Tuesday, 15 February 2022

New(ish) poem in The Crank: Return to the Night City

Amidst hardly blogging at all last autumn (can you do something amidst not doing something?), I sadly neglected to apprise my more-faithful-than-I-deserve blog readers of a new poem publication. 

My poem 'Return to the Night City' appeared late last year in The Crank, a new-ish online poetry journal edited by Humphrey Astley. This journal is trend-minimal (or words to that effect), and thus inclines more to formal or formal-adjacent poetry than my work often does, although I do think my poetry likes nodding to form. 

You can download the PDF of issue 4, where my poem appears, here: https://www.thecrankmag.com/issue-4

The past issues are very much worth reading, and I think another is on its way soon. 

'Return to the Night City' was specifically inspired by WS Graham's 'The Night City', one of my favourite poems about London. My tribute came partly from reading 'The Night City' and thinking of all the associations, particularly literary, that I have with this city. It also came from a slightly stupid incident a few years ago when I flew back so late from somewhere in Europe (Portugal, maybe?) that I could only get a train to Blackfriars, and I then started hiking along the Thames with my suitcase at about 2 in the morning. I came to my senses after about fifteen minutes and got a cab, but this poem is sort of the magical realism version of that incident. Tonally, I tried to approach the original Graham poem, without turning my own poem into pastiche. 

Friday, 31 December 2021

Ten years of The Stone and the Star

As 2021 stumbles to a close, it might be obvious to anyone who was paying attention (and I don't know if anyone was) that I was not writing in here much in recent months; to be precise, since September. In many ways, September and onwards was a big improvement over the rest of my life since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. I got a new job working with children's literature - so far, on course to be my best job ever - and before starting, I had time to visit my family in Canada. I also spent September weekends as part of the Sea Reconnection exhibition, which as an art-and-poetry exhibition was a first for me and certainly a highlight of the year.

I haven't felt much like writing, though. My pandemic experience has avoided the worst that many have experienced (severe illness, death of loved ones, prolonged unemployment, etc) but at times I feel like it's sort of flattened me out. I hope to get back into more of a writing frame of mind in the months to come, even in small ways, which I think will help.

Matthew Stewart, in his excellent Rogue Strands blog, has once again very kindly included this blog on his list of the best British poetry blogs of the year. Possibly a little more than it deserves this year, but at least we're still here.

On that note, in October 2021 it was ten years since I started writing The Stone and the Star. In 2011, I think I thought it was possible I'd keep going for this long, but ten years is always a long time to look ahead. It really has entwined itself with my life in unexpected ways, and helped to open up many worlds of poetry to me. I definitely urge you to go back and read some of my earlier blog posts; that's where a lot of the good stuff is. And thank you for sticking around for this long, or for joining in along the road.

Friday, 24 September 2021

Sea Reconnection: the final weekend!

Sea Reconnection, featuring my poetry and the art of Miles Taverner and Darren Hewitt, is now drawing to a close and this is its final weekend. I wanted to share a few photos of the exhibition and to thank everyone who came, and particularly to thank Paula Taverner and Kathy Brown, who did so much work behind the scenes. (There are others: we love you all!) The exhibition has been part of the wonderful Totally Thames Festival 2021. 

The exhibition is still open this Saturday and Sunday (25 and 26 September): 11-5 on Saturday, and 11-3 on Sunday. 

Le Sorelle, 1 Thames Quay, Canary Wharf, London E14 9SG
(across from South Quay DLR Station

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Sea Reconnection: an art and poetry exhibition in London, September 2021

This month at Canary Wharf in London, the Le Sorelle river barge will host the Sea Reconnection exhibition (part of the Totally Thames Festival 2021), featuring my poetry and work by the visual artists Darren Hewitt and Miles Taverner. 

The exhibition has been in the works for a long time - since 2019, in fact, although I joined the project at a slightly later stage in early 2020. Originally it was planned for spring 2020, but sadly due to COVID, all plans were off. We are delighted that it is finally happening and particularly that we have been able to join the Thames Festival.

Darren Hewitt's paintings are focused on expansive, light-filled seascapes and human interactions with these perspectives, while Miles Taverner uses materials recovered and recycled from the sea to create tactile, colourful, often large-scale pieces. 

Several of my poems appear alongside these artworks and bring together the themes of the sea and the Thames. In new works such as 'Great Eastern' and 'Pool of London', I have written about historic connections between London's river and the ocean. 'Great Eastern', below, was inspired by the ship of the same name, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, built at Millwall and eventually destined to lay the first lasting transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. 


At Millwall, an iron hull
like a fallen star.
Brunel with his fierce eyes
fixed on the future.

