Poetry South East 2020, edited by Jeremy Page

This week I received a copy of Poetry South East, an excellent anthology produced by The Frogmore Press. According to Frogmore, ‘the original series was published by South East Arts between 1976 and 1983, with Howard Sergeant editing the first and Anthony Thwaite the last. The Frogmore Press revived the series with Poetry South East 2000 and published Poetry South East 2010 ten years later.’

I read the anthology from cover to cover, and what leapt out right away, even more than the individual talents, was how well the anthology had been edited. Each poem passes the baton without a false step or an uncomfortable fumble. Jeremy Page’s selection and arrangement — all conducted under lockdown conditions of course — is absolutely exemplary.

Fifty two poets are each represented by a single poem, and it is a pretty convincing snapshot of poetry written for the page in the South East. I am delighted to be one of them, and there are real treats in this collection from wonderful poets, many of them such as John Agard, Brendan Cleary, Sasha Dugdale, Maria Jastrzębska, Patricia McCarthy, John McCullough, Grace Nichols, Catherine Smith, Susan Wicks and Jackie Wills, who are rightly famed in the region. There are lots of my poetry pals in it too, such as Robin Houghton, Sarah Barnsley, Charlotte Gann, Stephen Bone, Antony Mair and more all shining.

And the cover by Neil Gower is gorgeous too.

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WHY? AND OTHER QUESTIONS, by Robin Houghton

In March, when people had started self-consciously bumping elbows, my pal Sarah Barnsley and I trained up to London, to see our friend Robin Houghton launch her new Live Canon pamphlet, WHY? AND OTHER QUESTIONS. It was an excellent afternoon, and Robin read with fellow pamphleteers Tania Hershman, Miranda Peake and Katie Griffiths at the Boulevard Theatre Bar, London. 

I thought sharing something about these poems is well overdue.

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What is suggested, in a horror movie for example, is invariably more unnerving than the monster when you get to see it. The terrors and sublime pleasures in Robin Houghton’s poems are always suggested, and the bathos of wobbly latex is carefully avoided.  

The poem Was it the Diet Coke? is perhaps the most straightforward example of her potent command of suggestion.

offhandedly lefthandedly
drunk by the can-full
my dose of phenylalanine
my be-my-baby ringpull

Here we have dipped into a relentless anxious inner monologue; a chatter in the void like some lost soul in Dante’s Inferno.

what it my fault or God’s
did I do wrong break a law
was it bad timing was it
me   fuck   was it me   or

In The Retelling the story, a memory of war, the incident being related is barely sketched, but there is a horrific glimpse of the blur and confusion of war.

some throat opened and the long night’s breath
tumbled through the lift shaft of his lungs, threw
up knives, a scything freak show in his brain.
The flapping mask, the call to brace, the prayers.

But the focus of the poem is on what it is to be able to tell such a story, on the storyteller.

This void sits at the edge of several of Robin Houghton’s poems. In ‘His hope was a waking dream’ the note of the poem refers to a man falling into an Anish Kapoor art installation. Again without capitals, and this time completely unpunctuated, the poem lists reasons for falling, and again there is that sense of the unresting interior monologue unable to reach a firm conclusion.

he wanted to step quickly
he absented the light and his body gave way
into nothing in it

he fell in love with nothing
he fell into lies and he wanted to go in
out of the outside in

We see in Drowning the Doves, 1916 what may be T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, co-creator of the Doves typeface, casting the metal typeface into the Thames,

                                              … By spring, handfuls of ‘a’s

and ‘m’s he starts to cast as seed, or throw–with hope,
like confetti–the pebbled water laughing up at him.

With each piece of type, a piece of himself also–the moon
as witness–bequeathed in bits to the river, rag and bone:

four parts sacrifice, six parts revenge.

It’s twinned poem Under Hammersmith Bridge, 2016, sees the letters salvaged. I love this metaphor of strewing language into the water, which felt to me like a metaphor for writing itself.

