Happy New Year!

I’m a bit late saying it but the Christmas festivities this year have been a glut of television box sets and general busyness. And after these, a glut of words.

My start to 2014 includes my poem ‘Illusions’ in the latest issue of Under the Radar (Nine Arches Press) , a protect our wildlife poem ‘In Our Footsteps’ on the Bite Back: Dead Sett Against the Badger Cull website and two poems for the Burns Window Project up in Dumfries.

(It is also lovely to see this issue of Under the Radar dedicated to Midlands poet, journalist and writer Joel Lane, who died in November. Joel was very kind and generous in his supportive comments when I write from my first collection at Birmingham’s Poetry Bites.)

Reports of last year’s Coventry-Cork twin city poets exchange by myself and the other Midlands and Irish poets involved are also now up on the O’Bhéal website.

Meanwhile, I have been working on the final touches to my MA portfolio collection, sent my first submissions of the year and sneaked in a little time just playing with words and enjoying them.

Reading and Reviews

Self-Portrait in the Dark:

the linguistics of light
shifting registers,
fields away
glass and god.

Of course, while it’s somewhat cheating to use only poetry titles for a book-spine poem (as opposed to finding more general/non-fiction books which can be turned into poetry), this approach does help make readers aware of collections they may not have read and lead to some interesting poetry discussions.

This not-quite-seamlessly flows into some of the books I have been reading over the Christmas break. The reviews/micro-reviews that follow are far from comprehensive, and not overly literary analysis – I’ll leave that to the critics on dedicated review sites. These are more about what speaks to me and what might attract a reader who doesn’t usually seek out poetry, as I think this is an important part of sharing a love for poetry in today’s world.

First-up is Planet-Shaped Horse by Luke Kennard (Nine Arches Press). I am late getting round to reading this but it was on a special kindle offer (free!). What I love about this is how very different it is. It it both weird, isn’t always easy to understand and at the same time makes perfect sense. Part of this is because the collection as a whole has not so much a narrative thread as a strong narrative pulse that pushes the reader onwards.

There’s also the unusual beauty of it and the humour, alongside which some striking philosophical/psychoanalytical observations. In short, it’s a highly addictive read that I immediately wanted to read again!

I have also just finished reading Letting Go by Angela Topping, published by the newish small independent press Mother’s Milk Books.

My micro-review of this is going to be slightly longer than usual, as I’ve got permission to share some lines from the collection. The first thing that struck me about these poems of childhood, parenthood, daughterhood is that reading them is very much like coming home, being welcomed in and feeling part of the family.

That this is somewhat in contrast to the title (there are also poems of loss both in terms of death and loosing the apron strings with grown children) is also apt because some of my favourite poems in it work on/with contrasts. One such poem is ‘Tending the Plot’ where looking the soil of the dead (a grave) is juxtaposed with tending the earth of new plants and growth. Or, in ‘She Leaves her Body to Science’, an old mother looking back on how her (by implication) youthful once desirable body will now be interesting (desirable) in a very different way:

‘They want to probe my belly,
name organs, count my ribs.’

One of the keys to what makes these poems feel so much like coming home is perhaps already hinted at – the fact that the situations and emotions are universal and captured in a way that is so easy to recognise and identify with.

In ‘Last Gifts’:

‘Eyes swim beyond the waiting room,
No longer knowing me, ears deaf to my goodbyes.
Only the struggle to breathe, the waiting.’

The small details of small moments quietly unfold to reveal their far wider importance, impact and significance. In ‘Visiting Granddad’, it is the very fact of this environment seeming so strange to a young grand-daughter that makes the family dynamics so real, interesting and easy to empathise with:

‘My outdoor things keep me safe
from their strangers’ claims on me.

A clock shouts from the mantel, filling words
that father, son, stepmother reach to use.’

This strangeness within the familiar (another contrast!) is mostly within the family setting. But it also stretches beyond the family to friends, who like us as readers, are invited into the home environment. The end to ‘Friends’ – a poem about one of those points where one learns that the wider world beyond the family is often not as gentle or loving – is particularly striking and moving:

‘How could anyone not love
Nasr Hassan Abbas?
His very name was a poem.
A shelter from any storm.

