“I love Peter Gilmour’s syntax.”

It’s what I found myself saying last week at the launch of the two new publications. Oh dear – five years ago I would never have said anything half so pompous. Now I’m reading submissions of poems and writing in pencil – all over the place – comments like ‘the syntax doesn’t work for me here’.

Perhaps I shouldn’t even use the word, or at least I should clarify what I mean by it. Here is the Merriam Webster definition. In fact, Merriam Webster has three versions, and I think what I have in mind is chiefly the second: a connected or orderly system: harmonious arrangement of parts or elements”.

To add insult to injury, these days there’s computer syntax.  I’m not a programmer, but so far as I understand it, if there’s an error in ‘syntax’, the program won’t run. Sometimes a comma out of place puts the whole thing up the spout.

It’s the same in poetry. Often something in the sentence – a punctuation symbol perhaps, or a subject/verb dissonance, or a descriptive clause that doesn’t seem to know where it belongs – pulls the reader up and stops the poem working. Contemporary poets are fond of fragments – sentences without finite verbs. These certainly have their place. But there are an awful lot of them around.

I have a weakness for single-sentence poems, though only if they’re beautiful. It’s rare for a poet to handle the structure of a sentence so properly and so harmoniously that it can run over several stanzas without the reader once feeling disconcerted or dizzy. Besides, it’s easier to write in impressionistic fragments.

Give me a writer who can construct a prose sentence with elegance and style. It provides me with the sensual pleasure I imagine others get from wine, or a 50-year-old malt. It’s why I love the work of Carson McCullers and Gerald Murnane (and they’re not even poets).

There are writers who can carry a beautiful sentence into a poem. They do it without dropping subjects or toppling weighty descriptive clauses on top of each other. Their nouns don’t look like verbs at first sight and their verbs don’t look like nouns. The work is harmonious to the eye, to the ear, to the brain.

Peter Gilmour is one of these. I’ll close with a sentence from ‘Rupture’:

…….I was enjoying myself in truth,
…….hurrying not just the car but the marriage,
…….not just this last journey but our pilgrimage,
…….to a hot and hellish end.

…….….[from Taking Account, HappenStance, 2011]


Yesterday the Scottish Poetry Library got double kindling.

Yesterday the Scottish Poetry Library got double kindling.

How fascinating that you can publish two collections of poetry, scrutinizing every page of each, yet not till you hear the two poets read, do you realize each of them has a poem (each of them has chosen to read a poem) in which ‘kindling’ is seminal.

Gerry Cambridge and Helena Nelson
Gerry Cambridge and I signing the ‘special editions’



The kindling in Gerry Cambrldge’s poem ‘Notes for Lighting a Fire’ is very different from the process referred to in Peter Gilmour’s ‘Kindling’. But how lovely it was to hear one poet read after the other and suddenly hear that connection.



All in all, this book launch was a splendid event. My sister, who was forced into duty as official camera person, took on this role with reluctance. ‘I’m useless at taking photographs,’ she said.

‘Just point and click,’ I said.


Gilmour and Cambridge launch event (blurred)


So Lou took a great many photographs. Most of them resemble medieval wall paintings in Italian churches, where the actual features have been destroyed by the depradations of hoodlums or time. So those people who felt anxious about being snapped need have no fear. Few of them are recognizable…




Many copies of the books have been sold. Many more are in the post. As ever, the staff of SPL were wonderful, welcoming and warm. The venue is second to none: literary history unfolds before your eyes. The people who came along, bought copies and mingled — the readers and friends — were amazing. I am too tired to say more. . . .


More pictures follow. First some of the recognisable audience, then Peter Gilmour reading, and finally Gerry.

Gilmour and Cambridge launch reading












Peter Gilmour reading from 'Taking Account'















Gerry Cambridge reading from Notes for Kindling a Fire
Gerry Cambridge


It’s my submissions month, so lots of fat brown envelopes are flopping onto the mat.

