce McGrew, and felt horrified that I hadn't been able to read it in one go, as though the interruption was a mark of disrespect. The book is notable especially I think for the final section, with poems written during and after the Iraq War, about fear, political insanity, uncertainty, and a world of despair.

Matthew Welton, The Number Poems (Carcanet, 2016)
Useful lines by way of introduction: "The mind is multiplicity."; "The way we construct the distinctions between things relies solely on our hunches." There are so many ideas and fun and games here, that it's nice to sink into them and reread and let them swirl around. Lots of shifting sequences which change in minute variations. Something about repetition. And curiosity. And thought. Reimagining worlds, words, meanings and how we construct them. Also: apple waffles.

Stephen Crane, Poems (Chatto & Windus, 1972)
So, yes I ran out of time here, only twenty pages in to a sixty-four page book. I'll be finished with it later, but due to the time difference I won't get a chance to post this until Sunday. I'll add the write-up onto next week's though. Here's the first paragraph of the intro page to the book as a tease. Isn't the last line spectacular?

More next week...

Seven Days More

Another week, another seven poetry publications. Two pamphlets in the mix this time, and one Selected. I'm travelling next week for work, so it'll be interesting to see if I manage to stay on top of it all then. To read the first seven, along with caveats about the perils of blitz-reading poetry, here's last week's entry. Onwards!

Emma Hammond, Waves on a Boring Beach (zimzalla, 2017)
Brexit, Trump, Jo Cox and other horrors of the past year filtered through the Walthamstow mall in East London. Lots of things in these poems. Slanted images. Complex. Familiar things juxtaposed with something more philosophical. Rich Tea biscuits, Chupa Chups, haunted dreams of the eighties. Also made me have to look up the response to a joke setup that I'm mad I didn't already know the answer to ("What do you call a cat in a chemists?"). Made me laugh aloud on the train.

Roy McFarlane, Beginning With Your Last Breath (Nine Arches, 2016)
Direct, immediate, emotional – a lot of autobiographical subject matter here, including his own adoption, and growing up black in Wolverhampton and the Black Country. Really moving moments, lots of jazz in the background, plus poems about intimacy and relationships. I read with Roy in an event about WW1 in February, and could hear his strong melodic reading voice shining through the poems here too.

SJ Fowler, The Guide to Being Bear Aware (Shearsman, 2017)
Oh my goodness – Steve is writing narrative poems! When did this happen?! These poems feel quite different to other work of his I've read. Lots of bears and other animals (some awesome bear poems). Lots of epigraphs from lots of interesting international poets introduce many of the pieces. Not social anxiety, exactly, but maybe more a social frustration? Like a frustration at what we are all doing, because – what are we all doing? Enough obliqueness to keep us on our toes. Really interesting to see him moving in this direction.

Ko Un, First Person Sorrowful (Bloodaxe, 2012)
This Selected launched at the Aldeburgh Festival the year before I first went to it, but I must have picked a copy up the year afterwards. Picked it up and never read it. Ach. I horrified to say I didn't know Ko Un at all before reading this, despite him being the foremost living writer in Korea (go – google him if you don't know him either – he is great!). The poems are a mixture of social activism, sorrow, humour and a sort of cheerful nihilism, an awareness of just how little a dent one life makes in the world of the planet and the greater colder universe beyond it – and yet, even knowing that, there's an ability to shift into delighting at the wagging tail of a poodle, or feeling joy at the smallest blade of grass. There's also a healthy relish of boozing. Something about survival here and, if it's about faith at all, a faith in nature rather than in human bullshit.

Rebecca Tamás, Savage (Clinic, 2017)
A new pamphlet from Rebecca Tamás, full of sex and sexuality, and women, and strong women, and an absence of witches, and an absence of passivity. Hexes and blood and power. A wonderful dry humour too, often. Of woman, of strength. Glorious stuff here.

Laura Wetherington, A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence Books, 2014)
Picked this up after hearing her read at Xing the Line last year, where I thought she had an interesting mix of lightness and complexity. These poems seem to be working against the idea of narration, and it feels like they're dealing with ideas like infinity and time passing, in the context of sex, birth, death and all that other stuff in the middle. Meaning is often just out of reach – it feels like that's what the poems are actually enacting. There's a sequence to end on that juxtaposes D-Day landings with a school trip / school environment. The school bits have a box drawn around them. It's so simple, but really effective in how it binds or limits those poems, by contrast to the war imagery on the other side which emanates more powerfully across the white page. Thought-provoking. There's also a delightful poem near the start which is a joke about penises presented in musical notation, called 'There is nothing funny about a penis'.