Now she knew the world differently.’

I’m going to end on this quotation, with just a small mention of one other thing I particularly liked about the structure of the collection. This is the use of intriguing quotations from within the poems to title each section, from ‘Angora is soft and loves you…’ at the start to the final ‘But they learn to walk away like any other guest.’

The full poems ‘A Casting-Off’ and ‘Tending the Plot’ can be read by clicking on the poem titles.

Aoife Mannix’s Cocktails from the Ceiling (the tall-lighthouse) also has a certain feel of coming home, but alongside a restlessness and not-belonging. There are many beautifully startling images and lines within these poems, from the amazing ‘The Memory of Water’ to ‘A Small Phoenix’.

History within personal relationships and outside (that of Ireland and the Irish community) resonates and ‘Searched’ (set at passport control) is one particularly striking narrative of belonging and not-belonging.

A fairly high proportion of the poems are in the second person (to differing yous) which is perhaps part of what makes me identify with situations that I’ve never experienced myself. It is also a comfortable ‘you’ viewpoint, that sets the reader not in a spying role but more that of a close family/friend observer or confidant(e) who lives events and emotions through the eyes of the poet/‘I’ persona. Mannix’s own (thought-provoking) lines in ‘A Visit to Dublin’ maybe sum this up best:

‘We talk about loss and suicide and children,
the way you can with people who’ve known
you longer than you’ve known yourself.’

But where there is familiar, there is also unfamiliar, as in the beautiful surrealistic twist in ‘The Last Show: a No Beginning’. Here a seemingly realistic exhibition at the Hayward Gallery becomes an event of bitter humour with Darwin and Jesus. (A scene that made me think of Douglas Adams’ s restaurant at the end of the universe.)

And the dry humour again in ‘The Hack’, which brought a wry smile to my face, thinking back to my former work as a regional newspaper reporter. What I saw then is not a quite as cynical as this world, but it comes close and may even be an under-exaggeration of some tabloid journalists!

Workshops and Events

From others, back to what I’m up to over the next few weeks.

Firstly, a new creative writing group organised by Garage Arts Group, which I will be leading with poet Ruth Stacey (in alternating blocks of six weeks). The group is aimed at helping people with depression, mental health problems or learning difficulties to express themselves, develop any artistic inclinations and interact with people sharing this creative interest in a small, friendly and fun environment.

Sessions are currently held at the Garage Arts Group centre in Evesham on Thursday mornings (term-time only) from 10am to 12 noon and cost £6 a meeting. The group is supported by Wychavon District Council and funded by South Worcestershire Clinical Commissioning Group.

While the main emphasis of the group is on having fun with writing, inspiration and trying new things, the aim is to cater for varying degrees of writing experience from the beginner to those who may have been writing for a while. For more information, please see the Garage Arts Group website or contact Pam White on 01386 423245, 07933 512210 or garageartgroupATliveDOTcoDOTuk.

I will also be reading at Worcester SpeakEasy on February 13th, 7.00 pm for a 7.30 pm start; done and dusted by 9.45 pm. This is at the Old Rectifying House in Worcester and the headliner is Byron Vincent.

And tickets and the full line-up for The Quiet Compere Tour, where I will be reading at the MAC in Birmingham on Friday, March 21 are now available here.

Special Offers

Finally, a quick reminder of the special New Year offers on my poetry collections Be[yond] (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press) and Into the Yell (Circaidy Gregory Press), which will run until the end of the month.

I normally sell these at £7 and £7.99, plus postage and packing. In my offers below, not only are the books reduced but postage and packing is free.

Into the Yell and Be[yond] for £12

Into the Yell for £7

Be[yond] for £6.50

I’m happy also to sign these, if requested. Alternatively, of course, you might want to buy them direct from the presses (check the press websites for cost) and take advantage of any offers or other collections that you might like.