I lead a double life. Identity #1. A writer of poems, comedy plays, dark fiction and the odd libretto. Identity #2: A marketing outlier, working with London creative agencies and my own clients as a copywriter and creative consultant.
My stealthy and malevolent progress in horror continues. Chuffed to have my weird tale The Grieving in Supernatural Tales — edited by David Longhorn. Suitably gruesome cover art by Sam Dawson and crammed with excellent tales — from Kathy Hubbard, Sam Dawson, Jane Jakeman, Michael Chislett, Tim Jeffreys and Jon Barron.
My own story is about an art piece that sends the viewer mad with grief. Cheery eh? You can buy a copy from the supernatural tales site (link above) or download a copy here.
I don’t know exactly where I first heard the term ‘Doctor Spotlight’ to describe the way that being in the spotlight can momentarily conceal, for example, the terrible hangover or malaise you might be experiencing.
In the early nineties I was knocked off my bicycle one morning cycling down Chiswick High Road, and sustained quite a nasty injury to my hand. I stood in shock and dripping blood. I wandered over to a policeman who said, ‘you’ll live’. He was right.
After being stitched up in Charing Cross Hospital, I made off to my evening engagement. I was doing a poetry reading at the Commonwealth Institute in support of a mental health charity. The star was Spike Milligan who had generously asked for some local poets to be involved in the reading. Of these was a young Mario Petrucci (who second to the great Spike rather stole the show), Rosemary Norman, and I was one of two or three other poets Rosemary had called on.
I arrived early, and made straight for the bar to add booze to the shock, adrenaline and anaesthetic cocktail I was running on. The show opened with Rosemary, Mario and the other poets reading before Spike Milligan. He asked not to be last, so someone was needed someone to finish off. Weirdly, this was me. Sat behind the curtain, in the order of reading, I wound up next to Spike for a couple of hours. He was lovely, but distracted and clearly did not want to talk much.
As the audience, in the hundreds, filed in the PA began playing an interview the great comedian had given the BBC about his depression. After five minutes of this, he leant over to me and asked who it was speaking. I said. ‘it’s you Spike,’ which seemed to surprise him.
Every now and then he tried to escape. He sprang up and wandered distractedly into Kensington High Road, followed by a panicking stage manager, who would shepherd him back.
As the evening wore on, I was left with Spike alone. I thought he was too distracted and ill to even walk to centre stage, and absolutely not able to perform. Perhaps it was just nerves, I thought, but I was seriously worried about him. But as his name was introduced, he got up, straightened out and strode onstage. Suddenly he was the wonderful entertainer and comedy genius the audience had come to see. He delivered a dazzling performance. For me watching that instantaneous transformation was unforgettable.
Anyhow… This is a roundabout way of saying I have a short story on the Horla website, called Doctor Spotlight, which draws on my experience of seeing the magic the spotlight can do. Hope you like it!
I really have to thank again here, the wonderful short fiction writer Matthew G. Rees, who edits Horla, but also was responsible for kick starting my return to writing short stories.
Recently my conceptual copywriter alter ego has been roughly shaken awake and made to get on with some work for a change. After a year of freelancer’s famine, I have been scrambling to manage a weird glut of work over the last couple of months.
Not having to commute allows me the odd stolen hour to tinker with my own writing, and I notice that something has changed.
For the last year I have had what I think of as my ‘pandemic anxieties’ going off like a smoke alarm in another room while I wrote. It made concentrating very hard.
I now realise there were two alarms. The other one was ‘money anxieties’. To a certain extent, now that a few doubloons have disturbed my dusty coffers and most of my loved ones (in the UK at least) have been jabbed, the alarms are more muffled, and my ability to concentrate has noticeably improved.
I am even working on my own poems again. Doing the Planet Poetry podcast with Robin has required me to hear amazing work from poets, some of whom were new to me. It has done me the world of good to be in ‘fan’ mode, and just listen and read. The result is that some of my ossified attitudes have received a much needed rattling. I have steadily collected ah-ha! moments as Robin and I have chatted with Pascale Petit, Clare Shaw, Tess Jolly, Charlotte Gann, Jack Underwood, Mario Petrucci, Katrina Porteous, Sarah Salway, Mary Jean Chan, Rhona McAdam, Inua Ellams and Kathryn Maris in our first eleven episodes.
Although a firm believer in a poem being able to stand on its own feet (ah-hem) I am also a reader who loves to understand the context the work sprang from. Who better to learn this from than the work’s originator? One thing that has emerged from this is how hearing the tone in which a writer talks about their work reveals flashes of deep emotion, sincerity and thought. If the conversation were transcribed, much of this colour and insight would be lost.
For me the boon of encountering such accomplished writers has highlighted two all-too-familiar questions. What makes a collection? And how interesting is the story you can tell about your collection?
