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Poetry Readings

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.

Categories
Fiction Horror Performance Readings

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….

Categories
Children's fiction Education Prose Readings Skelton Yawngrave

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.

Categories
Book Launch Poetry Readings

An Outbreak of Peace

An Outbreak of Peace, Stories and Poems in Response to the End of WWI

Edited by Cherry Potts of Arachne Press, this great new anthology coincides with the centenary of the 1918 Armistice.

The Launch Party, will be held: 7.00 pm, Wednesday 14th November 2018 — at Housmans, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX. If you’d like to come, simply email  cherry@arachnepress.com. Find out more about the anthology, its contributors and the readings here.

Personally, I’m looking forward to hearing the readings, drinking some wine, and also reading my poem War diary in 1/72 scale, which is about how the legacy of male hostility is passed down the generations… And Airfix kits.

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Categories
Poetry Readings Telltale Press

Telltale Press finishes on a high

Robin Houghton and Sarah Barnsley and I co-edited TRUTHS: A Telltale Press Anthology,  and we had our big launch. All kinds of marvellous poets who were in the anthology came and read. Sarah, Robin and I introduced the night and also read. Our guests were amazing.

It was emotional, as we are wrapping up Telltale and wanted to do it in a celebratory way and on a high. Telltale now has lots of friends, and I have met some amazing people through it since Robin first approached me with the idea in 2014. I feel I’ve learned how to ‘be’ a poet again from my friends in Telltale, Robin, Sarah, Siegfried and Jess — and Catherine Smith our associate editor. We’ll all do stuff together at some point again, but the experience has been enriching in all kinds of ways.

Below is a photo my wife Lorraine took of the chaotic poet posse in Lewes on 25th April. Deep breath… l to R Louise Tondeur, Jeremy Page, Clare Best, Catherine Smith, me at the back, Sarah Barnsley (kneeling) Jess Mookherjee, Mike Bartholomew-Biggs, Abigail Parry (kneeling), Janet Sutherland, Abegail Morley (with Charlotte Gann hidden behind her d’oh), Stephen Bone, Marion Tracy, John McCullough, Robin Houghton, Judy Brown.

A night to remember.

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Categories
Poetry Reading Readings

Poetry omnivore

For me, it’s all been about poetry so far this year. Sarah Barnsley, Robin Houghton and I have been putting together an anthology from Telltale, about which there will be more news shortly. Meanwhile I’ve been editing my own 24-poem, pamphlet-length collection, and have been lucky enough to receive excellent advice and a good deal of encouragement from Robin, Sarah and Charlotte Gann.

Back in January, Robin and I went to see the poet’s AGM; the T.S. Eliot award readings. I love how this reignites my love of poetry every year. Perhaps not a vintage crop this time, but I have since enjoyed the collections by the worthy winner Ocean Vuong, as well as Jacqueline Saphra, and James Sheard.

Omnivorously gobbling poetry, my reading has included Kate Tempest and Anna Akhmatova and, returning after many years, William Blake. I had forgotten how Songs of Innocence seem almost more sinister to me than the Songs of Experience. I must also recommend Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry, essays by Jane Hirshfield. I can’t remember reading essays about poetry and agreeing so much. I came across Jane Hirshfield on the fabulous Brain Pickings site.

So off tomorrow to the launch of Robin’s Cinnamon Press prize winning collection, All the Relevant Gods and Stephen Bone’s excellent Plainsong pamphlet from Indigo Dreams. With Sarah Barnsley and Antony Mair reading, it will be a really good night.

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Categories
Blowing my own trumpet Performance Poetry Readings

Poetry readings with Pighog and Telltale coming soon

I have two poetry readings in the pipeline in about a month’s time. In Brighton, and London. Here are the deets:

N.B. DATE CHANGE Wednesday October 25, 2017 7:30 pmThe Nightingale Room, Grand Central, 29-30 Surrey St, Brighton BN1 3PA Pighog poetry evening with Charlotte Gann, Peter Kenny and another guest TBA – Tickets on the door £5, £4 concessions, £3 for open mic participants.
Wednesday November 1, 2017 7.30 pmThe Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton St, London WC2H 9BX  Telltale Press & Friends with Catherine Smith, Abigail Parry, Robin Houghton and Peter Kenny – FREE

I’ve fan-boyishly blogged on this blog about Charlotte Gann  who is an amazing poet, and I loved her book Noir.  We are reading at one of the Pighog events in Brighton on Oct 26th organised by Michaela Ridgway. The excellent Clare Best  was also due to read with us, but has had to pull out as the date of the reading had to change.

