The three high stripers for 2011 have been REVEALED!

In 2011, no fewer than 65 poetry pamphlets were reviewed on Sphinx.

That was 195 reviews, three for each publication.

As you probably know, Sphinx reviewers not only write a review in the ordinary way, they make a rating, using four categories:

  • production values
  • quality of the poetry
  • coherence of the collection
  • strength of recommendation.

Generally, any publication getting six stripes or above is worthy of note, and it’s likely at least one of the reviewers has liked it  a lot. The rating process, though, is a tricky one. Without doubt it does happen that two reviewers rate high, while the third does the reverse. The way we evaluate poetry (and much else) is . . . subjective.

To get a very high stripe rating, a publication must impress all three reviewers.

In 2011, 17 of the 65 publications achieved eight stripes. This is a significant accolade. It suggests just over a quarter of pamphlets sent in for review are indubitably of a high standard –not just the poetry, the production values and so on. But poetry pamphlets have upped their game, have they not? Some fabulous things are springing from the presses these days.

Three publications achieved even higher ratings. At 8.5 stripes. They were:

And finally (roll of drums please and ta-da!), the nine-stripers and therefore leaders in the field for 2011 were:

Congratulations to Luke, Kirsten and Tony! May your stripes never grow shorter.

Meanwhile, you can find the latest reviews for 2012 on  None of these so far have attained nine stripes but some are pretty close . . .


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. . . .


I teach loads of adult students who loathe poetry. Sometimes I hate it more than they do. I look at books of it piling up around me and I feel sick. I feel like the miller’s daughter locked in a room of straw without the faintest hope of Rumpelstiltskin.

I teach loads of adult students who loathe poetry. Sometimes I hate it more than they do. I look at books of it piling up around me and I feel sick. I feel like the miller’s daughter locked in a room of straw without the faintest hope of Rumpelstiltskin.

I’m not a creative writing tutor. That’s different. People who want to write poetry often love it. I teach literature (some of the time) in further education. Many of the people who arrive there read novels and enjoy films. But mention the big Po and a troubled look comes over their faces. I wish I could suggest a few hours in my classroom transforms their feelings. Sometimes it’s the reverse.

Pomophobia is normal. Why? All sorts of reasons. School has a lot to do with it. We get Poetry, like an attack of flu. To get rid of it, we have to analyse it. We don’t understand it and this makes us feel stupid. We don’t like feeling stupid and we tend to dislike people and things that make us feel that way. So. . . .

And yet there are bits of verse (stuff the word ‘poetry’) that people do like. They’re memorable, frequently rhythmic, sometimes funny and, as you get older, and especially if you’re a boy, frequently rude. You can skip to them, sing to them, stamp to them, sigh to them, get revenge on them:

Helen Curry is no good (substitute name of victim).
Chop her up for firewood (you have to say ‘fy-er-wood’).
When she’s dead, stamp on her head
And make her into currant bread.

So it’s okay to rejoice in that kind of thing. I wish I dared share some of the rudest examples. I do collect them. ‘The Good Ship Venus’ is a winner.

But back to hating poetry, before I work myself back into an inadvertent lather of liking the stuff.

All those books piled up staring at me. Three more arrived to review yesterday. There are at least ten waiting unread already. I have books of poetry that people sent me as gifts. And I have small collections waiting in coloured folders waiting for me to read through and make them into HappenStance pamphlets.

The trouble with poetry is that it is so bloody demanding. It has one assertion only and it is this: READ ME. Total attention. Nothing less will do. READ ME. And then – READ ME AGAIN.

Coupled with this is the unstated promise: I WILL REPAY. The idea is that you read the stuff and it does something magical for you, something you won’t forget. Isn’t that so? But somewhere in there, there’s a secret, like the name of Rumpelstilkskin or Tom Tit Tot or Whuppity Stoorie. If you can’t come up with the secret name, the whole thing will stay straw and you’ll be stuck in that room with it for the rest of your life.

So how do you feel, when you read it and the spell doesn’t work? Horribly cheated, that’s how. Vengeful. Especially since the thing you didn’t understand a word of, or were totally bored by, is supposed to be important. The person who wrote it is hugely significant and has the key to the whole of life: it says so on the back cover.

But there is quite a good thriller on the bookcase and it won’t make you feel like that. All it demands is:



It will be easy. And a bit of fun.