It’s my submissions month, so lots of fat brown envelopes are flopping onto the mat.

The furore of Christmas is also in the air. Pressure builds, pressure builds. Santa is King at the Kingdom Centre, with grandparents and small queuing up. When a poetry submission is sent recorded delivery, and I have to drive to the sorting depot at the other side of town to pick it up, I get testy.

But all three new pamphlet publications are here finally, as well as three new PoemCards. Consequently, packets are being parceled up and sent thither and hither, fro and to, hence and whence.

And as for the new hardbacked (the only HappenStance hardbacked) book by Gerry Cambridge, I have just ordered extra large padded envelopes for the customers who send for more than one (It is nice. It does make a good Christmas gift, and at the moment all copies come with a PoemCard featuring what I call ‘Gerry’s pink poem’ laid in).

I’m afraid all the special editions of Notes for Lighting a Fire, those lettered A to Z, are spoken for, so if you’ve asked for one and haven’t had it confirmed, it’s because I haven’t had your email (this sometimes happens when people hit ‘reply’ to the newsletter, instead of as suggested. If this applies to you, I am sorry.) If you would like a signed copy of either Gerry’s book or Peter Gilmour’s pamphlet and are in Scotland, come along to the launch next week at the Scottish Poetry Library — Saturday afternoon. There will be snacks. There will be something to imbibe. There will be some excellent people.

Stamps, stamps, stamps. I am keeping the post office going single-handed, I swear.

Rather than the usual blurb about new publications, I thought I’d share a few lines from each, some of the phrases or stanzas I’ve come to love while working on these them. Just a wee taste of the bits that crackle.  Looking at the extracts, I can see they look a little ominous—even a bit grim maybe. Remember what Kay Ryan said? “Poetry never adds to your burden. It never weighs you down.” These poems are charged with energy. They lift you up.

Besides, for anyone thinking of making a submission, there’s an insight into what I liked and continue to like, since I can’t explain that in words, only recognize it when I see it.


Sue Butler: Arson


as magpies, aging, luck. As women
gossiping. As Elgar, Tess, Kier and why.


Peter Gilmour: Taking Account

and how can they who lack holiness know

how the unhallowed spirit sticks and dies?


David Hale: The Last Walking Stick Factory

Between jobs, he designs a coffin,

roughs out measurements,
makes it snug
but with room for expansion

Sue Butler: Arson

Now she tells the tribal elders
she’s leaving the land. They mock
her desires: Fool. Look

which side your bread is buttered

(they like to speak
in metaphor).

Peter Gilmour: Taking Account

I married a woman who killed herself.
Our children then were thirteen and fourteen
and I, fifty, and God, they say, is ageless.


David Hale: The Last Walking Stick Factory

………………….Our work calls for edges,

the sharper the better. Even though I can see
what you say is true, we’re running out of lint and pins

and words for pain, and surely this is beyond probability,
this tendency of restless steel drawn as if by moon

or some other magnetic force through skin and nail.
No mere carelessness could spill so much blood.

Sue Butler: Arson

We drink tea and nothing happens
until something slight
puts down its mug, opens the door
with hardly a click.

Peter Gilmour: Taking Account

No, they are not my parents.
Mine were never that intimate,
as I have said, will say again
as many times as are required.
Were never that intimate!
Will that do? Is that enough?


David Hale: The Last Walking Stick Factory

There’s a man with a rope
running through the woods
this cold November day,

looking for a tree,
a bough—anything solid,
manageable, quick.


It happens all the time, like a book you know is there but can’t find on the shelves.

This time it was Paul Lee who went missing. He died in October, before his last Sphinx review had even been posted. I knew he had been in hospital, I knew he had been ill, because his wife and fellow poet-reviewer Emma Lee, had told me.

But I wasn’t expecting him to go. For all its inevitability, death is rarely an expected visitor, and Paul’s absence continues to be troubling. I went to look for him in back copies of Smiths Knoll, because I think that’s where I first found him, though now I’m not entirely sure. I found other poets there who have also gone missing. One by one we mortals trickle away.

