The window is about to shut.







That is to say, the ‘submissions window’, that delightful metaphor I acquired from somewhere. It sounds welcoming I think, up to the point where it closes and I am reminded of Peter Pan’s failed attempt to get back home.






The word ‘submissions’ worries me too because of the association with being submissive. Actually, I feel as though I am the submissive one. I submit to the pile of envelopes, to the task of reading and responding, humbled by the earnestness of the covering letters.






Before Christmas I had reached the point of not coping at all. I consequently developed a new method of managing the submissions, one that those who sent them would be unlikely to warm to. I numbered them as they arrived (some of the eager upstarts in November) but opened not a one. A small skyscraper of them is waiting downstairs until tomorrow when the window closes.






In January I will start the slow business of working through.






There are more submission envelopes than ever before in such a short period, approximately twice as many as this time last year. This is one sign of HappenStance’s success perhaps (though I mistrust and dislike the word ‘success’ in ways too numerous to mention), and it involves concomitant failure. As the number of submissions increases, the chance of acceptance decreases.






I hope, however, that not all the envelopes are from writers anticipating imminent publication because my ambition in life is not to dispense disappointment. The publications schedule for 2013 is already fuller than I am comfortable with. Nothing more will be added to 2014 unless a poet drops out, and I am looking at 2015 “in equal scale weighing delight and dole”, as King Claudius remarked.






In my stack of envelopes, there will be at least six or seven, and perhaps up to ten, from poets I have communicated with before. I will have invited some of them to send more poems, and the consequent familiarity will make those texts feel friendlier. However, the associated guilt will be greater if I can’t make any publication promises. There will be a few, I hope, from HappenStance subscribers who simply want some feedback on the work. Again, those are a pleasure to deal with.






The business of publication is difficult on both sides. I am not hoping to find poets to publish (it is rather the reverse), although it is true that I might come across one. So why open the window at all?






Good question. It interests me, this odd pursuit of writing poems. The people who do it interest me too. I like the window of insight into what goes on, not least because I write poems myself and have never quite understood why, though I think about it a lot. I have met some marvelous people over the last seven years, because they arrived in my life, as it were, through this window. I have made friendships with poets I haven’t published, as well as with those I have. I hope this will continue. There may be a single poem, somewhere in this pile, that will change my life. Poems do that sometimes.






For poets desperately keen to find a publisher, it may be worth noting that poetry publishers, once established, have a constant mental list of people they’d like to work with and publications they’d like to do. These arrive by one route or another, some of them through personal recommendation, or because one has met them or heard them read. The ‘window’ operated by a few of us is, effectively, an added extra. Most publishers start to say ‘no unsolicited submissions’ simply as a way of making the workload manageable. But they do get submissions, of course. There are other ways. There are always other ways.






A few publishers actively seek poets for their list. These may (sigh) be so-called vanity publishers, but it is easy to work this out when it becomes clear that your relationship with them is going to be very expensive. But publishers seeking poets are not necessarily vanity organizations. All publishers have to start somewhere. New imprints look for good quality poets who will help them to establish a reputation. From the poet’s point of view, the risk is that a new imprint could be a ramshackle operation with which it will be a mistake to have been involved. But equally a new imprint could turn out to be quite something. It could prove an alliance of luck and honour.






But how do you find out if someone is setting up an imprint for the first time? You keep your nose to the ground as well as the grindstone. You swallow your pride, take a tablet and consider judicious aspects of social networking. You ask people. You analyse what routes other published poets have followed. You consider setting up an imprint yourself.






I try to maintain a current list of pamphlet publishers, though needless to say it’s never quite up to date. The current one lists, for example, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, which I note has now ceased publication – such a shame! The given reason is lack of funds. Poetry publishers don’t make money because by and large, poetry doesn’t sell. That’s another factor to bear in mind. However, there’s a gap there. Could you start the next knife, fork or a spoon? It is not rocket science. It just requires a little imagination, dedication and literary intelligence.






At the start of December, David Tipton died. David, who was also a poet and a novelist, ran Redbeck Press, which once hosted an annual pamphlet competition – at a time when the only competitor in the pamphlet competition field was The Poetry Business. Latterly, he was doing less, though maintaining relationships with many of the writers he had published over the years. There was a feature about him in Sphinx 4, 2006, and I have added it as a download to the Sphinx website.






That’s two publishers who have vanished. They leave a gap. Why not start an imprint of your own? There is so much to learn, so much to gain from this enriching opportunity. By enriching, you understand, I am not referring to money. We need more women, in particular, doing this.






To all who sent additions to the HappenStance December stack, thank you for your interest and your patience. There will be replies. Just not quite yet. . . .








Keep them long enough and they turn into poetry.


HappenStance subscribers recently received a complimentary copy of Preparing to be a Beautiful Lady. This little A6 production, written and designed by Jenny Elliott and originally printed by her own Shed Press, is a mixture of poem and ‘found’ poem, with graphics and adverts dating back to 1945, the year the Second World War ended.


Antique objects acquire value simply through age – from coal scuttle to paper knife. The same is true for words. What was ordinary, acquires curiosity and charm, especially when rescued and polished up by someone with an eye for such things.


In Jenny’s pamphlet “her nerves pay for it”, originally a phrase from an advert for cocoa, grows into something more than itself. It’s not just the rhythm and cadence of the words that render them attractive, it’s the acquired irony. Nothing wrong with the fact that cocoa “soothes frayed nerves / and aids digestion” – but in the age of obesity, we’re less reassured by the “body building protein, / energy-giving carbohydrate, and fat.” Fat?