Tom Jenks, Marjorie [1] (Zshboo Press, 2017)
Oh god I love Tom. He makes me laugh so much. And think! He has very elegant ideas about structure and constraint and this is no exception. This is a book of tweets by Marjorie, a "mansplaining fauxbot tweeting daily". This book collects the first hundred tweeted statements, carefully typset, each one ending with the name Marjorie. (eg: JELLYFISH MOSTLY JUST WANT TO BE TREATED AS INDIVIDUALS MARJORIE) Mansplaining does cover a lot of them, but after a while it's as if the simple addition of the name 'Marjorie' at the end, with its vaguely seventies air, turns any statement into an act of mansplaining, as if naming her is an act of reduction in itself. In many cases, if you read a piece without the Marjorie on the end, you get the same feeling as when someone took Garfield out of the Garfield cartoons, leaving Jon to have a traumatic existential crisis by himself. The twitter account is an oulipian joy, and I love the idea of a "faux" bot, but there's also something fascinating about reading them all in one go like this. Poor Marjorie. Poor not-Marjorie. And more fun to be made of mansplaining as a general rule, please and thank you.

Okay – that's me for now. More next week! Oh – and if you want to see some other people doing a NaPoReMo in the meantime, but who are sharing actual poems on a daily basis, try Jacqueline Saphra and Jo Bell.

Seven Days

I am rather in awe of people who undertake the "write a poem a month and stick it online" project for NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month). I'm not that quick. Which also means I never seem to have poems to spare. I am a quick reader though – even if poetry isn't exactly ideal for being blitz-read – but the pile of shame next to my bed isn't getting any smaller, so I figured I might try out a NaPoReMo instead, and see if I can stay on top of reading one book of poems every day and writing something about it. 

I can tell you in advance, from having done the first chunk of seven days, that I'll definitely be favouring the "slim volume", and will also throw in a few pamphlets too by way of variety / cheating. It's also making me think lots about the way I read poetry. Or the way I read differently for different types of poetry. 

These aren't reviews or anything like that. Just a random collection of books I wanted to read and a few thoughts I noted down after reading them. Okay.  

Amy Newman, Dear Editor (Persea Books, 2011)
A collection of prose poems which each begins "Dear Editor" (which I just freudianly mistyped as "Dead Editor"), each poem being a pretend letter to an editor, discussing an enclosed batch of poems that we never actually get to read. Instead the letters are the poems, and Newman reflects in circling but ever-changing ways about chess, growing up with grandparents, metaphors, poetry workshops, saints, sin, desire... while overall also giving an interesting muse on the nature of poets' relationships with editors, with publication, with themselves. Persistent, wry, engaging. 

Sarah Hesketh, The Hard Word Box (Penned in the Margins, 2014)
A collection written following a residency at a residential care home for people with dementia. A mix of poetic styles, includes some transcribed unaltered interviews that almost take on the semblance of prose poetry due to the way the language is used. A look at language breaking down and a reminder of what is lost at the end of life, of these lives. Painful, funny. 

Sam Riviere, True Colours (After Hours, 2016)
A pamphlet of poems written sort of in statements, sometimes feeling like each poem is a curated collection of individual statements, sometimes feeling like they are more interconnected. A sort of ennui regarding modern life. Startling juxtapositions. Contemporary +1. I like Sam's work a lot. Dry, funny, genuine (whatever I mean by that). 

Charlotte Newman, Trammel (Penned in the Margins, 2016)
This is a frequently confusing collection, but it's so wilful and determined and musical, you can lean into it without flinching. It feels like its complexity is a neccessary reaction to its subject matter - the interweaving of feminism, history, politics, books, bands and all sorts, but perhaps the political element is what feels like the guiding hand throughout. Reads at times like Mary Beard got drunk with the Oxford English Dictionary while listening to Le Tigre. (This collection is also the epitome of a book that should not be read and processed in a single day, and makes me wonder if I haven't made a horrible mistake in taking this daily reading schedule on. Hmm.)

