Saturday, 28 March 2020

These Are the Hands: Poems from the Heart of the NHS

I don't really plan to write about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its worldwide consequences - or I won't be doing so until I have something I really want to say.

However, UK readers of my blog will agree that the NHS needs support, especially right now. And to offer your support in a poetry-relevant way, you could buy the new anthology These Are the Hands: Poems from the Heart of the NHS (Fair Acre Press).

This anthology was published just a few days ago and was planned for the 60th anniversary of the NHS. Rather sadly, right now, it is all too relevant and important - even more so than usual. It was edited by Deborah Alma (who you may also know as the Emergency Poet and proprietor of the Poetry Pharmacy) and Dr Katie Amiel, and the foreword is by Michael Rosen. The poems themselves are by NHS employees, along with contributions from well-known poets.

Profits from the anthology go to the NHS Charities Together COVID-19 Emergency Fund. I hear it's selling really well.

Again, you can buy it here:

Saturday, 21 March 2020

The silence of AM Klein: an essay by Carmine Starnino

Carmine Starnino has written a fascinating essay on the important Canadian poet AM Klein, for The New Criterion, which you can read here:

The essay is also extremely interesting for its exploration of the role of a poet in society and how this affected Klein and his work. Also, I must admit I was delighted to learn that Klein authored a spy thriller (apparently called That Walks Like a Man, about the Gouzenko affair in Ottawa which helped to start the Cold War) but saddened that it was never published.

AM Klein (1909-1972) was one of the Montreal Group of modernist writers whose literary innovations created radical change in Canadian literature from the 1920s on. He was an associate of poets such as FR Scott and PK Page. (My Montreal grandparents had some connections to FR Scott, while PK Page is one of my most important influences all the way back to my teenage years. She lived in Sidney, BC, near where I grew up in Victoria, and I was privileged to go to one of her readings and meet her some years before she died. I like to think that these slight connections give me a cool "degrees of separation" angle on AM Klein...)

More significant than those degrees of separation was the Canadian poetry class I took at UVic at the end of the 1990s, taught by another Canadian poet, Doug Beardsley. I have mentioned this class before on the blog; I took it rather reluctantly with much eye-rolling over a Canadian literature requirement. It turned out to be absolutely life-altering for me in a literary sense, particularly (but not only) in my discovery of PK Page. The great Al Purdy also came to speak and read to us, once. I loved AM Klein's poetry too.

You can read some of Klein's poetry here:

Photo: AM Klein in the 1940s. Library and Archives Canada. Public domain

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

'iamb': Poetry Seen and Heard

Over the weekend, an excellent new poetry endeavour was launched online. 'iamb' is a website of poets reading their own work, and (at least so far) features 20 poets with three poems each - you can both read, and listen to, the poems.

I was delighted to be part of this first wave of poets, with representation not only from the UK but around the world. The website is the brainchild of Mark Antony Owen, an English poet who is also the author of the Subruria poetry website, featuring small, lyrical, incisive poems about the suburbs, family life and more. Mark is also a talented web designer, and both of these websites are beautifully presented.

I happen to know that there are some really exciting plans for 'iamb' later this year, so while there's plenty to listen to and read right now, keep watching this space.

My own contribution can be found on this link:

The first poem, 'I dream the perfect ride', is previously unpublished and is a sort of idealised memory of my riding days (when I was a teenager, so not recently, except a trail ride every few years or so.) I do know that the physicality of the memory is quite specific and quite real.

'Amrum' first appeared in my Broken Sleep Books pamphlet Island of Towers, but this is its first appearance online. It was inspired by a visit to the North Friesian Islands.

'Watson on Dartmoor' is pretty self-explanatory (a Sherlock Holmes poem which is actually a Watson poem), but is a personal favourite. It first appeared in Ink Sweat & Tears.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Alice Oswald's Nobody at Kings Place, and Anselm Kiefer at White Cube

In the past couple of weeks I went to two events which were either poetry, or poetry-adjacent ("adjacent" is my current overused word) and wanted to write a little about them here.