Meanwhile “Mrs Futura’s wedding cake” is “baked by a valve”. How odd-sounding – how very odd! But “valves have solved many industrial problems”, and if you think about it, this must be true. Meanwhile, “the Doctor’s son, David” is benefiting from a concoction known as “humanized trufood”, an oxymoron if ever there was one.


We don’t see the curiosity, the oddness, the beauty in the language under our very noses. But what charm it can have nearly seven decades later! We hang onto old objects – silver spoons, rings, vases and Toby jugs – and endow them with both sentimental and financial value. The same is true of old words: they acquire power as they roll along.


I was baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church, in the days when church was a social outing, and the church youth club was the event of the week. So that’s what we did on Sunday morning – Matins, and sometimes, if the attractions of the choir boys were sufficient, Evensong as well. We did a lot of praying and kneeling, and we did most of it using words from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with our stories and parables drawn from the ‘Authorised Version’ of the Bible, the version of King James’s edition finalized in 1769.


I liked those words. I liked them because of their strangeness, their ancient rhythms and turns of phrase. I liked that it wasn’t ‘you’ but ‘thou’ and ‘thee’. I liked the old forms that cherished the ‘th’ sounds: “Here endeth the first lesson.” I liked the way we raced to the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, the powerandtheglory, foreverandever, Amen.”


We had no idea that “amen” (used in Hebrew, Christian and Islamic prayer) meant ‘so be it’. And yet, of course, we did know. We knew it in context. ‘Amen’ meant what it meant. It meant ta da. It meant shut the door on the end of that prayer. It meant nearly time to get out of church. Most importantly it was part of a special language we didn’t use at home.


In my late teens, church congregations were already getting smaller, though we didn’t notice. Some clerics thought the impenetrable language was to blame. We began to get readings from The New English Bible, and I remember my mother acquired a copy about this time.


Then our old vicar died or retired, and we got a new one. The old one was called Mr Harris. He used to visit parishioners regularly, and if you were out, he used to slip a card through the door. The card read: “The Reverend and Mrs Harris called and found you out.” No-one knew whether the double meaning was deliberate.

The new vicar didn’t want to be called ‘Mr ….’. He wanted more familiar terms, and as a result, my father always referred to him as ‘Callmejohn’.


Matins turned into Morning Prayer, Evensong to Evening Prayer. Instead of using the piles of well-thumbed prayer books (though we knew the prayers by heart), ‘Callmejohn’ brought in new versions on printed leaflets in ordinary English with the thees and thous banished. I liked him. But I preferred “the quick and the dead” to “the living and the dead”. I preferred “Hear ye the comfortable words . . .” to “Listen to the words of comfort”.


In effect, I liked not knowing what it all meant. (People probably felt the same when the language of prayer shifted from Latin into English.) As the vocabulary of my church became more and more accessible, I became less and less attracted to it. Soon I could no longer join in ‘The Creed’ – at least not all of it – because I’d started to think what the words meant and, as a result, found I couldn’t believe them. Eventually, I stopped going, even though I had to sacrifice singing hymns and psalms too.


I began by talking about poetry, and in my head I haven’t strayed from that theme. If you love poetry, what you look for is something special in the language – some beauty, oddness, or curiosity. And certainly what most people recognize as ‘poetry’ is not meaningless expression, but it is a form of words from which you can infer great possibility. The church language did that for me, and its phrasing and cadences shaped me in ways I don’t suppose I can rationalize. It made me love words and their functions: the virtue of repetition, the comfort of litany, the ancient shadows of something stretching back through language to pre-language. Language bound me.


If you write poetry, you look for a way of using words that preserves and exploits their essential strangeness. Much contemporary poetry draws on the vernacular, the common speech that surrounds us. In fact, we are averse to old phrasing in poetry and regard it as a Bad Thing. The danger with common usage, of course, is that it sounds too common, too ordinary for ‘poetry’, which is why many people still hanker after outmoded terms. It was so much easier for the old poets, even the early modernists, who could still draw on church language, already high and mysterious in register.


But the strange thing about common speech is how uncommon it is. It is threaded with ancient and modern. It changes as you look at it. You hardly, when you really think about it, understand it at all. You have to translate it for yourself as you go along, and often you translate it into a feeling, not a meaning. It is full of poetry, whatever that may be.


Wolcum be ye that arn her,
Wolcum alle and mak good cher,
Wolcum all another yer,
Wolcum yol.


The two Jims attracted a magnificent crowd for the launch of their new pamphlets on Saturday afternoon.

Both are accomplished readers and they did not disappoint. In fact, they were at their magnificent best. Highlights were Jim Carruth on the Scottish Independence vote, hilariously packaged in a poem about ice-cream; and Jim C Wilson taking Stevenson’s Mr Hyde in his stride via Adelaide Crapsey on an unerring route to Minsk which, as he pointed out, has not only a precise geography but a precise enunciation, without which it can turn to ‘mince’.

HappenStance cakes


The audience was marvellously attentive, and the business of managing wine tasting in three sections between the poems made it a reading with zing. Ross Kightly, author of Gnome Balcony, became the blurb from Matthew Stewart’s wine poems. I was the wine.


The wine itself was also there in liquid form and merrily imbibed. Ross’s wife Chris joined the elves (the quiet but essential support staff (these included my daughter Gillian and her husband Jamie) circulating with wine tastings, pouring drinks downstairs, and later selling the books.