Joe Brainard, I Remember (Penguin, 1995; originally 1970)
Oh wow. I've read this before, but in fits and chunks and definitely not all in one go. As ludicrous as the "one poetry book a day" thing may be, it worked especially well for this. If you don't know it, the poem itself is such a simple idea. A long prose poem with each idea (whether one line or a whole paragraph) separated by linebreaks, and each one starts "I remember...". I've heard people say this is a poetry cliche, probably because of other poems ripping this off, but it's so beautifully done here. A mix of funny childhood observations, mixed with memories of sexual awakening, gay awakening, confusions, tastes and experiences. So relatable and so open. Also very distracting, as each line constantly sparks off a sequence of other recollections of your own as you read. 

Ed Doegar, For Now (Clinic, 2017)
I'm very good friends with Ed, so should say that up front. This is his first pamphlet and I'm predisposed to think it's wonderful. I do think it's wonderful. I don't think I'm wrong to thing it's wonderful. Very short lines often, very succinct. Lines have a gentle persuasiveness, within a larger quiet anxiety about the circumstances in which we find ourselves existing. Political, personal, devotional. As if we are all tourists in our own world. 

Kristina Ehin The Scent of Your Shadow Arc 2010
I remember seeing this Estonian poet at Southbank's Poetry Parnassus festival about five years ago. She wandered around with a sort of ethereal air, someone who understood something magical. I came across her book in the Poetry Library this week and realised I hadn't actually read it back when the festival was on. She writes very personal poems, about a clearly contemporary experience, but with an enormous connection to folk traditions and to the natural world, to old forests and the sky. There is something very spiritual and organic happening here, something which does not shy away from passion and emotion. 

So that's the first seven, already. How quick and casual it seems to cover books in this way, when so often poetry is about lingering and returning and sinking into. This is the opposite of poetry. 

I'm struck most though, reading these publications all in such close succession, by how quickly poets can create such vastly different worlds for us to be drawn into, and how much work linebreaks do in terms of giving our imagination the space to really internalise every word and image as we go. (I mean – duh, "linebreaks do a lot of the hard work in poetry" is hardly a profound thought, but still feels worth saying.)

I'm also realising that one of the main challenges here isn't to read a book of poems a day, but to be able to process what I've read and actually write something useful about a book a day. I suspect it may prove almost as valuable as the reading itself. 

More next week...

Drag, Dragons and the Al-Khawaja Family

Last weekend I was a guest at Smith College, outside Boston, at a wonderful little sci-fi convention called ConBust. It's a liberal arts college for women (where Sylvia Plath went) and the audience were some of the most engaged and switched-on people you could possibly ask for. The panels they had on were a real range - anything from "Dragons are Awesome", "Misogyny in the Geek Workplace", "How to Edit as a Writer" to "Videogames Poetry" - and those are just some of the panels I was personally involved in. It was a very intimate but active fun time, and it was a delight to be able to go and interact with the other panellists and the audience there. Also a delight was being in America when the first episode of the new RuPaul's Drag Race was aired live - an irreverent show that I love, that has done a huge amount to bring drag into the mainstream.

This weekend I read a poem at, and then listened to, all three sessions of the English PEN Modern Literature festival, where new works were performed by thirty different writers in solidarity with individuals from PEN's "Writers at Risk" programme: thirty new works in support of writers, journalists and human rights activists forced to live in exile, or in unjust incarceration, or who have simply disappeared.

In the space of a week, I went from a panel called "Dragons are Awesome" (in which I raised the possibility that dragon dressage would be a fun olympic category if dragons were real), to a piece I wrote about the Al-Khawaja family, a family of Bahraini human rights activists, the father of whom is still currently imprisoned in Bahrain for nothing more than being a human rights activist, while two of his daughters, Maryam and Zainab, are obliged to live in exile in Denmark to avoid further imprisonment themselves.

So I've been having rather a long think about what on earth my life is. One of insane hearty privilege, for one, though I suspect that goes without saying.

The piece I wrote for the PEN event that you can watch here reflected these two different modes. It mixed factual information about the family that I've gleaned from research, reading, podcasts, interviews etc, and tied them up in the idea of personal ads, spilling out intimate information. And the piece aimed to be funny, in places, which I still feel a little uncomfortable about.

