Saturday, 31 December 2011

Why Not Capitalise?

Poetry is ART. Poets have every right to do whatever we like with the poems you write. Adhere to the rules of grammar or discard them; it's our choice. What makes a great poem is the inspiration that goes into it, the originality of imagery and the beauty of the language used. Punctuation is really the icing on the cake.

But it's better to have beautifully presented icing if you can.

In Never Mind the Full Stops I looked at what happens at the end of a sentence. Here I want to consider the full stop's natural partner – the capital letter.

When I give critiques of poems I'm often asked about capital letters. Should there be one at the start of each new line of verse, or not?

The convention of capitalising each line of poetry is one that goes back hundreds of years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when formal poetry ruled, it was pretty much obligatory. The contemporary convention is exactly the opposite. Even Carol Ann Duffy's Rapture, which contains traditional Shakespearian sonnets as well as free verse, avoids capital letters everywhere except straight after a full stop.

The change is a surprisingly recent one. Most 20th-century poetry appears to follow the 19th-century convention. You even find capitalisation in some of the most ground-breaking pieces of free verse, like T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land!

It was only as experimental verse took hold, under the influence of the Beat poets, that the capitals seemed to disappear. Penguin Modern Poets 10: The Mersey Sound, which showcased the ground-breaking 1960s verse of Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, and Roger McGough, illustrates the convention in transition. A lot of the more regular-looking poems in the anthology follow the conventional pattern, with a capital letter for each new line of verse. The more irregular or experimental poems abandon the convention.

Even after the 1960s, plenty of poets continued to capitalise. John Betjeman is a good example. But Betjeman's poems rely very heavily on rhyme and regularity of rhythm. Poets who gravitated towards more experimental free verse dropped the convention.

Clearly there is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether each line of poetry needs to start with a capital letter. It's a matter of the poet's preference. But as with everything in poetry, it's important that poets don't do things purely out of habit.

A capital letter does a special job. Its function is to suggest a new sentence or a new idea beginning, or to draw attention to a name or title. We give capital letters an unconscious emphasis.

In metrical verse forms it's normal for there to be a tiny pause at the end of a line (even when the line is enjambed). The first word of the line that follows has a special weight. In these circumstances it isn't surprising to find a capital letter at the start of the line. It's doing the job it was designed to do.

In free verse, line breaks often have a very different role. Enjambement is much more frequent. Here, I would argue that it is a distraction to place a capital letter at the start of the line. It implies a breaking up of the sentence into discrete phrases when this might be contrary to the sense of the sentence. It also gives undue prominence to the first word of the line. In free verse the emphasis is nearly always on the last word of the previous line instead.

My advice is that it's best not to capitalise the first letters of lines in free verse poems. When I write rhyming verse, I generally dispense with capitals too, but that's just me. Whether or not you do is your choice. But choose thoughtfully.

If in doubt, look at a copy of the poetry journal where you'd most like to see your poem in print. See what the editor prefers. It's a pretty mercenary reason for a stylistic decision. But getting published is hard enough at the best of times. Don't make it harder for yourself by ignoring what the editor likes!

(A version of this article was first published in the December 2011 issue of NAWG LINK)

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Purple Patch's Best Small Press Poets of 2011 - some thoughts

I like to think I'm reasonably good at spotting genuine talent when it comes to poetry. By "talent" I don’t mean "a combination of wilful obscurity and intellectual pretension", unlike the people who run certain poetry presses I might care to mention. I mean a genuine understanding that words, properly handled, are like music. An ability to make unusual and improbable connections between the world of the physical senses and the inner world of emotions, thoughts and dreams. And a certain fearlessness – a willingness to take the risk of speaking out against the prevailing opinions and fashions of the time, confronting the abusers of power and taking a stand for what they believe to be right.

Every now and then I get a little vindication. Back in 2005, when I judged my first poetry competition, I awarded the First Prize to a new poet on the scene named Kate Rhodes. Ms Rhodes has since appeared in the Forward Prize annual anthology more than once – a sign that she has written (and continues to write) some of The Best Poems of the Year.

This year's Purple Patch list of the Top 20 small press poetry collections was a particular source of delight. Purple Patch, for those who don't know it, is a fiercely independent poetry journal that has been going since 1976. It has a well-earned reputation for not following trends and fashions and for championing what it likes; and it is respected for sticking to its principles. Every year Purple Patch produces a "Best Of" list to recognise poets who pass under the radar of the literary "establishment" – usually poets published by small presses that wouldn't merit a mention in the Grauniad or the TLS. And this year there were not one, nor two, not even three, but four of "my" poets in the Top 20 Best Individual Collections list.

In that respect, I have something in common with Purple Patch. I spend a lot of my time trying to support and promote poets and writers who haven't had a chance in the world of corporate literature. I don't publish journals or anthologies; I don't run festivals or big, Arts Council-funded events programmes. But in my own small way, through open mics, performance nights, poetry slams, and hopefully in the near future the odd masterclass or two, I do what I can to help good local poets get their work across to a wider audience. They deserve it. Their work is every bit as good as what I can browse on the poetry shelves in Waterstone's (and a million times better than most of what's on the internet).

The fact that four – that's a whole 20% – of this year's Purple Patch Top 20 collections have come out of the York-and-the-north-east poetry scene which means so much to me, is confirmation of the fact that I'm not crazy. These people are actually bloody good.

I've worked with the No. 9 poet, Rose Drew, many times over the last five years. We've critiqued each other's efforts at getting a first collection into print (she got there way before me). There's a passion and gutsiness and a carefully controlled anger about her work that makes her a formidable live performer and a creator of startling imagery.

Tim Ellis, at No. 20, was one of the first poets I booked as a guest feature at Speakers' Corner. He's another first-rate performer; he might shock an audience by leaping around the stage pounding a bongo drum, or quietly captivate with poems of unexpected poignancy. His work is full of humour and colour, filled with an unashamed political and environmental consciousness, and he's one of the best contemporary rhymesmiths I've heard.

Miles Cain has only been writing poetry a few years. He became extraordinarily good, extraordinarily quickly. I had the unexpected honour of being acknowledged in his debut collection, The Border, which appears at No. 8. There are poems in this collection which I recognise from their infancy, as experiments with words and thoughts. The fact that they have crystallised so memorably – and this is a collection that's bursting with memorable images – is testimony to the dedication and hard graft Miles has given his art.

My fourth “Top 20” poet, Katie Metcalfe (at No. 15) is the youngest of the set, and perhaps the most visionary. Katie is an indefatigable poet, blogger and literary editor (she's the founder of Beautiful Scruffiness magazine, about which I've blogged before). It'd sound terribly patronising to call Katie a young writer – perhaps "pre-middle-aged" will distinguish her more accurately from my own generation! – but it's surely a sign of hope in a depressed age that a writer who clearly has so many more good writing years in her is finding the poetic soul in the recession-hit north-east of England, and making something almost mythic out of it.

