Poetry Reading Readings

Two short reviews: Tamar Yoseloff and Clare Best

A look at two recent publications. A Formula for Night, New and Selected Poems by Tamar Yoseloff, and Cell by Clare Best with art by Michaela Ridgway.

Tamar Yoseloff at the launch of A Formula for Night

New and Selected Poems: A formula for Night by Tamar Yoseloff from Seren Books. A New and Selected is a point of significance in a poet’s career, and shows someone unafraid to challenge herself conceptually and in her choice of form. There are distinct phases in work,  persistent engagement with visual art is a theme too such as in the poems from Formerly based around the decaying facades of London’s built environment, in a partnership with photographer Vici McDonald. It’s a simple concept but beautifully executed, allowing peeling incomplete words to leak into the work.

The longer poem ‘Fetch’ is one of my favourites here. The poet includes a definition of a Fetch as an apparition or double. The poem starts “I send her out/into the cold dark night.” Having written about doubles myself, I was struck by how freshly and successfully Tammy approaches the idea. We see the world through a woman who may or may not be the poet, and we are remotely piloted through her investigations with a sense of mystery derived from the blurring of identity.

The collection is so varied, I have tuned into some bits faster than others. A few lines from a earlier poem ‘Moths’ have stayed with me because I’m so effortlessly drawn into them, and I find they are emblematic of her restless poetic development. Our protagonists are leaving a US diner:

“We pay, go back into the night. The car picks up
its tune of old motor and stuck gears where it left off,
the radio zeroes in on a voice, a snatch of a song,
clear for a moment then gone. The darkness is complete,
except for the moths, illuminated as they are caught
fluttering towards the headlights. In the morning
you will wipe their powdery remains
off the windscreen then drive away.”

Clare Best reading at the launch of Cell

Cell by Clare Best, illustrated by Michaela Ridgeway and published by The Frogmore Press.

This beautifully-realised group of poems is based on the true story of a girl of fourteen who took a vow of solitary devotion.

We are told she was “enclosed in a cell built onto the north wall of the chancel of St. James’ Church, Shere, Surrey. She spent more than one thousand days in the cell before asking to be freed.” This was in 1329, but Clare Best‘s theme of female constraint and aloneness is timeless and relevant.

I love this kind of tight brief a poet can give themselves. The tension between physical and spiritual animates the sequence. And the medieval horror of it all is not shrunk from, nor how the mortification of the flesh somehow stands for a spiritual purification:

“Loosen teeth – pull them
one by one
from shrunken gums.
Two rows on the window ledge.”


“…this scalp
alive with lice.
My body rots, a holy
wilderness. My night-bird spirit soars.”


Michaela Ridgeway’s intense charcoal drawings of female figures exude energy and constraint in equal measure, and so excellently complement these poems. It is a lovely project.

And as someone who has worked on a thousand junk mail formats as an agency copywriter, I always appreciate a bit of ‘paper engineering’ and this collection opens up and forms a cell of paper.

Poetry Reading

Struggling with John Ashbery and Jorie Graham

Robin Houghton‘s lovely blog has recently begun to document her mission to devour five poetry books a week. While I can’t match this, I think I might mention here some of the books I’ve been reading from time to time too. Especially when I’m on a learning curve. For example I’m not particularly drawn to American poetry but lately I have been trying to make amends by catching up on two major American poets who have, perhaps disgracefully, passed me by.

Your Name Here

Your Name Here by John Ashbery. My first few skirmishes with this book left me stone cold. Who cares if Your Name Here won a Pulitzer prize? I felt absolutely untouched by anything in it. But I thought I’d at least do it the justice of reading it again, cover to cover. So I read a dozen or so poems a night in bed. About the third night, something clicked in my head and there were one or two poems I began to find deft, funny, tangential and enigmatic. The poem that made me see the error of my ways is Variations on “La Folia”.

