The window is the widest it’s ever been. More envelopes have flown in than ever before.

I think I’m at the zenith. (I love words beginning with Z.) I don’t think I can ever do this thing again because I can’t read all the poems and still have time to publish anything. How on earth is it possible to keep a balance?

But it has been, as always, fascinating. I’m now just over halfway through the mountain of envelopes (122 so far), and since Boxing Day I’ve stepped up the pace. Why? There are no more parcels to wrap, no more Christmas cards to send, and few orders for books coming in.

I have forgotten what a poem is, if I ever knew. I only know now whether (or not) I seem to be following the piece of text in front of me clearly.

When it works, it’s no longer a piece of text. It’s a whole experience. I can step into it and, when I get to the end, I can step out again. And I can repeat this any number of times.

When it doesn’t (as it seems to me) work, the reasons are usually the same reasons that apply to prose that doesn’t work, but exacerbated by tricky line and stanza breaks. Sometimes reading a poem is like fighting through a thorny thicket.

This might be fitting if the poem was about fighting through a thicket. If it’s about a childhood photograph (as many are), this is less desirable.

I’ll add one or two points to the bugbears I rehearsed last week, because they come up so often I’m starting to think I’m suffering from some rare neurosis. And indeed I am probably excessively sensitive to features that, in another context, wouldn’t bother me at all. But it does no harm, I think, to flag them. I promise not to mention ‘leaning verbs’, though everywhere they are still leaning.

Visual elements

Prose poems are here to stay. Most of them arrive formatted for an A4 page, which is what they’re printed on. They are usually fully justified or blocked (the occasional one is left-hand justified with a ragged right hand margin, which I find interesting, because I’m interested in the shapes of poems).

There’s some dispute among typographers about the optimal line length for readability (and it is different on a paper page from a web page). When lines are too long for my eyes to cope with, the focus goes weird. I feel antsy. And it’s easy for the poet to adjust this! Use a size 12 font and count the characters! I have seen lines 84 characters long, and I know this is Too Long. But I think poets, whether writing in verse or prose, should think about both shape and accessibility on the page. It’s part of the poem, isn’t it? Am I going completely daft? If the poem is ever published in a book or pamphlet, the page will be smaller than A4. So it’s sensible to set margins that take account of that. Unless the whole point is to make it as difficult to read as possible. Cue, thicket.

Double spacing

Many poems arrive formatted with double spacing. I wonder whether some literary courses, MLitts or whatever, are requesting poets to submit all work double spaced? It used to be the norm for university essays. Maybe the submission requirement has filtered through to verse where it’s not appropriate. Or perhaps some websites have influenced formatting conventions? Frequently you see poems double-spaced online, and I suspect it’s because the person putting them there doesn’t know how to adjust the formatting. (A hard return on a keyboard will create double spacing in a web page. You have to hold the shift key down at the same time to do a soft return and get the spacing single.)

Back to the shape of the poem on the page. I don’t mind if line spacing’s slightly wider than single. That doesn’t get in the way of seeing the shape of the whole poem. But full double spacing has an odd effect. It stretches a poem that should fit on one page onto two. It makes stanza breaks enormous (because they are quadruple spaces). It makes poems with single line stanzas (they do exist) look exceptionally weird, as though the lines are floating in egg white.

Habitual past
It’s not just the shape of the poem, it’s the sound and motion.

Okay. Poets are fond of writing poems about something that used to happen regularly. They used to make daisy-chains in the garden. They’d see the old lady next door cutting the grass with kitchen scissors. They’d giggle about how funny she was. And all the while they’re telling you about this, the ‘d’ sounds start to stack up. Not only this. The actions they’re describing are increasingly generalised. A single action in the past (the time you trimmed your uncle’s moustache) is more compelling than the fact you used to do it often. And you can use a simple past tense for something that happened often. You just need to tinker a little.

There is a sort of poem that begins with a sequence of habitual past statements. It is building up to something that happened once – we know that immediately. However, it’s building in the same way that a thousand other poems build. Like this:

It seemed as though I’d always known him.
We’d walk together in the park
and comment on the state of the grass.
We’d talk about dogs and joggers,
our missing relatives. He’d tell me about
the day his hat turned into an elephant.
I’d say, Don’t be daft. He’d tell me
there were more things in the world, Horatio.
One day [ . . . ]

This caveat is just as true for prose. The lines above sound like the typical opening to a short story. But nobody wants to write typical openings. What we want is an opening that is arresting.

