Archive Page 7

Strange girls and poetry challenges

Really, I have no idea

This strange girl, at least, was born to tell YOU what you missed this year in the world of poetry. Stand by for a mammoth blog, as I announce the Bell Jar awards for Lovely Poetic Things, 2011. Drum roll…… no, make that a cheese roll….

Ledbury: Jean Binta Breeze, Michael Rosen, Jackie Kay

Best festival of the year? Well, you might think it was Ledbury Poetry Festival - which I had the honour of programming with Jonathan Davidson – but I couldn’t possibly comment. So it must be StAnza, whose format, location and family feeling make everything very lively. Equally welcoming was the tiny West Port Book Festival, run on sealing wax and string with no loss of quality or friendliness. The Strokestown Festival was a great experience of Irish hospitality and poetic companionship.

Best reader of the year? I must have seen two hundred headline poets this year, and the best is….? Hmmmm. Step forward William Letford, and get your hands out of your pockets. You can read his work in a new Carcanet anthology, or wait for his first collection Bevel next November. The poems are strong, simple and true; he reads them beautifully.

Which reminds me – yes, William’s readings are powerful: he harnesses the strength and audience connection that good performance poets take as… er…. read. So please understand that I mean no discredit to him in saying that I find it unsettling to hear that style praised as ‘unique’. It’s great – but it’s not unique. Performance poets across the UK deliver their work from memory every night of the week. Page poetry has such low expectations in terms of delivery, and is so astonished when anyone does it well as William. So here is the Bell Jar challenge. Poets of all persuasions; let us Raise Our Game in 2012. If you think you’re a page poet, please make the effort to learn three of your poems by heart. It’s easier than you think and it will make an immense difference in connecting with your audience. If you think you’re a stage poet, please make the effort to write one poem that follows a particular structure – the sonnet is a good place to start. Sometimes we say we are writing free verse when we’re just too lazy to give it a form.

At the Roebuck, Southwark every blooming Thursday

Best spoken word evening for my money is London’s Bang Said the Gun. Friendly, immensely energetic and with a constantly changing roll-call of brilliant performers, on a budget of 30p and limitless enthusiasm, this is consistently the best spoken word night I’ve seen. The similarly youthful but immensely competent Bad Language night is also in the top league. The production values are high, the editorial/ MCing eye keen, the welcome warm and the venue (the Castle in Manchester) perfect. For the same reasons I recommend Bohdan Piasecki’s Hit the Ode at the Victoria in Birmingham which brings European spoken-wordists to the UK.

Best books? Oh dear, so many to choose from and of course one remembers the most recently read. But I’ve loved Rachael Boast’s Sidereal, Matt Merritt‘s Troy Town,  Bloodaxe’s Being Human, Roddy Lumsden’s Terrific Melancholy and Andrew Phillips’ The Ambulance Box; Anne Carson’s Nox for its beautiful format and for the same reason, Chris McCabe’s Shad Thames, Broken Wharf.

Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al is a brilliant, tightly-written and faithful take on Catullus; a hit, a palpable hit. Perhaps my favourite of all, Sidekick Books’ Birdbook I for its lovely production values and interesting selection.

The rest, as Hamlet says, is solipsism. A recap of some favourite projects this year: collaboration and boating for a new poetry-and-story show Riverlands with Jo Blake Cave (we’ll hit the stage in April 2012). Seeing my poems for Royal Derby Hospital come to life as a lovely booklet and sound files was smashing. Programming Ledbury was a great pleasure – bringing to the stage talented writers like Ian Duhig and Anthony Thwaite, Stuart Maconie, The Antipoet and Tony Walsh, Luke Wright with his coruscating Cynical Ballads and fresh talents like Paul Stephenson.

Arvon courses – two of’em! at the Hurst and at Lumb Bank – were as usual, life-enhancing and showed me new directions for work. Blessings upon Patience Agbabi, Michael Laskey, Colette Bryce and (especially) Philip Gross, whose comments on writing sequences had all sorts of unintended consequences and have spilled over into new projects. A guest reader at Lumb Bank was Heather Phillipson whose work was subtle, skilled and touching.