All four of these debut collections are near the top of my review pile, and the Soapbox will be reporting on them in detail in due course. For now, I'll offer my official congratulations to Miles, Rose, Katie and Tim. You've made a cynical poet very proud – and convinced me all the more that this sometimes thankless passion that we share is still worth shouting about.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Never Mind the Full Stops...

Not long ago my writers’ group had a hearty debate about the place of punctuation in poetry. To punctuate or not to punctuate – that was the question! The group was divided into two camps. One lot were saying "Forget punctuation – do what you want." Poetry is a free medium, and poets are artists. We are free to put words anywhere we choose, so we can do the same with punctuation marks. Sprinkle them liberally or leave them out altogether, it doesn't really matter to the sense of the poem. They are the shackles of a formalism that poetry has long since left behind.

If you're going to break the rules of grammar, then poetry is the place to do it. Poets have a long history in the creative use of punctuation – as e.e. cummings, Edwin Morgan or (more recently) Patrick Jones have proven. To write good poetry, you don’t have to have every full stop or comma in exactly the place that the rules demand. Many poets I know are dyslexic, and have difficulty putting their punctuation in the conventionally correct places. It doesn't stop them writing excellent poetry. In fact, for most of them, their lifelong struggle with words is what makes them such powerful poets.

But I have to admit that I side with the other camp, by and large. This group contended that a free-for-all approach to punctuation can be harmful to the meaning of a poem. If you're going to use punctuation, you have to think about the job it is doing – and how to make it do its job most effectively.

A full stop doesn't appear just anywhere. It brings a sentence to an end – and by doing so, it creates a weightiness that wouldn't be there otherwise. That weightiness guides a reader. It shows where the emphasis is intended, how the rhythm is meant to fall, and where to place the key dramatic pauses that enliven the poem. Poetry gets its power from what isn't said, as much as what is. Punctuation is a guide to understanding that subtext.

Poets are told to take the greatest possible care over where we place our words. It seems silly, therefore, to give no care to the unspoken clues which show a reader how to read our poems. So treasure those full stops (and commas, semicolons and dashes). Place them as carefully as you place the words in your poems. By all means break the grammatical rules – but only if it's your choice to break them, to give the poem dramatic impact. Don't just do it because you can't be bothered to try and get it right.

(A version of this article was first published in the August 2011 issue of NAWG Link)

Friday, 16 September 2011

Writers' groups: are they worth the money?

Regular Soapbox readers will know that I'm involved with a couple of writers' groups in the York area. Now and then I'm asked to chair meetings at these groups. And just once in a blue moon, somebody comes in who seems to be dead set on causing trouble.

The contentious issue a couple of weeks ago was whether or not a writers' group ought to charge people to attend? The troublesome lady in question left us with the very sniffy comment that she'd "never in her life" been asked to pay to attend a writers' group. I can only assume that the writers' groups she has attended in the past have been informal groups of amateurs meeting to discuss each other's work. Because every single other writers' group I have ever come across has needed an income from somewhere in order to operate.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the "informal groups of amateurs". I used to attend just such a group, back in the Milton Keynes days. And it was one of the things which made life in Milton Keynes bearable. The welcome and support I got from those four or five people is still something I treasure. The inspiration I got from the (sometimes fiendishly challenging) writing "homework" we were set every month was enough to produce numerous brand-new poems and short stories - some of them prize winners.

Any writer would be lucky to find just such a group. And it's just possible that if you CAN find a group like this, you need never pay to attend a writers' group again.

So why pay?

There are a whole heap of reasons. At the most basic level, it might be that the group can't exist unless it can hire a venue. So those who meet might have to put their hands in their pockets just to meet the costs of room hire. Although this didn't apply to the group which our sniffy lady attended earlier this month, who are lucky enough to get their venue for free, it has applied to several other groups I've known. Bottom line: you don't want to pay, you can't have a public venue. And bear in mind that a lot of public venues aren't exactly what you'd call altruistically minded. York Library now charges a minimum £25 an hour for hiring one of their meeting rooms. No wonder literary groups are deserting the libraries and taking refuge in the pubs instead.

The second thing a writers' group with a bit of finance can do, is get professional speakers in. People who are part of the industry - published authors or poets, agents, publishers - who know how the business of writing works and can offer the benefit of their experience to those who are just starting out. Are we seriously expecting these people to donate their time and energy for free? Writers (and especially poets) are forever banging on about how difficult it is to make a living as a writer. The last thing we should do is begrudge them a little remuneration for the professional services they're able to offer.

A writers' group with money can also run competitions. York Writers, for example, do this two or three times a year. They invite their members to submit poems, short stories and articles, anonymously to a professional external judge. The judge not only chooses a winner but provides a critique for each individual piece submitted, and then comes to a meeting of the group and talks in depth about what they are looking for in a prize-winning piece. Members of the group don't have to pay to enter the competitions; the prize fund and the judge's fee are paid for out of what the group collects from members' subscriptions and money taken on the door at meetings.

There are lots of other reasons why a writers' group might need money. They might want to produce an anthology. Or put an advert in the writing press, seeking new members. They might want to run a public event - a talk from a famous author, or a poetry slam (York Writers actually ran a "short story slam" earlier this year, with a cash prize!). Or they might simply want to show solidarity for an organisation like the National Association of Writers' Groups, which exists to provide resources to connect writers across the UK and support their development as writers.

I don't suppose we will be seeing our sniffy lady again. Which saddens me, in some ways: she had a couple of other criticisms which I think were probably justified, and it would be good to at least let her know that her points were taken on board. But is the fact that the group were asking for money really justification for her rudeness? I don't think so. I think it's more likely that she expected everything to be handed to her on a plate, with no commitment on her part. If that's the case, I hope she is able to find the support that she needs for her writing, somewhere else. But I strongly suspect that if she's serious about writing, she may have to put her hand in her pocket every now and again.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Ayat Al-Gormezi freed

Just a very short post today, following on from my last one: according to Write Out Loud, imprisoned Bahrainian poet and dissident Ayat al-Gormezi has been freed. Read more about her and her experiences here. Your can read a translation of the poem which got her imprisoned in the first place, kindly translated by Fatima al-Matar, here.

Thanks to all who have supported the campaign for her release.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

When what you write (and what you stand for) is a matter of life and death

Ayat al-Gormezi is a poet. If, like most of my readers, you live in the UK, the chances are you will never have heard of her. I have to admit I'd never heard of her until a day or two ago.