The poem I was looking for was in issue 28, 2002. Though I liked many of Paul’s poems after that, this is the one I always remembered. It is about the sea and the waves are “white hurrahs”. What a gloriously energetic poem it is!

Perhaps I can be forgiven for typing ‘Wave Dance’ in here. I had forgotten (we remember poems but we forget so much about them) that in this poem the speaking voice is collective, the voice of the waves themselves. I’m reminded suddenly of Wordsworth’s “rolled round in earth’s diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees” – an image of Lucy’s death which always struck me as colossally uncomfortable. I had the wrong mental image completely.

And yet, in the great recycling of ourselves, Paul is in the waves, and here he is in this poem:

Wave Dance
Sea Wall, Dawlish

Charge to the sea wall, slap it hard, roll back
………………………..with the swell and merge. . .

Charge to the sea wall, slap it hard, roll back with the swell,
meet the next wave charging in, present your crest
and make high fives, pass on through back
………………………..with the swell and merge. . .

Charge to the sea wall, slap it hard, roll back with the swell,
meet the next wave charging in, slap it hard
with white hurrahs, recoil to the sea wall, cuff its base,
roll back with the swell and merge. . .

Charge to the sea wall, slap it hard, roll back
………………………..with the swell and merge. . .


It’s here. The fire has been lit.

It’s here. The fire has been lit.

The official publication date for Gerry Cambridge’s Notes for Lighting a Fire is January 2012. But we have made good time and the first set of volumes arrived out of the blue this week, such are the vagaries of printers.

Gerry’s book is not blue, however, but the colour of the top of the milk in the days when milk came in bottles. And it is a proper hard-backed book with a paper jacket. It will sit on the shelf and not disappear.

Meanwhile, three pamphlets are with local printer Dolphin Press and about to arrive in time for Christmas. They are Arson by Sue Butler, Taking Account by Peter Gilmour and The Last Walking Stick Factory by David Hale. They provide a complete contrast to each other, in the best possible way. I won’t say more yet, though there will be plenty to say.

Pamphlets, of course, do have a habit of disappearing. It is their weakness and their strength. They are unassuming and slight. They don’t make the same demands of you that books do. You can bend the covers without a smidgeon of guilt, and because their soft covers and flimsy centres disappear so readily, they become rare and valuable before you even know it.

There are new PoemCards about to arrive too – even more ephemeral, those proud little upstarts.

It is all go here at HappenStance!


There was a time when I couldn’t have gone, and I haven’t forgotten it.

There was a time when I couldn’t have gone, and I haven’t forgotten it.

But last weekend I went. I was part of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, part of the Aldeburgh audience, and it was a pleasure and a privilege.

Not everyone feels like that. More than one practising poet has told me how scary they find poetry festivals: they have tiptoed in to find themselves an outsider in an ‘in’ crowd. Some never get there at all: apprehension (or suspicion, or poverty) prevents them trying.

But others make it, and you can see the exhilaration in their eyes. It’s a restrained sort of exhilaration: no shrieking and bounding; not even much sign of alcoholic excess.

It’s the exhilaration of intent listening, nodding, murmuring – even arguing. It’s the excitement of applied intelligence and delight – the Aldeburgh hmmm.

This festival is generous and it is welcoming. Here is a crowd of people who embrace words, and love using them (but not exploiting them). A festival is for celebration, and these are the celebrants. It is quite a cerebral celebration, of course, but no less exciting for that.

And it is welcoming. It isn’t a set of punters all assembled to marvel at the feet of the GPs (Great Poets). The GPs – the people you pay to get in to see and hear – are there marveling too. They are wandering through the streets of the village marveling and talking and meeting all the others. They are out in the playground, playing.

What are they all marveling about? What are they all talking about out in the playground? Poetry.

What is Poetry? Nobody knows. And it doesn’t matter. Here, Poetry’s a way of reading.