Photo by Paul Atherton

Reading from the pulpit, Macclesfield

I loved reading at Strokestown, and at the Royal Festival Hall with luminaries like Jo Shapcott and Simon Armitage: but had cracking gigs closer to home. Reading with Jenn Ashworth for our show Too Much Information was a pleasure in Blackpool. At Shangri La in Prestwich, an audience member said my reading was like ‘getting a blow job from Princess Diana’ (that’s good, right?). At King Edward’s chapel in Macclesfield, we got the audience stomping till plaster fell from the roof; and at the Storm Brewery, our Brewing Up a Storm poetry cabaret was a gas. Thanks, lovely hosts, at these and many other venues including the dozens of public libraries that hosted readings, workshops and events.

It’s been a year of modest success in competitions – commendations in the Wigtown, Hippocrates, Enfield and other prizes, and that shortlisting at Strokestown – and also of collaborations with Jo (above) and with Alastair Cook on his filmpoem project. Have a look at the film here or turn up at StAnza in March to hear me read live alongside it.

If you’ve enjoyed any of my work this year or if I’ve done you any small favour, the best way to repay it is by following the Bugged blog. David Calcutt and I are cooking up a new version of our mass writing project for spring 2012 and we want it to be HUGE; something that writers all over the UK can share and enjoy. Once again we will be forming a community of writers, united by a creative challenge. Last time it resulted in many people being published for the first time. Bugged graduate Calum Kerr now has stories being broadcast by Radio 4 on Christmas Eve! So please help by following us at the blog, on Facebook or on Twitter @buggedproject.

Keep lighting fires, dear poets

I don’t usually mention my day job here, but running National Poetry Day continues as the ever-fixed mark in my working life. It’s a privilege to provide a focal event which so many of you support, use and fill with poetry events across the UK. Poetry is not a glamorous, lucrative or fame-filled field. We do it because we love words; because we are doing our best; because we are trying to tell each other the truth. Even in these darkest nights of the year, poetry lights its little beacons on the hilltops to see us through. Long may they burn.

In praise of love

Birmingham this afternoon

Remember Birmingham? Big city in the middle of the country. Talks a bit funny. Well, it’s gone now. Instead there is a huge German market full of Belgians (don’t ask me) and the whole place smells of mulled wine and moustache wax. Between the potato noodles and the chocolate cherries, I managed to squeeze in a meeting with David Calcutt about Bugged II (brace yourselves, it’s going to be great). There was talk too about Riverlands,with project director Ros Stoddart. The first performances of our poetry-and-story show about the river Nene will be on April 21st and 22nd in Aldwincle, Northamptonshire: we tour after that. Better finish writing it then, I suppose.

Meanwhile, ladies and gentlemen, I have been writing poetry. Try not to panic. I’m on a roll and hoping it lasts, and no you can’t see it because this is adult stuff which you are far too innocent to understand, and more to the point it isn’t very good yet. Watch this space.

And now to that title. Not my usual tone, dear reader, as you know – but while I was measuring out my life with Costa Coffee spoons, the Manchester performance poet and sometime visitor to these pages, Mike Garry, had a more exciting week. He saved someone’s life on Tuesday. His first blog of the experience went viral, and thousands of people wanted to know what happened next. Here’s the answer – so far. I’d buy Mike’s book - this one or God is a Manc at £10 - if I were you. The best way is to direct message him on Twitter @mikegarry.

We'll see about that, says Yorkshire

Would I have done the same? Would you? I don’t know; but everything Mike writes is suffused with love for this wet, unglamorous corner of the north, and its most disenfranchised folk. In the past week, at Rrrants in London and then at Stirred in Manchester, there were many poets who have fought battles against mental health issues like Jordan’s, or against bereavement, or prejudice, or some smaller circumstance that smacked them in the gob – and who stood up when they could, and smacked circumstance right back with the words they had to hand. Jackie Hagan, Gerry Potter, Mark Niel, Mel Jones, Michelle Green…. keep telling your splendid multi-coloured truths, especially the uncomfortable ones.

Maybe God IS a Manc after all. And I say that as a Yorkshirewoman. In this sense, at least – stand up for love, ladies and gentlemen. Stand up for love.

Surreally good

It’s snowing on my blog, dear reader. Draw up a chair by the fire and let us contemplate the written word; a thing more powerful than the atom bomb. Consider first how it can make one think deeply about the universe, as it does here.

Books and cake. Who could ask for anything more...