Alice Oswald, who is definitely "the great Alice Oswald" and is also now the first woman Oxford Professor of Poetry (though not the first to be elected - that was Ruth Padel), performed at Kings Place on 17 January with live music by Ansuman Biswas. Oswald does specifically "perform" rather than "recite" or "read" - even her more conventional appearances involve her almost chanting her poems off by heart, unforgettable performances unlike anyone else's. I have written about seeing her a couple of times before, and this was one of the less conventional appearances. It started with a "sound calendar" or seascape by Chris Watson, and the actual performance was mostly in total darkness, although there was partial lighting for sections of it.

Oswald was performing Nobody, her most recent book, based on stories of water, humans and gods from Greek mythology. I'm only superficially knowledgeable about the Odyssey and related works, so I appreciated Nobody more from a sea-perspective, but the tales that washed in and out sometimes had an odd familiarity. Ansuman Biswas performed on the aquaphone, which reminded me of sea sounds washing into a cave, and also an enormous gong, which was overwhelming to the point of being almost distressing at certain points. The whole performance was mesmerising, thrilling and absolutely haunting.

Last weekend I went to Anselm Kiefer's new exhibition Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot at White Cube in Bermondsey. I got in just under the wire - the exhibition had been on for a few months but was in its final hours when I went. I was very glad that I did make it, as I've found that Anselm Kiefer is one of the very few contemporary artists who I really connect with. I've written about him on this blog before, as my way into his work was through the poetry of Paul Celan, one of his greatest inspirations (and mine...)

The tangled, broken, cascading canvases and masses of wires weren't quite as enthralling to me as Kiefer's exhibition Walhalla, also at White Cube a few years ago, or the retrospective at the Royal Academy which introduced me to his work - although this was still excellent. This exhibition also seemed a little less poetry-influenced. But poetry was still there: one canvas took inspiration from Georg Trakl, another from the Kalevala, a work which brings together traditional poetry about Finnish mythology. In one of the books accompanying the exhibition, Kiefer referred to Ingeborg Bachmann's poem 'Bohemia Lies By the Sea'.

The painting below, one of the Gordian Knot series which featured axes, seemed slightly more optimistic than most of the other works in the exhibition (which probably tells you something about how "optimistic" it was overall: Kiefer is pretty shattering, almost literally.) I don't quite know what it was - perhaps the colours. I just knew that I felt a slight lifting of the heart. But it also reminded me of Paul Celan's poem 'I hear the axe has flowered'. You can read this poem in full, along with a few others, in translation by Ian Fairley on this link:

Friday, 10 January 2020

Valzhyna Mort: 'Ars Poetica'

In 2019, one of my best poetry moments was definitely the Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort's reading as part of the 'Poems from the Edge of Extinction' event during the Poetry International festival at London's Southbank. This event was to accompany the release of an anthology of the same title.

Notably, Valzhyna Mort read a poem called 'Ars Poetica', which you can find here:

ARS POETICA (Valzhyna Mort)

Mort's taut, emphatic reading brought out the poem's steel edges, but I was also deeply struck by 'Ars Poetica' when reading it on the page. I've seen the ars poetica (essentially, an explanation of the art of writing poetry) called a cliché - it does get used a lot, but I've also read some particularly good ones, such as the Czeslaw Milosz poem 'Ars Poetica?', to which he cunningly attached a question mark.

Anyway, it would be nice to think that by the time a discerning poet gets around to writing theirs, it's going to be worthwhile. Mort grew up in Belarus but has lived in the United States for many years, and has written poetry in both Belarusian and English. (Her first language is actually Russian: some of the complexity of this, and how it affects her writing, is detailed in this interesting interview in the California Journal of Poetics

'Ars Poetica' offers a glimpse into the conflicted genesis of Mort's art, which is also discussed in the same California Journal of Poetics interview: a childhood with a constant awareness of Belarus's war-torn past, and ringed round with both comfort (the grandmother's chocolates, though from a purse with a frightening face) and violence ("streets introduced themselves with the names/of national murderers"), some of which may be state-sanctioned, or its perception at least state-controlled. Memory, "the illegal migrant in time", is perhaps kinder than imagination.