You come away with snippets, fragments, musical sentences trailing round your ankles. Here’s one from Peter Sansom: “You start off by writing, don’t you? And then you get over that, and start to learn to read.”  And another from Kay Ryan, talking about the dark and sad: “Poetry never adds to your burden. It never weighs you down.”

What is Poetry? It is a kind of reading. It is reading like no other. It is listening like no other. It never adds to your burden. It never weighs you down.

I worry about one thing. When I was younger (in my twenties and thirties and forties) when I wrote alone and didn’t speak of it, when writing, for me, was a secret affair and blogs did not exist – I could never have gone to a poetry festival. It was all I could do to pay for the books I bought, and in those days, I got a huge number of them out of a library. Yes, I even ordered books from the library, which cost £1.00 per book, and I thought that quite enough.

I could not have paid for train tickets to run the length of the island, for tickets to get in, for places to stay, for food. I had obligations, and not enough money to meet them.

Now I am old(ish) and my children have left home and are much taller than me. They are even employed! So I can get to a festival, if I choose to, though the most precious thing in the world to me is no longer money, but time. And I can’t help noticing a huge proportion of the Aldeburgh celebrants are in my sort of age group and my sort of colour and even my sort of gender…. (the same cannot be said of the GPs).

But festivals are running out of money, Arts Councils have run out of money, culture is competing for your cash. My cash.  Dear me – I am even one of the competitors. I want you to buy HappenStance publications with the same money you might spend on going to a Festival or a reading.

But I want festivals to continue. I want the money to be found. The money pays for brilliant organizers and lovely venues and wonderful GPs. But I’d like there to be a way of sponsoring readers too: the practising readers, young and old, who can’t afford to get there, and need to get there. The people who don’t look like me, or at least lots of them don’t. They need poetry; poetry needs them.

Perhaps there should be Readers in Residence? No, that won’t work. At Aldeburgh that’s precisely what every single member of the audience becomes.

How can we keep these celebrations going? How can we share the intelligence? How can we make this exhilaration of reading accessible to all, even the totally skint? Could those who can afford to go, but can’t – for reasons of illness or indisposition or needing to be elsewhere – sponsor someone else who is desperate to be there but can’t? Could there be some sort of scheme for that? Am I just a dreamer?

The great advantage of the inter-world is at least you can read about it hither and thither and all over the place. Here are some links, most of them with splendid pictures. I took my camera but it stayed at the bottom of my bag. . . .


I have them filtered. Sounds good, doesn’t it? As though I’m purifying and simplifying.

It means the Facebook messages (of which there are fewer recently, and no bad thing either, now they’ve changed the system), the GoodReads updates, the Freegle notifications and the HappenStance Shop registrations go automatically into separate folders. I check them all. I haven’t got Twitter messages filtered: I ought to have.

Anyway, into my main email in-tray flood all the rest.

Last night I was out. For the first time in ages, I didn’t pick up messages.

Today, I get home from college and into my study, to find 61 filtered Freegle emails and 8 GoodReads updates. I don’t check the HappenStance Shop registrations because so many of them are spammers. A mere 6 from FaceBook, including birthdays.

In my main in-tray, there are about 20 saved messages – things I’m currently dealing with or about to – as well as about 12 more new communications I need to do something about today; another 12 that can be dealt with instantly or deleted. Three reminders from a bulletin board thread — I ought to log in and reply to at least one. There are 20 red herrings as well: evil spam-people leaving messages on the website by clicking the ‘click here for more information boxes’. I hate these people. Sarah has taken away the boxes now, so nobody can click for more information. They’ll just have to send me an email and ask…

Speaking of email: 28 junk messages. I check quickly to see they ARE really all garbage.

Online, there are 5 private messages sitting in FaceBook – haven’t looked at them yet – but the page is open in the corner of my eye, ominously.