For the same reason, you might not want your anecdote to follow the typical construction of ‘I’d always known . . . Then one day . . . . Suddenly . . . Finally’. It’s all too familiar. Besides, that little word ‘then’ is deceptively easy to slip in. Many poets find themselves using it two or three times in one short poem. They don’t see it because it’s so small and unobtrusive (except to a person stuck in a thicket). I am now so sensitized to ‘then’ that I tend to underline it and watch it, just to stop the wee thing getting out of hand.

Intensifiers and qualifiers

Mark Halliday once pointed out to me that few statements were not improved by removing the word ‘very’. He was right. I’ve been now withholding ‘very’ for a merry long time. A long time (in a poem) sounds longer than a very long time. I don’t know why. ‘Really’ is just the same. But ‘really’ is not really a problem in poems (please note, none of this applies if writing in direct speech or monologue).

The one that is a newish problem for me is ‘so’. I don’t mind ‘so’ in “the Christmas pudding was so rich that we all threw up in the afternoon”. And I quite like using ‘so’ to mean ‘because’ (though I have rationed myself since one blog when I noticed I had used it at the start of five different paragraphs).

No, the problem is ‘so’ as intensifier. So sweet. So charming. So nice. So small. So sad. ‘So’ before an adjective contributes to the awwwww effect. Which in poems is generally to be avoided, unless you’re being funny. Find one good adjective and use it. Or better still – as Mark Twain said of the noble Adjective in Pudd’nhead Wilson, “When in doubt, strike it out.”


And finally (yeeha!):
Complicated sentences (with a multiple clauses and difficult line breaks and commas and semicolons) that go on for two inches or more. Like this:

 I looked into the trees, into the myriad branches
where the leaves, drifting past in yellows, reds, browns,
golds, flaunted their transitory selves; knowing they
were products of the mind, my own cold
consciousness; and not even, no matter how I looked at
it now or then, or at any time
since, leaves – in the sense of chlorophyll and foliage –
futile and fearful – and real.

This is poem as thicket. If the poet were writing prose, I doubt they could achieve such impenetrability. I have created the example, of course, but I have not exaggerated.

I am going off dashes too, by the way, not just semi-colons, but I’m not going to mention that here. Except that dashes are dashing all over the place lately, in various shapes and forms and inconsistencies, and some of them are hyphens. So in order to be less slap dash, it would be good to take a look at Punctuation Matters. Once in a while.

Now to the rest of the mountain. I may eventually be back. Did I mention I’ve also encountered some terrific poems?


Well, I have.







The shortest day. Losing the plotamus.


No, not really. That was just to get your attention. Well, it was the shortest day yesterday – but also an absolute beauty in this neck of the woods. Bright, brilliant sunshine and December gleaming for all it was worth.

But someone probably noticed I didn’t blog last week. This was because I had disappeared under the mountain of tasks, partly a result of Christmas, and partly Other Things.

Meanwhile, the submission envelopes were stacking up alarmingly, and arriving faster than I could open them. In the middle of all the December mayhem, it’s calming to sit and read poems from real people. But it’s been hard getting proper time to do that.  I’m one of those people who slows down if pressure builds up. I slow down and go on longer, and dream about hippopotami (at least I did last night).

And although – yes – I do love poetry and language and all that stuff, I’m also endlessly analytical. I’ve never understood why I write what I call ‘poems’, let alone anyone else. So I constantly try to work out what’s going on and how it’s happening in the here and now, which is different from any other time as well as similar to every other time.b2ap3_thumbnail_PILE-OF-MS.jpg

In last year’s December window, 77 sets of poems arrived. This year, so far, there have been 115 by post and 7 electronically, because the new online sub allows people to send up to 5 by email.

However, the online sub is now in a dodgy situation because of a new European Union VAT rule that comes into place in January. This requires the seller (me) to apply the VAT of the home country of the buyer to any digital sale. And then, obviously, to pay the appropriate sum to the tax revenue agents of the requisite country, thus making the small amount of income even smaller, and the time required to do it even greater. Insane.

But that’s just more plodding for the hippopotamiss. Meanwhile, I’m reading the poems people have sent. I was a bit worried that the online people would try to discuss the feedback with me – by email. I can’t do that because I don’t have time, even though if I were the poet, I know I would feel I wanted to explain what the sixteenth stanza meant too. But most of the poets have been admirably restrained.

Back to the postal ones, which are still arriving. And the reading.

I’m interested in the forms and shapes. It’s what I see first. What shape the poem is on the page. I flick through the set. If they’re all similar in appearance, I wonder if the poet writes all her poems that shape. To me, the shape of the poem is part of the form of the poem, which is (if the thing is a humdinger) inextricably tied up with what the poem is saying/meaning. This indefinable business of it all coming together is part of the magic. If it works, it’s astounding. And rare.

