They talk a lot about ‘voice’ in poetry these days, I know.

But in the book I’m thinking of, there is poetic voice and then – when the poet delivers the narrative in person – there’s a whole other voice: the true, human, living, palpable one. The one that sends a million micro-vibrations through your ears and right down to your toes.

Of course, any poet can read her or his work aloud. And I do love to hear what it sounds like when it’s the author, and not the imagined-author-in-my-head. Sometimes it’s warmly more, sometimes briskly less than what I expected. But still, there’s magic in the unutterably mortal human voice.

Have you heard, for example, one of the earliest ever poetic recordings – Robert Browning in 1889 attempting to recite ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’? How his memory fails, and the best galloping poem in existence gallops not.

But recordings are good, aren’t they? If poems are fragments, shored against our ruins, the files of us reading them must add a little bit of immortality. It’s part of the thinking behind that lovely resource, The Poetry Archive. And because the technology for making such recordings is available to most of us now, via phones and tablets and desktops, many poets share things on websites via SoundCloud. And so Tom Duddy, even in his final months, was able to leave a recording of ‘The Touch’ in his own inimitable voice.

I possess a number of poetry publications issued with an accompanying CD. The brand new Quirky Press’s recent (dual language) Somali Lullabies, for example, includes a CD of the lullabies sung by Maryan Anshur: they come alive in her lovely voice. Mary Johnston, who writes in the Doric, has published all her poetry pamphlets with an accompanying CD. This overcomes the language barrier instantly, as well as invoking all the humour and warmth underpinning the text. And Christine de Luca (the Edinburgh Makar who often writes in Shetlandic) has issued recordings too and also has sound files from all of her books on her website. I couldn’t read Christine’s Shetlandic poems aloud for myself: hearing them is the key to their wit, beauty and delight.

And I have quite’ a few bookless audio CDs of poets doing this and that: a little pile of them on the shelf. I never ever listen to them.

Except one.

So although I have mentioned this poet before (I blogged about J.O. Morgan’s StAnza reading of At Maldon in 2014), I’m going to talk about his CD. Because you might not send for it. And even if you did, you might not listen to it.

I have listened to At Maldon six or seven times, maybe more. When I was at StAnza in March of this year, I had the CD playing in the car. The journey takes 40 minutes, (80 minutes round trip) so I was able to hear the whole of the poem every day. I had only intended to listen to it once, out of interest. After all, I’ve heard the man himself do this in a room, live.

But no. I listened over and over. This recording is a most beautiful thing. More of an audio book than a poetry sound file, because it’s a story. And yet a story so beautifully told that each time I liked it more. And I began to realise something I hadn’t realised previously – that is to say, this is something I knew in my head but not in my mind – what similes, and specifically epic similes, are really up to.

But even before he starts playing with imagery, epic and otherwise, J.O. Morgan has a special skill in simple, evocative description. In a very few words he sketches a picture and you’re there:

 A farm boy ankle-deep in estuary mud.
His draw-string bag. His wooden whelking spoon.

At the same time, your ear responds to the rhythm, the melodic drive, the aural pleasure of that ‘wooden whelking spoon’. And then the farm boy sees the Viking Fleet approaching:

The horizon again.

As flat.
As white.

Yet grown now from the gap,
the split between water and air,
a row of twenty matchwood boats
with wide white handkerchief sails;
as still as cardboard cut-outs on the sea.

The metaphors are simple, small and unthreatening. Matchwood, handkerchiefs, cardboard cut-outs. But you can ‘see’ them, can’t you? And sense their ominousness. At Maldon is sensual to the core: you see it, you hear it, you feel it.

Because this is a narrative that dances – it draws you in. It creates pictures for you, one after another, rich and beautiful and emotive. And the epic similes start to work on you too, one after another, comparing like with not really that like, and yet it works. They come at the subject from one side, and then another, a new facet, a new angle. A sort of elegant but riveting game. A kaleidoscope of imagery, inside which the central impression remains absolutely clear.

How do you re-create a battle? How do you put a reader/listening right inside an experience? Like this, with Leofsenu

– as he skips and twirls into the fray
a spear extending from each hand,
a grey whirr of blades like a blender on full;
so his foes are chopped and spun aside,
flung from the merry-go-round.

A blender? Surely not. And yet – yes, yes, that’s it exactly. And then the blender spins into a merry-go-round, so different and so much a part of the movement and the battle. This writer is brilliant with imagery, his tropes are tropical. And it is a dance.

But maybe you could get this without hearing the recording. And yet I want you to listen to this CD. Why?

It’s question of voice, and voices.