I put the SQA messages (educational jobs) into the SQA folder, Sphinx-related messages into the Sphinx folder (26 messages there currently waiting there with urgent tasks for me to do), save emails from Mad Poets in the Mad Poets file for posterity, put messages from printers into the Printer folder, once I’ve replied…

Then there are 2 shop orders I need to parcel up and send out. Downstairs there are 3 snail mail submissions (sent in the wrong month – send them back quick before I go under and SNARL), as well as 2 book orders: this means going online and printing out the invoices before I parcel them up. While I’m doing this, another email pops in, and another. It is a mistake to reply quickly. It generates interaction.

It’s hard to manage the feeling of swimming against a continuous fast current. It’s hard to get on quietly with work – reading poems, sorting out a publication, even with thinking – because of what feels like an onslaught, a maddening, exhilarating manifestation of the world spinning, and spinning me with it, faster and faster and faster, along with the other seven billion. . . .

And who chose to have it this way? Me. (I think.)


It’s a gorgeous thing when a poem arrives at a felicitous rhyme, a choice word that pops up by happenstance.

It’s a gorgeous thing when a poem arrives at a felicitous rhyme, a choice word that pops up by happenstance.

At least so it seems to me. It’s a popular misconception that rhyming verse is ‘out’. It’s not. It just has to be done with beauty and grace. It’s a matter of balancing the expected (the chime, the echo) with the unexpected (the word not anticipated).

Of course, these days, the concept of ‘rhyme’ in poetry has stretched. Now the word is often applied to the most minute assonance, the half-rhyme that’s only a quarter, or the uneasy pairing of a stressed and un-stressed syllable.

Like King John and his feeling about getting nuts for Christmas, I do like perfect rhyme (I mean ‘perfect’ only in the sense that the same stressed syllable and the same vowel sound match completely.) And yes, it can sound tired and all too guessable. But that’s why it’s difficult, though still, I think, not impossible to achieve with a degree of panache. And no, it’s not in the least ‘fashionable’ in serious poems, but someone in me – call her Matilda – does it even more, because of that.

All of this is by way of prologue to more words on Wrapper Rhymes. ‘Wrapper Rhymes’ are, you may remember, poems written 
on wrappers, following the example set by Ted Hughes, 
who wrote a Tunnocks wrapper poem in 1986. Ted on Tunnocks rhymed, and so do most of the examples being collected and displayed by Nick Asbury at

I became obsessed with these delights in the summer. ‘Obsessed’ is probably not too strong a word’ since I wrote about 23 in the space of a month, almost enough to qualify me for NaPoWriMo without even trying. But it’s not just a matter of coming up with a couple of verses that match a product. The Wrapper Rhyme has to be written on the wrapper. I had to acquire special pens, because many wrappers refuse to accept ink, as you’ll see if you go to the site to view some of the contributions. But that in itself becomes part of the point.

At the Scottish Poetry Library – where a busy book fair was held yesterday with some marvellous people and wonderful conversations – there was a discussion about poetry publishing on Friday evening. The word ‘demand’ came up. Stuart Kelly (writer and literary editor of Scotland on Sunday) suggested, rather neatly, that today’s poetry publishers were better at publishing ‘on demand’ than ‘creating a demand’ for their products.

I’m not convinced it’s a publisher’s job to create demand, though it’s certainly in the publisher’s interest to do just that, were it possible. The discussion did not go on to explore this idea but many of us assembled at the book fair  in the same venue the very next day spoke about it. Would poems be ‘in demand’ if downloadable from i-Tunes? No, Kevin Cadwallender tells me i-Tunes is less than cool with the young. Would they be in demand if it was illegal to download them? Would they be in demand if read by the author and listenable to on line? Would they be in demand if printed on cakes? (Don’t scoff, it’s being done.) Would they be in demand in holograph and framed?

Possibly. It depends who wrote them. If the writer (like Ted) becomes a scion of Literature or is en route to scion-ship, there’s something to be said for the ephemeral poem, the verse written by hand and almost (but not quite) thrown away. This idea is preserved on WrapperRhymes, where you get the poem and you get the wrapper on which it was written, by hand, in a unique, once-and-forever format.