Grey Atlantic fought and held
the telegraph light.
Great Eastern, a meteor,
ploughed into the night.

The exhibition is free to all and is open every weekend from Friday to Sunday in September - details below. Please come if you can.

Sea Reconnection
Le Sorelle, 1 Thames Quay, Canary Wharf, London E14 9SG
(across from South Quay DLR station)

September 2021
Fridays and Saturdays 11am to 5pm
Sundays 11am to 3pm 

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Hit Points: An anthology of video game poetry


Another month has slipped away; not the best one, but as Rilke wrote, no feeling is final. Neither are a lot of things, for good and for bad.

A very good thing that happened on the last day of May was the publication by Broken Sleep Books of Hit Points: An anthology of video game poetry. I have noticed in recent years that poets of my generation (ok, let's say poets aged 25-50, which is probably a couple of generations) are increasingly acknowledging the inspiration that they draw from video games, and this anthology was designed with that in mind. 

My poem which appears in the anthology is called 'Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar' which, in a stunningly original move on my part, is also the title of the game which inspired it. The Ultima series of games, created by Richard Garriott (or Lord British...), dominated the nascent role-playing computer game scene of the 1980s, and Ultima IV is regarded as one of the most important role-playing games of all time. My brother and I played a few of the games on our Apple IIc, but we spent a particularly large amount of time on IV, and still managed to never finish it. There are probably a few reasons for this, but one of these is that we just didn't have the patience for the boring stuff, ie. dungeons. I realised even then that what I really loved was the world it allowed us to escape into, and the time spent with my brother. The poem, when I'd written it, turned out to be more of a homesickness piece than anything else.

Ultima IV came out in 1985, and many of the games honoured in the anthology are a good deal more recent, but there's something for everyone: various incarnations of Mario, Tomb Raider, Legend of Zelda, and others which as a non-millenial I have barely even heard of. The good news is that you don't have to know the games to enjoy the poems, though it would probably add to your appreciation. The anthology appears in "Mario Red" and "Luigi Green" variants. Both were co-edited by Aaron Kent and Matthew Haigh, but they chose a different running order for each version. Each editor also contributed a few poems to one version each. 

Sunday, 30 May 2021

Remembering Adam Zagajewski, 1945-2021

The great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski died on 21 March of this year - which was also World Poetry Day - and it has taken me this long to write about it. The coincidence of the date was a poignant one because I have often thought of and shared his poems on World Poetry Day and similar days for the discovery and appreciation of poetry. He was the ideal poet for the purpose.

A few of my very favourite writers have died in the past year, but this death was perhaps even a little harder to come to terms with as Zagajewski was only 75, relatively young. It's also simply difficult to imagine him gone. Whenever I thought of him, he was somewhere in Central Europe writing outdoors at a café, or reading at some gathering of world poets. 

I think Adam Zagajewski's poems were easy to love, which is no bad thing. When I think of his poems, words such as the following come to mind: humane, gentle, affectionate, clarifying. After 9/11, his poem 'Try to Praise the Mutilated World' became very famous in its English-speaking translation by Clare Cavanagh when it appeared in The New Yorker. Not one of my personal favourites of his poems, I still appreciate it and its immense value in the wake of a huge, world-changing tragedy. It distills what I think Zagajewski did best - the acknowledgement that dark, horrendous things happen but the equal observation that life continues and that the value of light, beauty and faith remains unchanged. 

If there is one contemporary poet who I most clearly see as an influence on my own poetry, it's Zagajewski. I relate profoundly to his vision of things and would aspire to write like him. The curious thing is that, unlike most poets who I consider a major influence on my life and writing, I can't now remember how and where I first encountered him. I did get to go to one of his readings, about five or six years ago at Wilton's Music Hall in east London. It was especially moving when he read 'To Go to Lvov', a very important poem for me which I wrote about here some years ago. I also met him very briefly when he signed a book of his selected poems for me. I thought that he seemed reserved but kind, and when I asked him if he recommended any contemporary Polish poets he suggested Tomasz Różycki (who in my opinion is of the stature of Zagajewski). I dug out the book after I heard that Zagajewski had died, and was touched to discover that he had actually written Różycki's name down for me on a card which I'd kept in the book - probably aware that English speakers tend to find Polish names extremely difficult. 

It's so hard to choose a favourite poem by Zagajewski. When I reread them now, years after first readings, they remind me of emotions and moments in my life, and they take me to places which I've visited or which I hope to visit some day. 'Star' has been a talisman for me for many years. 'Vita Contemplativa' occupies a central place of importance in my pantheon of poems, and lines from it often surface in my mind. 'Poetry Searches for Radiance' is a powerful mission statement for poetry. Whether one of his collections, a selected poems or something randomly found online, his works will reward both casual reading and prolonged engagement. What is much harder than finding the right poem by Zagajewski is accepting that he's not here any more. 