Jamie and Gillian sorting out the sales table

It was lovely to have several other HappenStance poets there too. Gerry Cambridge was on the stairs, Eleanor Livingstone, Alan Hill and Deborah Trayhurn sitting down. Jenny Elliott (whose mysterious Shed Press pamphlet Preparing to be Beautiful snuck into the recent subscriber mailshot) was there too. Patricia Ace standing at the back, Margaret Christie sitting near the front. Gill Andrews and Theresa Munoz came in a little later. Who says poetry is not a welcoming world?


Meanwhile, the Scottish Poetry Library was as life-enhancing as always, light streaming through the upstairs windows. There were people sitting on chairs listening, standing at the back, on the stairs – a couple even sitting downstairs for the sound to fall from above like snow. The angelic SPL staff were at the desk calm, reassuring and supportive. The ancient poets nodded quietly from their places between the pages on the library stacks.

This is a place in which magical things happen – and yesterday they did.Ross Kightly and Jim C Wilson preparing for the reading


It was Richie McCaffery’s spoon-winning collection that started it.

In Spinning Plates there are two spoon poems, and they started me thinking about spoons and how much I’ve always liked them. Here’s the second of Richie’s pair:

At the jumble sale I found a silver spoon,
a deserter from a service, left pearl black
after years of clammy hands, feeding its mystery
with runic markings all along its tapered handle.
Home and high from silver polish fumes
I revealed under the muck a tiny gilded bowl,
a Midas trick which pleased you, but jarred me.
The thought of what truth someone was forced
to swallow, to need so fine a spoon as that.

It’s a dark poem in terms of thought, but it wasn’t the thought but the spoon itself that stayed with me, the “tiny gilded bowl” and the “runic markings . . . along its tapered handle”.

In my teens I collected spoons. Not antique or deeply interesting spoons, to tell the truth, but the sort of tea-spoons you get on holiday with a little enamel plaque stating the name of the resort. I must have gathered about thirty or forty of these souvenirs, but they disappointed. They tarnished horribly, didn’t clean up well, and were spindly things, meant for display, not use. The enamel bits came unstuck. What I wanted was a runcible spoon, those beautiful little creations designed for slices of quince (I had never seen a quince either).

Somewhere along the road I abandoned the spoon collection. However, I must have retained a feeling for spoons, albeit repressed. In my kitchen drawer I had, until recently, two plainish apostle spoons, abandoned in a cupboard by the previous owner, and a large, well-worn silver tablespoon with initials on the handle. When I set up house in straitened circumstances nearly twenty years ago, I acquired cutlery from Barnardos or Oxfam, and it included four dessert spoons and four soup spoons, heavy ones, and they are silver-marked (Walker & Hall, which is Sheffield 1901, according to the little flag picture). I bought them to use, not to ‘collect’, and used they have been, ever since. I don’t know about these things, you understand, I just like them. I like them because of the weight and the feel of their tradition of use. I even like the way they wear, with little scratches and scrapings.

Back to the spoon poems. In Acumen 74, there was another one. This time by Hilary Menos, a poet of distinction if ever there was one. And here it is:


Here I am, again, in these auction rooms
browsing the silverware section for old spoons.

Jam spoons, salt spoons, teaspoons with wrythen knops
(a mint boxed set complete with sugar nips),

a George III shell-bowled sauce ladle,
a silver christening spoon with nail-head finial,

a dozen apostle spoons, each saint with his emblem
finely wrought at the tip of a grooved stem,

even repoussé berry spoons—Victorian bling—
each one a perfect treasure. All these darlings

laid out like pale corpses on velvet or silk
or rubber-banded tightly, shank to shank,

begging me to buy them, no matter how dear,
and tuck them up at home in my cutlery drawer.

Hilary took me back to my own spoons, to look more carefully (which is one of the things art does, of course). Wrythen knops—the ornamental knob at the top of a spoon handle is a ‘knop’, and if it’s twisted, it’s a wrythen knop. Other kinds of design are finials (which is also the name of the journal of the silver spoon club of Great Britain, no less).  And repoussé? That’s when the bowl of the spoon has fruit or another design worked into it.

I always knew about apostle spoons, in the same way I knew about shepherd’s purse and coltsfoot. Somebody taught me to recognize these things before I was old enough to know I was learning. But the apostle spoons I grew up with were very ordinary: I didn’t know a true set was rare, and that it should have all thirteen of the apostles, each with a separate attribute. Every apostle carries something, often the instrument that led to his death.

And so the Master (Christ) carries a cross or orb. St Peter has a sword or key. St Andrew carries a cross. St James bears a pilgrim’s staff, St John the cup of sorrow. St Philip also has a staff, but perhaps not a pilgrim’s. St Bartholomew has a knife, St Thomas a spar. St Matthew has an axe or halbert, St James the less a fuller’s bat (the implement once used for beating and cleaning wool and, according to tradition, also for finishing off poor James). St Jude has a square (perhaps with an image of Jesus on it) and St Simon Zelotes a long saw. St Judas (poor old Judas) carries a bag of money.

On holiday in October, I found myself in a ‘vintage’ shop. Vintage is a new kind of shop, it seems to me—one up on a junk shop but three down from antiques. The shop had masses of spoons, all shapes and sizes, and beautifully cleaned up by the owner. I bought three little ones, and I bought them because of the spoon poems. I sent one of them to Hilary, the other two to other close friends, one of whom was in hospital. Hilary sent me a link to the Rachel Ross gallery, which made me look at my spoons even harder, and cherish them more.