So this week, if you want to, you can see one of mine, done on a box of Jelly Babies. I am a little too fond of Jelly Babies, so it was a very large box, half-price, bought last February (left over from Christmas). But Nick’s editorial comment brings the work a smidgeon of gravitas. Yep – naming the Jelly Babies was perhaps not the best ever marketing decision for Cadbury.

If you’re a HappenStance subscriber, this is a good point to remind you about my chocolate appeal. I’m hoping, in the distant future, to do a pamphlet or small book on a chocolate theme. There aren’t, it seems to me, enough poems about chocolate, and very few celebrating it. I’d like some. It doesn’t matter whether or not they rhyme, though it would be nice if some did, but they mustn’t be too long because each one has to fit inside a page. 16 lines or under would be good. This mouthwatering opportunity is only for HappenStance subscribers, I’m afraid, but anybody can become one.

So far, very few chocolate poems have arrived on my desk, though a couple of those that have made it are winners. The deadline is . . . er . . .  when I get enough good chocolate poems to make a full box. If your poem’s selected for this box — I mean book — , I’ll send you some copies AND a small amount of first-class chocolate – that’s the deal. And then you can write a wrapper rhyme on the wrapper. . . .


Amazing how easy it is to survive without the internet!

I was away on holiday last week in a Highland cottage in the rain with a lot of books and some paper (and my Loved-one). I wrote four letters, on paper, and I put them in envelopes with stamps on them. It’s a bit like going to a museum and having hands-on experience of the Old Ways of Doing Things, except I was living in the museum.

In another way, it was like time-travelling back to the twentieth century, since I took some of the future with me, including a Kindle (though I didn’t use it much) and a laptop – ditto. I actually read real books – only two of them, but one was very long. I managed to read NO POETRY AT ALL. It’s amazingly easy to survive without that too, oddly enough.

And I did the HappenStance accounts, or pretty much brought them up to date. It all served to prove how insane the whole enterprise is. Even after the Michael Marks money in 2010, Inland Revenue will owe me money, rather than the other way around. This hardened my heart to the untimely submissions waiting for me on the mat when I got home. Such a shame!

What sort of things do you buy on holiday in the rain with no poetry? I bought a necklace made of little stones (even though I already have about fifty necklaces made of other little stones), some Goddard’s silver cleaner (don’t ask) and a snow shovel. It wasn’t snowing or anything, it was just the fact that last winter when I wanted one, I couldn’t find one, and there they were, standing in a barrel outside a hardware shop in Kingussie—blue ones. So I went in and rather apologetically forked out twelve quid for the snow shovel. “It must seem weird,” I said, when people come here on holiday from Fife and buy snow shovels.”

“Not at all,” grinned the shop man. “Since they came in, we’ve sold eight” (I think it was eight) “and all of them to people on holiday. Can’t get them, you know, down south.”

I have my doubts about their unavailability. There seem to be rather a lot on Twenga, but last week I was felicitously (for the man in the shop) netless. I also have my doubts about the much-predicted snow. There was another man in the shovel shop, talking to the shopman. I remember him well because he seemed to be about twice as tall as me. Anyway, the other man said there would be a lot of snow again this winter – it was certain.

“How can you be so sure?” I asked.

“It’s the activity in the sun,” he said. “There was a lot of it last winter, and now there’s even more.”

I didn’t ask what kind of activity, though I am pretty sure he would have expanded the point. I just thought how ironic it was that activity in the sun should bring us snow.

There was very little sun last week in Scotland, and therefore very little activity in it on our part, but it did snow on Wednesday. Not enough to shovel but enough to turn the hills white, while we sat by the fire reading old-fashioned books made of paper.

The next day it got warmer and wetter, and the day after that even warmer and even wetter, and now we are home. It is unseasonably warm for October and not quite raining.

Nevertheless, we have one brand-new snow shovel and quite a lot of salt. Bring on the white stuff! We are READY.