I’ll admit I had to look up La Folia to learn it was a tune first published in 1672 that appears in variations in the work of more than 150 different composers’s work. La Folia means madness too, and like several other poems in this collection the poem seems to be dwelling on old age. But suddenly, and without quite knowing why, its last lines began to speak to me.

We should all be so lucky as to get hit by a meteor
of an idea once in our lives. It would save a lot of hand-wringing
and bells tolling in the undersea cathedral,
a noise to drive one mad, past the brink of human decency.
Please don’t tell me it all adds up in the end.
I’m sick of that one.

So while I am still far from being a complete Ashbery advocate, he may be making me grow as a reader.

jorie graham never

Never by Jorie Graham. I bought this book, some time ago, and have picked it up several times only to find myself intensely irritated. I have learned, however, that poets or styles that annoy me on first encounter usually have the most to teach me.

There are things I positively don’t like in her work. There are accretions of abstract nouns and as a reader you are always looking for something to attach them to. And sometimes you have a sense that you are sitting over her shoulder and watching her waver over a word choices, and splintering options. Instead of choosing, she seems to write them all in. This is either fascinating or tiresome depending on your taste. And mood too. Sometimes I am simply not in the mood for Jorie Graham.

The upside of Graham’s technique is that you have a sense of text with strata, parenthetical fragments that glint up from shallower or deeper layers, and when matched with the right subject matter it can work brilliantly.  It provides a meditative dwelling on things, like watching waves, rooks pecking at an icy pond, looking at waves breaking on a shore, or in the first, and perhaps my favourite poem of the collection ‘Prayer’, which begins:

Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl
themselves, each a miniscule muscle, but also, without the
way to create current, making of their unison (turning, re-
entering and exiting their own unison in unison) making of themselves a
visual current, one that cannot freight or sway by
minutest fractions the water’s downdrafts and upswirls, the
dockside cycles of finally-arriving boat-wakes, there where
they hit a deeper resistance, water that seems to burst into
itself (it has those layers), a real current though mostly
invisible sending into the visible (minnows) arrowing
motion that forces change– 

With both Ashbury and Graham, persistence has paid off. Jorie Graham’s book has made me think about the process of writing and reading poetry far more than what I take to be her subject matter here: ecology, the impermanence of life and never being able to return to a specific moment.

Poetry Reading Telltale Press

Telltale poets with Tamar Yoseloff and Sue Rose

Robin Houghton, Peter Kenny, Sarah Barnsley, Tamar Yoseloff and Sue Rose

So another cheery Telltale night. First our special guests… Sue Rose, who I have had a bit of a poetic crush on after hearing her read from The Cost of Keys earlier this year was warm and fantastic. Tamar Yoseloff read from two books, both collaborations with artists. The excellent Formerly made with photographer Vici MacDonald, Her latest book Nowheres is a collaboration with artist David Harker whose fine exhibition Drawing the Line was, handily enough, running at the Poetry Cafe. David’s fine pencil drawings are gorgeous.

Carriageway by David Harker

Telltale’s newest recruit is Sarah Barnsley, who gave an excellently assured reading of excerpts from her pamphlet, The Fire Station, forthcoming this year. Sarah has a particular affinity for US modernist poetry, but there is something absolutely English about her robust and deft writing.

Having been lucky enough to hear Robin Houghton read lots lately, I have watched her transform into an exceptional reader. A sequence of poems about working in a male-dominated corporation was wonderful.  I am increasingly aware of  ‘fit subjects for poetry’ writing about subjects that are already somehow ‘poetic’. These poems of Robin’s drag poetry from corporate glass offices and where attractions, put-downs and the gamut of human emotions occur in the corporate canteen or the business hotel rather than against some picturesque sunset.

Laura Donnelly was over from New York, although from the mid-west, kindly read a couple of outstanding poems from her phone.