Now consider how it can make you laugh your ass off, as it did in Manchester at the first birthday party for Bad Language - a brilliant, welcoming and varied night in a great venue (the Castle pub, in Manchester’s Northern Quarter). They are mostly short story writers, and on Wednesday Calum Kerr was reading. Putting modesty aside, ho hum, I will remind you that it was the Bugged project which gave him his first appearance in print. He was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar…. Calum read some of the stories from his Flash 365project: it’s been a brilliant year for him and seventeen of his flash fictions will be broadcast on

Radio 4 on Christmas Eve.

Kafka (left) and Harry Hill

Talented as Calum is, he didn’t make us actually cry with laughing. David Gaffney did. I’m not sure how to explain this. On stage with him was Sarah-Clare Conlon, no slouch as a writer herself but on this occasion, chic as chips and acting as David’s lovely assistant. She read David’s stories while he accompanied her on the organ. Yes, I know, and to be honest this audioboo clip isn’t going to help. You had to be there really; it was like a cross between Kafka and Harry Hill. One of the stories included the phrase ‘by now I could only achieve climax with the assistance of a women’s physical theatre company’ and the word ‘glutinous’. Suffice it to say that we were weeping with laughter. And I was sober.

Just when you thought the week had, as it were, climaxed, two positively juicy meetings in Chester took new projects a step closer to…er… consummation [stop there. Ed]  One of these concerned a residency: the other, a writing collaboration which makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It’s a stretch, and a pleasure, and shaping up to be the most creatively exciting, challenging thing I’ve done for a long while.

Jackie Hagan. Lobstertastic

What else can The Word do? It can make you love everyone in the room. On Thursday, a blisteringly good gig in Macclesfield at King Edward’s Chapel. Rigged up with fairy lights and good sounds, the chapel hosted me, Jane Birch, Butterfly Jam and Jackie Hagan, one of the brightest stars in NW spoken word. She was funny, she was serious, she was brilliant. We finished the evening with stomping, whooping and actual dancing in the aisles. We’re doing it again in February and you would be bonkers to miss it.

And so, to London for a gig at Rrrants on Sunday night; come on down to the Camden Eye, right next to Camden Town tube, to see me and AF Harrold make fools of ourselves in a friendly pub.

Six Go Mad in the Peak

Horses for (poetry) courses

Sex appeal, dear reader, is all very well; but it won’t get you very far in the Peak District in November. The forecast for Saturday was ‘and in the north – rough‘ but as the blessed Wainwright tells us, there is no such thing as inclement weather – only inappropriate clothing. So our Poetry Walkshop was bound to be a success, since we all arrived in stout waterproof togs, woolly hats and boots.

With me as poetry catalyst, and dear Smily Jane as poet-herd and hostess, a group of intelligent, lively women (no blokes this time, where were you?) came on a blustery walk at the extreme western edge of the Peak. Pictures here are by Lindsey Holland, a fantastic new addition to my poetry community. We fed them to the gills and rather hoped they would quietly fall asleep – but no, they were still game enough to do a poetry workshop on landscape, which included a nod to terza rima and asked them to describe ‘intensely physical experiences they’ve had outdoors.’ Cue much knowing laughter.

This week takes me to London for meetings about National Poetry Day and its sister projects; to Chester to meet about a residency and a new collaboration; to Manchester for the first birthday party of Bad Language; back to Macc for this lovely event which I hope you will join us for; and ends in London again for a gig at the magnificent Camden poetry night Rrrants, where I am reading with the splendidly bearded AF Harrold. Deck the halls…. I love my job, me. Don’t let the long nights get you down, dear reader.

Let them eat cake

Reading in a maternity dress, for some reason

What’s that you say? It’s about bloody time I got another book out?  I know, I know. Recent work with talented upstarts like Max Wallis – and a new collaboration which I hope will come off, with Templar poet Martin Malone  (who reads at the Wordsworth Trust on Saturday afternoon with stablemate Kathleen Jones) have concentrated my mind wonderfully on all things bookish. Winter is a time of planning and regrouping, with less time on the road and more time to think and write. So yes, my dear nagging friends, Book No 2 is slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. And for those of you still holding your breath, so is the successor to Bugged. David Calcutt and I are hammering out a new project for summer 2012 which will not be about eavesdropping. Well, not exactly. You didn’t think we’d do the same thing twice, did you?