A couple of weeks ago, my ill friend (she has advanced lung cancer) sent me a little parcel—or perhaps her daughter sent it. Inside was a silver spoon, and a note: “It’s Danish, 1930’s, we’d call it a caddy spoon, the Danes call it a compote spoon. I used it for fresh raspberries and strawberries—please treasure it.” Which I will. And I will use it.

Something has started. When I should be doing other things, I have been buying inexpensive spoons on Ebay, a new form of displacement activity. When my purchases arrive I clean them and polish them and put them carefully away, some in the cutlery drawer and some in the glass-fronted cupboard in a glass jug.

I gave away my two original apostle spoons to someone who needed luck, and I like to think they bring that. But I’ve acquired more. I don’t think they are very apostle-like. The creatures at the top of several look like death’s-heads to me and remind me of some of the Freemasonry symbols you see on gravestones. Others carry what looks to me like a book, but perhaps it’s St Jude with a square. Or perhaps it’s just a spoon maker who doesn’t know his St James the greater from St James the lesser.

In Richie McCaffery’s first spoon poem, the one I didn’t quote above, he talks about the “little lost things” that are “the detritus of distress”, a poignant reference. But such things are not always lost. Sometimes they are found. Sometimes they are right under our noses, waiting for us to pick them up to eat a boiled egg. To tilt sugar grains into tea. In such tiny and honourable activities, we are connected with the ancients.

Poetry makes spoons happen. And sometimes the reverse is also true.









There is Jim C, and then there is Jim . . . C.

I should have known it was a mistake to release two publications by poets with the same first name. Both Scottish. Both charming gentlemen, whom I would not wish, in any way, to offend.

However, Jim Carruth (author of Rider at the Crossing), when abbreviated becomes Jim C. And Jim Wilson (author of Will I Ever Get to Minsk?) is also . . . er . . . Jim C Wilson, and therefore I often save files of his as Jim C.

So more than once, I have sent communications about Jim C to Jim C. I mean, Jim C Wilson to Jim Carruth. And to add insult to injury, I have kept referring to Jim Carruth’s pamphlet, Rider at the Crossing as Rider at the Crossroads.

The Two Jims will have a Christmas launch at the Scottish Poetry Library on December 15th (a Saturday afternoon), and there will be several Zaleo wines and some interesting sort of tasting going on. What are the chances that I will introduce the Crossing as Crossroads, and Jim W as Jim C?

I think I ought to say that although the two Jims are Scottish and share a first name, their poems and their personalities are nothing like each other. They are men of distinction and character. Both can be funny, but in very different ways. One is West, one is East. One is Jim C and one is Jim W.

For Jim W, the collection represents many of his best poems from the last several years, and some of them recall other great personalities from Scottish poetry, people Jim met in person and remembers here: Norman MacCaig, for example. He is a rich source of anecdote and tradition, and he always has a little mischief up his capacious sleeve.

For Jim Carruth, often known for his settings in field and farm, there is not a farm in sight. But there is much else: fun, and sadness, and the feeling of a bit of a crossroads. I mean crossing. No, I do mean crossroads. You have the sense he is mid-career as a poet, looking back and forward, appraising the road already travelled, weighing up what’s on the horizon.

Paula Jennings will not be surprised at my getting things wrong. Her lovely and unusual collection, From the Body of the Green Girl, stuck in my mind as Out of the Body of the Green Girl, and as a result I kept putting that erroneous title into bits and pieces of things, including the official registration for the publication. I had to go back and register the correction. In fact, even a few moments ago, I typed them the wrong way round. But I think she has forgiven me.

I am in many ways a perfectionist, so these things are painful. How on earth did I manage to publish four poets whose first name was Martin? (If you have just sent me a submission and Martin is your name, it will not increase your chances of success.)

My level of confusion rises when exhaustion sets in, and exhaustion, like strawberry jam with additional pectin, has certainly set this week.

As I am all too fond of reminding people, it is not easy to sell poetry. Although that literary form is still somehow regarded as rare and beautiful, most possible purchasers are content to regard its beauty from a distance. So the business of negotiating, designing and printing a small pamphlet publication is the least of it. After that, there’s the flyer to design, the book to register, the online shop to populate, the poets’ bio pages to complete, the copies to post to the National Library, the Agency for the other copyright libraries, the Scottish Poetry Library, the London Poetry Library, the authors (some in packets, some in a large box), the queues in the post office, and so on. Later, it’s review copies and fulfilling the online orders, which start trickling in.

The poets themselves will shift some copies. This is good but it won’t be enough (or it rarely is). This is where the subscribers come in, the wonderful people who formally express an interest in HappenStance, in the form of a £7.50 payment. For this, they get (at the moment) an annual chapter in the story of the press. This year, the chapters vanished completely and one day these things will have a value, so if you have Chapter 6, hang onto it. They also get a pamphlet of their choice.

After that, they also get approximately two mailshots per year by post. By good old-fashioned, and now extremely expensive, stamps. The Christmas mailshot has just gone out and this year it even contained a free gift, a small and lovely little thing designed by Jenny Elliott and her secret and mischievous Shed Press. And there’s the Christmas card: 300 were handfolded last week and enveloped.

I have always been better at giving things away then making money. So it’s a particular point of pride to me to design attractive flyers for each publication, with a sample poem on the back, and these go in the mailshot too.

Of course, I hope some people will order some pamphlets as a result of all this, not least from the two Jims, and most subscribers do order at least two or three publications a year – the point at which the subscription scheme starts to cover its costs and put some cash back in the bank. And at least those who can’t afford to buy, or who don’t fancy the current bunch of poets, get the flyers and other bits and pieces.