I don’t know if you are like me, but one of the most tiresome things in life is having to relearn the same lessons time and again. Over ten years ago, I launched A Guernsey Double with my pal Richard Fleming. We had a story to tell: the book was about the island of Guernsey seen from two perspectives. The book was, therefore, in two halves, my half was called The Boy Who Fell Upwards and was a collection of poems about a childhood and exile. While Richard’s side, The Man Who Landed, was about coming to the island to settle and shelter, having experienced The Troubles in Northern Ireland. We had a coherent story, so when we were chatting on local radio and reading at the launch, we knew what we were about. Having a two person collection was also a novelty. So lesson learned, right? Of course not. D’oh!
So relearning all this means I have cast an icy eye on the manuscript I was working on. Now I have a completely new title and focus. Also I need to get a blinking move on because, as we have all been forcibly reminded lately, life can be short. The MS needs some more poems to fill in the gaps but I feel that I have clarified my own poetic mission and that is, in itself, a big win after a year of near stasis.
Finally, as a devotee of the US comedy Frasier, I was delighted to hear it is returning. I have been a fan since it was first broadcast in the 90s, I have always harboured a secret desire to be a radio host. While our wee podcast is not quite the same thing, it certainly feels like I am living the dream sometimes and I couldn’t have done that without Robin Houghton. So here’s to your mates, and learning stuff from other people. Cheers!
So here is your humble blogger as a young hepcat. My parents were in their teens when I was born in October ’59. My father, last glimpsed by me when I was five, worked for a while as a policeman. My mother had served coffee at Ronnie Scott’s club in its earliest days and was friendly with Stan Tracey whose tune Starless and Bible Black is awesome. When my mother remarried, my stepfather was also a jazz fan, and jazz has continued to be part of the soundtrack of my life.
I am writing about memory at the moment. My own memories date back to being very young indeed. Memory is of course unreliable — especially when you are imaginative by nature. However, because I was moved from place to place, I can remember being in several houses and situations that date back to toddlerhood. I have no recollection of the scene above however (which is what makes it attractive to me) although I vaguely recollect the Police flats in Finchley where we lived, especially the bedroom I slept in. It was there I had a recurring nightmare of a man in a hat climbing into a wardrobe. That man in a hat has featured in at least one poem, as well as being a sinister figure in my play A Glass of Nothing.
Having Spotify and Google I was able to track down the LPs and EPs that are in this photo, and then make a playlist of the tunes on it. There are tunes by Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Hodges and Wardell Gray. I am listening to the playlist as I write. Very cool, and full of saxophones and sophistication. I am hoping a Proustian memory will be triggered by a trumpet run or tune, but so far there is nothing. The Miles Davis EP, however, features Milestones. To this day it is one of my favourite pieces of music in any genre.
I am enjoying the exploration of a soundtrack to my temps perdu. I am thinking of Keats now … ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter‘. Yeah man.
I want to heartily recommend Tess Jolly. Not only is she an amazing poet but she is also a fabulous proof reader. I asked Tess to proof a few of my short fictions which I am tentatively starting to assemble into a collection.
She found a fair amount to fix: including a regrettable promiscuity with commas and the odd toe-curling typo (including the classic patios when I meant patois) the odd tautology and so on. It was great to feel the MS was now more watertight.
Little bad habits, invisible to you as the perpetrator, being made suddenly visible was a little like having a writing masterclass. I fully intend to use Tess’ eagle eyes on my prose projects from now on. I can wholeheartedly recommend her.
Merry Christmas! With 2020 heading for the dustbin of history, I’m beginning to take stock of what has been — at the very least — a year of thwarted plans.
However, it has forced me to innovate a little. And one of the best innovations was starting the Planet Poetry podcast with Robin Houghton. The latest edition carries an interview with Jack Underwood, and discussions of books by John McCullough, Caleb Femi, Maureen N. McLane, and Ilya Kaminsky. We’ve breaking for Christmas, but we’ll kick off the year with a deep exploration of the work of Mario Petrucci. The Podcast gives Robin and I a chance to chat to poets about poetry. One of the best things about it is that it has turned me into a fan again.
I have been through times this year where I have experienced the kind of anxiety that makes it hard to settle down and focus on reading, or I found I was reading but not giving a text my full attention. So it was only the second time I sat down to read Charlotte Gann’s The Girl Who Cried, that its power really hit me. It is a book I find quietly magnificent, and has moved me to tears on more than one occasion. There is nothing that’s extraneous or doesn’t feel true in these poems, and they hit you in unexpected ways.
Charlotte has agreed to be interviewed for Planet Poetry soon, about her new book, and its predecessor Noir, which I looked at here. The Girl Who Cried is definitely one of my books of the year.
I also reread Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses, first published in the 80s. It is one of those mic drop books — so brilliant that if she never wrote another book ever again, it would be enough. It made me download Crazy Brave, her memoir as an audiobook. It is only about four and a half hours long, but it is a fascinating listen, and weaves mythology and dream into the story of her childhood.
Joy Harjo is also the main editor of a new Norton Anthology, called When the light of the world was subdued, our songs came through, which I have just started. It is an anthology of Native Nations poetry and is quietly blowing me away. This, from Joy Harjo’s introduction, was very sobering.