As for myself… I did some poems from memory, which I am finding increasingly freeing. But annoyingly I am making the same mistakes again. The last couple of readings I risked untried material before I’m convinced of its quality. I do this because I think the reading should have a little edge to it, but in fact what happens in reality is that while I’m reading it, I can feel my confidence seeping away. The next reading I do is going to be bullet proof.

Performance Poetry Reading

A quick humblebrag – reading tonight 18th June

A quick humblebrag… I’m on tonight at the Poetry Cafe at 7.00pm as a part of a Telltale Press and Friends reading, with new Telltale recruit Sarah Barnsley, plus the brilliant Tamar Yoseloff who I’ve not read with since the 90s, Sue Rose whose new book I love plus multiple award-winning Robin Houghton. The Poetry Cafe is here.

Please come along if you can.


Poetry Reading

Gripped by the octopus of obsession


Sometimes I wonder if other folks obsess on particular poems quite as much as I do. Ocean de Terre (Ocean of Earth) by Guillaume Apollinaire is one of these. For the last five years I have been unable to escape its tentacles.

It was Apollinaire who coined the term ‘surrealism’ and this poem has that disturbing dreamlike clarity in spades. Ocean of Earth obsesses me so much that it has also begun to influence my writing. Ocean of Earth, dedicated to artist G. de Chirico, begins:

I built a house in the middle of the ocean
Its windows are  rivers which flow out of my eyes
Octopus stir all around its walls
Listen to the triple beat of their hearts and their beaks
which tap on the window panes

This opening alone blows my mind. The precision of the ‘triple beat of their hearts’ (reflecting the fact that octopuses have three hearts) and the fact that windows these creatures tap on is on a house in the middle of an ocean. For me this is a hauntingly original image of insecurity, and of being beset by… What exactly? Weirdness, anxiety, octopuses, non-human intelligence, creatures that can squeeze through tiny spaces and attach their suckers onto windows…?

The poem concludes:

The earthly octopus throb
And then we are closer and closer to being our own gravediggers
Pale octopus of the chalky waves O octopus with pale beaks
Around the house there is this ocean which you know
And which is never still.

Ocean of Earth is an example of a poem that forces me to visualise something I have never imagined before.  I love poetry that tantalises and resists definitive interpretation. There are several poems I return to with puzzlement on a regular basis because they have the most to teach me.

Poetry Reading Telltale Press

18th June Poetry Cafe

I’m really happy to be reading with Tamar Yoseloff, whose collaboration with artist David Harker, Nowheres has just been launched. Sue Rose‘s book The Cost of Keys is one I’ve come to admire, especially her poem A Guided Tour that I wrote about recently. Sarah Barnsley is Telltale’s newest recruit and her pamphlet The Fire Station is going to be a major event. Add Robin Houghton whose readings have become increasingly dramatic and assured and it’s going to be a cracker.


Poetry Reading

Poetry: reasons to be cheerful

An imaginary helicopter is a valuable possession. When I finally stop ignoring the helicopter in the room, I clamber in and rise vertically to peer down at life. (Google Earth has diminished the freshness of this metaphor for ever, of course, but you get what I mean). I did it this morning, and this is what I saw.

I find I’m grateful that I live in a country of poets. Right now there are people in their thousands sat at desks around these islands writing poems. Why? Because they want to be one of those poetry millionaires? *Guffaws* For celebrity? I don’t suppose even Carol Ann Duffy is molested by fans as she pops out for a jar of gherkins. No. Mostly people write poetry because they love it, and because quite a few people love reading it too. Just because it doesn’t seem to have the potential to generate much cash, poetry is the starveling of the arts. But that doesn’t mean that poetry should have an inferiority complex. Poetry has been, and continues to be, one of our greatest national treasures.

I’m grateful for all those people who in the face of indifference and pitiful funding, will willingly give up their time to run magazines and websites. These tiny cultural ecosystems are often incredibly fertile. In a few pages they provide a forum for more exciting, dangerous and beautiful ways of seeing the world than you’d get from a year of watching mainstream TV. So I’m grateful to all those people who do that because they love it, and people love what they do. Collectively they create an environment for poetry in this country.