Over the years, the subscriber list has grown steadily. Each person has a number and I am now up to 384, I think. In real terms there are just about 300 ‘live’ subscribers, several of which have become regular correspondents and friends. I’ve lost 80ish. When I say ‘live’, some of my subscribers really have died, to my particular grief. These have included, for example, Julia Casterton, Cliff Ashby, Tom Duddy and Bertie Lomas. Others simply drop the subscription, either because they don’t like most of the poetry I’m publishing (a wholly valid reason for dropping out) or because they only subscribed because they were sending in a submission of their own, and I have not come up trumps.

Most of the poets I have, in the end, published do continue to subscribe, and there are a lot of them now. I once calculated that if I had eventually published 500 poets (I am up to about 130), and if they all continued to support the press and purchased two pamphlets a year at full price, or 4 at half price, I could continue to fund six new pamphlet poets annually, and do all the other poetry stuff I do. Or almost. Now there’s a thought.

But it’s not just the business of buying things. Or selling things. It’s the issue of a proper readership. What I hope for in the HappenStance subscribers is people who actually read the poems—and preferably tell me what they think of them. Because the current list of publications reflects something in the story of literature. This list is current and contemporary. This is some of whatever poets are doing right now, at this minute, in the UK. And at some point, folk will look back on it and maybe say, ‘Now that was quite interesting.’ Or ‘Now that was bollocks’, or ‘How on earth did they underestimate that one?’

When I was at school, and even at university, I read dead poets. Nothing against dead poets. I like dead poets. But when, back in the early 1970s, I picked up a copy of a contemporary magazine – like Poetry Review for example, which I had even heard ofI didn’t like most of it. It didn’t live up to whatever it was I expected from the rare and beautiful thing poetry was supposed to be. I didn’t know where to start to find the thing I would like or did want.

Even now, it’s difficult, isn’t it? I read a ton of poetry every year. We have to heave it away from the door in buckets. And lots of it is okay. Some is good. Hardly any is rare and beautiful. Even the best poets alive write little that’s rare and beautiful.

People sometimes ask publishers why they started. In my case, there are many answers to that question. One of mine – and I don’t often admit it, because it feels risky – is that I wanted a say in what was going on. Someone always has a say in what gets to be Literature. But actually, anybody can have a say. It’s not as difficult as it’s cracked up to be.

Besides, it’s one of the best rides at the workaholics’ theme park.





Racing the Stable Clock is in the shop!

I won’t go on about this little publication, not least because of my anti-blurb stance, but it’s grand. Poems to make you laugh and cry. They’ll work, I think, for both poets and general readers.

Frank is not young. Born in 1925 he’s proof, if any were needed, that it’s possible to keep loving and writing all one’s life without ever becoming ordinary.

This author is a stalwart of the living poetry scene, a man who attends group events, and discussions, festivals and readings. He subscribes to magazines, enters competitions, supports other poets by buying their books, and he’s being doing all this for a long, long time.

Now it’s his turn, and this is a grand wee book.

If you’re a subscriber, a flyer for this and five other pamphlets is about to pop through your front door, together with the annual Christmas Card (I folded 200 before dinner last night) and a small but mysterious and delightful free gift. Between all this and the log-burning stove (the Planning Department returned my application as ‘incomplete’ yesterday so watch this space), I am (as one pillar of the HS subscriber community pointed out) living Chapter Seven instead of writing it.

But by hook or by book, Chapter Seven will also appear around the end of January.

If thinking of sending me poems for the December reading window, please wait until I get this mailshot out, or I’ll crack up. Now back to folding cards. . . .

Preparation for subscriber mailshot


Frank Wood’s pamphlet, Racing the Stable Clock, is on the way. But trees – and logs? Don’t talk to me about the wood kind of wood.


Why? I have spent many hours this week attempting to complete a “Householder Application for Planning Permission” for the external flue/chimney for a wood-burning stove. The saga is long. My advice would be not to read this blog entry.

We are putting in a wood burning stove. At least that is The Plan. The stove has even been chosen, and these things are not cheap. The installation requires the erection of an external steel flue because this house doesn’t have a chimney. Did we need planning permission? It was my job to find out.

I ransacked the Council website for information. I was taken to Building Regulations 2004, which cheered me up. I happily printed a section that indicated apparently clearly that no permission was needed for such an addition. But just to make sure, I emailed a free online facility known as Planning Aid. Belt and braces, I thought. A chap called ‘Armstrong’ replied.

I am very influenced by names. Anyone called Armstrong is durable, honest and steely to me. Mr Armstrong, however, sent me a document titled Guidance on Householder Permitted Development Rights. The regulations changed earlier this year, he said, and now you do need planning permission for flues and stoves: the relevant section is page 38.

I read page 38. Page 38 told me that a “flue forming part of a combined heat and power system” was not permitted “as they are permitted by other classes”. What on earth did that mean? What “other classes”?

On page 64, I found a statement I thought I understood. It said “a planning permission is needed for flues for dwellinghouses or flats within an Air Quality Management Area.” I didn’t, as advised, look up section 83 (1) of the Environment Act 1995 to find the definition of an Air Quality Management Area. I assume it is what used to be called a “smokeless zone”. Yes, we live in one of those. But log burning stoves are permitted in smokeless zones, so long as they are the right kind. Ours will be the right kind. Nevertheless, it appears the flue needs “a permission”.