When poems are divided up into neat chunks: couplets or triplets or quatrains, that’s okay. It looks nice. It looks like a pattern, and I like patterns. If I get to the third stanza and find myself wondering why the poem’s in quatrains, it usually means it hasn’t ‘hooked’ me. Because although I am, self-confessedly, analytical, I know I’m not supposed to be analysing the stanza format while reading.

Similarly, I hate the way I go on about sentence structure or syntax. I really do. But often I get lost in the opening sentence by line three. This can happen for all sorts of reasons, not least using a sequence of words in which each one could, for a moment, be either a noun or a verb or an adjective. Something like this:

Frost walks break, cooling, and again

seasons hope open before the wheelbarrow
that peril jacks here catching all the attention! Oh I know
confusion purposes this.

Of course that was an extreme example because anyone would find it confusing. But you see my point. When you read ‘Frost walks break’, you’re not sure whether ‘walks’ or ‘break’ is the verb. Same with ‘hope’ and ‘open’.

I often draw attention to a difficulty in finding a finite verb. Oh hopping hippopotami – what is this, an English lesson? Using the term ‘finite verb’ is a short cut. I mean the bit of the verb that’s clearly attached to the subject of the sentence, the bit that completes a statement. Verb = doing/being word, right? With a finite verb, the doing/being gets done. With bits of verbs, like participles, the doing isn’t finished so you get a sentence fragment, or non-grammatical sentence. Like this:

Moving into the sun again, and coming
back and not knowing, even then, which
way the sun, the
setting sun, the falling sun.

There’s no finite verb in that group of lines. This doesn’t mean the lines are wrong. It means there’s an interesting, displaced, floating effect. No finite verb means no position in time. I could put a finite verb in, of course, and everything would change, though not necessarily for the better:

Moving into the sun again, and coming
back and not knowing, even then, which
way the sun, the
setting sun, the falling sun was going.

All the same, when reading the second version, you feel you (sort of) know where you are. You’re in the past, for a start, even though the action is fluid. But in that first sentence, the lack of a finite verb is more taxing for the reader. And that’s without even mentioning the line breaks.

Line breaks are just another poetry trick. They can accomplish all sorts of things and this is part of the fun. But they’re also little barriers, positioned deliberately. They create tiny hitches in the rhythm, or the sense, or the flow of meaning. If those tiny hitches become major snags – because you can’t see where the central thread’s going – that’s a problem, unless the poem is (in some sense or other) about confusion. Which, just to confuse the hippopotamuse further, it might be.

There are poems that manage one single sentence across three six-line stanzas. Gerry Cambridge has just sent a beauty on his Christmas card. When this works (as it did in Gerry’s case) it is a joy. In such an instance the reader glides securely through the poem like a skier in perfect snow, and then goes back and does the whole thing again. And again. Just for the pleasure of it.

But so often it doesn’t work. Many poets seem afraid to write short sentences. I suspect there’s an unconscious sense that poems shouldn’t seem easy. If they were easy to understand at first reading, would they be poems?

Well, yes. They might well be poems. Poems can do anything. Short, long, convoluted, crazy.

On balance, though, I think it’s good to keep the reader with you, at least until she gets to the end. If she falls off her skis in the middle, she may never get back on. Or she may get onto a different poem.

In my perilous feedback to poets, I’ve been doing the usual thing of drawing attention to ‘leaning verbs’, because their proliferation is still astonishing. I was amused to see the ‘Blind Criticism’ example in this month’s issue of The North has one at the very end, which puts the author (I won’t give her away) smartly into the contemp-po box. And you can see it isn’t a bad thing. But there’s something familiar about it. It’s not, to my mind, the best thing. Because the best thing is not quite like anything you’ve read before.

It’s also possible that I’m losing it. Yes, plot lost. Hippoplotamus lostus. If you read a huge quantity of poems, you can’t miss the recurring trends. You can’t fail to see how often the word ‘heft’ pops up. Poor ‘heft’. Used as a verb, it was once singular and different. Not now. Lottaheftamus.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Hippopotamus_001.jpgAnd the number of poems that follow the ‘then’ and ‘but now’ format! And the number of lines beginning with my least favourite word,‘as’. Not to mention the ubiquity of ‘we were stood’ or ‘we were satamus’, which causes me physical pain.

Sometimes I think it’s a good thing to be exquisitely sensitive to language and phrasing. Sometimes I know it’s not.