Ayat is currently in prison in Bahrain. She was tried before a "security court", where her lawyer was not allowed to speak, and there are indications that she has been tortured whilst in prison. Her crime? Reading out a poem at a pro-democracy rally.

Poets in the UK are a well insulated lot, by and large. Our world is comfortable, indulgent, and – let's be honest – pretty self-satisfied. The sort of poetry we write doesn't change the world. Our journals prize the esoteric, the obscure and the intellectual – or else make a virtue out of being "experimental", without it being at all clear what the experimentation is for. We take for granted the freedom that we have to paint our little odes about a daffodil or a glass raindrop on a leaf. It's all too easy to forget that there are poets around the world risking their lives for their words – so that their compatriots can enjoy the freedom that we have.

I want to talk about another extraordinary international poet before I sign off. His name is Javier Sicilia. That's him in the photograph that accompanies this blog entry. On March 28th, Javier's son and six friends were murdered in an outbreak of violence between warring drugs traders. Such violence is nothing unusual in Javier's native Mexico; but this poet refuses to be crushed by his loss, or the enormity of the challenge of setting things right in the face of government inaction. Instead he's leading a caravan of hundreds of poets and peace activists across the country – a focal point for non-violent demonstrations calling for an end to the bloodshed.

Javier is taking a risk. No doubt the vested interests controlling the drugs trade will take a dim view of his campaign. But he has something to believe in. "May the light be the road", says the placard that he carries. May it be the road to freedom for him, for Ayat, and for all who suffer for their words. May it be our road too, so that we can stand in solidarity with our fellow poets across the world – and make it clear that what they are suffering should not have to be tolerated.

Sign the petition to free Ayat al-Gormezi here.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Water of Life?

I can't be the only poet who's sometimes a bit intimidated by those rare and gifted writers who can rattle off new work every day without seeming to break into a sweat. One of the most prolific (and talented) poets I know recently complained to me that she'd only managed to write four poems in the preceding month. I couldn't help replying that that was about as many as I’d managed to write all year.

The truth is, producing poetry at that kind of rate is not something that's likely to happen throughout a poet's life. Pressures of work, the demands of family life, and the cares of the world can all conspire to squeeze out the emotional space that's crucial to the creative process. We needn't feel we are failures when that happens.

The bottom of a whisky bottle isn't perhaps the safest or most reliable place to look for comfort at such times! But there's a certain similarity between what it takes to make a good poem, and what it takes to make a good single malt. Poetry, after all, is also a distillation – an attempt to refine the raw material of human emotion into its most concentrated essence. This process is not something you can hurry. The result may occupy minimal space on the page (or in the bottle) but it's loaded with flavour and impact.

The analogy doesn't end there. As every whisky connoisseur knows, it's usually what happens after the distillation that makes the unique flavour of each single malt. It can't even be called whisky unless it's given a minimum 3 years in the barrel to absorb the flavours of oak and atmosphere. In practice, it usually takes much longer to mature the perfect single malt.

That's the way it is with poetry too. After the initial creative act, it can take a long time for a poem to reach perfection. What follows is a slow process of maturation – of gradual refinement. Replacing one word with a more expressive one; fine tuning the metre; inserting assonances and internal rhymes; adding the brilliant metaphor that usually turns up when we least expect it. This is not a process that should be hurried. Some of my poems are still maturing, years after they were first created. They're not quite right, yet. I won't release them on the unsuspecting public until they are.

There's everything to be said for the daily discipline of writing (even when it feels like the last thing you're ready to do). Poetically fertile periods do come, with poems appearing in a rush. Make the most of these periods, because they won't last forever. And if you're far from those ultra-creative highs, do not despair. Give those poems-in-progress the time and space they need to reach maturity. Let them absorb the rich flavours of your life experience. And trust your poet's palate. You'll know when they are ready.

(This article first appeared in the April 2011 issue of NAWG LINK magazine)

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Review: The Illuminated Dreamer by Oz Hardwick (Oversteps Books, 2010; ISBN 978-1-906856-14-4)

Oz Hardwick's third collection of original poetry is a more extrovert work than its two predecessors. The Kind Ghosts and Carrying Fire (Bluechrome, 2004 and 2006) were books that looked back into the past, rich in imagery from folklore and medieval literature; The Illuminated Dreamer documents the poet's journeys across more familiar, or at least more easily pictured, territory. The poems in this collection are beautifully crafted and there is a sophistication to them which belies the accessibility of the subject matter.

After a slightly trance-like beginning, the opening poems of the collection are mainly an exploration of the poet's uneasy fascination with the United States of America. Halsted Street Market in particular captures the complexities and contradictions that present themselves to a visitor's eyes:

"Her clumsy ring, its stone too big, clings
to dreams of dust and slide guitars, handsome
strangers, dangerous to cross...
Beneath the counter, a loaded forty-five,
hair-triggered and warm. She smiles again..."

Many of the poems in this section of the book derive their inspiration from music and film. Bob Dylan features in a number of guises, principally as the symbol of a youth left behind and of dreams not quite fulfilled:

"So when I heard his slow train coming
I watched from the side of the track, nodded,
ordered one more cup of coffee as he passed
and once again left me behind."
(from When Dylan Found God)

There's a nostalgic colour to these pieces, but they are never self-indulgent. A wry awareness that nothing stays the same is the dominant mood. It's present in both the social commentary of Desolation Row Revisited ("now poetry's handled by offshore concerns, / its rhythms stuttered from call centres / in countries with unpronounceable names") and the romanticism of Monochrome ("for you I'll extinguish / Times Square's gaudy neon glare, / mute it to monochrome with a rising Gershwin score, / meet you in secret when the last train has left.") My favourite of this set was The Cats of Greenwich Village, who may have "put on weight since Fred Neil / crossed MacDougal" but "carry it well, proud and hip". Today they "run wholefood stores and guitar shops, / reminisce about sitting on Dylan's shoulder, / relax and let the rats run free."

There's a sense of travelogue in the rest of the collection, but the destinations are predominantly European. As with the American poems, many of these pieces portray a reality that doesn't match up to the clichés of artwork and film; the scenery "seems painted, clouds / unconvincing, grass too green" (Notre Dame de Maigrauge). In Drowning in Paris, the familiar romantic backdrop (the tower "out of focus, its searchlight beams / refracted, showing nothing") evokes a very different story:

"I bent down to look at a postcard stand
and could not surface. Your cold hand slipped
away. I float with flotsam and suicides, abandoned."

In other places, however, the ordinariness of the setting is what allows unexpected magic to happen: the creature "waiting / with flowers at the station door, remembering / all I wished to forget" in Cow Parade: Milan; the enchanted solitude of the Italian riverside "where the bright lights shine, / rain-born and flowing to a foreign sea" in Welcome Stranger; the "Orpheus of the accordion, drunk and swaying" in Orphée.