I braced myself and set off to complete the planning document. Everything in the Council website encourages the applicant to do this electronically. Still, a small part of me was still hoping perhaps this planning thing wasn’t necessary, even though Mr Armstrong was strong, dependable, honest and almost certainly right. So I phoned the planning department, going through the usual options and waiting until one of our Advisers was free. The eventually-free Adviser didn’t know anything about stoves or flues but said she would also send me a paper copy of the application form, which had notes. Thank you, I said.

Of course, the notes in the paper copy must be the same notes that are on line. At least I assume so. I decided to complete as much as possible of the online document while waiting for the paper copy to arrive. This allowed me to discover the cost, which is £160 plus just over £14.00 for a small piece of OS map illustrating the site. Roughly £175.00 in all. Ouch.

Money is one thing. Time is also costly. In the middle of all this, I am attempting to:

  • finish the HappenStance Christmas Card
  • check the Inky Fingers proofs (don’t ask)
  • complete Jim C Wilson’s pamphlet, cover, flyer, website info etc
  • complete Jim Carruth’s pamphlet, cover, flyer, website info etc
  • assemble materials for the imminent subscriber mailshot
  • write three reviews
  • log pamphlets for Sphinx reviews (pun intended)
  • pack up and post three HappenStance orders
  • make dinner

But a little thing like a planning application form? Half an hour.

Two hours later, I have shifted into the present tense. I am ranting and tearing my hair. I have done most of the form. I have attempted to pay the fourteen quid to Ordnance Survey or whoever gets the money for the few square inches of map I must mandatorily purchase. But World Bank says there is a problem with my card, my trusty reliable card used to buy so many online goods. World Bank has locked access to the bit where you pay for the map, so I can’t attempt to put the payment through with any other card.


Later and calmer the same day, and logging in with a different browser, I find I am no longer locked out and so I can pay for the bit of map. The money leaves my account painlessly. I now possess a tiny bit of OS map legally, which means I won’t have to use the illegal screenshot I took earlier. (I have never been good at breaking the law). Emotionally exhausted, I postpone the next bit to the next day.

Next day: the paper copy of the form arrives. I have a cup of tea and read carefully through each and every bit of the five pages of notes. They advise me that if in doubt I can apply for a “Pre-Application Discussion”. This sounds like a great idea, so I phone the Council again, go through the number options again, wait for Our Adviser to be free again.

Is it a Householder Application or a Something Something Something Application? Our Adviser asks me.

A Householder Application, I reply knowledgeably (it’s what it says at the top of the notes).

I’m sorry, she says. We don’t do pre-planning discussions for householder applications.

Back to the online planning application. If it turns out that I don’t need it, according to Our Adviser, they will refund half the money and give me a Certificate of Lawfulness instead. I have never had a Certificate of Lawfulness and I think I would like one. (You pay £70.00 for a Certificate of Lawfulness, which certifies that you don’t need Planning Permission. Effectively, it is a Certificate to confirm that you don’t need a Certificate.)

Oh well. I am all in favour of electronic approaches really. They save trees, which means more of them can be cut down and used for log burning stoves suitable for use in clean-air zones.

I click on the Location Map bit of the application and consult the piece of OS map with my house on it in its electronic window. The software requires me to draw a land boundary around my property, and assists me to do so by instructing me to click on all corners of the boundary line. To complete the job – Control + click (or Command + click if using a Mac).

I am using a Mac. I duly click at the corners and the line around the property appears neatly. How very clever technology is.

Wait! “Command + click if using a Mac” to complete the boundary line doesn’t work. I try again. It doesn’t work again. I try right-click instead of left-click. I try double click. Triple click. I try other inspired key combinations. I google for solutions to this command not working. I try some of them. Nope. There’s no way my mouse can release the line from the cursor. No way I can get off the map without leaving lines in non-boundary places. No way I can complete the required action and get on to the next bit. No way I can get far enough to pay the £160.00 and send off the application.

I do many things in my attempt to solve this problem. I lock myself out of the Planning Application more than once. In fact, the only way I can get back to the piece of map I have now purchased but can’t use, is to remove it from the planning application by unclicking the “map-attached” button, and then going back to square one and reattaching it. I am relieved the expensive map hasn’t vanished in the meantime.

An interesting purchase, this map, this little piece of Ordnance surveyed. Although I have paid for it, I don’t seem actually to have it. That is to say, it’s not on my computer. It’s inside the Planning Application that I can’t send off, though I have at least screen-shotted it.

By now, I have spent another couple of hours messing about. I consider phoning Our Adviser (although I don’t think Our Adviser is likely to help) but it’s Friday and after 4.30. Our Advisers will have gone home.

Wouldn’t it be good to have a satisfactory conclusion to this story? I haven’t got one. I have forwarded the link to myself at work, where I can use a pc, but not until Tuesday. Perhaps that will let me do the bit I can’t do at home. But at work I really do spend my time working. An hour spent on this jiggerypokery is more than I can afford.

What do people unfamiliar with the world of clicks and online payments and advance whizzkiddery do? I daren’t share this experience with my Other Half because he will just go into full mutter mode and tell me, as he has always told me, that all this modern computer business is complicated nonsense, don’t I know that yet?

The paper application is in front of me. It is quite short, and I find I mainly understand it well. At the top it refers to “The Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (SCOTLAND) REGULATIONS 2008.” Apparently we are now following regulations 2012, but not on this form.

There are more capital letters, this time in bold font. They say PLEASE NOTE IT IS FASTER AND SIMPLER TO SUBMIT PLANNING APPLICATIONS ELECTRONICALLY.