Here’s the list of contemp-po features that have been smacking me in the eye over the last ten days. I’ve modified a little since the last time round, where there was more illustration of the last two, so if you want to know more about what I meant, follow the link:

  • lots of‘I’ plus present tense: ‘I see’ and ‘I watch’ and ‘I think
  • disappearing subjects (verb with no ‘I’ or ‘he’ or ‘you’)
  • poems in couplets
  • entire poem based on one metaphor (sometimes it works)
  • over-mixed metaphor (crossed logics)
  • death by adjectives
  • a lot of cross-stanza enjambment
  • colons, semi-colons and dashes that don’t (for me) do much
  • long sentences that lose the reader
  • multiple statements lacking finite verbs
  • sentences or stanzas starting ‘And’ and ‘But’
  • first few lines dead (no bite) or hard to follow
  • titles with a witty (?) double meaning
  • title steals thunder of the best (last?) line or phrase
  • numerous ‘as’ sentences (see blog 26.05.2011)
  • anaphora structure (eg each line begins ‘because’)
  • the last word of the last line is ‘love’
  • the word ‘yet’ flags an epiphany (resist! resist!)
  • the word ‘for’ meaning ‘because’
  • then, followed a few lines later by suddenly (regrettable in prose, let alone poetry)
  • perplexing line breaks, which is nearly but not quite as bad as
  • line breaks on ‘significant’ word like ‘break’ or ‘turn’ or ‘over’
  • a rhyme at, or very near, the end, but none anywhere else
  • no punctuation, and then some suddenly arrives
  • the ‘leaning verb thing’
  • the ‘how’ and ‘the way’ clause repetition
  • line breaks sometimes serves as a pause (no comma) but other line breaks are enjambed so the line break isn’t a pause at all and it all gets . . . difficult
  • poems that only fit comfortably on a page at least A4 in size
  • ‘I was sat under a tree’; ‘we were stood by the bar’—contemporary usage that works conversationally but sits uneasily in formal writing (so sez Nellie and see OxfordWords blog on this)
  • scant awareness of assonance – one of the best tricks in the book. Maybe even the best.

Back to the envelopes now. Oh, one last word. Some nice people have deferred sending poems, they tell me, because they don’t want me to be overburdened. But theirs could be the ones I would like most. I know I can’t keep this up forever. By next December, there may not be a window at all. So send them now while the hippo muse is still (relatively) amusing and before the postamus crumbles. Hip, hip, hurrotamus!


2B or not 2B

Who invented the term ‘reading window’?

This space is more like the other side of the letter-box, sitting on the floor surrounded by envelopes. More keep falling on my head.

So far fifty-eight sets of poems have arrived with stamps both franked and unfranked, and five smaller sets by email (from online only subscribers). Two are at the sorting office because they were understamped (at least I assume the two notifications are for submissions envelopes). I am working my way through and replying one by one, but I’m only up to 22.

The task is absorbing and educative. But I don’t feel confident about it. Who could? Who really knows what’s what when it comes to poetry? Who can be sure she is not missing the whole point?

But one can analyse things too much. So I just start reading, and I try to read each poem as though I’ve never read one before, though this gets more difficult over the month. It’s also more difficult if the poems resemble one another. That is to say if a poet has eight poems all in three-line stanzas. (I like to think each poem has its own shape or form.)

Still, I put my anxiousness to one side, and set about suggesting this, that and the other with my new pencil.

When you bought a 2B pencil in the olden days, you had a good idea how it would write. How soft, not hard. How legible, not faint. These days decent pencils cost serious money and at Rymans (where I bought mine last week) they mainly come in packets of three.

But one brand of 2B pencil is not like another. My new pencil is not as soft as I’d like it to be, or as soft as the last three types of pencil I’ve been using. To me, it’s somewhere between HB and B. However, it has a good eraser that fits on the end, which is useful on the bus.

Because the space behind the letter-box sometimes finds its way onto a bus or train, where the process continues. But it has to come back in the end to the table in the sitting room because the laptop’s there where I log the ms and try to write some comments that’ll help me remember what feedback I gave to the poet. After the first 50, you have no idea what you said to whom, or which Peter or Janet was which (Peter, Janet – please don’t take this personally).

Specific difficulties arise. In particular this: I have a system of ticks and smiley faces. If I like a poem, I put a pencil tick on the page. If I like it so much I would publish it (if I could), I put a smiley. But this system is starting to break down. Sometimes I like poems but still think they’re not fully cooked. Sometimes I like them with a big tick and sometimes a tiny, weeny tick. Sometimes I like them and don’t remember to tick them. And sometimes the poet, bless her cotton socks, only gets two smileys over three years no matter how many poems she sends.