In the meantime, I am already pining for the summer of 2012 when Tinker and I will be back on the canals:


Tonight you moor at Tixall Wide beneath the giddy bats.
A teenage heron tries one leg. The boat is tethered,
dawdles between bank and channel.

In dry dock once, you saw her settle on the bostocks,
wondered at her bulk; that welded self
helpless as a brick. Her power’s in suspense.

You don’t need to travel far. You’re always home.
There’s comfort in the play of rope;
slack and tight, there and back.

I am, as you know, very pro-silliness. Poetry should never be above having a sense of humour, and this morning I was tickled by an email from the lovely folk at Poetry Digest. Ladies and gentlemen, the best way to be published is on a cake – and I am going to be entirely edible on January 18th. Here’s a previous edition from Isobel Dixon.

Selling like hot cakes: Poetry Digest


You wait for a blog post for ages, and then two come along at once. I couldn’t wait to share this one: I’ve been sitting on my hands for weeks while Alastair Cook got on with the hard craft of making my poem Philosophy into one of his excellent filmpoems. He sent it through today, having pursued this project even through the early weeks with new daughter Rose – so here it is. Heartfelt thanks to Alastair for making something so beautiful.  The last line comes from Goethe – but hey, I wrote loads of other ones so that makes it alright, no?

Filmpoem 13/ Philosophy from Alastair Cook on Vimeo.

We shall write them on the beaches

Yes, I’ve been to Skye. But we’re not going to talk about that. Pay attention: I have said it before, and I have said it again, and I will say it

West Port: Peggy and Kay in their element

once more. Get off your bottom and seek out the poetry of William Letford. His work is spare, masculine, funny and thoughtful work and he reads it with a glint in his eye. If you can’t see him in person, buy the excellent Carcanet anthology in which he appears.

Mr Letford springs to mind because I saw him again at the West Port Book Festival. Edinburgh’s pocket-sized lit fest, run on a budget of 50p and an infinite supply of cake, is friendly and professional and a delight to take part in. The venues are the old book shops of the city, stacked to the rafters with dust and tweed and curiosity. Scattered between them are strip clubs, so if you get bored with the books you can always go and look at naked women; but surely, dear reader, for a person of your calibre it would be the other way round. My workshop in a book-bindery proved to

That'll be me then

be one of those where creative chemistry starts bubbling and great work is produced. There were quirky events, a tea dance and occasional forays to the pub. It was cockle-warming also to read with Rob A Mackenzie, Helen Addy and Lynsey May from our eavesdropping anthology Bugged. David Calcutt and I are cooking up a sort of ‘Son of Bugged’ – a new project which will be different, but just as enjoyable.

Aldeburgh. Too many boat pictures? Nonsense

The boat is now on her winter mooring at the Macclesfield Home for the Unusual, but I’m still on the move. I had three lovely solitary days in Skye, and two weeks later was at the other end of the country, for the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. If West Port is the new kid on the block with a cheeky sense of humour, then Aldeburgh is the grande dame of poetry festivals; the longest-established, with an immaculate pedigree. I do like to be beside the seaside, though for me the programme was just a little staid, and expensive too at £14 for the main events. I know how costly big names are, but this price forces festival-goers to cut their cloth. Frankly, I could have used a tea dance. Still, there were fine readings from US laureate Kay Ryan, nonagenarian Fergus Allen and my sometime co-conspirator Jonathan Davidson. The streets were heaving with literary types. You couldn’t eat a chip

Novelist Simon Thirsk

without a famous poet lurching up behind you to steal one.

Back in the lovely lumpen landscape of my native Peaks, Templar Press held their Derwent Poetry Festival. I’m in their new anthology Bliss and it was a pleasure to hear so many of the poets in it reading in the old Masson Mills complex – with an MC who, startlingly, seemed to have actually read our work. Plus, my mum was there and I made her cry.

Looking at my diary, it’s clear that I said to everyone who wanted something done ‘Oh, I’ll do that in November after National Poetry Day.’ Busy times, these – December looks like a distant oasis in a vast expanse of work; but, as always, the work is full of joys. This week I’m in London first, then in Manchester for readings with the unfeasibly beautiful Max Wallis on Thursday (City Library, 6pm, free, see him naked here by the way) and at Shangri La on Friday; then off to Birmingham to speak at The Writers’ Toolkit, and to Worcester to lead a workshop for Apples & Snakes. All this and more thrilling detail on my What’s On page…

Model poet: Max Wallis

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