Where to start.
Maybe with an ending.
My first collection, Scarecrow, went out into the world and then there was a space. I had nothing to say, or felt that way. I had used too many words.
Maybe with a beginning.
I am listening to Charles Ives’s Holidays Symphony. Between strings and brass, wind, the Jew’s harp. Or jaw harp, mouth harp, gewgaw, guimbard, khomus, trump, Ozark harp, Galician harp, or murchunga. A lamellophone instrument (the internet tells me). And my second collection is pretty much done.
How did it get from there to here? Scarecrow was a personal thing, full of real thoughts buried into personas (sometimes). It was a bit folky, gothic, baroque. There was the sun and the rain, and the railways that took you from the city to the sea. Fields.
And then what?
Then there were just words, and wondering which words were mine. The sense that I hadn’t started to tackle the foremost question, that of language itself. My language felt borrowed. But we do borrow all our language, don’t we? And so there are implications.
Scarecrow also concerned time and distance. Fair enough. But I began to feel it didn’t really get in amongst them. A fleeting vision is a thing, a fact, but it also means something. Every word is a disturbance. To paint a picture is not to paint the thing you see. It’s more to do with how you see. Etc.
All of the land, poets pacing purposefully, making notes and listening carefully to what others say. Which others? Then writing everything up. A methodical pursuit. Understandable in this information age, to want to curate, to pinpoint, to cut through the noise, to (literally) find a path through the mud and come to rest, focus, on something solid. The desire for certainty.
(As we discussed earlier today: the unnerving need for the Bake Off, the Victoria sponge).
The meadow. The blizzard of moths gone. The river. The ancient woodland. The word plain and simple. Everything easily understood.
In times of inundation it (no doubt) feels apt to plot and map, to stake a claim, to say… at least this, this, this. We are good people, honestly, and despite our behaviours feel very connected to trees, especially at this time of climate crisis. I walked eight miles at the weekend, here is the route.
But what of Ives’s (again) Fourth Symphony and its ‘collapse section’? What of ‘Daffy Duck in Hollywood’? What of Warhol’s repeated bottles of Coke? Ah, what even of my old song Gordon ‘Dodger’ Pattinson with its middle eight of white noise (a detuned radio)?
What say you, leaf? Wem sagst du das!
And so I wanted to bear witness to uncertainty and ambiguity, to the augmentations, transpositions, diminutions, inversions. I wanted words that didn’t claim what wasn’t theirs to claim. I wanted something almost involuntary. Found words, words from differing lexicons/vocabularies. Heteroglossia. Dialogisms. The whole multieffingfariousness of it all.
What was the encounter? Who met with what? What can you tell of it, truly? What were the voices you heard? In which voice will you speak next? What names do you trust? How can you know? What are you proposing? Is the proposal a good one? Are you sure?
These questions, the faltering fruits of an enquiry.
And this is what I set out to write.
I’ve mostly taken a break from social media during the start of this year. But I have been working/writing/editing. In fact, I’m almost finished with a new collection of poetry. All will start to be revealed soon.
So what happens during this late-stage writing process? Well, the manuscript has left the building and flown off to a poet-editor who can tell me whether I’ve completely lost the plot or not. And I’m basically taking each poem along to the gym to toughen them up and get them as lean as they can be.
It’s also a last chance to drop a few that somehow aren’t cutting it, and maybe add in something new, or previously overlooked, that better suits the shape of the collection as a whole. I really like this stage. I like being brave with the edits and making the most of a time when you stop wondering what you’ve got to say and asking, in no uncertain terms, whether you’ve really said it. And if you haven’t… chop.
The artwork for the book is also in progress. For me, the design is a part of the whole. I don’t think I could stand to have the book’s cover and design as something separate, something conceived of and executed elsewhere.
In fact, it’s often when the artwork starts to reveal itself that I know, ultimately, the final selection for the poems. That might be anathema to often-held views of poetic good practice. Except it’s not for me. It helps. The wider arts of painting, music and film (etc) have always guided my writing, sometimes more than the work of other writers.
Anyway, the purpose of this post is to let you know that I’ll be previewing some new work in March.
First up I’ll be reading at The Poetry Cafe, Betterton Street, London, on 19 March. The event is the Patrician Press launch for Christine de Luca’s new book of Shetlandic poems, Northern Alchemy. I’ll be in support along with poet and editor Philip Terry, who’s fresh from editing The Penguin Book of Oulipo.
Then, on 21 March I’ll be in Manningtree, Essex, with Dunlin Press, alongside fellow Essex indie publishers Muscaliet Press and Patrician Press. A Celebration of Essex Indie Presses is an Essex Book Festival event, and apart from me there will be readings from Dunlin Press poet Alex Toms, plus Emma Kittle-Pey, Chris McCully, Suzy Norman and more TBC.
So, that’s me out of hibernation then. Hope to see you in March!
At almost the end of the year, a moment of reflection and a few thank yous.
In 2019, I’ve been lucky enough to have had a few poems make their way into anthologies, journals, magazines and websites. Thank you to everyone at The Blue Nib, Coast to Coast to Coast, The Cormorant, Greenteeth Press, The High Window, Marble, Maytree Press, MIR, Patrician Press, Under the Radar and Visual Verse for looking after my meandering thoughts.