But there’s a more serious issue. The quality of many of these submission envelopes is high. It really is. I now see a good number of sets of poems I would like to publish. Far more than I can publish. It’s easier to say a thing should happen than make it happen.

So I’m sitting behind the letter-box looking at an increasing number of poets who have sent me several sets of work, all of which has had a warm response from me, but not quite so warm that I’ve said ‘Yes, let’s make a pamphlet of your poems.’  They are in my ‘maybe’ list, and the list is getting longer by the day. Oh but this is a difficult one! It’s like that editorial response to poems sent to a magazine that goes ‘Liked these but not quite enough.’ Meanwhile, the poems are all jostling and stiffening their collars, desperate to be loved.

How do I decide which to offer to publish? There are too many elements to mention. Sometimes it’s one individual poem. Sometimes it’s a sense of the sheer talent of the writer. Sometimes it’s knowing a set of poems is nothing like anything I’ve ever published before. Sometimes, it’s feeling the publication would blend well, or contrast well, with the others I have lined up for a certain year. Sometimes it’s having an idea about how the set of poems might be presented. Sometimes it’s the sheer energy of the poems – an energy great enough to counteract my own tiredness.

This is not a moan. Please don’t start feeling sorry for me. I like doing this reading. It’s meaningful and worthwhile, and it teaches me something. Each time, I learn new things. It is a great thing that there’s lots of good poetry happening. There cannot be ‘too much’ good poetry.

Also, I invited the poems and chose the space in which I sit. Nevertheless, there’s something else I want to say.

There are quite a number of small presses these days. But not enough. We need more small publishers. There are sets of poems that – for hugely varied reasons – don’t lend themselves to winning competitions but that can and should be published and shared.

We need more co-operatives – small groups of writers looking at this together. More people who want to learn about ways of supporting other poets, through publications and associated activities. More people with the skills of editing and typesetting (or the determination to buy them in), who can work with others to make interesting, varied, provocative, dynamic publications. More people like Emma Wright, at the Emma Press, and Duncan at Tapsalteerie. More people who, perhaps fed up with their poems being liked (but not quite enough), move into supporting other poets in the same situation. More unincorporated Rebel Incs.

Poacher can turn game-keeper. Poets can take the power into their own hands and more of them should. I don’t mean self-publishing. I mean publishing other people. People you know and like. People you don’t know but should. People whose work deserves it. It’s an extraordinary learning experience.

I could recommend a number of good poets to you. Just drop me a line.b2ap3_thumbnail_04_27_22---Letter-Box_web.jpg


So you line them up. Three here, four there. Two of them are holding hands.

They’re spruced up and looking at their best. They are absolutely clean. They’ve never been out before. Well, that’s not quite true. Two of them went on a trip when they were young. But since then they’ve matured. They’re different now.

You feel proud. The tall thin one sprang from practically nowhere and Jack says he’s amazing. You have the little fat one by heart.

It’s time.

You have no intention of folding them. You ease them one by one into an A4 manila envelope.

Which is ‘manila’ because of manila hemp. Manila folders were once made of ‘manila hemp’. But manila hemp isn’t even hemp. It’s a fibre made from musa textilis, a type of banana plant. At one time they used it mainly for rope. Manila rope. They called the envelopes after the rope.

Envelope. Rope. Musa textilis. This strengthens everything.

You queue in the Post Office but the queue is very long. So you buy large-letter Christmas stamps in the paper shop instead. First class. You get more for your money with a Christmas stamp. You get a seasonal picture. This year it’s a cute cartoon of three children posting mail in a big red postbox topped with snow.

It’s 12 degrees and no sign of snow. Still – one large stamp for the boys in their musa textilis. Another one for the return envelope with your own address on.

You slip the (folded) return envelope inside the other envelope with the poems. You remove the self-sealing strip. You seal the musa textilis carefully.

You pop your darlings into the red post box. It’s good that post boxes are still red (apart from the one in Dunblane they painted gold after Andy Murray won at Wimbledon) because it means you trust them more. You have to have trust.

Only after you walk away, do you realise

a) you’ve been feeling nervous all morning

b) you’re lighter. They’ve gone. They’re away. They’re out on their own, cock-a-whoop and crazy.

But what about when they come back? They’ll be slightly creased round the edges, won’t they? The paper will be limp. Most of them will be sheepish.

Still, they have to do their best without you. That’s what you made them for.

They’re a communication and they need a reply. So send them.


