Welcome to December

So into December we go. A really gloomy day here in the wilds of north Essex today. But that’s only right for this time of year, yeah?

It feels like a blink since we were publishing Pomes Flixus six months ago. Yet how bright and green the late days of May seem now.

Did you get hold of a copy of the book yourself? Did you mean to? Well, if you order one from Dunlin Press any time before the end of the year I’ll personally throw in something extra for Christmas. Think of it as an advent calendar surprise.

Here’s a poem from the collection:

‘Here’s That Rainy Day’

As we look out to a little street
all the parked commuter cars
the houses there beyond the river
the feeling that summer never quite got going
but here with a view after all
of our occasional need for ease and quiet
content in a kind of neutral mid-tempo
but also finding reason
in a quickness unfolding around us
where the drains fill with a thirst of ages
the hydrangeas by the corner
almost insanely thankful
the birds instantly much quieter
heading for the birches and false acacias
things that know best how to handle these moments
all round the ringed roads of the estate
like coaxial thoughts that desired being straightened
or vertical like rain
forgetting that rain has its inflections
or that sometimes there’s little
between rain and drenched air
all deep-wet for something
that needs us without regret
and feels effortless
as a soft voice falling in a shower of notes.

Okay then. Want to see a bit more? Go here. Want to make an oldish writer smile by placing an order? Go here.

Stay safe everyone.

xx

Stride magazine review: ‘Remembering this occasion is ours’

“These poems document the act of seeing and thinking about what is being seen just as Creeley’s work sometimes does. Memory and imagination are also here in abundance…”

Rupert Loydell reviewed Pomes Flixus and The Orphaned Spaces in Stride magazine back in September. You can read them here.

Something Wonderful May Happen: New York School of Poets – and Beyond

Here’s an hour’s watch on the New York School of poets, featuring John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Jordan Davis, Jane Freilicher, Hettie Jones, Kenneth Koch, David Lehman, Alfred Leslie, Bill Morgan and Larry Rivers. Yep, this 2001 documentary film by Lars Movin, Niels Plenge and Thomas Thurah has only 362 views at the time of writing – and very good value it is too.

362 views!

Does something wonderful happen? Well, what’s wonderful?

A Poetry of Looking

“Of course you wouldn’t start from here”

First line of ‘Itiner-y of a Pilgrimage’, the first poem in Pomes Flixus.

So where should we start? Where do we expect to start? From the beginning? The beginning of what? From whose point of view?

Disorientation is a key feature of many of the poems that interest me. Writing that only perhaps tries to find its focus, but always recognises that focus is temporal and subjective. Who is pointing the camera? With whose vocabulary is the thing in question to be described?

To start with certainty is problematic for many writers. Certainty comes from privilege, status, class… and all the rest. We know what we’re talking of here. Let’s look.

How do we see? We approach, we look, we ask questions but don’t always get answers, or get the answers some might have hoped for. Then we move on beyond the ‘thing’, whether by a surefooted sense of progress, or by an inevitable disturbance, and the ‘thing’ recedes into the past, from where we reflect upon it subjectively.

Temporal subjectivity is all there is. The rest is a construction through which power and individual agency are asserted. All of us know very little.

As we pass, to see that we can’t see
a view, periodically, so consummately here
with all the notebooks being undone

From ‘Itiner-y of a Pilgrimage’

The first section of Pomes Flixus is titled Encounters. In it are poems about landscape and nature but in all of them thoughts about landscape and nature are subverted in some way. And they’re probably not really about landscape and nature either, because I stopped writing straightforwardly about those things some time ago. Just look at the bookshops. There’s sooo much writing about hills, forests, rivers, meadows, moths, trees. It’s a land-grab. I’m sure many have there merit, but many only seek to describe ‘accurately’ (ACCURATELY!!) the thing at the centre of the gaze. I’m not sure my writing ever achieves that, or would want to.

A question about the nature of nature that doesn’t want to hold
us creatures that avoid certain climates or social circles,
the nervous movements that lead to creative disappearances

From ‘A Lime Hawk-Moth, Briefly Considered’

My poem ‘A Lime Hawk-Moth, Briefly Considered’ came into being after I saw a lime hawk-moth at the back of our tiny garden. But the poem is not about a moth, obviously, surely.