Finally I’m grateful for the people I’ve met through poetry. This week I went to a Pighog and Red Hen reading at the Redroaster Cafe in Brighton excellently organised by Michaela Ridgeway. I found myself blown away by the work there, including from poets in the open mic spots. It’s even better when one of your mates is a featured performer and pulls off a blinder. Robin Houghton’s delivery was full of the compelling authority such strong work merits. While young Romanian animator and poet Andreea Stan fascinatingly wove stories in poems and film.

A sketch of Robin
Robin Houghton… Somewhere near you a poet is being amazing.

 For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives 

In the valley of its saying where executives 

would never want to tamper;

These oft-quoted lines from Auden’s poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats have been accused of a kind of defeatism (but then he was writing an elegy). Not only does this diminish the importance of W. B. Yeats in history, it overlooks the generations of persecuted poets in, say the former USSR, precisely because it was feared they could make something happen. While poets of the Négritude movement in 1930s Paris went on to change their societies. Léopold Sédar Senghor, became the first president of Senegal while Aimé Césaire was mayor of Fort de France in Martinique. (The poetry of both is extraordinarily good by the way and still little known in the UK.)

I believe poetry has made many things happen in my own life.  And more importantly I believe it can retain and grow its cultural significance. The beauty of poetry is that it can never be suppressed. It can sprout up like weeds from a bombsite. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful to be alive.

Poets of the world unite. Grab a notebook and a pencil. Now change the world.

Poetry Reading

Travelling Through and a kind of homecoming

Last week I found myself hearing Rhona McAdam and Tamar Yoseloff reading their work in the basement of a new bookshop and cultural hub behind Waterloo Station called Travelling Through. The event was so well attended that people sat on stairs to hear. Rhona and Tamar were joined by Sue Rose, whose work I thought excellent on this first hearing.

But personally the evening was all about seeing Rhona and Tamar. Lately I have had a strange sense of a homecoming and I’ve fallen in love with poetry, and its potential, all over again.  Happily this has led to me seeing several old friends again too.

I’d not seen and heard Tammy read for 20 years or more. Tonight she reading from a book called Formerly, a collaboration with photographer Vici MacDonald, and together they captured disappearing scraps of London in words and black and white images. Many of the sites photographed in the collection have been demolished since it was written. It is a gorgeous little book from Hercules Editions, and comes heartily recommended from me as Tamar’s work is playful, engaged, and full of energy, and Vici’s images are haunting. Great stuff. Buy the book from here.

Rhona was reading from her new book Ex-ville, and after she gave me a copy of Cartography which is the only one of Rhona’s six full collections I did not already own.

Although Rhona lived in London for over ten years, and is often moved to write about it from abroad, for me her work remains resolutely Canadian. There is a sense of space in her work that it is full of unobtrusive but difficult truths. Here is the end of one of her poem ‘I raise a glass’, addressing her unborn children:

They are one more never
in the chain of nevers
crumpling in my throat. I am the keeper
of their names, and their untold fortunes,
guardian of the wrongs I will never do them.

Rhona’s style is not showy, but I have found the quiet dignity of her voice to be compelling ever since I first read her work in 1988. In that well-worn phrase, she has her own voice, and it rings true.

Tamar Yoseloff Sue Rose & Rhona McAdam
Tamar Yoseloff, Sue Rose and Rhona McAdam
Rhona McAdam
Rhona McAdam
Poetry Reading

Reading in the Poetry Cafe, Weds 7th Jan 2015

Please come to this reading if you find yourself in spitting distance of central London. For, with no trace at all of post-festive wear, Telltale press and friends will burst from the blocks on Wednesday 7th January, at 7.00pm at the Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton Street,  WC2H 9BX.