The remaining pieces are journeys in dreams, strongly reminiscent of those in Carrying Fire. In these pieces, Hardwick’s credentials as a romantic poet are unashamedly laid bare:

"And here I will talk in warm, hushed voices
with those who you have forgotten but who remember you still,
and those whose rooms you keep fresh and ready,
though they will probably never return. All these people
I will know and call my friends."
(from Sleep Now)

The hazy, filmic quality of the imagery in this collection is one of the most distinctive aspects of Oz Hardwick's voice. Reading these poems is rather like being immersed in the very finest scenes from classic European cinema. One is never quite sure where description ends and dreams begin:

"When I see white horses stamping in the car park,
a boy cradling a goldfish that fell from the sky
and wild creatures sniffing at my door, I ask,
but they say nothing, leaving me lost and wide awake."
(from City)

The sheer musicality of his words is also striking. For a predominantly free verse poet, Hardwick's gift for rhyme is first-rate; he manages to sneak rhymes unselfconsciously into pieces that still feel like free verse:

"We have all day to dance. First, feel
this chill air. A bird flutters. A cat
stalks long shadows. A wooden wheel
cracks against cobbles – a tumbrel of clowns, fat
unsmiling masks yawning..."
(from Masks)

And most importantly, he never overdoes it. The same is true of the alliterations and consonances which give many of these poems almost the feel of songs:

"Rain slicks cobbles, shining
like tongues licking lamplight. Listen –"
(from Borderland)

"The mist-kissed cobbles glisten like a tear"
(from Autumn)

"Lips lapping kisses from cloudless sky"
(from Innamorati)

It is this music which gives even the most complex poems an instant accessibility.

The few pieces in more formal metre were, in my opinion, less successful. Here, the weaknesses lay not so much in the choice of words as in an occasional stutter of rhythm or the need to resort to poetic inversion. But these are minor blemishes in an otherwise delightful collection of poetry.

The Illuminated Dreamer is a feast of lush images and intoxicating music. Hardwick's social commentary is intelligent and unforced, and the sheer richness of his language adds special languor to the dream sequences and the love poems in particular. It continues to be a crying shame that Oz Hardwick's work isn’t given the same critical acclaim that many of his less interesting contemporaries receive. That recognition is now long overdue.

For more on Oz Hardwick, visit

For more information about Oversteps Books, or to order The Illuminated Dreamer, visit

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Hey Jack Kerouac

I have a glaring gap in my knowledge of modern poetry. To some, it will seem like a sacrilegious one. I've never read the Beat Poets. And, I have to be honest, I've never quite understood why I should read the Beat Poets.

I'm 40 years old. I know a huge stack of poets in the "around 50" age bracket. And most of those people hero-worship the Beat writers. I've lost count of the number of people of that age who've told me it was Kerouac, Ginsberg et al. who first got them turned on to literature. I think that's fantastic. Anything that gets anyone reading and writing has to be commended. But I think I must have been just slightly too young to catch onto why the Beat writers were significant. I grew up on the Mersey Sound; most of my favourite modern poets were either inspired and mentored by McGough and Henri, or reacted against them.

This is the thing. For me, what the Mersey Sound poets did was real. I could look out my bedroom window as I was growing up, see the shipyards and the river, the two cathedrals, the Liver birds, the Tower Restaurant - the Liverpool icons that I shared with Roger and his contemporaries. They wrote about stuff that I could relate to: the first day at school, the fear of the end of the world (1981 was a paranoid year), and all that slightly bonkers romanticism as I got old enough to understand what romanticism was. What people have told me about the Beat poets doesn't even touch that world. Was there any relevance in Jack road-trippin' and substance-abusin' his way across the highways of America? It was a million miles away from my experience, my hopes and dreams, and what I saw out of my window every day.

OK, poetry doesn't have to be directly relevant to daily life to be meaningful. Some of the best poetry transcends it altogether. I've already written on here about how much The Waste Land inspired me, and I don't think it has a shred of connection with the day-to-day life I live! Poetry works if it inspires dreams. It's just that, for me, there have always been poets other than the Beat poets who have seemed more real, more accessible, better able to inspire those dreams for me.

So this is a plea, to those of you who love the Beat poets. Please tell me exactly what I'm missing. Let me know how and why they inspired you - something that's going to make me want to immerse myself in their world too. I want to understand what it is you feel when you read those works. I want to understand what makes them classics. But before I can do that, I need a way in. And don't feel you can't contribute if you weren't old enough to read the Beat poets when they were contemporary. If you've newly discovered them, that might be even more exciting.

Monday, 21 March 2011

York Poetry was slammin' on 18th!

They said it couldn't happen, but it did... After the demise of the York Literature Festival, you could be forgiven for thinking that no one in York WANTED to show up to literary events. York's first ever Poetry Slam, on 18th March, proved the detractors wrong by packing out The Basement at City Screen Picturehouse and attracting 31 contestants from the local area and as far afield as Newcastle, Manchester and Coventry. After a high-energy Grand Final, Harrogate's Tim Ellis was named York Poetry Slam Champion 2011 and took away a prize pot of £44.62 kindly donated by his fellow performers.

It seems appropriate to set down my thoughts on the Slam while they are still fresh in my mind. So here goes!

I have to begin by thanking the people who made it possible - Helen, my co-host at Speakers' Corner; Jem and Nicola at Harrogate's Poems, Prose and Pints for designing a fabulous poster and plugging the event with all their might; Rose and Alan of Stairwell Books for providing much of the motivation for getting the slam going in the first place; and performance poet Ash Dickinson, our guest judge, for invaluable advice and also for providing a guest slot which was one of the best poetry performances I've seen in ages. Without you guys, there really would have been no slam - we owe it all to your dedication, enthusiasm and energy.

I have to thank the performers too - all 31 of them. Several (including one of our finalists) had never read their poetry in front of an audience before, and deserve massive respect for having the courage to stand up and make themselves vulnerable that way. A great many travelled for miles just to take part. The feedback I've had from the performers was universally positive. All of them seemed to think it was well worth the effort, even if they didn't make it to the final.

The mix of material was gloriously diverse. Our three prize winners truly earned their accolade, but there were some stand-out performances along the way which have left an enduring memory. Some of them were pretty off-the-wall, like the guy who performed his poem lying down on the stage with a sleep mask over his eyes. Some were moments of unintended comedy, like the lady's handbag which inadvertently became the most entertaining stage prop of the evening. Others were quieter, simpler. A poetry slam can be a noisy affair. Everyone expects to have a good jeer at bankers, warmongers and upper-class members of the Cabinet. But sometimes a quietly alliterative poem of lost love, or the image of a young woman in a hijab describing her face, can have a more lingering effect.