If there’s a theme that links many the varying pieces I’ve had published this year, it’s nature. Nature regularly makes its way into my writing – it’s hard for it not to, given where I live and that, well, nature is all around us. It would seem hard to leave it out – if you step out of the house and have your eyes open, well, there it is. Nature is where we live, even in the city, and place is a constant source of inspiration and exploration in what I do.
But when I’ve been submitting my work, not all the poems I’ve sent out have been about place and nature. It looks as if, for obvious reasons, poetry’s editors and arbiters are prioritising nature as a theme at this time when the climate emergency has made so many headlines. Let’s hope that as the trend continues, we let nature live and don’t seek to elevate our own position by making reference to it. There’s a long and bourgeois tradition of writers claiming ownership of place and nature by writing it. Let’s look to John Clare and JA Baker, and see how they handle the natural world, and not lurch into smugness. That’s the last thing we need.
Throughout the year I’ve been gradually edging towards completing a new collection of poetry. In the last few days I’ve sent off a manuscript to a trusted editor/poet/publisher for a first opinion. It’s the first time I’ve done this. In the past, inviting comment on my writing has been done in a much more ad hoc manner – via informal conversation and through comments after readings. My next set of work is quite wide-ranging in style and, perhaps, formally challenging. Some poems in the new collection have already been published, but others haven’t yet found a home. I don’t think some of them are particularly ‘on trend’ – not when I see what’s being published in some of the mainstream journals that, with good reason and commercial sense, often seek to foreground topics and experiences that touch on the big issues of the day.
This presents challenges. Mainly, ‘Who’s going to publish it?’ As I run the Dunlin Press imprint, along with my wife Ella Johnston, I’m lucky to have a readymade and supportive outlet. I’ve always been drawn to such a DIY sensibility. Some of my favourite poets (and bands, artists…) publish through their own labels. Many always have. It’s quite a responsibility, but it also provides opportunities for creative control that are hard to achieve if there are third parties involved. While small, independent presses are numerous (good!), using your own press to be published is frequently looked down upon. It tends to invoke sniping and small looks of disgust. Get over it. Be good. Put it out. Job done.
There are potential downsides, of course. Achieving objectivity and quality control can be difficult, so you have to be hard on yourself and have a good team around you. You don’t get the kudos of being able to say that someone else published you – yeah, but you get the kudos of being truly independent. You don’t get the benefit of another publisher’s financial clout – well, show me that publisher and I’ll talk to them, and if they still let me do what I want to do, then we can maybe shake hands on something.
Remember though, that the arts wouldn’t have half the good stuff it does without the resourcefulness of people doing it for themselves through radical, independent means of production. And so I think it’s highly probable that the new collection will be published by Dunlin Press. Can’t wait.
Cleaners from Venus
Talking of independent artists… it has been a pleasure for Ella and I, in parallel with what we do with Dunlin Press, to have had a hand in the publication of The Greatest Living Englishman, the second memoir of musician and poet Martin Newell – from the Cleaners from Venus. The book is at times an utter riot, and at times incredibly poignant, and takes us through two decades of life in pop’s independent, lo-fi, DIY margins, all the while making a series of cult records in the tradition of great English rock ‘n’ roll. Recommended.
And finally, thanks to all the 38 contributors who we published in Dunlin Press’s latest anthology, Port. Through the late autumn and early winter, we’ve had launches and readings in Aldeburgh, Kendal, London, Colchester and Manchester. It’s made it a great end to the year.
Here’s to the next one. Happy wintery bit, y’all.
One thing I’m looking forward to over the summer is seeing some of my recent poems appear in journals and anthologies. It’s always a thrill, even after all these years, to have my writing published – whether it’s features for magazines, short stories or poetry.
However, getting published, after all this time, can still feel rather arbitrary – unless of course you’re a paid-up desk writer, or regular contributor who can expect to be in every issue of whatever publication you’ve built your relationship with.
If – as it is for many poets – getting published is about sending a small group of poems to the poetry editor of a journal that you think suits your work, or chancing it with a prestigious publication because you’d just love to be included, then you’ll know that it can feel like closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and making a wish.
Some people talk about hit rates. Send out 10 and see if one gets published. “My hit rate is about 20 per cent,” you’ll hear someone say. Is that good, or bad? Who knows. What’s clear about hit rates, however, is that over any given period of time it’s unlikely to be steady. Seemingly easy-won success can be followed by a real, arduous drought.
My own recent successes have come at the end of such a period. It’s been like crossing a desert. How come?
Write, write, write
I’ve done so much writing over the past year. It’s been a rollercoaster. It’s been like chasing my tail. It’s been a brick wall, a mountain, a river. It’s been a cliche.
I’ve submitted to so many places, too. Poets may recognise that the weekends are the worst. That’s when the editors of journals get a quiet moment to send the rejection emails.
I moaned to Ella, my wife. I moaned to the poetry crew on social media. I moaned to my local poet friends. And my other friends. I couldn’t get arrested, is what I said.
