Design Poetry

A note on formats: Free Verse – The Poetry Book Fair

Popped into the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square on 6th September to meet Robin Houghton and have a mooch around the stands at this year’s Poetry Book Fair together. We found it heartening to chat to dozens of poetry publishers from around the UK, and see evidence of a thriving scene.

Poetry’s tendency to  experiment with good quality visual design, and unusual formats may actually help protect these small presses. When working as a copywriter in the days of junk mail, I spent countless afternoons with an art director partner, dreaming up different formats (aka ‘paper engineering’) for junk mail. Perhaps it is for that reason I often feel slightly short changed by pedestrian ‘me-too’ production.

It may be fortunate for such publishers that poetry doesn’t fare well in ebooks. On a kindle, the poem’s formatting is often wrong, introducing bogus line breaks or ruining the shape of the poem on the page. Seen on a bland screen, the value of these sweated-over words is diminished. Poetry publications in general, and especially publications that use interesting formats, have a tactile quality and shape on the page that enhances the reading experience. Being reminded of this at the fair reassured me that the future of the niche poetry publication scene is secure. More than that, many in the room seemed on a mission powered by a fierce love for what they were doing. Nobody can stop them.

Below I enjoyed speaking to Hugh Bryden, of Roncadora Press from Dumfries, and particularly liked the visual style of some of his productions, which he illustrates. I came away with one example, Five Days A Week/Twelve Months A Year, a limited edition pamphlet designed and illustrated by Hugh, with poems by Hugh McMillan.

17 Poems by Hugh McMillan, designed by Hugh Bryden.
17 Poems by Hugh McMillan, designed by Hugh Bryden.


Poetry Telltale Press The Nightwork

‘The Nightwork’ launch, and Poetry from Telltale Press & friends

A hectic time for Robin Houghton and myself is upcoming, as Telltale Press starts its inexorable rise to poetic world domination with three showcase readings. I launch my pamphlet The Nightwork and Robin will showcase her just-published, The Great Vowel Shift – and we will be joined by some amazing poets over the three shows.

The first two events are invitation-only. For your invite to the Lewes or Brighton and Hove event simply email or contact me through this site – and I’ll be sure you’re invited.

  •  Wednedsay 17th September, 7.30pm The Hive, 66 High Street Lewes BN7 1XG featuring Catherine Smith, Abegail Morley, Robin Houghton and Peter Kenny.
  • Wednesday 24th September 7.30pm Cameron Contemporary Art, 1 Victoria Grove, Second Avenue, Hove BN3 2LJ featuring Catherine Smith, John McCullough, Robin Houghton and Peter Kenny.

As well as it being the first launch of The Nightwork it is also an opportunity to meet Telltale’s resident cover artist Hannah Clare there will also be drinks, nibbles and music.

The final reading is in London’s Covent Garden.

  • Wednesday 1st October 2014, 7.30pm The Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton St, London WC2 9BX all are welcome to this reading which also features Rishi Dastidar and Anja Konig – as well as Robin and I. See below.

Telltale invite

Poetry The Nightwork

The Nightwork

Satisfaction, vulnerability and a strange sense of shedding an old skin. It’s not every day you see your name on a new cover.

I collected a box of author’s copies of The Nightwork this weekend. Thumbing through the pages looking at the poems it contained, each one arising from (though not necessarily about) a particular episode of my life.  It’s a curious feeling to see these strings of words turned into a physical object.  I look at the pamphlet like a lizard examining its discarded papery skin. A curiously good feeling.

One of the really happy things about the collection is that I asked Rhona McAdam, whose poetry I have been reading for decades, to write a blurb for me. She did me proud. “In The Nightwork, Peter Kenny revisits the traditional hunting grounds of poetry – art, myth philosophy, history – and returns with fresh poetic plunder. His material ranges from the personal to the fanciful as he deftly lures us into an original poetic world with rich and supple language. An overdue collection from this fine poet.”

I called the collection The Nightwork, for the non-amazing reason that lots of the poems have a nocturnal flavour and were written at night. But also because some its recurring emotions – guilt, sadness, powerlessness and suppressed anger – seem to be the kind of things that plague you waking up in the middle of the night.

I am delighted with the way this wee collection turned out. With its cool cover from Hannah Clare, The Nightwork will be launched at readings alongside Robin Houghton, and her excellent The Great Vowel Shift in Lewes, Brighton and London soon. More details here when these dates are finalised.


Poetry The Nightwork

The Nightwork cover illustration

Just received the cover illustration by Hannah Clare for my forthcoming Telltale Press pamphlet The Nightwork. And I am really pleased with it. It is deceptively simple, but the more I look at the more I notice in it.