Rhona McAdam, one of the outstanding Canadian poets of her generation is launching Ex-Ville her spanking new collection. Meanwhile Catherine Smith is fresh from the triumphant launch of The New Cockaigne, published by Frogmore Press (a journey into a place of compulsory debauchery, where rivers flow with beer). Add to the evening, an exciting new talent: Siegfried Baber journeying from Bath to showcase fresh work, plus Telltale’s own Robin Houghton (who quietly bagged winning spot in The Stanza Poetry Competition a few weeks ago) as well as me too.

I usually think of January as the ghastly great Monday of the year. But this reading is making me feel weirdly positive.

London 7Jan

Autobiographies Reading

What I read in 2014: autobiography and other

Here are some more books I read in 2014.


  1. 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Cathy N Davidson.  My first book of the year, started on the plane back from Japan after a family holiday. Cathy N Davidson is an American Academic, and here describes three long stays in Japan and the cultural differences she found there. A sensitively written, thoughtful account. Well worth looking at even if you have no intention of visiting Japan.
  2. On Writing, Stephen King Now this is the kind of how to write book I like. Such advice as there is, is  derived from his personal experience as a successful writer, and is presented in an autobiographical context. The book ends with a lengthy account of returning to work after an appalling road accident that left him for dead by the side of the road. Well worth reading.
  3. Rock Stars Ate My Life, Mark Ellen. I once met Ellen in a Chiswick swimming pool and chatted to him for five minutes. As genuinely nice then as he seemed on the telly. This book is a amiable recollection of how the love of music filled his life with characters and adventures. Ellen is engagingly self-depreciating, and quietly nostalgic for a lost age of rock music. A happy read.
  4. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou. I found this lived up to its reputation. Maya Angelou is unsentimental in her reminiscence. I find her account of her episode of silence after she was raped as child to be heartbreaking, and the depiction of her childhood in the country seems to me to be describing something from the 19th Century.
  5. Night, Elie Wiesel. Holocaust literature is always going to be gruelling. ‘Night’ is a  chilling account of the author’s deportation, the loss of his family and experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald with his father in the last years of the second world war. This, alongside Primo Levi’s work should be required reading throughout Europe, especially for nationalists of all hues.
  6. Experience, Martin Amis. A memoir of disparate strands. A murdered cousin, thoughts on writing, a history of his bad teeth, his relationship with his father Kingsley. To me this was a highly satisfying read, though I can’t quite say why. Martin Amis is one of those writers whose work plays on my mind afterwards.
  7. A death in the family, Karl Ove Knausgaard. This book is fascinating. It is ostensibly a novel, but is written so autobiographically with banal or hyperreal detail,  featuring the writer and his actual family that for me it transcends genre. My brother told me to read this. He said it was like inhabiting someone-else’s life. He was right. One of the few literary name-checks in it is for Proust, and I can see why.


  1. The Big Book of Hell a cartoon book, Matt Groening. I’m a sucker for cartoons. And I love these drawn by the man who came up with The Simpsons and Futurama. Great stuff, and with a bleak pessimism that makes it all the funnier.
  2. Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges. A book of short stories, but annoyingly as everyone said about it, these are stories that stick with you. So for example when watching the Interstellar movie, I almost yelped, “Borges! Infinite library!” These stories are so influential on contemporary fiction, that it seemed rude not to have read them before. Marvellous stuff. One of my books of the year.
  3. The World of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. As someone who did a degree, back in the days of quill pens, in Philosophy and Literature, I like to read a bit of philosophy every now and then, and prefer a bit of what used to be called Continental Philosophy to its Anglo-American counterpart. I particularly like it when a philosopher is forced to be clear and succinct and resort to natural language. Merleau-Ponty’s book was based on a series of radio talks given on French radio. An accessible glimpse into a great philosophical mind.

I also wrote about these two last books in this post.

Next post, Poetry.