I was doing something wrong. It must be my subject matter. Maybe I was in some kind of artistic transition period, and it showed. Or it must be my poetic diction. It must be my reference points, my influences, my peripherality, my humour, my intellect, some oddball nature, my clothes, my haircut, my cat. And I don’t even have a cat. Was that the problem?
Something was in the way. Some barrier, some mark that I couldn’t see but which was stopping all and sundry from taking on my work.
And then the advice: change your style; re-work; go to a workshop; be more sociable; approach different people; just keep sending it; believe in yourself; don’t change a thing; trust what you do; you’re your own best critic; keep at it. Or maybe just stop.
And the thing is…
…the thing is that ultimately it is, was, and always will be, only ever about me and the words.
And so I settled into some kind of post self-psychotherapy stage of acceptance, where I could come to terms with the fact that what I was doing was niche, or difficult, or at least not for everyone. Whether I was ahead of the times or behind them, up to the mark or wide of the mark, or if I didn’t even like the whole generalised notion that there WAS a mark, well, whatever.
You know – THAT stage of acceptance: outwardly, accepting; inwardly, seething.
Nothing happened. Nothing happened at all.
The meaning of success
So why am I sat on a small pile of acceptance emails? How come some editors recently said ‘yes’ to a bunch of poems that other editors had rejected? How come I sent out some poems which I’d previously sat on for months, and they were immediately accepted? Had I been wrong to hold them back?
Why? Why now? Why these poems? What changed?
The answer, like I say, is nothing.
I’m an editor, too, with Dunlin Press, and we’ve recently sent a tranche of acceptance and rejection letters out. Sometimes we’ve accepted one poem from a writer, but rejected others. Sometimes we’ve loved a poem but had no space for it. You have to see beyond a single piece of work and think about the whole, the bigger picture. Except… sometimes the individual poem somehow demands to be used.
Is there a methodology? Are some poems simply ‘better’?
Of course not. Some poems do work better: there’s more depth to them, or they say something fresh, or say something freshly. Some use language unexpectedly and it seems to work. Others do similar but are maybe judged not to work so well. Some poems you just like. Some poems remind you of other poems and excite you because of it. Some poems remind you of other poems and feel stale because of it. Really, it’s unpredictable.
In any case, I’m really happy to be having some poems published in a few different places over the next few months.
Just don’t ask me how it happened. It’s still crazy after all these years.
There were workmen, drilling, maybe not all the time. There were blue tits and robins nesting, a blackbird singing. We identified many of the plants in the border. The dogwood should have been cut back harder. In six months everything will be different. The present moment lends itself well to excitement. It also informs our preferences and choices. The train guard will be different this time. Trees have blown over, just outside of town. We waited nearly an hour at the platform and talked about waiting, about how to wait, about how to listen, how to see. Those Sixties suburban bungalows seem nice. Some architectural aesthetics prevail. I will not read or write poetry all week. This will provide an aperture. Goodbye Lavenham, goodbye Sudbury. We will continue to talk.
Bit of a Prokofiev day today, after this morning’s Building a Library on R3. Apparently he once said, “[Russia] has no use for music at the moment.”
Turbulent times back then, of course, but it’s not like we’re currently living in an age of wine and roses. Swap ‘Party diktat’ for ‘market diktat’ and many of the same pejorative forces on art are still very much in evidence.
Exploring the relationships between power structures, language and art, has been pretty much my thing for a few decades now. I see it in what gets featured on the BBC, what gets hung in galleries, what trends forecasters forecast, what wins prizes, what book covers look like, what editors and publishers choose to publish – and what they don’t.
I see it in the rules we claim are ‘normal’ and ‘useful’ and ‘valid’, and in the dismissal of artists who don’t apply those rules. I see it in our narrow and mediocre artistic output, and when the same critics and commentators appear over and over again to service the same old endgame.
I see it as we lose our ability to be critical of the mainstream and when we stop being brave in our creativity. I see it when we start to believe all art must have a direct function beyond art itself, and when we value art through numbers (copies sold, social media likes, viewing figures, audience share, bums on seats). I see it when we hear that an arts venue has to ‘wash its face’ and in the box-ticking exercises of funding applications.
These criteria are the tools of political systems that fully understand the potential power of art and popular entertainment. They are fashioned to look democratic and meritocratic but are nothing of the sort. To accept them is to limit our understanding of what might take us forward as a society as a whole. They are tools that seek to suppress knowledge and deny real lived experience.
The worst thing is, in seeking success as artists, and during the honest attempt to promote other artists, so many artists actually end up doing the work of these state systems, and at the very least being apologists for them. They become constituent parts of the market apparatus.
Now, I’d hardly call myself part of the avant garde. I’m not avant garde enough for that! But I think about these things every day as I write. I ask, “Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? What am I writing?” And if it all looks a bit like I’m kowtowing to voices other than my own, I stop, change something, mess it up a bit.
So that’s what I was thinking about when I was thinking about Prokofiev today. And now I’m off to write some poetry about working class voices and the terminology of finance capital.
Sounds like a jolly bunch of laughs, doesn’t it!
Image: Prokofiev, reading this post, earlier.