I wish I’d actually finished neurotically finalising the selection of the poems inside it. Luckily my old friend, the excellent Canadian poet Rhona McAdam has agreed to offer me some adult supervision.

I’m calling it The Nightwork for two simple reasons. The poems I’ve earmarked are quite dark and dreamlike and — even more prosaically — most of the poems in it were written at night. Bird imagery often crops up in my poems, which Hannah has nicely reflected too.


The Nightwork


Left unsaid, negative space and Robin Houghton

My art teacher called the space around the object being painted its countershape. This is a term that seems to have fallen out of favour, but the countershape or negative space around an object can be as beautiful as the object itself, as in the sinuous darkness around the bodies or flowers in a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph.

Having spent some time in Japan lately, it is easy to see how the use of space and emptiness is ingrained in the Japanese aesthetic. Often objects within a composition are there to draw attention to emptiness. Even this randomly chosen picture from The Korin Album, 1802 by Nakamura Hôchû displays an attunement to negative space. Buddhism invites people to experience emptiness as something welcome and comforting.

Things are a little different in the West. But I am drawn to writers who imply without explicitly saying. It’s as if they are pointing to the emptiness, and showing just how populated it really is.

Leaving room for the reader’s imagination to infer meaning, and allows writing to contain something of the consciousness of the reader. It also opens the door to ambiguity. Sometimes this is done with silence. When in Shakespeare’s Othello, the Machiavellian villain Iago is finally confronted he says Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word. This infuriating silence has given us a legacy of centuries of wondering about Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’ as Coleridge called it. If Iago had explained why he hated Othello and destroyed his life, he would be a little less memorable and perplexing.

I recently met an excellent poet called Robin Houghton. Her new pamphlet, The Great Vowel Shift frequently manages to imply a great deal in many of her poems without concretely expressing it. This is best exemplified in her poem Ellipsis which talks about playing scrabble with a woman whose memory is failing. The poem is about the gaps where everything important is deftly implied.

I lay a blank tile    tell her it’s a D    five minutes
noises in the corridor    she asks about tea

I say    that nice young man from the kitchen
will be here soon    let’s listen out

she asks   is it my go    asks   about the blank
I tell her it’s a D   her face   a perfect dot-dot-dot

While in The Last she writes about something that ‘My mother wouldn’t explain’. I just love the simple and yet completely successful way this poem addresses a change in a woman’s life without ever being explicit about what in childhood was unmentionable. Just lovely. Find Robin’s excellent blog here.

The Last

They’ve been coming since posters were invented:
sometimes in dreams, to the tipping of cowboy hats

or dressed in Liverpool shirts. Each one appeared
in my diary, in code. My mother wouldn’t explain,

I couldn’t ask. And still they would come, insistent.
They left my body as they found it: I never wanted

them to stay, or change things. It’s been a while since
I wrote a diary. I don’t know how many there were,

I wasn’t counting. Too busy getting on with
the business of getting on. For the last, though,

I would have thrown a party, marked the occasion
in some way, worn something red, if I had known.

               Poem (C) Robin Houghton 2014.


A poem finds its way

A poem is a little packet of words that makes its own way in the world and has its own story. Several years ago I was contacted by someone editing an anthology of poetry about Auschwitz, to be published in Poland, asking to include my poem Heidegger in the Forest.  The poem had been published in an obscure magazine in the nineties so I was extremely pleased and flattered to be asked. Several years elapsed with a couple of notes in between until I googled out that the collection had been published without my poem.

Learning this was slightly ironic because the poem is about conversations that do not happen. I also felt a bit of a chump as I had lost no opportunity to extensively brag and poppinjay around about this coup.

Fast forward to 2013, and on the back of having my poem randomly read out by the Bishop of Southampton on Liberation Day in Guernsey (see previous notebook entry) I made a new friend in Helen Moser, who translated Root and Branch for me. In talking about German culture I mentioned to Helen that I liked the philosopher Heidegger and by one of many coincidences it turns out that Helen lives close to the Heidegger Archive, which is next year celebrating 125 years of the great philosopher’s birth.

When I sent Helen Heidegger in the Forest, she showed it to the Director of the Archive, Dr Denker (which Helen tells me is a good joke in German as Denker means Thinker). Helen has now made a translation, and Dr Denker is intending to use it during the 125 year anniversary next year. So Heidegger in the Forest might find a happy home after all these years.

The conversation that should have happened was that between the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the poet Paul Celan when Celan came in search of Heidegger after the war. Heidegger is the modern philosopher I find most interesting, despite the fact that during the Nazi regime he became a party member and apparently a shameful denouncer of Jewish colleagues. Paul Celan, meanwhile, is one of my favourite poets, and a towering figure in 20th Century literature, with spare and woundingly wonderful poems about the emotional aftermath of the Holocaust.