The HappenStance reading window starts tomorrow. Between December 1 and December 30 your poems are welcome, and will get a reply. But do read the guidelines first.


There are poems that won’t let me in. Not enough room.

I don’t know what makes it happen. I only know how it feels. I get to the end of the poem and cast my eye back over it. The poem looks unusually full of words. Chockablock. It sealed over when I got to the end and there doesn’t seem to be a way back in.

Is it to do with the layout? Can’t be. The poem is in couplets with yards of space round them. Is it because it’s written in the first person? No – it uses ‘she’ all the way through. Is it because there’s no ‘story’? Nope. There was a story – something to do with a dog and some washing, I think.

So what shut me out?

Lord knows. Sometimes I think it’s too much ‘I’. At other times, I wish the poet would drop ‘she’ and face up to the first person. 

But if the poem opens with this construction (see below), my heart always sinks:

Walking through the woods on Saturday
I think

which could equally be

On the road from Ceres to Blebo Craigs, I notice


Having drunk three cups of cappuchino and eaten two bath buns
I feel

That construction is opening poems all over the place. It is not fresh. It is not delightful and new. And the ‘I’, it seems to me, is already a poetic ‘I’. It is not me, and I want/need it to be me.

How very different is the start of ‘In Search of Uplift’ by Nancy Mattson which begins like this (and not an ‘I’ in sight):

It was heaven to sit in that shop
at number 28, reading tomes
at a vast table, its buttersoft leather top
stained with ink and sweat

I’m in the shop. That poem is about me.  

When I was at school we were taught about poems with Personal Truth and poems with Universal Truth. Universal Truth was better. There was a lot of Universal Truth in Macbeth but more in Hamlet. Shedloads in Robert Frost. (We didn’t read Sylvia Plath.)

But with this business of inviting the reader in (or not), I think I’m talking about something different from personal v. universal. I like personal truth. But it has to be personal truth the reader can inhabit. The experience needn’t be one the reader has had in person, but somehow she is having it through the poem without too much literature getting in the way. (I mean ‘inhabit’ as in ‘live inside’, as in ‘put on like a garment’, as in ‘invest in’.)

Unless it’s a poem in which she is lumped with an experience she doesn’t like one bit. At the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival recently, Julian Stannard discussed a poem by Frederick Seidel and despite Julian’s persuasive charm, it wasn’t a poem I wanted to be inside. In fact, there are texts that deliberately invite the reader inside an experience that’s abhorrent.

Browning does it in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ when you find yourself identifying with a murderer. But there – because you sense the speaking voice is a mask – not the poet himself – you can be both inside and outside at the same time. You are and aren’t the narrator. Whereas, if you are the narrator (because you’ve stepped inside) and you don’t like being him, and there’s no place to go, you end up totally creeped out and off poetry for days.

So where am I going with this? People talk about ‘authenticity’ a lot. It may be that ‘authentic’ has lost its authenticity. But I’ll risk it. I think there’s an authentic ‘I’ which invites the reader in, and an inauthentic ‘I’ which shuts her out. I think there’s an authentic ‘she/he’ too, and an authentic ‘you’. And that when you read the poem, you know which it is.

The HappenStance reading window opens a week tomorrow on the first day of December (not before). It closes again on Wednesday 31st, but by the 30th I will be tired. If sending poems, do read the revised guidelines. Then push them gently in this direction, without worrying too much about authenticity. Or anything else. Let the poems do the talking.




I’ve never thought about them so carefully before.

That sounds daft. I work with people putting first pamphlet collections together all the time. Which poem comes first is important, and the choice is never accidental.

But this was different. Last week, I was at Lumb Bank (I have never been before) with a group of poets thinking about how they might put together a first pamphlet or book. (I was tutoring for the Arvon Foundation with Helen Tookey, poet and managing editor for Carcanet Press).

You know that bit you see on people’s bio at the back of magazines: Pansy Piffledunk is working towards her first collection?

I’ve always wondered about ‘working towards’. It’s not the same as ‘walking towards’ or ‘wandering towards’. It has a sense of determination and direction. Pansy Piffledunk knows where she’s going. These days Pansy Piffledunk also has an ‘overarching theme’. She is working towards a first collection based around an imaginary group of miners’ mothers in the lost Goose Egg Gold Mine of El Dorado County.

But I don’t want to mock her. Not really. We all aspire to a degree of Piffledunk. It’s not unreasonable to feel one should be ‘working’ rather than ‘wandering’, even if the reality is different. And looking closely at first poems was fascinating, especially for someone like me who usually opens the book at the back.

