Game of forms

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What I admire in some poets is that they know what they want from their writing. They produce work to the same high standard, sure of the form the poems will take and precise in their vocabulary every time. They seem to be able to do this at will. And this means you can throw subject matter at them and they can respond. Ask them to write about a dry stone wall, or a birthday, or some news event, and it will be done, and their voice will ring true.

What I admire in some other poets is their adaptability when set a challenge. They are given an opportunity to write for a journal or competition and they seem to know innately what must be done. They produce work that, though it shape-shifts in form and style, also responds to any given brief with a clarity of purpose, and the poet’s efforts are regularly recognised with publication, commendations and prizes. Writing for prizes is a skill distinct from, say, writing for a collection, and some poets absolutely nail it.

But there are also other types of poet. There are, for example, some for whom purpose and signature voice seems much more about enquiry – the journey, perhaps – than having a certain idea as to the outcome. It’s not that their voice doesn’t make itself known, or that their work is distractingly inconsistent, it’s just that you’re never quite sure where they’re headed next.

I was thinking about these distinctions while selecting some poems for an upcoming reading. I written a lot over the past year – and since the publication of Scarecrow. And in that time I’ve encountered some real dead ends as well as making some decent steps forward with what I want from my own work.

What am I getting at?

At first, post-Scarecrow, my new poems were rather slight on the page. Looking back, it was as if I could barely commit to new words at all. White space was left to illuminate the page. One-word lines, two-line stanzas… new thoughts only hinted at, elemental, stripped back to the point where they were barely there. I wrote a poem about a piece of furniture; another about a potato. Somewhere in all this was a need to get back to the very building blocks of writing, and the creative process itself.

Within a few months, however, something changed. Rain poured on an old cottage in the Calder Valley, and words came, too. Suddenly, lines were flowing across the page and forming long, dense stanzas, and columns of poetry filled my notebook. There was too much to say and it was all coming in torrents.

Formally, the work I was attending to last summer is very different to the poems I’m trying to hone at the moment. Am I being inconsistent? Have I somehow lost my voice, or never gained it? I’m not so sure. I think it’s all part of the same process – part of the ‘digging’ – and part of working out what it is I want to say next. What’s clear is that I’m not allied to any singular form, but I am certain that whatever form a poem eventually takes it should inform the meaning of the piece.

I’m reminded too that I’m not keen on poetry that seems more concerned with adhering to arbitrary formal rules than actually ‘saying’ anything of interest. So you can write a tight Petrarchan sonnet; you’re always delighted to see a sestina, and love some oulipo action… but why? What for? I honestly believe that writing poetry should be more than a game of forms, and formal rules are only one part of a poet’s toolkit.

And I’m meandering, rather like my recent work. And it’s almost time for dinner. And tomorrow I need to hack away at some words that link snow and the night sky, a ‘joke’ in a symphony, an office bin, cherry blossom, and ageing. And the ways to do this are to apply the tools of symmetry, elision, repetition, and deletion (thanks L Bernstein). And then we’ll see what form the poem has taken.

(P.S. All of this is subject to change.)

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I am not here

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When we first moved to Wivenhoe, Essex, over six years ago now, my compass still pointed towards London. The railway was a thin chain, a line of landscape that linked our new home with our old home in the city. A combination of changing jobs, Network Rail’s interminable bus replacement services, and a general digging in to our new environment, has seen a shift made.

I wrote no poetry when I left London. I was touting a vaguely experimental novel, playing guitar and singing. Then, after a couple of years here, I started attending Poetry Wivenhoe‘s monthly evening of readings, at which a guest poet, local poet and open mic poets get up on stage for a couple of hours. After a few sessions, I started writing, and reading.

Last year, Scarecrow, a first collection of poetry, was published through me and Ella Johnston‘s own ‘small publishing concern’, Dunlin Press. I had some poems published in journals, too, and I read at poetry events across East Anglia, in London, and in Liverpool.

Wherever I thought I was when I arrived in Wivenhoe, I was not. Some of these thoughts made it into Scarecrow.

So where am I? I appear to have arrived amid a loose, but connected, sometimes neighbourly, sometimes geographically distanced, collective of supportive and curious minds – people who seek out, listen to, read, and most of all write poetry. Some of that poetry rhymes. Some of it doesn’t. Some of its meaning is straightforward and transparent. Some of it is oblique or opaque – a conundrum that doesn’t care whether it’s ever solved.

But what most of the poets I meet these days share, is the knowledge that what they do is outside of direct commercial concerns. It’s not usually seeking large audiences, or existing as some kind of a priori exercise in soliciting funding. That doesn’t mean it’s not good poetry. In fact I often feel the opposite. What it means is that it has other reasons for being. It is created because those who create it feel compelled to do so, compelled to describe – to interrogate, make ambiguous, reinterpret, reimagine – the world in which they live, perhaps for no other reason than they can.

Does poetry make you money? It’s a fair question. But why do you ask? It might help me if it did. But would it help you, too? There’s something about doing something that doesn’t offer financial return that really offends people.

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In December, I headed back from Cumbria/The Lake District to Essex via Liverpool, to give a reading at the launch of issue two of Coast to Coast to Coast, a handstitched journal of poetry edited and produced by Maria Isakova Bennett and Michael Brown, in which I had a poem, Ways.