There is a beautiful, Samuel Beckett bleakness in some of Robin’s work. The setting for the final poem of the collection, Ladies’ Hour features a terrifying scenario: the swimming bath on one of the middle decks of The Titanic.

between me and the sea
just the smell of steerage,
the low belly of a boat, the swell.

While a disturbing void haunts these poems, in this collection. There is also an enigmatic beauty about many of the poems. I find the exquisite poem ‘I ask what colour is the sea’ to be heartbreakingly beautiful.

I find it greyscale of gull belly caught in a squint, a hint of gravestone.
Some days a sick greenish grey. But I ask the world and it says blue.

WHY? AND OTHER QUESTIONS is a profoundly moving pamphlet, with quiet moments of dark and painful beauty.  It’s just wonderful.

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Barking Mad! By Jane Mosse

418CImAzKeL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Barking Mad! by Jane Mosse published by Blue Ormer

What with one thing and another, I have found it hard to read lately. It’s as if a smoke alarm keeps going off in the house. Yesterday, having a hateful ear infection, I opted for a sofa day. When I wasn’t dripping antibiotics into my ear and moaning peevishly, I was completely taken by the highly-diverting Barking Mad! by my Guernsey based pal Jane Mosse. Her last project mentioned on this blog was Guernsey Legends — but this is a very different book, being a fictionalised account of several years of pet sitting with her husband Richard Fleming.  All they have to do is live in stranger’s houses, and befriend their pets. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Luckily for the reader, things are rarely straightforward.

Travel, plus animals, plus nosing about in other people’s houses? It’s a perfect formula for an enjoyably escapist read. You can imagine yourself anywhere from arriving in Alderney in a tiny aircraft on a rabbit sitting mission, to the ballroom of a grand estate in Northumbria with a Shetland pony that lets itself into the house from time to time, freezing in Prague as the boiler goes kaput before Christmas, or in a lock keeper’s cottage deep in a northern industrial wasteland.  There is a panoply of loveable pooches and pampered cats — not to mention the cast of eccentrics who hand them into our heroes’ care. Our pet-sitting wanderers also encounter all manner of other critters on their travels, from water snakes to deer, mosquitoes to rabbits, piglets to a lugubrious bathtub carp. Many of these creatures harbour ideas of their own so they certainly give their temporary minders plenty deal with.  

Part of the fun of course, is getting an real insight into their host’s lives. So if your sanity could benefit from imagining yourself basking in Tuscan sunlight under lemon trees as cats haunt the shadows, or gazing out on snowy, deer-filled parkland just before Christmas… Then you’d be mad not to simply get yourself a copy of  Barking Mad!  

Posted in a writer's life, Book Launch, Fiction, Guernsey Literature, Novels, Reviews, Richard Fleming | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Peter Kenny’s Little Horrors

Is anyone in their right mind interested in horror stories at a time like this?

Despite this, I find uploading readings onto YouTube is helping me manage my anxiety.  I was talking to my pal Robin Houghton yesterday that this outbreak makes me want to upload all my best work. Robin said it made her want to burn things, which made me laugh.

Anyhow… I intend to upload a few readings of published horror stories just for fun. Peter Kenny’s Little Horrors allows me to give published stuff another airing for a different audience, and to be there for posterity. 

This story was first published by the excellent Jeremy Page in The Frogmore Papers, in 2019. Hope you enjoy it….

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My reading for The Island Review

With my brand new, and attractively-priced Blue Snowball Ice microphone I recorded a reading for The Island Review, with their hashtag #islandreadings. If you’ve not visited their site you should do. It harbours all kinds of good things there.

The Remembering Cliffs is an old poem, in fact one I wrote in my twenties, eventually collected in A Guernsey Double (2010) my collection with Richard Fleming. It was also republished online by The Island Review a few years back. If I had to pick my handful of my poems which were most heartfelt this would be one of them. Funnily enough it was written at a time of great personal anxiety, back in the 80s, and it has a self-soothing quality which I hope works for other people too.

I hope you like this. The island review page is here. Big thanks to its editor Jordan Ogg.

And here is my reading.