It’s a line of Anne Stevenson’s. I remember it but I can’t for the life of me find the poem.

And since I wrote that, I’ve remembered whose line it really is. Not Anne’s, despite the fact that she has a number of particularly good dream poems. Sometimes I think my entire life is a process of half-remembered lines.

But it’s fitting that I couldn’t remember the precise provenance of this one, because when I first read it, (in ‘Five Dreams’ in Robert Nye’s 1976 collection, Divisions on a Ground) I felt I’d heard it already. I thought perhaps it was a half-quotation, or maybe just doing what poetry often does, drawing on the deep well of common phrase and cadence, so what comes up feels hauntingly familiar.

But I wanted to find the line again because I was thinking about dream poems, for which I’ve always had a predilection. Indeed, I’ve written a number myself, though nowhere near as many dream poems as I’ve had dreams.

I’ve found it now but my finding was less decisive than I thought. It’s in Nye’s Divisions on a Ground, and then it’s also in the Hamish Hamilton Collected (1989) but substantially different that is to say the key line is the same but the five dreams are slightly, or even completely in some cases, different. And in the more recent version (not included in The Rain and the Glass, 2004), the poet doesn’t say in the final stanza, “I dreamt a dream. I know what it means” as he did in the earlier version. Instead Nye concludes:

I dreamt a dream, what can it mean?
I dreamt I was a dry white bone
Which Love used as her flute.

Creepy. Why do some dreams demand to turn themselves into poems, when others fade? It’s probably that feeling – I dreamt a dream, what can it mean? – the sense of huge import, the feeling the dream is telling you something you need to understand. Cover of Freud's book on dreams

That feeling was around long before 1899 when Freud tackled the business with such far-reaching consequences. Anne Stevenson prefaces Stone Milk, her 2007 collection, with a quotation from 14th century Piers Plowman, “Then came a dream to me, marvellously I dreamed / [ . . . ] A fair field full of folk I found there between”. Significant dreams in the Old Testament of the Bible are even older, of course, which is how Joseph got his dreamcoat and is still singing about it in the twenty-first century.

But what about that experience where you dream you are writing the poem, and (in your sleep) you commit it to memory intending to put it on paper in the morning? You may even half-wake and scribble a few lines on the note pad at the side of the bed. The cold light of day almost invariably reveals these lines to be tripe. (‘Eid Ma Clack Shaw’! Bill Callaghan has the last word on this.)

But sometimes a dream successfully crosses the divide – it gets out of sleep mode and into a poem, where it still pulls its weight in the waking world. There are several reasons why such a poem is potent, I think. One is that the poet isn’t consciously choosing the components, so less control is exercised. The poet isn’t interfering.

A second advantage is the absence of deliberate intent. The writer hasn’t got designs on the reader, or at least not in the ordinary way. The writer is merely trying to present the dream as a shared puzzle.

And there’s the delight of the surreal. Dreams, by their very nature, specialize in surreality, and this breaks the mould of ordinariness – poems are always trying to do that. So the dream scores points there too.

In the middle of the surreal, real symbols. Dreams – at least the kind you want to write down – haunt you with visual emblems (or so it seems). I have recurrent dreams about a house with cellars and attics, secret stairs and hidden passages, and, as John Lennon said, I’m not the only one. Poems favour symbols because they accumulate meanings like a rolling snowball. And multiplicity of meaning, as we all know, is poetry’s favourite stamping ground.

Then there’s the business of narrative. Memorable dreams have a sort of story line, and sometimes there’s even a resolution. I can think of some marvellous dream poems that take full advantage of that – and immediately Edwin Muir’s The Combat leaps to mind, a poem you understand instantly on more than one level.

So far I’ve carefully avoided mentioning visions. But we have an age-old tradition of those too and the difference between a dream and a vision is slight. When dream acquires vision status it is powerful indeed and even has God connotations. Scary.

In a more down to earth sense, there’s fairly wide-spread agreement – this may be rational or purely self-indulgent – that the writing of poetry involves an altered state of consciousness. That is to say, not the usual way of thinking or feeling. Various legal and illegal substances can assist in this, and some produce noteworthy creations. ‘Kubla Khan‘ (subtitled ‘A Vision in a Dream’) was, according to Coleridge, wholly realized in sleep and only written down when he woke up. It seems clear opium had something to do with the exotic strangeness. (I am not recommending this.)

Meditation can alter consciousness too, of course, though it tends to float you away from words rather than towards them. But dreams take the biscuit. If your consciousness isn’t altered when you’re asleep, I don’t know when it is. And sometimes something extraordinary emerges as a result. No need to worry about this. The dream will tell you in no uncertain terms if it requires to be written down. Unlike most dreams, you won’t be able to forget it and, once you’ve written it down, neither will I.


How long should a poet leave between collections? Will fifteen years do?

Martin Edwards’ HappenStance pamphlet Rainstorm with Goldfish is his second collection. His first also a pamphlet (he was a Redbeck Press pamphlet competition winner) was Coconut Heart in 1997.

So Edwards has had no fewer than fifteen years to mull the poems between the pages of Rainstorm with Goldfish. And I think it shows. Without meaning to lapse into blurbonic plague (see Dennis O’Driscoll in Dark Horse, issue 25), the language here is distilled. There’s a purity in the understatement that strikes me as rare, and beautiful.

Poetry’s a fickle business. It was back in 1984 that Martin first encountered a little blaze of glory. He had poems in a Faber anthology, Hard Lines, and before he knew it he was being interviewed on Radio 1 as one of the latest gifted young poets.