If I said to you, ‘the reader adopts different accents for different characters, as they move in and out of life and death’, you might raise an eyebrow. You might quail at the thought of an ‘actorly’ peformance. Well, J.O. Morgan does adopt different accents and voices, but he doesn’t work like an actor. He slips in and out of voices with as much ease as he spins from metaphor to simile. He performs like a story-teller, which is what he is, through and through. He is, on page and in person, a natural. You don’t get people who can do this often – maybe once in a generation.

And his voice, just as beautifully, conveys changes in tone and perspective. At one point he is the old Earl, Byrhtnoth; at another he stands outside time, almost the science professor:

As vegetation rots and is compressed
through lapsed millennia
by successive layerings of decay,
and all its goodness is squeezed out
and it blacken as it flattens into coal,
so bodies freshly fallen are packed down.

When I first read At Maldon on the page, I didn’t totally ‘get’ the flashbacks, or the marvellous way the anticipated (in the pub) and actual deaths of Aelfwine, Offa and Leofsunu are combined in just one scene, ducking backward and forward in time. I was reading fairly quickly. I was reading to get to the end and hold the whole thing in my mind. But this narrative is like music. At each stage, the beauty of sound and visual image is perfectly balanced. You have to hear it by by bit, let the story-teller unfold what is to be unfolded in its own time.

No matter how many times I listen, my eyes fill with tears in certain places. In fact, I think they do it more now than they first did. I know the story. I know what’s coming. But it makes no difference. I’m inside it just as vividly each  time. For example, after his great attempt, when Offa finally falls:

Offa tramples.
Offa kicks and shakes away
the blades and barbs
invading his personal space.

Like flies they scatter.
Like flies they buzz back

A glittery swarm;
a hive mind set to pester,
that neither knows nor wants to stay away.

Till Offa’s pipes are cut,
and the big machinery of his body settles;
   the pistons flushed of air,
   the fuel-tanks dry,
   the sockets clogged.

The energy of the narrative is remarkable. At Maldon is utterly topical: this is about all of us. This is about mortals fighting for life and the littleness of human beings in the universe, and our inevitable recycling in biology and story. And whatever that story is – whatever we are as living creatures – surges through this man’s voice, both on paper and in person.

Get the book from CB editions of course, (if you don’t already have it) because you’ll want to see it on the page. But above all get the CD. It is only four quid. If you have a car, listen to it wherever you’re going. If you’re a runner, run to it. It is perfect while doing a spot of cooking – and you’ll be charmed by culinary imagery in unexpected places.

But whatever you do, listen to this one. There won’t be anything like it again in our lifetime.



Usually I don’t go, but this time I went.

Usually I don’t go, but this time I went.

Things happen in Scotland, and it’s possible to get there and back in a day. Things happen in London, and it means asking friends for a bed for at least one night. It means effectively three days away from the business. Then there’s planes or trains, and Oystercardless tubes or busses that stop and ditch their passengers. It’s a trip to a foreign city where I’m just the little iron on the Monopoly board, with no houses and no prospect of a hotel.

Nonetheless, Charles Boyle’s invitation to take part in his CB Editions Bookfair was so warmly extended, I thought I’d do it. Just for once.

Three times now I’ve missed Book Fairs I very much wanted to get to. There have been, for example, two Leicester BookFairs organized by Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Press, (Ross is also author of one of my PoemCards) in the States of Independence series, and now there’s States of Independence (West), next Saturday in Birmingham. At these events, Robin Vaughan-Williams has been a noble HappenStance author in independent residence, and he’ll be flying the flag, as they say, on the 8th (Gregory Leadbetter is going along too).

I have, however, managed to take part in a number of the colourful poetry pamphlet fairs organized by Scottish Pamphlet Poetry, but there’s a special attraction about being part of a book fair. And while on that subject, HappenStance will be at the splendid By Leaves We Live annual Poetry Publishing Fair at the Scottish Poetry Library at the end of this month, and I’ll be doing on of the short talks (in our case a bit of a conversation) with Gerry Cambridge.

But back to Charles Boyle’s CB Editions event last week (which has been blogged about a lot. Already I feel I should have prefaced all of this with a hyperlink alert). It was held on a beautiful day – not quite as hot as it’s been in London this weekend, but still sunny and warm, so people could sit and chat outside at the various venues along the little street that calls itself Exmouth Market.  You don’t do that in Scotland in September!

The book fair itself was held in exactly the sort of church hall you would find anywhere in the UK. Slightly dilapidated but spacious, with a kitchen at the back where worthy ladies must have made teas for generations.

Book Fair (early)

There were Christmas lights (unlit, alas) trailing from the roof beams, and tables assembled all round the edges of the hall. On the stage at the front, Michael Horowitz did a weird and wonderful introduction to events, accompanied by kazoo and his own personal sound effects. Later, a singer from the street outside came in and did a few songs. Upstairs, there was a little room in which readings went on throughout the day, non-stop – and although I only made it to a couple of these, I can confirm it was a friendly little room and I should like to have heard a whole lot more of them. Not a bad place to read either, despite interesting noises from the street outside – crashes of a million bottles landing somewhere, the street singer resonating up through the window, the chiming of a clock at regular intervals.

