Graham Austin, regular performer and attender at A Poem and a Pint events in Cumbria, has died.

b2ap3_thumbnail_GRAHAM-AUSTIN.jpgHe wasn’t expected to go yet. Sometimes it happens this way.

HappenStance published a pamphlet by Graham Austin in 2010. It was called Fuelling Speculation and on the cover there’s a picture of Jonah inside the whale, complaining.

Graham’s pamphlet was one of a pair that were to be the first in a series: the Po-lite pamphlets. The other was by Martin Parker, founder editor of Lighten-Up Online. The series began and ended with these two. Nothing has ever struck me as so funny since. There has been amusement, of course, but rarely a set of poems that had me chuckling.

Graham made me laugh out loud. Of course I had heard him perform, though only once, at A Poem and a Pint event in Cumbria. But once was enough to know this gentleman was unique. He often seems completely serious. He can work without the usual light-verse markers of rhythm and rhyme. And then the penny suddenly drops and you start to smile and then, if you’re me, you start to laugh. Not just me though. Graham had whole audiences in stitches. In Chapter Five of The HappenStance Story I said he was ‘dry as a water biscuit’.

b2ap3_thumbnail_WHALE3jpg.jpgIn the bio on the HappenStance website, he wrote about himself: Graham Austin does not have a degree from Ipswich. He was, in fact, a ‘good honours’ Durham graduate, although he considers himself to be one of the first to go to university who shouldn’t have been allowed near the place. There have been, he says, many thousands like him since.

He was a founder-member of a men’s performing group: A Posse of Poets. Graham was a great person to have in any posse. As a poet (like most of us) he was not a household name, though he wrote some fabulous poems and was an unforgettable performer. But he was a name in many households, including this one.

He will be missed, not least by his many grandchildren. So with that in mind, I’m going to quote the poem that first made me want to publish him, though there are several others I am reading and smiling over at this minute. I will slip in ‘Afterthought’ because you can have it by heart in two minutes:

The stable door is bolted now.
The trouble is, of course,
that that is just exactly how
we can describe the horse.

It is not just the facility in words. It is a whole view on life. It is life off-kilter, life as astonishingly odd. Funny ha-ha and funny peculiar unite. He would want you to read him and smile, even from the Great Beyond, I know he would. This is what he’s saying right now in ‘Afterlife’:

My dearest wife, I’m writing this
to let you know I’m safe and well
and living in a state of bliss
in Satan’s offices in Hell.

I work each day from twelve to two
(including lunch, I must admit).
I do not have too much to do;
I’m still in Human Resources.

 And finally, the one I promised: ‘Grandson discovers things he didn’t know about his granddad’:

Bikes? Do I like bikes?
When I was four I had a bike and the
back wheel came off and I crashed into a
wall, cut my lip and tore my trousers.
That’s bikes for you. Shouldn’t be allowed
on the road—let alone the pavement.

Dogs? Do I like dogs?
Let me tell you. When I was four I was knocked
face-down in a puddle by a great big chihuahua
and then it sat on me. And you ask me if
I like dogs! No, I don’t.
Should all be in a zoo.

Little girls? I’ll tell you something about little girls.
When I was four I stood in the middle
of the room while they all made fun of me and
then ignored me completely until bedtime.
You just wait and see.
And they grow up.

Chocolate! Don’t talk to me about chocolate!
When I was four I ate a full half-pound
at one go and felt terrible. I
couldn’t go to the toilet for a week
and my mother pushed bits of soap up my bottom.
Do I like chocolate? Think about it.

Cake? Cake! You ask me if I like cake!
When I was four we couldn’t afford ‘cake’;
we just had a loaf of bread with a
sultana on top . . .
As a matter of fact, I do like cake.
Have you got some?

Fuelling Speculation is sold out but I have a handful of copies.

If you would like one, let me know. I’ll see what I can do.


I once carried out a lengthy analysis of winning entries in order to pin down the secret.

I once carried out a lengthy analysis of winning entries in order to pin down the secret.

The exercise failed. All I managed to do was come up with tenuous links between winning poems, and some clear ideas about what made poets lose.