Mistakes were made along the way, of course. I thought our publicity was crystal-clear, but there were still inquiries coming in right up to the last minute about who needed to buy tickets, where to buy them from, and what time we were due to start. We had an unforeseen partial clash with another poetry event elsewhere in town - though if anything, we may actually have ended up boosting attendance at each other's events, by providing enough incentive to drag poets from far and wide into York on a Friday night. Not being aware of "how other people do it" led to a couple of complaints, from people who had been to other slams and expected, not unreasonably, that ours would run the same way. But these were very minor niggles, and soon forgotten in the general enthusiasm of the night.

For me, perhaps the best endorsement of the night came from the anecdotal evidence of people scribbling down words and ideas throughout the evening, of conversations overheard in the toilets that people were inspired to get writing. This is what it's all about. If we've given people ideas, encouragement, inspiration - if we've sown seeds that will germinate into new pieces of writing - if we've prompted people to get writing, perhaps for the first time - then I don't think we could want anything more.

It's great to bask in the applause (as Tim will, I'm sure, testify!). It's great to have the reassurance that we sold enough tickets to cover our costs, plough a bit of money into our respective organisations, AND have enough left over to donate £50 to Comic Relief. But we don't do it just for the applause, the self promotion, or the money. We do it to spread the germ of writing - that subversive disease that undermines, inspires, and offers alternatives to a grey, mediocre, recession-ridden world. If we've done our bit to spread that disease, then I'm happy.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Why I'm uneasy about World Book Night

This Saturday evening, people across the UK will be giving out free books as part of the World Book Night initiative. A brilliant idea – at least on the surface.

After all, everyone who writes has a vested interest in Getting People Reading. Books transform lives – they transformed mine. Access to the printed word can educate, inspire, set people in directions they'd never have dreamt were possible. With World Book Night, that access is being made available to everyone – and somebody else is paying for it.

Like most writers, I was really enthusiastic about this scheme when I first heard about it. It's only as time has gone on that I've started to have my doubts.

World Book Night was sold on the basis that, if your life has been transformed by a book, this is your chance to give copies of that book to others. But that's not really what is happening. There are only 25 books to choose from. OK, some of these are worthy enough to justify inclusion on the list. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time genuinely did transform a largely ignorant populace's understanding of how being on the autistic spectrum influences a person’s relationships with other people and the outside world. Love in a Time of Cholera, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and even Northern Lights are proper classics in their own right. And Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife is a rarity amongst poetry books, being both impeccably crafted and instantly accessible.

What troubles me is that the list stops here. You see, if I were giving out copies of the books that had transformed and influenced me, I'd be giving out different things altogether. The Armada Book of Young Verse, for instance. It's out of print now, which is a crying shame, because this was the book that first showed me the magic of language and the wonder of what you can do with it. I wish other people had the same chance to enjoy it as I did. The novels that'd be on my “giveaway” list would be stuff like Tolkien's Tree and Leaf, or the complete works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Or, to bring it more up-to-date, perhaps Iain Banks's The Crow Road, Joanne Harris's Gentlemen and Players, George Mackay Brown's Beside the Ocean of Time. There'd be short story collections too. The spell that Jeanette Winterson wove on me in The World and Other Places has been unsurpassed in 10 years.

And what about poetry? It's represented twice on the list – by Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy. Probably the only two poets in the world who don’t actually need more publicity. There are many brilliant poets writing life-transforming work, constrained only by the fact that people don't know about their work, and publishers can't afford to give them the sort of publicity that your blockbuster novelist – or even your Poet Laureate – can command. If I were a World Book Night ambassador, I'd want to be giving out copies of Diana Syder's Hubble. It's a book I'm utterly in love with. It transformed my vision of the power of poetry. And I wish with all my heart that more people had read it.

There are several books on the World Book Night list that I like. Even one or two that I admire. Some that I really ought to get round to reading one day (and wouldn't be averse to getting my hands on if a World Book Night ambassador happens to be passing). But none that I'm actually in love with. And that's where the whole concept makes me uncomfortable. The books on this list are loss leaders by major publishing houses. And it's the major publishing houses who are using this scheme to dictate the books that people are supposed to be in love with. Granted, they have endorsements from famous names who actually like and understand books; but it was the publishing houses who dictated what they could choose from.

The gamble, for the publishers, is that people will read the free books, enjoy them, and go out and seek other works by the same author. It's crafty; I can't help but admire it, albeit grudgingly. The handful of authors on the list can be justifiably proud of inclusion, and none of them will object to the ensuing boost in their sales figures. It's all the others that I can't help feeling sorry for. The real test of World Book Night's success is going to be whether or not it's a springboard for people to seek out other authors – the ones who aren’t lucky enough to enjoy the free publicity.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Review: Admiral FitzRoy's Barometer by Pat Borthwick (Templar Poetry, 2008; ISBN 978-1-906285-20-3)

Yorkshire-based poet Pat Borthwick has won just about every poetry competition known to humankind. Admiral FitzRoy’s Barometer is her third full collection. It’s a slim, beautifully presented hardback volume that feels like it could have packed many more poems within.

As you might expect from a multiple prize-winning poet, this is a sophisticated collection. Many poems home in on minute details in the area where philosophy, nature and science intersect. Concepts such as the nature of light (At This Moment), the origins of matter (Stone), the meaning of empty space (At Least 51 Ways of Contemplating a Hole) and the origin of madness (The Tale) are explored in imagery that is ingenious, but filled with childlike wonder. A number of these poems reminded me strongly of Diana Syder’s brilliant Hubble collection. What is notable about these poems is that the poet’s choice of words remains uncomplicated and accessible, even when immersed in lofty ideas. The poems are clever, but never intellectual for their own sake.

Stone was my favourite of these. In it, the contemplation of a pebble becomes a dialogue in which both the poet and the stone seem to be suffering from the same existential angst:

“I hum a lullaby and one by one
its eyes begin to close.
Has my life been wasted? it dreams.
Was my voice too soft?

The poet wrings an enormous amount of pathos from a set of interlinked verses about a family. Whether this is the poet’s actual family, or a fictitious one, she is careful not to let on. Dark shadows of repression (Apple Pie), lies (One of My Fathers) and sexual abuse (Snake) are seldom far from the surface. The tender mother of Becoming Woman, comforting her newly pubescent daughter after a vivid nightmare, and the domineering matriarch of Apple Pie seem so far removed from one another that they could be (and perhaps are) two different characters entirely; but the similarity in the narrative voice left me a little confused as to which version of events I was supposed to believe. This confusion is one that the narrator apparently shares:

“Truth. Lie. Truth. Lie.
Our words balance against each other’s
then roll away, sticky as dough balls.”
(from Apple Pie)

Snake is the most gut-wrenching of these pieces, an allegory of sexual abuse and its consequences. The storytime monster under this child’s bed is all too real, and the effect in her later life is chilling:

“I’ve gained their confidence. Come up,
I’ll say, and then, in their jewelled tuxedos,
watch them stretch across my pillows...
...I’ve spent years
learning to unhook my jaw, perfect
the toxicity of digestive juices
so not a single drop’s superfluous.”

The dreadful dilemma of the pregnant rape victim of Katya, not knowing whether she will “kick it and its afterbirth / down the mountainside” or “say, Give me my baby, and... call it Katya”, echoes this theme. It disturbs and revolts the reader quietly, without any sense of preaching.

A more poignant note is sounded by another linked set of domestic poems, these ones exploring the memory of departed loved ones through the relics they leave behind: the broken chair leaning against the allotment shed in Chair, the memory of fading light and the radio in Forecast, the crumpled handkerchief containing “a shower of moths and butterflies / enough to fan the whole Earth” in The Wash. The images that these leave in the reader’s mind are of astonishing clarity, resonant with sadness as well as celebration of lives lived to the full. The Widower’s Button provides a sensitive variant on this theme, as the lover of an older man finds herself intruding unbidden in the world of his departed first wife:

“She must have used this same needle,
this same white thread,
easing them along cotton hems,
newly laundered shirts,
the smell of sheets fresh from the line.”

I felt, at times, that there was a risk of the images and metaphors becoming a bit too off-the-wall, too airy. Sometimes a Camel is full of images redolent of Noah’s Ark and those early-20th-century black and white animations, but left me baffled as to where it was going and what it was trying to say. Past Twelve O’Clock takes a memorial silence as its starting-point but finishes with the planet as a bell ringing in space, without any real sense of how we got there. I’m not sure if this was just me, failing to spot a vital connection that’ll be obvious to a more intelligent reader, or if these genuinely were poems designed to go spinning into the ether, never quite earthing themselves again.

If there is a structural weakness in the collection, it is the seemingly random disposition of the poems. Pieces which are closely related are scattered all over the collection, without any apparent sense of order. Perhaps this is to ensure that parts of the collection don’t become too bogged down in darker subject matter. But for me, a little more ebb and flow in the themes and moods would have strengthened the collection as a whole. The problem is at its most acute in Passing on the Tickle, where the implied reference to panpipes in the description of the reedbed is mystifying without first reading Interlude, which appears much later in the collection.

These minor reservations aside, Admiral FitzRoy’s Barometer is a strong collection of poems. Its distinguishing features are the original, often startling imagery and a deep sense of the poet’s intimate connection with the natural world and the loved ones who are honoured in the poems. Humour is often present just under the surface too – sometimes playful (My Neighbour’s Myna), sometimes wry (In Praise of Grey). The result is a sophisticated yet accessible collection that will leave memorable images in the mind long after after the book has been shut.

For more information and to order, see the Templar Poetry website.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Review: Tasting the Fruit by Steve Allen (Indigo Dreams Press, 2010; ISBN 978-1-907401-08-4)

Performance poet Steve Allen has been flying the flag for poetry in the cultural wilderness of Milton Keynes for years. In the flesh, he is a compelling performer, using his whole body to bring his words to vivid life. Steve’s sense of dramatic or comic timing is about the best I’ve witnessed on the performance circuit. He can spot an innuendo at 1000 paces, and revels in being able to spice up otherwise serious poems with a choice double entendre or two. It’s the more risqué side of his repertoire that’s best known from his performances, and there are some good representative examples in this long overdue debut collection. But it’s easy to forget that his publication record has been largely built up on serious poetry. The bulk of the collection consists of travelogues, love poems and love-gone-wrong poems (and sometimes all three in the same piece of writing).

It is in the love poems that Steve’s touch is most delicate, his poet’s eye at its most insightful. What I loved about these pieces was their simple domestic intimacy. There is an understated poignancy in the first-time chef’s act of kindness to a sick partner in Can’t Cook, Don’t Cook, the glances and touches of the separated former lovers walking in the woods in Midsummer, the butterfly fluttering past the boarding aeroplane in Incarnation.

As for love poems, so with love-gone-wrong poems. There are a whole clutch of these, that fuse raw emotion with rather cynical humour. Second Adulthood, the exact mid-point of the collection, is the angriest poem in the book. On one level it can be read as a divorcee’s bitter rant against the failure of a marriage; but the overpowering mood is one of triumph:

I’m not fragmenting
I’m intact.”

Other poems chart the search for a human connection to replace the one so brutally disconnected in Second Adulthood. The tone of these is more wistful, the poet’s disappointment quite palpable through the subtext:

“We drank your wine
Not mine
But that’s OK”
(from OK);

“I accept the euphemistic coffee,
mentally noting that, at this time of night,
decaffeinated is safest.”
(from Come, Come).

A similar unsettledness enlivens the travelogue poems, which range through scenes as foreign to Home Counties eyes as Kuala Lumpur street corners, the home of a Brazilian charcoal burner and, erm, Camden market. The scene pictures are deftly painted; the “old boat, now on stilts, that houses her garden” (Zafira’s Garden), the “bandaged, bloodied stumps / of the shuffler / struggling along / the pavement-less road” (Knees), the “village bullock and cart (that) plod the fast lane” (Caste and Contrast) and the signposts filled with unintended doubles entendres (Kum Kum) were particularly vivid for me. But I felt a curious sense of detachment when reading these poems. The narrative voice was that of a self-styled “Englishman Abroad”, wryly noting the alien and incongruous scenes around him, but rarely getting involved. When the poet is dragged into the scenes, it is usually against his will.

A review of Steve Allen’s work could never be complete without mentioning the slightly smutty, innuendo-laden poems which are his hallmark as a performer. Several such poems are clustered together in the central section of the collection. They range from the ingenious Park and Ride and Pay and Display to the splendidly titled Vibrator Racing. At their best, these pieces display a precision of craft that equals any of his serious poetry. But some (You Done Then?, (C)Rude Poem, the laddish punchline of Mind and Behind) leave too little to the imagination. I know that they are effective on stage; but devoid of the performance element, I didn’t honestly think these pieces brought any real poetic quality to the collection.

For me, the greatest poetic depth was to be found at the end of the collection, in a small set of autobiographical poems. East End, Southend was a particularly intriguing piece, centring on the rescue of a vandalised photograph of the narrator’s parents in their courting days. There’s an unstated sense of sadness for lost times in this poem and many of its companions. Here, for the first time, it feels as if the poet is writing honestly about himself without hiding behind a bluster of drama and innuendo: as a child in Early Days, a teacher of disaffected colliery children in Supply, a would-be hippie transported unexpectedly back to 1969 in After the Rain-Gush. The poet’s memories of his mother, sharing the drama of thunderstorms in Bravery Comes in Many Forms, and her simultaneous vulnerability and stoicism in When Mother Fell, are particularly moving.

For me, this collection was a bit of a paradox. Steve Allen’s talent as a performer, his timing and intonation and sheer energy, are so much a part of his poetry that some of the poems in this collection seem weak when stripped of these elements. What comes across as wry wit in a live performance can be mistaken on the page for smugness or a route to a cheap gag. With few exceptions (Park and Ride being one), the poems here which are most effective as written poems are the more personal pieces, which show a delicacy of touch and a mastery of subtext which is sometimes absent from the performance pieces. So for me, this was a mixed collection. But if its existence provides a means for one of today’s best performers of poetry to get his work performed live in front of new audiences, it will have amply fulfilled its purpose.

More about this book, and some sample poems from Steve Allen, can be found on the Indigo Dreams Press website.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Review: The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar (Papaveria Press, 2010; no ISBN)

Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month is really the literary equivalent of a concept album. Having received a gift of samples of 28 different types of honey from a friend, the writer resolved to taste one a day, and produce a piece of writing each day which reflected the experience of each different honey. The result is a delightful debut collection whose poems and short stories are more than just an aesthetic pleasure; they are a rich sensual indulgence. There’s an ethereal, rather fairytale quality to the writing; but that doesn’t mean there is nothing here for those who like their poetry to be more intellectual.

The first thing that strikes the reader is what a gorgeous book this is. It’s not just the fonts used, the quality of the paper, and the overall feel of the book in one’s hand; the beautiful illustrations by Oliver Hunter, ranging from line drawings to full-page colour artworks, make this a visual feast. It’s fitting that a collection dedicated to a sensory exploration as well as an imaginative one should delight by sight and touch as well as by the music of the writing itself. One reviewer described this as “literary synaesthesia”, and I’m inclined to agree.

The writing in this collection ranges through free verse and formal poetry, prose poems, and short stories. The favoured poetic style is free verse or prose poem, but the poet also has a fascination for villanelles. These are not strictly formal in metre, but where the poet bends the form she does so knowingly, and never pushes things too far. The overall effect is to enhance the poems, rather than weaken them. Day 6 – Lemon Creamed Honey, with its “yellow laughter from a yellow-sounding throng” was my favourite of these.

There’s a light sentimentalism inherent in some of the writing. But like the honeys themselves, the poet keeps any sugar-sweetness well balanced – sometimes with a piece of tart allegory, often with an understated bitter note which makes it clear that this is a poet who has lived, loved, and lost, and dreams of doing it all again. The prayer to the rose in Day 4 – Raspberry Rose Honey struck me as particularly knowing:

“Oh Rose, aren’t you sick
of metaphors, of perfection,
of being Queen to a grasping multitude
who’ve never brushed a thorn?”

Some pieces are a wistful revisiting of the poet’s Canadian childhood. Day 12 – Red Gum Honey is characteristic:

“She wakes to quiet loneliness,
dresses, walks to her windowsill,
and sip by sip, lick by lick,
draws night back home again.”

Others have us rambling across the Cornish countryside which is her current home, in search of magical beings. Day 7 – Thistle Honey introduces us to Scraggle, the thistle pixie who “looks like summer”, while Day 22 – Malaysian Rainforest Honey brings a troll by a trash can, an air-sucking spirit in a water spout, and a romantic beggar girl with “eyes like penny candy.”

Not everything in the honey world is sweetness and light. This is particularly true of the short stories in the second half of the book, where more serious subtexts lurk just beneath the fairytale words. Metaphors for addiction (the eerie ravens of Day 18 – Manuka Honey), depression (the Rapunzel-like girl in Day 24 – Apricot Creamed Honey), and suicide (the mermaid of Day 25 – Raw Manuka Honey) are particularly potent here.

Day 11 – Blackberry Honey tugs us out of fairytale land with a jolt. This is a protest poem with an edge of steel to it:

“They pulled me from the rubble
like a fabled sword; never
was Excalibur so tarnished.”

To create a war poem with a weight of truth in a cynical age is no mean feat. Perhaps more strongly here than in any other poem in the collection, there is a suggestion that this poet’s words are going to become more powerful and even more compelling in her future work.

It is the yearning romanticism which colours almost every poem, the sense of heartbreak in the subtext, which leaves the strongest impression after the book is closed. The motif of the bees’ nectar-dance occurs throughout as an extended metaphor for the emotional journey of love. Usually the dance is doomed. In Day 16 – Blueberry Honey the poet is left contemplating the wiles of the destructive ex-lover (“the twist of your lips in a secret fit to kiss”), while in Day 26 – Blackberry Creamed Honey the poet seems to put herself in the persona of seducer, musing on the lover she leaves behind (“quiet and crunching on cardamom, licking honey from his lips”). “Why are you so sad, girl, you who love us so much?” ask the bees in Day 28 – French Chestnut Honey. The poet’s answer? “I am only a girl, a small plain girl, a girl who must smear her lips in honey to be found sweet.”

In just one poem, Day 2 – Peach Creamed Honey, the dance of love seems innocent and new:

“They say
she likes to suck peaches. Not eat them, suck them,
tilt her head back down and let the juice drip
sticky down her chin, before licking, sucking,
swallowing the sunshine of it down.”

This was my favourite poem in the collection, a sensual overdose that metamorphoses from free verse to pulsating rhyme in a beautifully crafted climax. The impression is of a poem about loss of virginity, but with no mention of sex anywhere. It’s joyous, it’s full of summer, and it made me feel young again.

I don’t think I can recommend this collection highly enough. I’m a sucker for fairytales, so that aspect of the collection won me over instantly. But there is plenty here that those who like their poetry more firmly rooted in real earth can feast on too. It is a triumphant debut for a poet with a mesmerising voice. I look forward to hearing more from Amal El-Mohtar very soon.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Arts funding cuts - where next for the York Literature Festival?

In a recession, arts funding is always seen as a soft option when cutbacks are on the table. It’s not that arts types don’t protest – far from it. It’s more that there’s no easy way for the bean counters to put any quantifiable price tag to the benefit that supporting the arts can bring. Anything that can’t prove its worth to the profit making machine automatically counts as frivolous, not worth spending money on.

It’s a narrow-minded way to conduct cultural policy. The arts have a value that goes far beyond the purely economic. Engagement with culture increases quality of life, boosts health and well-being, improves education, provides disaffected youth with alternatives to anti-social behaviour, and creates and nurtures transferable skills that are essential in the workplace. When you take away provision for such things, you take away a lifeline for many people – and you have to pay the price, indirectly, afterwards.