Here is Helen’s translation, followed by my poem in English. I love seeing something I have written in another language, especially as German is the language Paul Celan wrote in. Seeing my poem about not speaking making it into another language is strangely satisfying.

Heidegger im Walde

Immer dieselben Fragen. Der Wald –
jenes erstaunliche Phänomen –
ist dabei, sich ins Gedächtnis zu rufen.
Doch warum sind die gelben Blüten des Schollkrauts
wie Sterne in die Hecken hineingeflochten?
Warum gibt es Frühling und keinen Frühling?

Und hier, stets allgegenwärtig,
ist jener Judendichter, der mich kennt;
der kam, um sich in mein Gästebuch einzutragen
mit der schwarzen Tinte des Unausgesprochenen;
der meine schamanische Sprache wie ein Symbol trägt,
festgenäht, dicht an seinem Stern.

Ich denke in einer Lichtung darüber nach:
Seine Familie war Futter für die Flammen,
doch das Feuer, das in seiner Trauer wohnt,
kann meinen zugefrorenen Mund nicht tauen.
Er hat meine einsame Spur verfolgt,
und ich? Ich besuchte einst seine Lesungen.

Dieses geistige Bild quält mich:
Der Dichter und seine auferstandene Mutter.
Ich sehe das Haar seiner Mutter, er küsst es,
er lässt es durch seine Finger fließen
als wären es Strähnen seines Volkes,
noch ungeschoren vom Haupt des Seins.

Warum gibt es Auschwitz und kein Auschwitz?
Gedanken wie Schlafende, die sich auf den Pritschen bewegen;
immer dieselben Fragen…

Was ist das – die Philosophie?
Was ist das – es gibt?

Deutsche Übersetzung: Helen R. Moser, 2013

Heidegger in the forest

Always the same questions. The forest –
that astonishing phenomenon –
is about to remember itself.
But why are these yellow celandine
woven into the hedgerows like stars?
why is there spring and not spring?

And here there is always this presence,
of that Juden poet who knows me;
who came to sign my visitors’ book
with the black ink of the unmentioned;
who bears my shamanic language
like a token sewn close to his star.

I consider this fact in a clearing:
his family were fed to the flames
but the fire that dwells in his sorrow
cannot unblock my frozen mouth.
He has dogged my solitary tracks,
and I? I went once to his readings.

This mental picture torments me:
the poet and his risen mother.
I see his mother’s hair, he kisses it
he lets it stream through his fingers
like it was the strands of his people
still unshorn from the head of Being.

Why is there Auschwitz and not Auschwitz?
thoughts like sleepers shifting on the shelves;
always the same questions…

Was ist das – die Philosophie?
Was ist das – es gibt?

a writer's life Autobiographical Genius Poetry

How I stopped being a genius

Let me tell you that until the age of 29 I was a tortured genius.To help other people understand this, I lived in a squalid bedsit. I was also permanently unhealthy in that way typical of geniuses, and I spent my nights barking my tortured, misunderstood poetry into the smoky fug of doggerel-filled rooms.

Don’t let anyone tell you that being a tortured genius is easy. It’s not. It demands things of you, such as drinking lots, drug taking, and unsatisfactory relationships. It also creates a persistent idea that the world owes you a living because you are far too absorbed in your lofty contemplations to think about filthy lucre.

Of course I worried about money, but being permanently broke contributed to a vortex of hypochondria and depression. This led me to create more tortured poetry, which only confirmed my conclusion that I was a genius. Another thing about being a genius is that you end up talking about yourself incessantly. For a few months I had the good fortune to be the lodger of Dr Janet Summerton, who has remained a firm friend. I was talking to her about genius (over a glass of wine and a pate-smeared water biscuit) hoping that she would join the dots and reach the inevitable conclusion that I was one too.

Imagine my surprise when she asserted that there was no such thing as a genius. For how could this be? Did I not refute her assertion just by sitting there, drinking her wine and worrying about my pulse rate?

Janet told me that genius is a fairly modern notion. For me this was an eye-opener. I thought that geniuses had always existed. Surely, for example, when Shakespeare sprang up in the morning with the glorious filthy tang of London drains in his nostrils (and worrying if London was getting a bit too plague-ridden to stay) he was certain of his genius? Well… No actually. He wouldn’t have thought any such animal existed.

Janet pointed me towards Keywords by Raymond Williams. This told me that Genius entered English in the C14 from the Latin.  It meant a guardian spirit. It was then extended to mean ‘a characteristic disposition or quality’.  Only towards the end of the eighteenth century did it acquire its modern meaning of ‘an extraordinary ability’.