Yesterday I was at the final stage of judging the William Soutar Writing Prize, a free-to-enter Perth-based poetry competition which attracted just under two hundred entries last month. That’s a relatively small number compared to the biggies, which attract thousands and which you have to pay to enter. But at least it meant I could read all the poems.

It didn’t mean it was easy to pick the winners. My short list of 13 already excluded a couple of poems I liked a lot. It went down to 12 when I realised one exceeded the required length. (In all competitions, a surprising number put themselves out of the running by breaking the rules.)

Tim Love says “Winning competitions can be like applying for a job. The first stage is more to do with avoiding errors in order to get in the short-list. The second stage is where depth is revealed.”

I think he’s right. There were poems in my short list that would have made it to the long list of one of the major competitions. They were sound, well-made, interesting pieces of writing. With depth.

In the pile I put to one side, the non-winners, there were some fabulous lines and fragments. But in the end it’s the whole poem or nothing in a competition.

There were also the non-starters. These tend to be characterised by being presented in a centred format, often with an odd or over-large typeface, faulty punctuation — that kind of thing. It is not true (contrary to popular belief) that metre and rhyme make a poem less likely to win. But it is easier to spot weakness in formal construction, I think, than in the looser array of free verse (I was about to write ‘free dress’ — but in fact, this is partly it — how the poem is dressed.)

Back to the winners. This is the point where I became a committee of myselves. First I typed them all out again, in the same font so I wasn’t biassed by layout and typeface. Then I read them aloud. A poem is not just what it looks like and what it means: it’s how it feels in the mouth and the ear too. At least, that’s true in my book.

I had to do a bit of scouting about on the web, too, to check some background detail. When poems create a context for themselves, in terms of topical or historical reference, it’s good to check it out. Actually, I like it when the poem operates in a larger frame, when it sends its reader on a treasure hunt.

And then I sat down again with my 12 poems, all carefully typed out in Calibri. At this point, I could make a strong case for all the final contenders, and especially for particular features of each one.

But one has to decide. And that’s like the whole business of poetry publishing. In the final stages, subjective personal preference comes in. It is not enough to admire a poem. Which one do you want to learn by heart? Which do you desperately want to show your friends?

And so I did decide. But I’m not saying more about that here. It will be on the AK Bell Library website and the William Soutar website later this month  . . . with the prizes awarded at Perth Writers’ Day on March 26th.

Meanwhile, for me it’s back to the three pamphlets in hand: Peter Daniels, Matthew Stewart and Michael Mackmin, winners one and all. Oh, and check out Graham Austin’s opportunity on the HappenStance competitions page. T S Eliot afficionados might like to take a crack at this. Man in balloon with telescope


Or so, allegedly, said Oscar Wilde. As snow gusts past my window, so does the flurry of tasks for this morning.

However, the new Imac (thank you Michael Marks), which has what seems at the moment to be a huge screen, (custom shrinks things) is up and running. So far I don’t seem to have lost anything vital.

Moreover, the two Po-Lites are printed and ready to send out.


Every publication, I am convinced, has a mistake in it. In fact, when I pore over the pages for the last time before taking them to the printer, I KNOW there will be something I don’t see. If it’s just one mistake, I’m always relieved.


In Martin Parker’s pamphlet No Longer Bjored the error was more significant.


When I set a publication up I put the working title in the footer, and that’s also what goes in the author contract. Then there’s an extended discussion between me and the author about what the final title should be. In this case, I thought the first title (Enough is Enough) might well cut the mustard. However, the draft front cover graphic was a picture of a bottle of wine lurching sideways in the sand, and Martin thought it might give an impression that . . . he’d rather not have.


So there was a title discussion, which ended up in the fjords with some dancing birds. And everything was resolved very happily, except I forgot to change the footer. And I failed to see it in the proofs. And the whole publication, therefore, was printed with the wrong title at the foot of every page.


I considered reprinting, despite the moral and financial pain. However, Martin came up with a better idea and now the verse erratum slip, telling the story of the wrong-footed footer, is such a delight that it is possible, as he has suggested, that everybody will want one.