‘We are more than 573 federally recognized indigenous tribal nations in the mainland United States …. We speak more than 150 indigenous languages. As contact with European Invaders we were estimated at over 112 million. By 1650 we were fewer than six million. Today we are one-half of one percent of the total population of the United States. Imagine the African continent with one-half of one percent of indigenous Africans and you might understand the immensity of the American holocaust.’
This anthology represent a genuine cultural landmark for Native Nations people, and a testament to their survival against all the odds. For that reason alone it seems this anthology has enormous significance.
Robin and I have just uploaded the latest episode of Planet Poetry. This one dabbles in the Uncanny, and is an overlap in the Venn diagram of my interests, with my interests in dark fiction and black comedy.
Tess Jolly has cropped up severally in this blog. I have always been a fan of Tess’s work — for my first glance at her earlier pamphlets see here and here on this blog, and I am delighted she has been snapped up by the excellent Blue Diode for her new collection Breakfast at the Origami Cafe.
Krishan Coupland is that rare thing, an accomplished editor with a particular vision. I have subscribed to his magazine Neon, and it has marked out a distinct territory for itself both in poetry and prose… And it looks great too.
England is in its second day of its second national lockdown. The outcome of the US Presidential Election is on a knife edge, but I know readers of this blog will have lain awake at night wondering what on earth has Peter Kenny been doing?
Yesterday Robin Houghton and I — the Smashy and Nicey of poetry podcasting — released another episode of Panet Poetry into the wild. There’s a fascinating interview by Robin with Clare Shaw, who discusses and reads from her book Flood triggered by the flooding of her hometown in 2015. Robin gave me Flood recently, and I can heartily recommend it. In the podcast I also chat with Elizabeth Murtough the thoughtful and highly talented co-editor of Channel, Ireland’s Environmentalist Literary Magazine. You simply get the podcast wherever you normally get podcasts or go here.
Robin and I have only met twice in person since Covid struck and we decided to launch the podcast in the first lockdown. A couple of days ago, we met up in Lewes, and ended up having a solitary drink in an empty open air terrace on top of a pub in Lewes called The Rights of Man, doing a bit of recording, drinking a couple of drinks, and eating crisps with freezing hands as the November sun sank and imaginary penguins, arctic foxes, polar bears etc. stirred in the shadows. We were outside and there was only one other person there, who left pronto when we started muttering about poetry. Lewes’s famous Guy Fawkes bonfires and fireworks had to be cancelled this year. For enthusiasts of explosions, 2020 was a damp squib.
That said, I am thoroughly enjoying Zoom poetry events, such as the launch of Tess Jolly’s Breakfast at the Origami Cafefrom Blue Diode Press. Regular visitors know I’ve admired Tess’s poetry for a long time, and I am really pleased for her. (I have interviewed her for a forthcoming Podcast too). Tess read with Charlotte Gann, another of my personal favourites, who read from her new collection, The Girl Who Cried which is a tour de force — another launch I attended online this year. Also reading was Karen Smith, whose reading made me want to investigate more. Rob MacKenzie from Blue Diode, based in Leith, hosted — and is clearly an excellent and supportive Editor. I got to hang out with some friends in the zoom audience afterwards and talk a little to Ann Perrin who I only encounter in cyberspace.
As for my own poetry, apart from a stonking January 1st, when I had my 24 poem sequence published online at e.ratio in the USA. I have not written or published much this year. I had a small poem The Door in The Wall, which in part refers to the story of the same name by H.G. Wells, in London Grip, and I am very grateful to its poetry editor Michael Bartholomew-Biggs. I began scribbling again last month however, so maybe not all is lost.
As for my horrific side, a couple of days ago I was chuffed to learn that I have one of my new short stories, The Grieving, accepted by Supernatural Tales. As Skelton Yawngrave I also have been writing a sequel to my children’s bookMagnificent Grace, but although I have made some progress, I find my elevated anxiety levels, always pretty high at the best of times, makes the prospect of holding a larger project in my head quite challenging. I had been going into schools before the first lockdown doing readings and selling books by the boxload, to try to get momentum going for this self-published experiment. But sadly Covid stubbed that toe too.
All the best to everyone reading this. Stay safe and keep smiling!
What’s that? The sound of virtual corks? Wish us luck as Robin Houghton and I launch our podcast on an unsuspecting planet.
To be honest, it feels a bit like standing on a diving board, and gazing into the cold deep water with trepidation. But here we go! The first episode of Planet Poetry is now live, and available wherever you get your podcasts.
In our first episode we were absolutely delighted to meet multi-award winning poet Pascale Petit and explore the lush Edens of her poetry. Hear Pascale talk frankly about the troubling shadows cast by her mother and father on her life and work. Enjoy her readings from several collections, including the recently published Tiger Girl, which describes the sanctuary offered by her relationship with her Indian grandmother.