It’s 2012, so it doesn’t take a genius to work out he’s no longer young and the blaze of glory was short-lived. But he’s been a faithful servant to the Muse all this time. He doesn’t write lightly.

Here, for example, is ‘Grief’. It looks so easy.

Your eyes and nose and mouth
were points

in a pattern of stars, gone
in a blink.

All the palaces of your voice were empty;
all the labyrinths of your fingerprints.

Or there’s ‘Hate’, which begins:

I’m sixteen and just beginning
to hate myself.

How could anyone not want to read the rest?

Rainstorm with Goldfish outfaces brevity with depth. And although there is something valiantly restrained about working against the current, about resisting the imperative of publish publish publish, I hope it won’t be fifteen years before Edwards does more. Anna Adams, in Island Chapters, says “True poems come into being at the top of an experience chain, as people and birds of prey are at the top of a food chain”, “something found, not something sought”. Sometimes the necessary experience chain takes fifteen years. Or more.

It has been suggested – by Robert Nye, among others – that patience, for a poet, is a mandatory requirement. Waiting until the poem is ready. Again, I can feel myself toppling into numinosity (stop, woman, stop before it’s too late!) but there is something in this.

There are innumerable ways of writing poetry. Some are young and full of life and playfulness and sheer delight. Exhilarating and fast and intoxicating. But a few writers take a lifetime to say a handful of small things plainly. Rainstorm with Goldfish belongs in that group.


Whose bicentenary was on 7th May this very year?

Robert Browning, no less. Perhaps you already knew. The significance of the year and date escaped me completely. It was mere coincidence (or happy synchronicity) that led me to putting The Pied Piper of Hamelin into a tiny pamphlet in September. In fact, it’s not even in the shop yet but it does exist, trust me.

I don’t know when poetry for children (apart from nursery rhymes) first appeared, but the Pied Piper, in 1842, must surely be one of the earliest manifestations. Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter wasn’t printed until 1845, three whole years after the Pied Piper had piped the children into the mountainside, and though both tales are set in Germany, I doubt the German psychiatrist Hoffmann was remotely aware of the aspiring poet/playwright Robert Browning.

In fact, when Browning penned his children’s epic, he was a mere thirty years old, unmarried, living with his parents, a poet who hoped to write for the theatre. He was ambitious but he was certainly far from successful. His main reputation up to that point was for obscurity. His marathon poem Sordello, had been published in 1840 (at his father’s expense) by the same publisher who was bringing out the works of a then little-known contemporary, three years his senior, Alfred Tennyson. (Tennyson didn’t make the leap to celebrity status until 1842; and Elizabeth Barrett’s 1844 volume Poems, the book that would change Browning’s life forever, was still a twinkle in the author’s eye.)

Poets are not always nice to each other. Tennyson said he understood two lines of Sordello only, the first and the last, and both (since one claimed it was going to tell the story of Sordello and the other claimed the story had been told) were lies. William Macready, the leading actor (and friend) whom Browning very much wanted to impress, noted in his diary for 17 June, 1840: “After dinner tried – another attempt – utterly desperate – on Sordello; it is not readable.” How one’s heart goes out to Macready! But at least he reserved his comments for his personal diary, and the friendship survived. (Clyde de L. Ryals calls it a “wonderful, zany poem”, by the way — perhaps Browning was just somewhat ahead of his time. John Lucas’s excellent Student Guide to Robert Browning observes drily that Ezra Pound “claimed to understand it, although he never explained his explanation”.)

But enough of Sordello. Browning had had good friends and he valued them. When William Macready’s oldest son fell ill and was confined to bed, he wrote him a story for entertainment purposes. It was a story in verse: The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and he suggested the boy might like to illustrate it. The author wasn’t preoccupied with penning Great Poetry. Perhaps that’s why the Pied Piper leaps off the page so delightfully:


They fought the dogs and killed the cats,

….And bit the babies in the cradles,

And ate the cheeses out of the vats,

….And licked the soup from the cook’s own ladles,

Split open the kegs of salted sprats,

Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,

And even spoiled the women’s chats

….By drowning their speaking

….With shrieking and squeaking

In fifty different sharps and flats.

Oh boy, what a rhymer! What a man of metre! What fun he was having!

The year before Browning’s death, the Pied Piper appeared in an edition illustrated beautifully by Kate Greenaway and, although I don’t possess a copy, I think this may have been the version I first read, perhaps my first dose of Browning. With or without illustration, the poem has unparalleled bounce, a quality not often associated with long poems. And it shows Browning’s joy in unreasonable rhyme, something he showed off at dinner parties, apparently, to the end of his days. Who else would rhyme “painted tombstone” with “the Trump of Doom’s tone”? It’s a joke, of course, and some of this no doubt baffled the young Macready. Other bits though must have been a joy, such as the voice of the surviving rat: “So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon, /Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon”. Such fragments can follow one through life, long after much else is lost.

The HappenStance version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin has a number of rats scattered through its pages, though not in the Kate Greenaway style. They are what poet Frank Wood (his first pamphlet will imminently issued by HappenStance in Racing the Stable Clock) calls “racing rodents”. He likes them so much he wants those rats for his pamphlet too. . . .

In the 1870s, by which time he had outlived Elizabeth by decades, Browning had a pet owl called Bob, which sat either on a bust beside his desk or on his shoulder when he wrote. This is recorded in an anonymous article titled ‘Celebrities at Home’ in The World (1880). A pet owl called Bob. A brown owl.

The great Robert Browning had a sense of humour. Never let that be forgotten.