We looked together at the opening poem of Niall Campbell’s new book Moontide. People loved its setting and atmosphere – the image of lighting a match in a grain store. A couple of them went away to buy the book. Lots of opening poems seem to be in some way or other about the act of writing poems (buried in metaphor).

I found an original 1992 volume of Simon Armitage’s Kid, in the Lumb Bank library, with its weird opening narrative about a man who comes to stay (alive) and leaves very much dead. And what about the haunting opener to Tara Bergins’ This is Yarrow? I won’t forget it. Another book I have to read the rest of.

During the week, although we did discuss opening poems and (briefly) structure of first collections, we mainly agreed (though we didn’t put it quite like this) that ‘wandering towards’ was okay. Wandering via the best possible poems you can write. Themes might turn out to have been arching over. Or not. Doesn’t matter really.

What does matter, if one has publication in mind, is understanding how publisher/editors think and feel. (They do have feelings.)

Writing poems is one thing. (A privilege and a joy.) Getting them published (if that’s the right choice) is another.

But poetry publishing is not a mystery. It’s not hard to find out how it works, and then plot a route towards a destination. Not half as hard as writing poems.

Pansy believes a publisher will take an interest in her work – such a keen interest that said publisher will invest time and money in making her book available to The World. She may not have noticed that the publisher’s also engaged in a creative task. She or he is working towards (and never ever arriving at) making a whole imprint come together. If Pansy isn’t interested in what the publisher is creating (except in so far as it concerns herself), why will the publisher (who doesn’t need any more poets anyway) be interested in her?

(Because my poems are so good, of course, says Pansy.)

I know I’ve used far too many brackets in this blog entry. Half of what I think these days is in parenthesis. (I don’t care.)

(I have been away for nine days. In my absence, the Christmas cactus has gone berserk. Things bloom when I am not here.




Over the last few years I’ve seen quite a lot of it.

I’m talking about poetry that isn’t prose but isn’t quite poetry either (whatever ‘poetry’ is). Something in between. I don’t say this as a criticism. I like it when text slithers in and out and won’t be pinned down.

Poets sometimes propose work that is like this. And several times people have suggested I might publish a pamphlet of poems with complementary art work. HappenStance doesn’t do illustrated work (Diana Gittins’ Bork! has been the only exception), so I say ‘No’ to that. Simples.

But I don’t by any means rule out a mixture of text forms, morphing in and out of whatever you might want to call them. Clare Best’s Treasure Ground had prose sections at start and finish, and there will be a pamphlet by Kris Evans next year that will mingle its forms magnificently.

And although I don’t personally publish art work with poetry, I like the idea. I like the way Ambit has always done this. I like the mixture in The London Magazine. So when people ask about it, I always want them to find a way to make it happen, even if it’s not through me.

So I was specially interested to read Estuary by Lydia Fulleylove, with artwork by Colin Riches. I published Lydia’s debut poetry pamphlet, Notes on Land and Sea in 2011, and knew something about the collaborative work that has underpinned this new book. It’s a paperback volume from Two Ravens Press (an imprint worth supporting) with eight laminated colour plates in the middle. The text itself, to quote the introduction, ‘has three elements: diary observations, poem meditations, and voices of those who work the land’.

The narratives in their various forms weave several threads into the whole. There’s the life of the farming world – human, plant and animal. There’s the poet’s father, who is ill. There’s the river estuary – the water, and the water creatures. There’s the weather, and the movement of the day from light to dark. There are the inmates in the prison, where the author is working part-time, and they too are writing and responding to the environment. There are people in the local community, which whom the author is also working: the High Tide poets and the Drawing Ahead artists. It sounds an impossible combination!

However, Lydia has cracked it. It works. This is a fascinating, moving, unusual piece of art. It is not expensively produced, nor without some minor flaws, but it is a marvellous demonstration of a project achieved. Matthew Stewart’s recent review on Rogue Strands gives more quotation and more of an insight into how it works.

Anyone who is interested in cross-art projects, or poems with pictures, or poems that aren’t necessarily ‘poems’, should take a look at this. It can be done. More people should think outside the poem-a-page book. More people should be determined to find a way to bring it into print. A pleasure to read, and to recommend.




Five reasons why I like this poem.b2ap3_thumbnail_John_Skelton.jpg

  1. It was written a very long time ago by John Skelton (c 1463-1529), but the voice is clear as a bell.

    2. Skelton was a rector in Diss, Norfolk, but was disreputable. I wonder whether his jeopardies weren’t the kind you need to avoid when up to mischief.