I think Tom Jenks' piece on Nabeel Rajab (also a prominent Bahraini human rights activist who has been unjustly imprisoned) and Matthew Welton's piece on Tutul (a Bangladeshi publisher, writer and editor who is living in exile in Norway after surviving an extremist attack) both also tried to tackle this idea of wanting to write something in solidarity that was engaged and committed, but that also in some way reflected the reality of our own experience as UK writers trying to write about them (not that this was necessary of course - just something I noticed). Steve Fowler, who curated the event, described in his opening notes about the commission: "this project begins in impossibility, for us to understand, to acknowledge our own fortune to not be in such a position as the writers we are celebrating" and I wanted in some way to acknowledge this in the piece that I wrote.

Perhaps it's also worth saying that I did consciously write it with the context in mind, ie that it would be read in a day of 30 performances throughout the afternoon and evening, and that perhaps a small injection of humour might be a useful moment of relief or perhaps release for the audience. One concern I had was that if everyone made the same choice to employ humour, that we would then have had a whole day of lighthearted pieces being made in the context of human rights abuses that do not bear them. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, an excess of levity across the day was not a problem. The other concern I had of course was that levity is simply not appropriate for the subject, but I made my choice, as mentioned above, and hope that it has not caused any offence.

All the readings from the event have gone online this morning, and they are all worth watching, as everyone came to the impossible problem of how to write about these different people in very different ways, and are all so valuable, both as creative works, and in drawing attention to the work and plights of others.

I learnt so much in the process of research and writing for this project, not just about the Al-Khawaja family, but also about Bahrain in general. I had no idea how bad things were there, in terms of the way the ruling regime has treated those who protest against it, and no idea how little the US and the UK are doing about it. Trump, for example, has just declared his intention to forge ahead with a jet deal that drops the human rights conditions Obama had attached to it. The UK has just opened a Naval Base there (that Bahrain has largely paid for), which is being sold to us by the Telegraph, along with improved trade relations with Bahrain, as a "perfect platform" for a post-Brexit Britain.

I don't claim to understand all the nuances of the political situation, but the human rights abuses being carried out in Bahrain are well documented. Learning more about the situation is helping me find opportunities where I can do more. For example, it strikes me that writing to my MP about the Bahraini rulers' human rights abuses is useful, as hopefully is this blogpost, as is joining English PEN, and I am looking for ways to do more.

By the way, if you would like a place to start in terms of learning more about the Al-Khawaja family, you can start here, though I also recommend finding out more about Bahrain generally, and the 2011 uprisings that were largely ignored by our newspapers, by watching this Al Jazeera documentary "Shouting in the Dark" here.

Now I'm sat here, typing this up, and I'm still thinking about the leap to this from the "Dragons are Awesome" panel last weekend. My life is mixed and confusing and strange and overall fine, filled with these seemingly irreconcilable activities. Obscene as it feels, I need to acknowledge the coexistence of these two different modes of living, both my desire to be helpful in the world, and my desire to talk about, for example, how Katya never should have left season seven of RuPaul's Drag Race when she did. But I suspect that the more I can reconcile these two modes, the more it will liberate me to be more bravely useful - that I can do more once I accept and stop being ashamed of how different my life is, and how limited my experience and help.

One thing that Maryam comes back to again and again in interviews is this idea that she, they, are not exceptional in being human rights activists, that it is normal to say something when you see injustice. Perhaps that's a useful point to end on, making this sort of action more normal, something to fold into daily life. As normal as watching Drag Race, liking dragons or wanting to write a poem is to me.

No, wait, this is where I'll end. Linking to where you can sign up for English PEN's mailing list, even if you don't want to join.

Patti Smith and Spontaneous Kindness

The cumulative effect of everything that's happened this year is a lot to bear, isn't it? I wrote a post the other day about some books and things that helped me get through this year, but walking down to the river today I was trying to think of more personal things too. It's hard to respond to in a way that accepts bleakness whilst also allowing for hope. So, some distractingly nice things first, and then Patti Smith.

First, some family things that were good this year. It was great to take Kieron's mum to San Diego Comicon with us this year. She got to see a completely different side of our life, of her life. She also caught her first Pokemon, and I will remember the spectacular moment when she celebrated her catch forever.

A few months before this, Kieron and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. That seems like it's pretty momentous. We've been together ten years in total, and friends for much longer than that. That's over a decade of bad puns, bad wine and good company. May there be at least another decade more, the glorious beast. We went to visit my family in the mountains in Italy in August. Kieron left a few days before I did, and my three and half year old sort-of niece spent the rest of the week asking me: "Dov'è tuo padre?" i.e. "Where is your father?" Our best guess was that she assumed he must be my dad because the two of us spend so much time holding hands, and she only really associates hand-holding with parents. This is the warmest misunderstanding that has ever arisen from our public displays of affection.