If you allow the idea that genius is an invention, then it follows that we do not live in a world populated by a race of demigods possessed by an otherworldly ability to which ordinary mortals cannot aspire. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no denying the fact that some people have extraordinary gifts, but to simply suggest that this is the result of divine inspiration, or being the winner of a genetic lottery, ignores the hard work that went into their achievements.

Secondly on a personal level, once you start to view genius as a social construct, you wonder why you or anyone else feels they need to conform to the ridiculous stereotypical behaviours associated with the idea of genius. For the troublesome idea that gifted people should behave in certain self-harming ways has claimed many lives. In poetry I think of Dylan Thomas who drank himself to death. And for what? He wrote most of his best work when he was young. It’s only when he started to be the very image of the Romantic tortured genius did he and the plot part company.

Of course there are numerous counter examples in poetry. T.S. Eliot working at the bank instantly comes to mind. Maybe not as exciting or “poetical” a life as Byron, who fought and womanised his way around Europe – but this doesn’t make Eliot’s poetry any less authentic than Byron’s.

I like this double-edged Oscar Wilde quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray, spoken by the character Lord Henry Wotton:

“A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realise.”

Pop music has a roll of honour of self-harming caricatures of genius – contributing to the dozens of suicides, overdoses and the rest. I never understood why self-destructive behaviour somehow equals authenticity. That these people are so overwhelmingly possessed by the spirit of their art that they are driven to do mad things seems absurd.

As onlookers, why exactly do we need to feed vicariously on the excesses of stars? To watch Amy Winehouse descend into a tragically early grave? Why does a sense of onrushing doom, lend authenticity?

Anyway thanks to my friend Janet I stopped being a genius. Gradually I moved out of the bedsit, and came to a series (of then) painful compromises that allowed me to take full time work and earn some cash.

After all Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Mozart all managed to keep the wolf from the door.

Not that they were geniuses mind you.

Criticism Poetry

Coleridge and Dejection

Re-reading T.S.Eliot’s the Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, specifically his essay about Wordsworth and Coleridge. Here Eliot makes a memorable assessment of Coleridge.

…for a few years he (Coleridge) had been visited by the Muse (I know of no poet to whom this hackneyed metaphor is better applicable) and thenceforth was a haunted man; for anyone who has ever been visited by the Muse is thenceforth haunted.

Although Eliot distances himself from the idea of a Muse, by calling it a hackneyed metaphor, it’s easy to understand intuitively what he means. Having a more pedestrian approach, I think it more likely that he was not abandoned by a Muse, but instead possessed by exhaustion and the burnout caused by drug addiction, persistent poverty and illness.

Eliot says Dejection: an Ode is “one piece of his formal verse which in its passionate self-revelation rises almost to the level of great poetry.” This is slightly damning it with faint praise. But as I’d not read for many years, I discovered it to be heartbreakingly lovely in parts.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.

It is the ‘not my own’ which is the pin in the balloon here. I am also drawn to a passage about the wind, which shows another glimpse of Coleridge’s trademark opiatically Gothic imagination. This is a hellish vision that would not be out of place in Dante. The poem is dated 4th April 1802 but this is a nightmare Spring in which hope is absent.

Hence Viper thoughts, that could around my mind
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without

Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Make’st Devil’s yule, with worse than wintry song…

‘Tis of the rushing of a host in rout,
With groans, of trampled men with smarting wounds-
At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!
But hush! There is a pause of deepest silence!
And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd,
With groans and tremulous shudderings–all is over–

The poem ends with him picturing the woman he loves, and wishing gentle sleep on her, after a vision of a lost girl “Upon a lonesome wild”. All rather traumatic stuff, written long after the Muse was supposed to have packed its bags.


Festival Finnish: a Night of International Poetry

Brighton basking in the sun, and this evening The Quadrant pub had almost 40 people packed into what quickly became quite an airless and sweaty room.

Luckily into this were poured the images of a cooler climate. This bilingual event gave you the opportunity to hear again just how alien Finnish sounds to English speaking ears, coming as it does from a distinctly different branch of the linguistic tree.

Merja Virolainen was the first up, and I particularly liked her first poem spoken in the voice of a girl hanging upside down in a tree, and all the reversals that followed from that until she drops out of the tree to end it. A simple concept beautifully rendered.

Then Jouni Inkala, who was clearly deft, witty and ironic, and although some of his humour got lost in translation enough sustained for his work to be very enjoyable. And finally Johanna Venho one of whose poems, about skiing across country in the approved Finnish manner, was expansive and brought a hot and frosty grandeur to proceedings.

The poets were introduced by Maria Jastrrzebska and John O’Donoghue, who also provided translations. And there were some fresh and well sung songs by Katarina Holmberg and friends, including one in Finnish, to top and tail the readings.

This was a quirky but very worthwhile night out in Brighton, supported and promoted by The South.