Then, the following week on November the first, there’s another Telltale & Friends reading. I’m keen to hear Abigail Parry, who has been a magnet for poetry prizes. Her highly-anticipated collection Jinx will be published by Bloodaxe next year. I’ll have another opportunity to hear the extremely accomplished and sometimes saucy Catherine Smith, as well as my pal Robin Houghton, who has a new pamphlet All the relevant gods, out from Cinnamon next year. There are a few more details about the Telltale reading on the Telltale Blog.

I like the flyer Robin put together for the Telltale Reading below. I am pleased I asked Innis McAllister to do a decent shot of me.  I think Robin looks like she has something really important to tell you. And what’s more, she has. But you’ll have to come along to hear it.

Telltale reading

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Categories
Poetry Readings Telltale Press

Make 28th April a date for poetry in Lewes

There will be one of Telltale’s splendid reading in Lewes at the end of the month. Super talented Telltale pals Sarah Barnsley and Siegfried Baber, plus Sussex-based Marion Tracy, whose book Dreaming of Our Better Selves, I find distinctive and unusual. I’m looking forward to hearing more of Katrina Naomi’s work too. We have a great time at the Telltale events in The Lewes Arms, so please come along if you can make it.

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Categories
Poetry Readings

T. S. Eliot Award readings

Just a quick note about the T.S. Eliot readings.  Luckily I met up with Robin Houghton, Charlotte Gann and Jess Mookerjee. The first phase of these readings is always the same, gathering in the long bar before and having to talk to people. It is good to have some pals with you, as this can be awkward. There is a tendency for poets, all pressed together on the ‘works outing’ (as host Ian McMillan said poet Jo Bell had called it) and there only being a limited amount of time, to be looking over each other’s shoulders for someone more influential to talk to.

Ian McMillan is a perfect host for this event, blending a down-to-earth (code for Barnsley) tone with some poetic flights of his own. This is the third successive awards I have been to, and I always enjoy the readings. I treat it like one of those old fashioned sampler albums, where you’d hear a track or two by lots of different bands. Vahni Capildeo mentioned Aimee Cesare, so had my attention, and I found her writing was ambitious and free.  J.O. Morgan performed his poems like dramatic monologues, and again was something I’d like to investigate further. Denise Riley‘s reading was full of excellent, dense poems that I look forward to seeing on the page, but I found her performance style mannered.  Rachael Boast has natural charisma, and her mysterious and musical poems were intriguing to me, although she professed to not knowing what they were about, a statement that I always take with a pinch of salt. Alice Oswald spoke her poems from memory very well with a clenched right hand. A reading that made me want to buy her book Falling Awake. I thought she was a nailed on favourite.

The eventual winner, however, announced the following day was Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley, whose reading I warmed to, despite a sinking feeling when I heard the central character in his poetry book was called Jackself, which made me think of John Self in Martin Amis’s Money (1984) and other self-insertions. Still he’d won me over by the end of it, and I think he is as worthy a winner as anyone. Who wins the thing is not something that bothers me much. Only time will tell who the winners are, if any.

So I have half a dozen shortlisted books on order, and I am looking forward to dwelling with them properly. If you bought all ten of the shortlisted books each year, you’d have a pretty interesting poetry library. A nightmare journey home followed, thanks to train cancellations and so on, but it was well worth it.

My view of the readings. Here is Ruth Padel, who introduced the event with a reading of Journey of the Magi, by T.S.Elliot. I didn’t take snaps of the others, as I didn’t want to distract myself and the others around me, for what weren’t going to be particularly good shots.

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Categories
Performance Poetry Readings Telltale Press

Off the bench

Forgot to mention here that I was a last minute substitute for a poorly Siegfried Baber on a recent Telltale and Friends night at Telltale’s old stomping ground of the Poetry Cafe. A quick reshuffle meant that Robin Houghton introduced the event instead of me. Uncharacteristically I was not really in the mood for doing a reading, but having done so I was very pleased I did.

John McCullough read from his new book Spacecraft which is wonderful, and I will write something about it on this site soon. Sarah Barnsley read some extraordinary new and playful poems. Jess Mookherjee, the newest Telltale recruit and gave us a preview of her new pamphlet Swell, due out this Autumn. It’s lovely work, sensitive and direct.

All participants had to hare off afterwards due to the unspeakable Southern Trains debacle. Jess headed off to Tunbridge Wells, while Sara, John, Robin and I got the train to Brighton. Unusually for poets after the meeting, stone cold sober but the journey home passed in a flash with such good company.

Below left to right, Sarah Barnsley, John McCullough, Jess Mookherjee and me. Photo taken by Robin.

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Robin has long held an ambition to film Telltale performances, but for all kinds of reasons this has not worked particularly well.  During the evening Robin took a film of me reading Postcard from Ithaca. Seeing this film below has already had one positive outcome. I have started a frowny new diet.