Another wonderful moment that meant a lot to me this year - an act of spontaneous adventuring. We came home from San Diego Comicon via LA for a few days, ostensibly for work, along with our friends Jamie and Katie (Jamie is often referred to as Kieron's work-wife). Kieron and Jamie had a meeting that was going to last maybe half an hour or so, and the idea was that Katie and I would just wait for them in the rental car. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but when they left she remembered something I'd been saying before about this being was my first time in LA, and that I really wanted to go to the Griffith Observatory (the observatory in Rebel Without a Cause, The Terminator, and a million other things) and then she said something like "You know, it's really not so far away from here" and immediately started the car and began driving us away, asking me to look up directions on the phone. What was meant to be a sort of nothing 40-minute wait turned into an exciting secret road trip up a mountain, with me being dropped off and running to the edge to see the big view over LA and take a quick photo as she turned the car around (she has been before, I hasten to add). Chances are we wouldn't have had time to do it at any other point anyway, and it was so much more exciting to do it this way. A small act, in a very privileged trip and all that, I know, I know - but for a moment there it was like being an adventurer. What a thrill. And what a kindness for Katie to think of doing it at all. Small acts of spontaneous kindness make me want to make small acts of spontaneous kindness too.

The other big thing that sticks out for me this year is seeing Patti Smith sing 'Land/Gloria' the week after the referendum. Kieron and I got tickets to go and see Massive Attack, who she was playing with. (They were both great btw, reminding me why I loved them in the first place, how strong and political and relevant they are.) And Patti Smith - well, I've never seen her live before, and I didn't dare to hope she'd play 'Land' (spoilers: apparently she often ends gigs with it now) and when it started I felt that full rapturous sprawl of nerve start to spread down the back of my neck. That song is so powerful - the idea of losing control and then taking it back again. It's a song full of ideas and drive and hope and action. And, of course, someone took a video of it at the gig we were at, so you can experience it too - Patti Smith's guttural anger and rage and passion funnelled into a communal experience that acknowledges horror but refuses to submit to it. 

Happy New Year's Eve, everyone.

Meaningful Things

Here is a list of things this year — books, games, tv, etc — which have been particularly meaningful to me (ignoring single poetry collections for now, as they need a post of their own). Thank you to the people who made these things, which helped make this stupid year more bearable.

Currently & Emotion: Translations
ed. Sophie Collins
(Test Centre)

A great anthology of translations — all different types of translations, unexpected source materials and strategies for handling them — designed to stimulate translation culture. All the pieces are so interesting (along with insightful intros to each one) and I think are mostly taken from longer works, the majority of them by women, like Anne Carson's Albertine Workout, Rachael Allen's 4chan Poems, or Vahni Capildeo's Measures of Expatriation. This feels like a force for good in the world, clearing a path for a strong thoughtful future.


Pamphlet Series
various authors
If a Leaf Falls Press

I'm signed up as a subscriber to receive every pamphlet produced by If a Leaf Falls Press (set up by Sam Riviere) and it's been a recurring source of intrigue and pleasure. It's only been running this year (and, disclaimer, Sam published a pamphlet by me among them) and they're in super-limited editions, with no way to predict what's going to arrive. Pamphlets included anything from lists of Uber car pickup names & dates, an apparent patient's diary of observations, a list of alternative titles to film names (eg Twelve Hangry Men, which made me spit my tea out when I first read it) and all kinds of stuff. Always interesting, always different, always a delight when a new pack of pamphlets drops through the letterbox.


Bojack Horseman

KG and I only heard about Bojack Horseman this year, so had the joy of being able to binge watch three whole seasons in a row. If you don't know it, it's an animated comedy/drama for adults about a washed up actor in LA who, back in the nineties, was in a very famous tv show. He's also a horse. He has a friend, another actor, a labrador called Mister Peanutbutter. His agent is a cat called Princess Caroline. But his biographer Diane is a human, as is friendly moocher Todd. I'm not sure why, but this mixture of animals and humans works across multiple levels — simple one-liners as well as more nuanced extended humour at times. Plus it's fun to watch animals and humans interact in familiar but surprising ways. Forget all that though — this is not a quiet distracting comedy, it's also a drama. A bleak, cynical, blunt, and only occasionally warm look at celebrity and creative life in LA (but mostly bleak). The next season is coming out next summer and I can't wait. Here are the opening credits so you'll get an idea of tone.