What are these encounters with, then? They are an encounter between the self and the world. What happens in these moments is that we look, we try to see. But how do we look? What are we trying to see?

The other sections of Pomes Flixus are titled Voices, Names and Propositions. Because they aren’t set in the language of geographic ‘territory’, it might seem that the theme of ‘looking’ has been discarded. I don’t think so. Really, they consider the language of looking, vocabularies of looking, the voice of looking, and alternate means/processes of looking.

The easiest part of the problem to correct
is the vowels. Such hard sounds get lost on audiences

From ‘The Division Bells’

Is that David? It looks like David.
How many years is it?

From ‘David, Out of Nowhere’

The comparative roles
of canons and averages
that simplify the field.
The quiet transformations
and assumptions made
without explicit debate.

From ‘The Other Humanities’

There are collage and aleatory poems here, and found (but mediated) poems that are formed from below-the-line (BTL) comments on internet sites, YouTube, etc. ‘You Can Edit Your Responses After Submitting’ is a collocation of news and press release headlines that gives us

the gatekeepers still on payroll, but
now citing foxes, the young, refugees,
a new bottom line for start-up talent,
clickbait death spiral, save and close.

The poems flick between points of uncertain view – they remain in flux. And one of the ideas was to make them ‘democratic’. By that, I mean that an ‘authorial voice’ is only one available voice, and this would always be foregrounded. Using found words in BTL comments isn’t a clever device or a comment on our contemporary ‘always on’ digital experience of the world. Rather, it’s just one way we talk about the things we talk about. So the poems vary in the choice and styles of language, but they’re all on a level. No voice can be the right voice, or wrong one, better one, more untrustworthy one. They’re all just THERE. HERE.

Language is how we explain the world we experience. Your language is not better than mine. This knowledge is the basis of everything. What does it mean when someone says, “they use language well”? Who’s judging? Who has the right to say that? Of course language can be put to good use, or succeed in conveying something, but there is no ‘right’ way to do it – as if it’s some kind of level that we all need to attain. Because that’s just some power trip that reinstates historic inequalities.

But hang on, weren’t we talking about looking? Of course. But we’re talking about poetry, about writing. And language betrays the way the writer is looking, how they look, and what they want to see. And when language is fixed, certain, non-various, standard English, traditional etc etc, it approaches its subject as fixed, certain, non-various, standard English, traditional etc etc. This means what is sought comes from the viewpoint/standpoint of a culture that is regarded as fixed, certain, non-various, standard English, traditional etc etc. Who could hold such a view?

There are some writers who, when they decide to describe ‘a tree’, seem only to want to assert their own knowledge of the tree, and to establish their relation to it. To me this seems to be a position of privilege. To hold steady that view of the world, and know that your place in the picture is unquestioned and secure.

For writers like me who are from working class (and other marginalised, subjugated, oppressed, sidelined, hitherto-unlistened-to, thought-of-as-lesser, ‘non-standard’, other-than-hetero-normative, ‘foreign’ etc etc etc) cultures, such an unquestioned and secure viewpoint is unavailable.

When we look and write about things, we are making a political point. To think that we are not, demonstrates privilege. Nothing more.

From Now On, Everything You Do Becomes an Integral Part of the Work

I wanted to return to Pomes Flixus and considered ways of opening the book (again). This is one response to the question, which I realise I haven’t yet proposed… From 1970 or thereabouts, Maurice Lemaître’s Toujours à l’avant garde de l’avant garde jusqu’au paradis et au delà.

Maurice Lemaître, Toujours à l’avant garde de l’avant garde jusqu’au paradis et au delà

Towards a new collection

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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.

And then…

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.

More soon…

MWB x

Readings: Poetry Cafe and Essex Book Festival

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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!

poetrycafeinvitation

 

 

 

 

Work in progress

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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.

Nature writing

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.

New collection

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.

MWB x

 

Poetry submissions: a cautionary tale

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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.

MWB