In Graham Austin’s Fuelling Speculation there is, needless to say, also a mistake, though not in the footer. But I’m not going to tell you what it is. More importantly, it is a lovely, wayward collection, written by a chap who sees things from angles other poets do not.


Often an intrepid performer can make a bit of creaky Lite work brilliantly for an audience. But on the page? That’s harder. When I use comic verse with students in my other life, what makes six of them howl with laughter will leave another six looking completely lost. And that’s another problem. Printed light verse is for canny readers. But there’s a few of these around. You could be one of them. . . .


As I type, the snow outside has turned to an amazing blizzard.  I don’t think the planned trip to buy the bathroom mirror is happening today. The door of the washing machine has just refused to un-click, so everything is stuck inside. There’s another mundane challenge. Oh hell.


Meanwhile, with a bit of luck and no thanks to the Hotpoint washing machine which I have grown to hate and one of which I will never ever buy again, Tim Love’s pamphlet, Moving Parts, will be finished today.


The plan is to get it to the printer this week and it will be the last publication of 2010. Tim is not generally funny and this is not light verse. However, he has something in common with Graham Austin that I find difficult to put into words. It’s something to do with his angle of perception. I have been following Tim Love poems in the small press for over ten years and he is completely unpredictable. I used to type out his poems to try to work out what was going on in them. What he does in one is so different from what he does in another that you could be forgiven for thinking there were at least four of him.


Putting together Moving Parts has surprised me in ways I didn’t expect. The astonishing variety is there — but there are also more connections than I had anticipated. The set feels integrated. The title (which Tim chose initially and which remains) is exactly right. Parts of these poems are very moving, in terms of human emotion. But all of them are on the move: they don’t stay still easily. They often have lines you can read two or three ways. The tone changes radically from one page to another and sometimes from one phrase to another. I said this wasn’t light verse, but it is playful. He has always been a playful poet, watching himself at his own game, and sometimes discovering something that seems to surprise him too. In terms of poetry, he’s not like anybody else. That sounds a simple thing to say, but increasingly I think it’s one of my main criteria. It applies to Martin Parker;  to Graham Austin too.


Sometimes people talk about ‘voice’, as though that’s what makes poets distinctive. That doesn’t seem to me to be the right word, especially for a poet who can change voices at will. The distinctive factor might be to do with perception and playfulness. But it might not. It might be do with mastering that odd business of poetic register. We no longer have a standard way of mustering language that automatically feels like ‘poetry’. Each person has to sort this thing out for him or herself. And then that person’s ‘poetic’ register has also to be a way of using language that’s consistent with his or her individual mode of thought and expression. They have to sound like themselves, even when they’re being someone else.


Did I say there was a blizzard outside? It’s snowing in my head.






One man’s laugh is another man’s groan. Not everybody likes Ogden Nash (though I do). Not everybody rolls about at Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales (though I do). T S Eliot’s cats never got half the publicity of ‘The Waste Land’ and Ruth Pitter’s case for The Comic Muse has never really been heard.

Anyway, this week the first two HappenStance Po-Lites are nearly ready to hit the streets.

I think Martin Parker’s No Longer Bjored and Graham Austin’s Fuelling Speculation are a delight. Each of these gentlemen has what creative writing courses call a ‘distinctive voice’. I mean, they really do. The forms in which they write may be familiar (though not always) but the voice behind them is unique.

I knew I was going to publish Graham Austin, if he would let me, when I found myself chortling out loud in the conservatory and looking for someeone to read aloud to. When you feel it’s so funny you’ve got to share it, you’re onto a winner. As for Martin Parker, his Sampler has already entertained many readers: here’s some more of him. You simply have to read ‘The joy of pastry’!

Of course you may not agree. Humour is one of the most difficult things in the world to share. When I brought out Unsuitable Companions some years ago, the poem one person picked out as ‘hilarious’ was the one another reader thought totally tasteless.

So I guess you’re going to have to read these to find out. At least there’s something here you could buy someone who is NOT a poet for Christmas. . . .