Richard Scott
The Rialto

Richard is a very good friend and his first pamphlet of poems came out this year — it was so good to see it (and it just won the Michael Marks Awards — hooray for him!). I really love his poems. They navigate a world of love, sex and sensuality, seducing us over and over with language. Can't wait to read more. It's dark and wonderful, full of desire. (Also it just made me laugh that in googling for this cover I had to type in "wound richard scott" which is the last thing I'd ever want to do.)


My Favourite Murder
Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark
Feral Audio Podcast

Two LA comedians sit in a room and tell murder stories to each other, punctuated by contributions from a vocal cat called Elvis. And it's brilliant. Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff combine humour, horror and a basic human desire to avoid getting murdered by serial killers. It says a lot about this horrible year that I've found shows about death to be enormously reassuring.


Joshua Williamson & Mike Henderson
Image Comics

Continuing this theme of being heartened by murder, I've binged through all of Nailbiter this year, an ongoing comic at Image Comics. You can buy up to issue 25 in collected trades, though the final (eep!) arc is currently being released in single issues, with the finale coming in March). It revolves around a fictional town that has produced a disproportionately high number of America's serial killers, and we gradually get to discover why, with darkness, suspense and humour. I binged through this initially as an excuse to make sure it was a suitable gift for my mother-in-law (who expressed interest in it when we took her with us to San Diego Comicon this summer) and it certainly is. But she'll have to wrestle me for it.


Neko Atsume

I cannot believe I'm still feeding these damn cats. Purchased at the start of January 2016, this phone game is something I have checked into at least twice (if not more than twice) every single day this year, and it's one of the gentlest, sweetest secret pleasures I have. It's less "game" and more "show me my garden of cats who will soothe me".


New Boots and Pantisocracies
ed. WN Herbert & Andy Jackson
Smokestack Books

Bill and Andy started up the New Boots blog shortly after the election last year, and it's been a heartening reminder that poets can and do want to engage, directly and productively, with the political horrors of the past year and a half. This anthology of poems from the blog was published this year by Smokestack and it made me so happy to have in the house (and, yes, disclaimer, I have a poem in here too). The blog itself is no longer updated daily, but still puts out strong and interesting work when it does.


No Man's Sky
Hello Games

This is the opposite of political engagement. This is me running away into space alone and hiding. And mining. And feeding and befriending compound dinosaurs. I think this is a wonderful game (I know it's had a lot of criticism this year, but I don't agree with any of it). I've spent a huge and relaxing amount of time exploring beautiful new worlds that, thank goodness, have nothing at all to do with this one.


RuPaul's Drag Race

So rude, so crude, so glorious. Not without its controversies, especially in earlier shows, but I have given myself over to this as a source of pretty consistent joy. A reality show for drag queens that you can watch on Netflix, this show is capable of tremendously petty, shallow yet wickedly entertaining scenes, as well as honest heartbreaking moments of emotional intensity. Come for the bitching, stay for the glamour, humour and celebration of drag. Sometimes I want to get one of RuPaul's catchphrases inscribed on my wrist as a tattoo for constant reference: "Good luck. And don't fuck it up." Here's a clip of one of my favourite regular features The Snatch Game.


Centres of Cataclysm: Celebrating Fifty Years of Modern Poetry in Translation
ed. Sasha Dugdale, David & Helen Constantine
Bloodaxe Books

This is a great anthology too, full of poems about migration, war, revolution and hope. It's an almost overwhelming testimony of resilience, and celebrates fifty years of Modern Poetry in Translation magazine. I did some work on helping clear permissions for this, and so many poems in here break my heart again and again, by all sorts of poets from all sorts of places (eg Primo Levi, Kim Hyesoon, Miroslav Holub, Anna Akhmatova, Pasolini...). So, I'll leave this post, and this overall diabolically shitty year, with a quote from a Seamus Heaney poem that's included in this anthology (a translation of 'The Sibyl' from Virgil's Aeneid). The lines that follow straight after these are "A road will open to safety / From the last place you would expect... " but, as I'm not totally convinced I dare hope for safety, instead I'll end it here. Best wishes for next year, folks. Am breathing in now.

     But whatever disasters befall, do not flinch.
     Go all the bolder to face them, follow your fate
     To the limit.