Photo: World Literature Today - Valzhyna Mort reading at the 2015 Neustadt Festival opening night. Used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Broken Sleep Books Anthology 2019

I recently picked up the Broken Sleep Books Anthology 2019 and I recommend you do the same. It contains a few poems from every Broken Sleep Books publication this year, which obviously includes my pamphlet Island of Towers, but there is a great range of selections from over 20 publications.

You can find the anthology here:

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Seamus Heaney Reminds Me of Everything

A month ago I went to a Seamus Heaney tribute event at Kings Place which featured discussions and readings by Glenn Patterson (director of the Seamus Heaney Centre), Irish historian Roy Foster, poet Vona Groarke and actor Bríd Brennan.

The poems read included 'Two Lorries', among others, and there were discussions about Heaney's views on Britain and Ireland, how these contextualised his work and assured his importance - as well as his detailed and intimate observations about family life, rural living and so forth. To be honest, I wish I had taken notes, because I don't remember a lot of detail from the evening. I arrived a little late, and had in any case been feeling very stressed for several days. The most noteworthy thing of all was that the moment I started listening to Heaney's words, my stomach unknotted and my stress seemed to evaporate. It was this, more than anything else, that made me think about the place of Heaney's poetry in my life.

During the evening, photos of Heaney at different ages appeared on the large screen over the stage. His face filled me with affection and sadness, but sometimes the backgrounds were even more evocative; for example, the poet standing on a beach that was likely Dublin, bleak and beautiful with the shallow pools and flotsam of low tide. U2, one of my most important bands, admired and even referred to Heaney in their work, and that particular photo reminded me a little humorously of some of their more awkward photo shoots from their younger years. And then I started to think of the heady cocktail of Yeats and U2 that fuelled my earliest obsession with Ireland and, in part, led me to live there for three years.

As much as I love Heaney, I'm not sure I've ever obsessed over him the way I did over Yeats and U2. They're more responsible for my few years in Ireland, before London. But he's been around in my life for a long, long time. The shock and amazement of reading poems like 'The Tollund Man' and 'Punishment', at a young age (probably junior high), was considerable and has never quite left me. I had not known that poetry could be like that, especially the way he doubled past and present and folded them over each other. His collection District and Circle was released in 2006, shortly after I moved from Dublin to London, and it is entwined with that early time in London; my (then) romantic obsession with the Underground, the possible echoes of the 7/7 terrorist attack (only a couple of weeks before I moved to the city) in "blasted weeping rock-walls. Flicker-lit." 'Out of Shot' and 'Höfn' appeared in the Guardian back when we still all bought papers: I cut them out and stuck them up on my bedroom door. I actually saw Heaney read a few times in the few years before he died, one of those occasions being at Poetry Parnassus in 2012, which was a particularly significant event for me in terms of learning about international poetry. And it goes on.

There's art that we recall as, or that calls up, moments in time. Other authors, bands, books, poems seem to remind us of everything. Some can do both, and perhaps they are the most special of all. Seamus Heaney is in that category, for me.

Photo: Seamus Heaney by Burns Library, Boston College.  Photo used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

Monday, 16 December 2019

Rogue Strands: Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2019, & November reading

I'm really pleased and happy that Matthew Stewart has included The Stone and the Star on his list of the Best UK Poetry Blogs of 2019, on his Rogue Strands blog. I've made it onto this list for a few years now, and I can safely say that his choice of blogs is excellent and varied.

Speaking of Rogue Strands, it was also really great to be a part of the reading that Matthew Stewart and Mat Riches organised at the King and Queen Pub in Fitzrovia, at the end of November. I was reading alongside Katy Evans-Bush, Robin Houghton, Neil Elder, Rishi Dastidar, Rory Waterman, Ramona Herdman, and of course Matthew and Mat. It was a fun evening with lots of good conversation - I also caught up with a few poetry friends who joined the audience. The readings themselves were excellent; a great cross-section of voices and themes from the UK poetry scene.

Entry to the reading was by donation to the Trussell Trust for local food banks, and it looks as though it's still possible to donate here:

You can also read Mat and Matthew's own comments (and see a few photos on Mat's blog) on the reading on their blogs, here: