Friday 25 April 2014


Last night I was discussing the ethics of poetry. Is it ethical use family and friend's experiences as raw material? I would tend to say yes it is. We write about what we know. Experience gives authenticity to our work, however dressed up and camouflaged the event may by the time it reaches the page/screen.

Let me say that I do not believe that ethics are set in stone. They are not a set of rules I adopted when I was young that I have rigidly stuck to. I think our ethical position changes, we need to be constantly checking out what we believe and what we feel to be right. Where do you stand? 

Anyway here is a poem that is largely autobiographical. It happened as described. I'd like to thank the Secret Poets for their generous assistance in knocking it into shape. As I have said many times before, every writer can benefit from the constructive feedback of people they respect.

As I am here, now, I am asked to
look at a dead man's brewing paraphernalia.
I make my own beer, so this qualifies me
to sift through another's boxes and tubes.

There is much here he put to one side
for a day that has yet to arrive,
crystallised yeast nutrient
and more wine finings that wine.
This cheers me – I never use the stuff.

I am told on family holidays to Norway,
he was ready to claim that
This is not beer (not yet).
He was never challenged.

The unmade kits accuse;
all processes are halted.
There is a ritual here,
the precise movements of a careful man,
reflected in clean equipment.

I sort and judge and do as I am bid.
Strangely sober we rejoin the party.

[Technical note: wine finings are used to clear wine]

Natalie Merchant has a new album coming out. Here is the first video.

And if I am lining up music I have to end with my favourite Natalie videos. Here she is from with Michael Stipe and Billy Bragg in Glasgow, 1990. Enjoy.

Tuesday 22 April 2014


Last weekend I visited the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Wirral. Having grown up about an hour away, I have to confess this was my first time. I had read about Port Sunlight when I was student- a model village built in 1887 by Lever Brothers the soap manufacturers. It fits into that philanthropic employer movement that is so sadly lacking today.

What I was not prepared for was the sense of space. The main road is of boulevard proportions lined by houses in the Arts & Crafts style. There are 900 houses but it does not feel cramped, the overall impression is of light and space.

The Lady Lever Art Gallery has a permanent collection of Pre-Raphealites, sculpture and much Chinese porcelain. It also has a Napoleon Room- the Victorian's had romantic take on Napoleon that I don't myself understand. There is a sign saying that research has shown that the furniture is later than first thought, but there is a death mask.

What really impressed me was the temporary exhibition of Turner watercolours. They were superb. If you get a chance to see this travelling exhibition take it. You will not be disappointed.

The Bowling Green

The Hillsborough Memorial Garden

Friday 18 April 2014


Last post I mentioned that I'd found some old poems in the loft. I am beginning this post with the only one that worked. It is a short poem and echoes some of the ideas I used in a recent post.


Lenin in America
homeless in the Dustbowl
on the run from hunger
no police on his trail
just another faceless man in ill-fitting shoes

Woody in Russia
learning to play the balalaika
talking blues on the banks of the Danube
getting married when the mood takes him
starts to travel when he feels the urge

March 1999

I remember I was reading a book about the Russian Revolution at the time and how during the Soviet period children were told of Lenin's pre-revolution travels around the country, this taking on an almost religious aspect with him converting whole villages to his cause. Nonsense of course. I think I'd reread The Grapes of Wraith as well. If I remember it correctly Tom Joad leaves prison in ill-fitting shoes, arriving back at the farm he complains that his feet hurt or as he says: his dogs are barking.
Now a recent poem. I think some of the ideas may need explaining- the death-knell of a poem is when you have to explain it! Anyway some science. In 1909 Franz Haber discovered a means of fixing nitrogen in the soil that has lead to the development of artificial fertilisers, in turn these have made possible the huge population growth over the past century. Malthus warned of the dangers of the population growing beyond our ability to feed it.

The trick of fixing nitrogen bought us some time,
so we fuck like rabbits and sit in our own shit.
Just beyond the circle of light,
cast by the burning of hydrocarbons,
the shadow of Malthus circles,
snaps at our heels,
growls: one day soon, one day soon...

I have nothing to say about the content, I think the words speak for themselves.
On a lighter note I leave you with a video of Friends of The Bride, one of those bands that should have been big...

Friday 11 April 2014


I was moving boxes about in the loft the other day and I found what I thought was simply my old poem folder that I used at readings. I pulled it out of a box thinking that I would look through it to be on the safe side before composting all the old paper.

I discovered a number of poems that I had forgotten writing, and as distance grants perspective I was able to see why they didn't work clearly. Take this poem for example:

getting drunk with Robert Lowell

you notice the crease in his trousers reflected the razor of his mind
the glittering scalpel of his intellect cutting ideas adrift
shaping new connections
the martini glasses chime and empty again
its the medication I think at first that has him so high
not the alcohol or the please to see you elegant manners
but it's not it's him
later I cannot recall all the connections he spun or when sober if they stand scrutiny
the next day he will fall into that pit

OK, I wrote this about sixteen years ago or so, it is going to be different to how I write today. But two things jumped off the page- one was the layout was awful and the second was the jarring last line. I am introducing something that makes sense only if you know about Robert Lowell's mental health. You cannot bring something in from left field in the last line of this type of poem. It will work as a device at times but not in this context.

Plus lines 1 & 2 say the same thing, and are a little clichéd, and if I have the word elegant to describe his manners do I need the please to see you as well?

I suspect that this poem may have been shown at a workshop but was left as an interesting idea.

Here is my revised version:

Getting Drunk with Robert Lowell

We sit in canvas directors chairs,
opposite sides of the pit
-his alternate universe of suffering.
He does not invite me to look into that infinity,
he rips up concepts; martini glasses chime,
he pours a refill, right angles ideas.

Later I cannot recall all those connections he spun,
or if sober they would stand scrutiny.
I know by the vacant chair he is in the pit.

It feels like this like a poem that can stand by itself now. I'd be interested in what you think.

Here is another one that made me laugh when I read it:

as my prostrate has enlarged, grown smug like a contented animal, I increasingly find myself in public urinals like the other old men, urine trickling like trepidation, and call such visits parade duty with the prostrate brigade, there is no eye contact or comment on strength of stream

This was an exaggeration of course and I have had to change it about make it work but the germ of a poem was there. And here:

at some other point on the continuum, were we do not exist, it is raining, water mingles with rust, dry pools of oxide no longer, the sun is setting, the planet turns

I think this was a contender for Burning Music, my first collection, not sure if it made it. Again the layout was centred in the middle of the page and looked wrong.

I am leaving you this week with the latest video by Liz Green, whose new album is out on the 14th April. She's touring and if you get the chance to see her take it, she is a one off. There is no one quite like Liz.

Tuesday 8 April 2014


There is no pretention about Gram, he is poetry. There is passion balanced by a deep knowledge and a way with words that I envy. I also have to confess I am in awe of the long complex lines of his work. I am pleased if I can manage to string ten lines together, Gram works on a larger scale and pulls it off. There is never a wasted word, nor a superfluous sentence.

And hearing him read! He has a presence and the voice to bring it all together.

Gram was the fine mind behind the editing of Juncture 25's first anthology (we have a couple of copies left, you can get yours here). I can honestly say without his attention to detail it would not be the book it is.

By now you have gathered that Gram is a member of Juncture 25. He can fully formed-as I think I wrote in the introduction. I find his work to be rich, resonant and thought provoking. He has an excellent blog, well worth reading.

Let's here what he has to say.

Why poetry?

When you remove all that is unnecessary, poetry is left.

I have been read stories. I have puzzled over riddles or puns. Experienced drama. Listened to hip hop music. Seen the news. A list of what makes poetry possible would be long.

Why though? Life fills up, it gets empty. I shake off what feels dead and poetry remains. As if it were what everything else is for.

Tell us how you work

Have you ever heard about Peter Redgrove’s method, the way he would keep several books and gradually copy “germs” of ideas from one to the next, expanding on them every time? He believed the unconscious mind worked on each, and eventually formed poems. Well, I do not work like that.

It is a sound principle, I think. Sometimes, a theme can occupy me for a while, and it seems to get magnetised so that other things around me begin to make sense in terms of that idea, and cling to it. This happens inexplicitly, but when sitting down to write, I find a number of observations from recent days have clotted together, formed their own little nexus in my imagination. Some of these may have been quietly snowballing for a very long time, years or decades, and become very powerful. Others happen overnight, or an afternoon. It can happen in a second, actually.

Association is both the essence of metaphor and of meaning. You need a vantage point to experience anything meaningfully. Poetry has the advantage of being able to talk about one thing directly in terms of another. This is what gives it emotional energy. In the overlap between things not obviously connected, our hearts are forced to stretch to comprehend and then we really feel something.

What is particularly interesting is that if you give yourself a receptacle, for example, decide to write according to one form or other, or to draw words only from a particular source, or to speak as one kind of voice, you instantly create a space for associations to fall into. Rather than waiting around for something you might call inspiration, you can prepare the ground. Which is why often I will write by taking two or three starting points (e.g. a news story, a memory, an intention for short lines) and let these things reach out toward one another in the mind. Where they cross, there’s material for a poem.

Which poets make you green with envy?

Anne Michaels, in her collection Miners’ Pond & The Weight of Oranges, stuns me. She wrote a beautiful novel, too. If I could write like her, I could stop.

Tea or coffee?

Ha. A piece of advice I was given: when a writer begins to write about coffee, they’re really in trouble.

I start the day with espresso. Drink green tea. Pick mint from the garden. Buy chamomile by the sack. Then there is licorice. Lemon. Vanilla rooibos. There’s occasionally nothing so nice as breakfast tea made too strong in a pot then served with a little too much milk.

What question would you not like me to ask?

Why do you not use your time instead to administer triage in disaster zones?

How would you answer it?

In my dreams, I do.

What's in the pipeline?

Personal goals include writing one poem every week for a while, interacting with more writers and remembering to submit work for publication occasionally.

If you were a book, poem, song, colour what etc would you be?

I am a ringbinder full of notes.

To end with a poem. 

Gram As Lifeform, Phosphorescing

Awake in my pushchair after sunset
I am proto-hominid; a hunter who searches
the hedgerow. The road surface quakes my teeth, 
there are voices, the presence of figures. 
This verge is a planetarium of glowworms; illuminated
ichor totems taking shape. It is not my moment. I wait. 

Strapped in the car, I sing to radio pylons. But wait
until dark – when each isosceles dims into sunset, 
then scaffold becomes illuminated
by a pack of wolves. Every red eye searches
an umbra of moths. It is my totem pole of figures
stacked amid shivering cables and metal teeth. 

It goes past. I have dreams of losing teeth
then wake. A deathwatch beetle ticks the wait
from its cavity. Over me, glow stickers draw figures
of a star-chart without rotation, sunrise or sunset. 
In such patterns are embryonic myth; I make searches
whose purpose is not illuminated. 

Watching jellyfish breeze an aquarium tank, illuminated
blackly by ultraviolet bulbs, my reflected teeth
are pre-human, skeletal; a face unlike mine searches
itself among the bulks of hydrozoa. They wait
like negative plates of sunset. 
Faintly, my teacher’s voice relates figures. 

I have imagined a moment the self figures
out who it is, when the familiar becomes illuminated. 
We are near hedgerow, using our throats to test sunset
with shrieks high enough to shiver teeth, 
hoping bats will acknowledge us. I see one wait, 
hovering mid-beat between pips as it searches.

In these days, when troglodytes perform web searches,
I am camped. My dog runs figures 
of eight in his LED collar while I wait
on a flame. Half-visible in its illuminated
circle, we listen to screech owls give saw-teeth
calls. A myth takes shape in these hours after sunset.

I am someone who figures a beast in the umbra of sunset,
that creature who searches lightning for its teeth, 

who waits beneath park lamps to see moths illuminated. 

Thanks Gram.

Friday 4 April 2014


This week one poem. It was written last year. It was revealed in court that undercover policemen had been given the identities of children who had died when very young. These policemen had been ordered to infiltrate groups viewed by the government as suspicious- anti-nuclear protesters, green activists and people concerned with animal welfare. In short people like me.

You can read the latest development in this ongoing scandal here.
This poem came quite quickly. I wanted to capture the fracture picture that was [and still is emerging] emerging.


The names of dead babies
were allocated to policemen,
so they could live undercover,
sleep with suspects,
investigate certain people.
We are told this was in the national interest.

To lie in bed in the night
and wonder if your son's name
has been resurrected,
to camouflage a liar,
who spies on your neighbour.
But they will not tell you.

Shape shifting, identity eating,
they attend every meeting,
always saying the right thing.
Offering and helping,
inside they are mocking,
your dossier compiling.

Who were the suspected
and exactly what did they do
to be worth the attention and budget allocation?
Did they really imperil the state?
So many questions
you will never answer...

I would be interested to know what you make of it.

I am leaving you this week with a video by The Mountain Goats. I keep saying to myself that I will write an appreciation of the band-watch this space. Here are The Mountain Goats singing Cry For Judas.