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Watch Skelton Yawngrave TV

Hope all casual droppers-in to my blog are keeping fine. Here’s my Skelton Yawngrave TV YouTube channel. I am hoping, to upload a chapter a day of my story Magnificent Grace during this lockdown.

I had such fun reading to children when I was visiting schools in Brighton and Sussex, I thought I would take it online, something for children with busy brains to do during lockdown. So if you happen to know of an imaginative whippersnapper in key stage 2, 9-12 years old, perhaps they might enjoy being pointed to to Skelton Yawngrave TV.

Here’s me reading the first chapter.

 

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Taking Magnificent Grace into schools

A90BE577-EF30-4610-BF72-71E75A1761B4They say it is good to leave your comfort zone, and recently I have been doing that and found myself loving it. For Skelton Yawngrave was invited to several schools to talk about Magnificent Grace during the week of World Book Day.  Instead of an immaculately-dressed skeleton man, however, the children got his alter ego: me.  Creating an alter ego is one of the things I talk about with the children — and they love the idea. 

On 28th Feb I was in Bolney Primary School meeting some strong writers. The glamorous head teacher there happens to be my wife, and we asked the children add the imaginary to something they were familiar with. My example was of adding a skeleton to a swimming pool.  In one child’s story the protagonist was riding into the nearby woods, on a bicycle that sank and sagged as it had transformed (with hallucinatory clarity) into a machine made of confectionaries. Children seem to add magic naturally.

The 3rd March saw me at Downs Junior school in Brighton, with my minder for the day Dawn Daniel. I am really indebted to Dawn who helped me to reach out to children readers as I was writing the book. My assembly included a reading of the first chapter, to which the children (thankfully) listened with rapt attention. Dawn and I then went to four classes to talk about themes of prejudice and unfairness and importance of editing.

6th March was World Book Day itself. Through relentless rain I dragged a  wheeled suitcase full of books to Preston Park station. Getting off at Balcombe I forded the running muddy stream that was the tarmac path. I received a warm welcome and a cup of tea at Balcombe School, and was told that the children had been playing indoors because of the deluge.

I spent the afternoon with two year groups in one class room, reading from the story, and talking about everything from talking dogs to racism. After trundling to Balcombe station I waited for a half an hour as it poured more. A mother and two kids were on the platform, and one of them produced his copy of Magnificent Grace which he had bought at school and began avidly reading it. A moment that was worth the whole trip. D00928AA-C84A-4068-AE52-56FD96813589

Friday 7th March was Balfour School, luckily just a few flaps of a seagull’s wing away from my house. Two readings and Q&A sessions in the gym. Full of brainy children and a warm and friendly welcome from the staff.

Then in the afternoon, I returned to Downs to sign a few more books, and offer my thanks again to Emma the English subject leader there.  As I was walking home, I passed two children from Balfour, who said hello to me and told me my book was brilliant.  Another wonderful moment.

By the end of the week I had signed so many books as Skelton Yawngrave, that I am beginning to prefer his signature to my own.

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Magnificent Grace — now in paperback!

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Magnificent Grace paperback now available here

Few moments in life are like popping open a box of books you happen to have written.  More accurately I should say written by my alter ego Skelton Yawngrave III. Skelton was wildly pleased with himself. Though cheerful, I remain cautiously optimistic.

Properly armed with my 322 page book, I am particularly looking forward to continuing my school visits.  I was very excited and encouraged by the children’s response at two schools in Sussex, St Giles school in Horsted Keynes, and Bolney School, in Bolney. I have forthcoming visits to St Marks school next week, and Balcome School.

I’ve been really enjoying representing Skelton, and reading sections of the book. In my visits so far I have discussed unfairness and justice, prejudice and tolerance. We have looking hard at the editing process. The children were fascinated to hear how many drafts the book went through, and that I employed professional editor Charlotte Norman to review and copy edit the text.    

I discuss the use of a pseudonym, and ask children what identity they might choose, and what sort of writing they might do. This often elicits interesting answers as the children suddenly discover they might have their own alter ego waiting to express itself. One child, however, said he would write about polar exploration and his pen name would be I.C. Waters which made me laugh.