Be sure to read this powerful essay and personal remembrance on Zagajewski by the poet Ilya Kaminsky: https://yalereview.org/article/going-to-lvov 

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Reading at Broken Sleep Books 2019 showcase

A little belatedly (sorry) I wanted to invite readers of my blog to a poetry reading I will be part of tomorrow (Thursday 13 August, 7:30 PM UK time, on Zoom).

This reading will showcase authors who appeared with my wonderful publishers Broken Sleep Books in 2019. As well as myself, the following poets will read: Ollie Tong, Christine Taylor, Matthew Haigh, Charlie Baylis, Yvonne Litschel, Eva Griffin, Jasmine Gray and Jack Belloli. 

I knew I'd found a good publisher when Broken Sleep Books accepted my pamphlet Island of Towers and published it in 2019, but they really have surpassed all our expectations since then with more great publications, charitable endeavours and awards. 

Monday, 12 April 2021

William Carlos Williams' 'Heel & Toe to the End': Yuri Gagarin and the Idea of Space


On 12 April 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed one orbit of planet Earth in the capsule Vostok 1 and became the first human being in outer space.

I remember hearing about Gagarin when I was a very small child (ie. in the early 80s), not so much because anyone in my family was that obsessed with space travel, but probably because my parents thought it was good for kids to know things. I suspect that Gagarin was the first Russian who I ever knew about by name (with the possible exception of Tchaikovsky, one of my dad's favourite composers and now one of mine, who I may not have realised was Russian). I vaguely remember having a mental image of Gagarin as a severe-looking man with darker hair, sternly flying around planet Earth, an image I must have somehow picked up of what Russians looked like. At some later point it was surprising to see photos of a baby-faced young man with a slightly goofy smile. 

Gagarin died in 1968 while flying a military jet, an ironic death given that Soviet officials had banned him from further space missions. He was a useful representative of the USSR and they had feared for his life after the death of Vladimir Komarov in the failed Soyuz 1 mission. Gagarin was only in his mid-30s at that point and his death ensured that he became a fully legendary figure, perhaps more of an idea now than a human being.

I watched the film Бумажный солдат (Paper Soldier, directed by Aleksei German, 2008) on the Klassiki film platform a couple of days ago. It was about the preparations for Gagarin's mission and the moral dilemmas faced by people involved, who knew that his death was very likely. The film depicted the accidental death of Valentin Bondarenko, another candidate for the Vostok 1 mission, who was burned in a fire in an oxygen-rich isolation chamber. I was quite shocked by the film; I'd never really thought about the realities of trying to get a man into space in the USSR in the 1960s, and everything depicted looked terrifyingly old-fashioned and precarious, as well as brutal in terms of the well-being of individuals. Gagarin came across as cheerful, committed and uninterested in thinking too much about the fact that he might die, which probably made him a perfect candidate. "He flew like an angel," said witnesses after the success of the mission.

In the context of the USSR, but of other nations as well, space travel seems to encompass a duality of something pure and unencumbered, but also an immensely useful tool of propaganda. Nations know that space flight looks idealistic but that it's also a display of power. I knew about Laika, the Soviet dog who was the first living creature in space and who died, and the story still upsets me and fills me with a profound loneliness. My perceptions of space exploration were also coloured as a small child by the Challenger disaster in 1986. When I look at it in a certain way, though, the feeling of purity still attaches. 

I started thinking about poetry related to Gagarin when I noticed that his name shows up quite regularly in the Russian rock/pop music I've been listening to in recent months. When I asked for suggestions on Twitter, many people directed me to more poems and songs about Gagarin, in Russian, Ukrainian, English and other languages. I particularly liked this poem by William Carlos Williams, 'Heel & Toe to the End', which captures the sense of wonder: "he could have/gone on forever". 

Here, too, is one of the Russian rock songs I've enjoyed in recent months, by the band Смысловые Галлюцинации ("Semantic Hallucinations"). The song's title 'Звёзды 3000' translates as 'Stars 3000' and is a reverie about what space means to us back on earth (well, that's what I got from it...). Gagarin is name-checked in this but I can't quite figure out the context, even from the dodgy translations I found online: if any Russian speaker can help me I'd appreciate it...

Photo: The Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin at a press conference during his visit to Finland, 1961. Arto Jousi/Suomen valokuvataiteen museo/Alma Media/Uuden Suomen kokelma; Restored by Adam Cuerden - Finnish Museum of Photography. Public domain.