    3. I like the way Fortune gets capital F, and is a ‘she’.

    4. It is short and would fit beautifully on a postcard.

    5. It’s the sort of poem that has space for every reader. Yes, I find myself thinking. This is about me.


Though Ye Suppose All Jeopardies Are Passed

Though ye suppose all jeopardies are passed,
      And all is done that ye lookéd for before,
Ware yet, I rede you, of Fortune’s double cast,
      For one false point she is wont to keep in store,
      And under the fell oft festeréd is the sore:
That when ye think all danger for to pass
Ware of the lizard lieth lurking in the grass.




Waking to the wind gusting the trees outside the window, I thought of Christina Rossetti.

The wind is like a great spirit. It is not just imagination that it stirs something in us. In children too. They never sit calmly in school when a wind gets up.

The Rossetti lines in my mind were: ‘Who has seen the wind? / Neither you nor I’ and the last line of the stanza ‘The wind is passing by’. I had invented line three and somehow arrived at ‘But when the light moves in the leaves’. The poet’s original line is much better ‘But when the trees bow down their heads’.

On Christina Rossetti’s Wikipedia page it says she she is ‘perhaps best known for her long poem ‘Goblin Market’, her love poem ‘Remember’ and for the words of the carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’.  But I think ‘Birthday’ (‘My heart is like a singing bird’) must rank high among remembered poems.  And I just found ‘Uphill’ which I had forgotten I knew and loved, but now I know it certainly influenced at least one poem I wrote myself. Then there is ‘Twice’ which I had also forgotten but shouldn’t have. I must go back to Christina Rossetti, though perhaps a ‘Selected’ is best. In the complete poems you get lost somewhere in misery and religiosity – or at least I did when I was last immersed.

But she has done that magic thing that some poets do – planted a snatch of lines I can’t and won’t forget: the earworm. Enough always to bring me back. I will be saying this poem inside my head all day, like it or lump it. Thank you, you compilers of so-called ‘children’s poems’, in which I must first have found this lyric by Christina Rossetti. Without you, I doubt I would be writing this blog right now. Or remembering the lines that lead me to other lines that lead me everywhere I happily go.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.





I now know the cure for eating too much chocolate.

It’s easy. You consume a small amount of very good chocolate.

I did this on Thursday, while talking to Julie Collier. Julie is the Commercial Director for Iain Burnett, The Highland Chocolatier, who opened a shop in St Andrews (only 22 miles from here) last year.

As I walked into the shop for the first time, my eyes were drawn to the tiny chocolate cubes on the counter: free tastes for potential customers. Four different chocolate confections, one being the signature ‘Velvet Truffle’.

Pick it up.

Smell it. Aha!

Taste slowly.



Honestly, this will put you off chocolate gorging for life. It is fabulous. It is so fabulous that you don’t want too much. You want just the right amount. Maybe one truffle cut into those adorable little cubes. And then another tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

However, I didn’t go to the shop to eat Velvet Truffles, though that would have been reason enough. It was to discuss collaboration in a chocolate/choc-lit event in November. A free event with free chocolate. How could you possibly not go if within travelling distance?

Oh but you don’t know when it is. Or where.

b2ap3_thumbnail_CHOC-HALF2.jpgThe reading/tasting will be held in Zest Juicing and Coffee Bar, which is on South Street in St Andrews in Scotland. Those of you who have already been in St Andrews for StAnza, the poetry festival, will know this coffee sanctuary well. It is not a chain. It is expertly run by a real, dynamic, independent person: Lisa Cathro. It is a poetry-friendly café.

That’s the location, then.

And when? Thursday November 27th, 6.30-8.00 pm.

I know (because, apart from anything else, I have read the Highland Chocolatier’s blog for October 8th) that early evening is not really the right time for tasting chocolate. The whole event should be scheduled before breakfast, before even your first sniff of tea, let alone coffee. However, it is a very good time for poetry (again, in small quantities).

The plan is to introduce Blame Montezuma!, the HappenStance choc-lit anthology, with a couple of the contributing poets to help me. We will read a few poems, carefully spaced between chocolate facts and chocolate tastes from Julie. It will be hugely educative and very tasty. There’ll be something to suit every palate. All in all, an unmitigated pleasure.

And if you want any choc-lit books for Christmas gifts, they will be on special offer. And there’ll be postcards and badges. Merchandise to die for.

Am I over-enthusing? Sorry. It’s the chocolate.

It really was divine.

I have to go back.

And soon.


ps It’s National Chocolate Week from 13th October. Poetry gets a day. Chocolate gets a whole week.