I early video YouTube experiments with a talking skeleton and visualisations of the characters by my mother Margaret Hamlin to show how I began to develop the characters. My mother’s pictures get oohs! of amazement when I produce them — which gives me a bit of a Romesh Ranganathan’s mother moment.

Having made a living as a writer for at least twenty five years, and having poems and prose published from the age of 22, this is the first time I have self-published a story. In 2020 I find this carries little stigma any more. In a time when many publishers and agents are so risk averse the idea of just getting on with it is very refreshing. I have never been much good at waiting for permission before I start something creative, so doing it this way fits unapologetically with who I am. I can tell you that whenever a child enthuses about Magnificent Grace, it is an absolute vindication.

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Powerful work from Clare Best and Matthew G. Rees

Here are a two things I have read lately, that I would highly recommend.

51573H-S9ILClare Best The Missing List 

I’ve met Clare several times, but bought this book without realising that its subject matter was in fact a memoir about child abuse, published in 2018. I discovered it to be a beautiful patchwork of impressions, of childhood memories, of telling descriptions of home movies, and a deeply human but unsentimental record of an abusive father’s protracted death.

Clare Best quietly tells us how she dealt with her father’s expectation that she should write down his memoirs, all without him ever acknowledging the appalling abuse he had foisted on her.

I was tremendously moved by The Missing List, and by imagining the cold courage it must have taken Clare to write it. It is a careful memoir, by this I mean it is aware of its readers as well as dwelling on how caring for others is full of complexity and nuance.  For anyone who is compelled to make sense of their own past, this book’s quietly understated wisdom is very welcome. 

The Missing List is published by Linen Press.

Matthew G Rees The Snow Leopard of Moscow

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As dippers into this blog may recall, I have been immersed in short stories in the horror and weird fiction genre for a while now.  One contemporary writer who I find genuinely interesting is Matthew G Rees, and I wrote about his excellent collection Keyhole here.

A recent story, The Snow Leopard of Moscow, struck me as an instant classic of the literary horror genre. The time he spent in living in Moscow clearly informed the writing of this story, which is pervaded by what, for this reader at least, is a refreshing backdrop for a horror story.

It really has it all — atmosphere, ambiguity, proper characters, and an absence of weary tropes. It was also made me think about the Jungian shadow, and archetypes of tramps and the wounded healer we encounter in dreams. Why not read it here now? 

 

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Sin Cycle in E·ratio

Screenshot 2020-01-04 at 15.11.20

Detail of Infant Sorrow by William Blake

Happy new year!  I already have enormous amounts to be thankful for this year.  Chief of these is the editorship of Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino, the editor of E·ratio Postmodern Poetry Journal based in New York. Gregory’s own work, as I have written about here is extraordinary, and challenging and should be explored.  

E·ratio itself (and the 29th issue I find myself in) is a fascinating place to visit. The magazine is crammed full of bracing work in a postmodern idiom from writers around the world. It is one of the best magazines I know.  I have been a regular visitor ever since I found the site a few years ago.

I had suspected my 24 poem sequence Sin Cycle was always going to be hard to place, especially in the UK — and so it proved. Luckily for me Gregory was happy to risk giving a platform to the unreliable, raw and disreputable voice of this sequence.

The eight line poems in this sequence emerged naturally and quickly, and I was lucky enough that three poets I greatly respect, Robin Houghton, Charlotte Gann and Sarah Barnsley read these poems as they started to take shape.  I took a good deal of advice and I should thank them again here for their brains, friendship and support.

William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience lurked in the back of my mind when I was writing Sin Cycle, and the sequence starts with a four line quote from Infant Sorrow.

I was struck by the realisation that I had spent much of my writing life subconsciously wanting to be seen as nice. On some level I realised I had always wanted people to think how clever, or sensitive or aesthetically evolved I was. In these poems I abandoned any idea of smelling of roses or of people thinking well of me. I found it very liberating.

Sin Cycle

Sin Cycle in E·ratio

 

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