Fiona Moore (who is to be a HappenStance poet in 2013) has described it all beautifully in her Displacement blog. I hadn’t met her before, and one of the lovely things about this day was having the opportunity to hobnob with poets, who obligingly stepped off the paper into human form. Jon Stone and Kirsty Irving, for example, were sitting beside me for most of the day being Sidekick Books, but they also read in the HappenStance relay-race slot. Kirsty has her own account of events here.

Tim Love took over the stall while our reading was going on upstairs – Tim was around for most of the day. Marion Tracy arrived (she is a forthcoming HappenStancer) and Christina Dunhill (ditto). And Peter Daniels and D A Prince and Lorna Dowell and Clare Best and Mike Loveday. Oh, and Matt Merritt was there too — here is his blog on the subject: he now, of course, represents Nine Arches (opportunity to meet Jane Commane for the first time). And Chrissy Williams, who will also metamorphose into a HappenStance pamphlet in 2012, organized  the programme of readings and was around to greet us. There was even Geoff Lander, my old friend from university, living proof that all roads meet in the end. He was a chemistry student once – now he’s turned to verse! Oh and Nancy Campbell, whom I’ve wanted to meet for years, and who brought me some beautiful postcards celebrating her newly launched How to say ‘I love you’ in Icelandic. A joy.

HappenStance poets reading

So there was something of a party spirit in the air. In fact, several parties were going on in various parts of the hall. Here is Tom Chivers’ account, for example. Katy Evans-Bush calls it a Renaissance. Ken Edwards on Reality Street gives it a mention. Honestly everybody who was anybody was there. (Well, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Some of them were actually at The London Art Book Fair, as mentioned in the Sphinx feature about Sylph Editions posted recently. In fact, as I travelled back to Vauxhall on the tube, the man sitting opposite me had a huge transparent carrier bag full of publications from that very event).

Other blogger accounts included Sue Guiney (who also read — and I actually HEARD her read, with particular pleasure), and Hilaireinlondon. Rack Press, who was there, has a paragraph about it too. And there’s Andrew Bailey, whom I didn’t quite meet. There were people matching faces with FaceBook friends, one of today’s most amusing party games. Why are people never the same height they seem to be on FaceBook?

The previous night, Chris H-E had launched the new Salt Best British Poetry 2011, and many of the poets in that volume were around, as well as Roddy Lumsden, the noble editor. It was pretty busy, especially between about 11.30 and 2.30.  Chris blogged about the event afterwards – a lovely commentary. He calls Charles Boyle “deliciously grumpy and adversarial”, a great compliment. I wish somebody would call me that. It’s so much better than “the Delia Smith of poetry”.Charles Boyle

I feel I should say Charles has been very charming to me and not at all grumpy.  His own CB Editions books were modestly displayed on a stylish little bookrack to my right, and although this corner was not always manned, people kept coming and buying his attractive books. We slid notes into the money pouch of our rival without demur. He is running a fascinating book enterprise. His books are worth buying.

Chris  Hamilton-Emery talks in his blog about the dark side of such events, how they “can be downright depressing experiences when a (seriously) amateur world collides with different levels of professional delusion and, well, trajectories of intention: from the technically proficient to the anarchically crappy.” How true this is!  I was worried it might even be true of this event, but happily it was not. There was an air of cheery professionalism about it all. Fellow publishers were, as I have found ever since I commenced on this crazy venture, undeniably friendly.

And yes, people did spend money, though not, at my table, as much as Chris suggests (“. . . people came in droves. Really. Not only did they come, they spent money; lots of money.”) A great many of the people in the hall, so far as I could tell, were poets, or aspiring poets. It would have been nice to know how many could have been classed as common readers, the species that poetry so very much needs to win back. And poets are not, in my experience, particularly wealthy. In fact, I worry periodically that poets from my own list are impoverishing themselves trying to support my enterprise: about £120.00 worth of HappenStance publications disappeared on the day, which is not half bad for these events. But I think a number of my own poets bought stuff (they are such nice people)!

So from the money side of things, going to the event did not – could not –  be rational. There was the fee for the taking of a table, there was the (in my case) plane and train fares, the car parking in Edinburgh, the tubes and so on. And most of all, the time investment.

But the meeting of the poets, the taking part in the hubbub, the learning experience –  these factors made it worth it. I wish I had spent more time talking to publishers: I didn’t really manage that, though it was great to meet Andy Ching of Donut Press, whose table was near mine. I wanted to talk to others, didn’t really have time – not even to talk to my own publisher, John Lucas, who was sitting at a Shoestring Press table himself.

Back to country mouse existence now. . . .