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December is a busy time in the day-job for me, and I almost said no to going. In a week of travelling, Liverpool was an extra diversion. But there, at the Open Eye Gallery, were these people again. These poets, and an audience that had come to hear the poetry, reading and listening to the world being subtly reinvented, our understanding of the world being polished, muddied, sharpened, blunted.

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It’s strange now, thinking of that high tension line I had drawn between Essex and London six-and-a-bit years ago. So direct, so certain. And now what? Well, it’s January and I’m back in Wivenhoe again. And this is good. Except I am also not here. It’s like everything is starting to be everywhere. And this is good too.

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From ‘Plant’

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“The arms that thrust above the streets / bring visions of heaven…”

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“The arms that thrust above the streets /are the colour of blood…”

Elliptical Movements – Billy Mills review of Scarecrow

I’ve been rewarded this year by being introduced to the poetry of Billy Mills, whose recent The City Itself is one of those occasional collections that can make you question why you write the way you write. It simplifies the complex, and finds huge space for exploration in what is seemingly simple. It’s about place, and about the elemental and the supposedly insignificant, the particular and the universal, and the relations between them. It’s words, but it creates a soundscape – a rising and falling of the whispering air around us. It’s great, basically, and is part of a continuity of work Mills has been working on since the late 70s – a series of books that form one long book, or one long conversation/interrogation, at least.

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Poet Michael Begnal notes here of The City Itself, its “compact and intricate soundplay, occasional lyric flashes, documentary historical material, and even personal narrative in order to make an argument about the interplay between urban and natural spaces and human beings’ place in the network of things.”

Nicely put, and one of the reasons why I’m delighted that Mills has reviewed my recent debut collection of poems, Scarecrow, on his Elliptical Movements blog, alongside work from Peter Philpott, Sonja Benskin Mesher, John Phillips, Daragh Breen, and Anna Cathenka.

You can read the reviews here. It’s a blog worth subscribing to.

Two gigs

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I’ll be reading from my book Scarecrow, and debuting a couple of brand new poems, at two nights in the next week or so.

Thursday 25 May I’ll be doing two sets at Poetry Wivenhoe, in Essex, supporting Martin Figura and Helen Ivory – a home-town gig for me. Details here.

The following day, Friday 26 May I’ll be reading a short set at a Red Raw evening of various entertainments at Vout-o-Reenees in Aldgate, London. Details here.

Lots more to catch up on, but that’s it for now.

Have yourselves a great weekend. Hope to see some of you at one of these, or a future reading.

MWB x

 

Scarecrow on tour

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Scarecrow has been on a mini tour of the region since its launch – I’ve read in Wivenhoe a couple of times (at the Wivenhoe Bookshop launch and at Poetry Wivenhoe) and at Ipswich (as a guest of Suffolk Poetry Society) and at Bury St Edmunds (as the guest reader at Poetry Aloud).

Thanks to everyone who came and listened as the Scarecrow found its voice – it’s been a pleasure reading. Rather nicely each set has been quite different, drawing on various aspects of the collection. I must have read nearly half of the collection out over the few dates. And thanks to everyone who bought books, too. Not only does it make the author feel like it was worthwhile, but the funds go straight back into Dunlin Press and are set directly against the costs of the next book. You’re helping to keep indie publishing alive.

Anyway, thanks for the invites, and for the time. It’s been a good, good thing.

MWB

 

Book launch, Scarecrow: 17 March

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Well here it is. This has been simmering for around three years now and the poetry cauldron of trouble is about to bubble over. We’re cooked, done… and it’s over to you.

Scarecrow is published on Friday 17 March and is being launched at The Wivenhoe Bookshop, Wivenhoe, Essex, on the same day, at 6.30pm for 7pm. I’ll be reading some of the book’s poems and looking at their roots and the creative process involved in writing them.

Scarecrow is about place. It’s about London and Essex, and it’s about being between places too. Many of the poems were written on trains to and from the capital. It’s about trying to be somewhere and being nowhere – and about finding your place.

That’s the contradiction of the ‘scarecrow’, I suppose. S/he’s grounded, stuck, marooned, and also isolated, outcast, alone. It scares away rather than attracts. How can it feel ‘at home’, or ‘at one’, when it endures such penury of existence?

To be ‘home’ means to be accepted, and to accept. The scarecrow stands outside of such considerations, yet remains within our gaze, within our judgement.

The scarecrow could be described as ‘everyman’. I hope readers will feel that connection. But I think, at a deeper level, this modern monad is also the human who truly understands what it is to travel because travel is what is needed, or forced. To travel and enter, and yet remain always at the periphery, always being the outsider.

The previous book by Dunlin Press, who publish Scarecrow, and whom with I am indelibly attached, is The Migrant Waders, and I feel maybe some of the urgency and sorrow that marked that book, and which all migrants no doubt understand, has rubbed off here.

So there’s the contradiction again. To be present, and yet have no agency. To have to travel, and yet never to truly arrive.

If you’re in or around Wivenhoe on the 17th, or can be, come along to the bookshop – let them know you’re coming – and we’ll raise a glass to all scarecrows.

And do get in touch if you’d like me to come and read some of these poems at your own poetry event.

If you’d just like to get hold of a copy of the book, you can do so here, or ask your independent bookshop to order one from Dunlin Press.

If you’re a journalist who would like a review copy, drop me or the publisher a line and we’ll sort one out.

MWB