It is always a pity when a grassroots literary movement bites the dust. That’s exactly what has happened to the York Literature Festival, which will not be going ahead in 2011 despite four successful years as a showcase of the best local and regional literature. York Literature Festival has always been planned and run from within the local community, by a volunteer committee and team of promoters. Despite the inherent challenges of running a Festival staffed by volunteers, it attracted writers of the calibre of Carol Ann Duffy, Kate Atkinson, Jim Crace and Tracy Chevalier over the years.

So why the demise of the Festival?

The first nails started going into the coffin in late 2009, when York City Council formally withdrew the funding that had previously made the Festival possible. The committee were left with no choice but to plan and run a Festival that was entirely self-funding. And they managed it. The 2010 York Literature Festival ran off modest sponsorships from local businesses and generous private donations from groups and individuals. The result was a packed 10-day programme that drew in literary enthusiasts from across the region. But there is only so long a Festival can go on without secure funding to produce programmes and publicity, and to attract big-name writers. The committee could only hold out so long in hope that the funding they needed for the long term would arrive. It never did.

So, for now, the York Literature Festival is no more. In mourning its passing I have to take my hat off to Miles, Fiona, Antonia, Jenny, Rob, Adrienne, Rose and Alan, and the many other local people who willingly gave up their time or donated money to make previous Festivals happen. I might not mind so much if they were just plucky underdogs, defeated by circumstance. But this story illustrates another side of something that’s happening nationally, which is really beginning to trouble me.

On the whole, the arts are resilient in times of recession. Straitened financial circumstances force people into finding new ways to entertain themselves. The Thatcherite recession of the 1980s created a wave of small-scale, local, “do-it-yourself” arts movements. Punk had encouraged the belief that ordinary people could make things happen; Thatcherism forced ordinary people to step up to the challenge. Grassroots art thrived in a way that the establishment couldn’t have predicted – and didn’t altogether like.

There are signs that the same is starting to happen again in the poetry world. Milton Keynes’ Monkey Kettle is leading the way with its triumphant brand of leftfield satire and surrealism. In the north-east, we now have Beautiful Scruffiness. I predict it’s going to be the first of many new, grassroots publications: run by poets, produced on a shoestring but not compromising in production quality, and designed to bring poetry back where it belongs – among the people.

The problem is that there are vested interests even within the liberal arts. And those interests sometimes end up opposing grassroots arts movements, rather than supporting them.

In the corporate mind-set, control is everything. The name, the branding, the “public image”, everything that happens has to be carefully micro-managed to ensure that only the corporate values are reflected. That’s why, to take a purely hypothetical example, you could envisage a situation where a civic authority might refuse a small grant to a grassroots festival and subsequently spend thousands subsidising glossy brochures for a public event (maybe also branded a “Festival”), which turns out to be just a thinly disguised publicity junket for a wealthy local industry. To take another hypothetical example, you might envisage other corporations (and remember, corporations come in all kinds of guises these days, in the public as well as the private sectors) being frustrated at not owning the name and brand identity for a grassroots festival. Instead of supporting, they might want such festivals to fail (or even be planning for it). Where control is not an option, the only alternative is to quash it altogether.

I’m comforted by the knowledge that the grassroots won’t stay silent for long. Where we’re squashed in one place, we will come back even stronger somewhere else. Literature and art will thrive in Britain, whatever the Con-Dems in central government or the stuffed shirts in the councils do.

The great thing about the grassroots is its self-reliance. Local people really can make things happen where they are, with negligible funding. Those corporate interests that sneered at the York Literature Festival because it never was corporate could be in for a shock when the recession axe starts to fall against their interests too. They may well find that they’ve lost the support and goodwill of the community that they need to carry them through the storm.

Monday, 10 January 2011

New Year Resolutions

I've been neglecting the Poet's Soapbox of late. I have to blame that on pressures of the day job, a new course of study, and all the 101 little things that conspire to get between an artist and his favourite pleasures. But with some significant changes in my personal circumstances, I start 2011 determined to give the Soapbox the attention it deserves.

To that end, I’ve come up with a couple of new year's resolutions for my blogging.

One is that I need to do it more often. The core of this blog will remain the Soapbox articles I produce for the National Association of Writers' Groups' excellent LINK magazine. But in order to improve interactivity, I’m going to intersperse these with some personal reflections too.

I'm already drafting a linked series of articles on my experience running an open mic night for poets and spoken word performers (which I’ve given the provisional title of Open Mic Surgery). Regular readers will know that I believe performance to be the lifeblood of poetry. If I have one aspiration for the Soapbox, it would be that it encourages people not to be intimidated about standing up and reading poetry in front of an audience. For those who don't have the good fortune of an open mic on their doorstep, I also want to offer some encouragement that starting one up may not be as difficult as you think.

I'm keen to have other people's insights to offer, not just my own. So if you've been involved in setting up an open mic, or you're an MC or organiser of one now, please leave a comment here or email me (at the usual address) and let me know about your experiences. In particular, have a think about the following questions:

How and why did you get started?
How do you publicise your open mic?
Do you have guest features? How do you find people who are willing to feature?
Have you come across any problems or difficulties in running the open mic? How have you dealt with them?

I'll try and incorporate as many responses as possible into the Open Mic Surgery articles as they evolve.

The other new thing I intend to do with the Soapbox is to write reviews of poetry books.

I seem to pick up poetry books all over the place. Books by poets I hear at readings; books by guest features who've come to Speakers' Corner; books that just seem to get sent me randomly in the post (there have been a whole stack of these in the last few months!). Now that I have more opportunity to spend quality time with these, it seems only fair to do what I can to give the most deserving ones a bit of publicity.

Most of the titles I get are published by small presses, and never get the kind of exposure that the Seamus Heaneys and Carol Ann Duffys of this world seem to automatically deserve. But some of them are every bit as good as the latest Heaney or Duffy. Others – well, poetry is like any artform, a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. I want to be able to praise and promote the writers who really deserve it. But I want to be honest, too. No poetry collection is flawless. If I offer criticism here I will intend it as constructive criticism, and hope that the poets concerned will accept that criticism in the spirit with which it's meant – kindly.

Once again, reader feedback will be welcome. If you've read one of the books I've reviewed, and want to offer your own thoughts, please do (especially if you disagree with me!). The one rule to remember, is be helpful, be constructive; comments that aren't will just be deleted. And if you've read a poetry book you would like me to review – or are a poet yourself, and want to send me a review copy – please leave a comment on the Soapbox or by email in the usual way.

It only remains for me to thank my existing readers for their loyalty, and to hope I get some new readers in 2011! Happy new year.