All this I understand all too well.

However, on Friday, I sat quietly in a room full of poetry and a little bit of prose (some prose is necessary, like pasta, rice, bread or potatoes with your dinner). And the magic worked again. I had Mike Horwood’s book Midas Touch – not one poem made me feel inadequate. Lovely first collection. And August Kleinzahler’s New and Selected – a bit more nervous about that, and there were bits I teetered over, but some whole poems were okay. And Tim Liardet’s Shoestring pamphlet – oh hey – it even tells a story, a beautiful, sad story. And did you know Brian Aldiss, the science fiction writer, did Po too? I didn’t, but he does. Perhaps not the best poetry I have ever read but hey, it caused me no pain at all to read the lot. And I sailed through the one by Gail White practically singing.

But even better than this. I went back to three folders of PIPs. That, for the uninformed among you, stands for Poets In Progress, and these PIPs are the next three HappenStance pamphlets. They are Mike Loveday, Lorna Dowell and Lydia Fulleylove. Oh my goodness! I haven’t read them for ages, not properly, not since I said Yes to the pamphlet possibility. I slowly perused the poems that had been sitting in my yellow box beside the dining table for months, and I came out of the reading calm, happy and enriched.

And excited. It was the same with Ross Kightly and Kirsten Irving, only a few weeks ago. This is why I do it. I’m only the miller’s daughter. The magic has nothing to do with me, but these poets have transformed paper and scratchy words to gold. I want to share them and there’s nothing I’d rather do.

Meanwhile, I’ll inflict a poem of my own on you, no matter whether you hate it or not, because it’s relevant and I’d forgotten I’d written it until I came to do this morning’s blog. It emerged ten years ago, as a direct result of three lovely adult students who came to me woefully after I had forced them to read Shakespeare sonnet 138, ‘When my love swears that she is made of truth’. One of them really did say to me, ‘We’ve tried and we’ve tried and we can’t like it.’

The Challenge of Literature

(‘We’ve tried and we’ve tried and we can’t like it. . . .’)

I gave them the sonnet I always used.
‘You don’t have to like it,’ I conceded
when hardly a single one enthused.
‘Shakespeare can grow on you. Go on—read it.’

I was convinced it would do no harm
to meet the best of the best. Great art
is good for exams; it keeps you calm.
Some people even learn it by heart.

On the last day, in no mood for sighing,
I tossed them a titbit by Wendy Cope:
some nice little lines, a kind of test.
What would they think? Well—I dared to hope.

The bastards. They liked it without even trying.
I might have guessed.


Two new pamphlets this week, and two new PoemCards. A frenzy of packets and packaging!

Two new pamphlets this week, and two new PoemCards. A frenzy of packets and packaging!

One was Kirsten Irving’s What To Do. Kirsten is one of the remarkable young editor/poets at the helm of Sidekick Books. (Jon Stone is the other one.) Anyone who has even glimpsed the recent Birdbook 1 will be agog to see her own first poetry collection. She has a full collection already scheduled from Salt next year but this is a chance to get a taster. She is a smashing writer. Read her!

Then there’s the irrepressible Ross Kightly, author of Gnome Balcony. Decades divide these two poets, insofar as age is concerned, but they have energy and unpredictable bounce in common. And this is Ross’s first collection too. An Australian by birth, he mixes voices and methods and sometimes mayhem. There is no holding him, and in fact, at several points he seems to be about to escape his own pamphlet.

On top of these, two lovely new PoemCards. At least I think they’re lovely. Tom Vaughan’s The Mower is a winner for Spring gardeners, lawnmower lovers, and anyone who can’t stop working. The illustration is perfect.

The other card, Stewart Conn’s, was originally devised for Valentine’s Day but it would be lovely for any romantic occasion. And it has an insert. Titled Cupid’s Dart, the dart itself (with another copy of the poem on it) is folded inside the card, ready for hurling at the heart. Really neat.

Behind the Scenes
That was the official bit. Behind the scenes, a frenzy of parceling and packaging and bone-folder folding. This is what had to be done:

  • Twelve author copies of What To Do in four different packets to author.
  • Twelve author copies of Gnome Balcony in four different packets to author.
  • One packet of fliers for What To Do in packet to author.
  • One packet of fliers for Gnome Balcony to author.
  • One box of 23 additional copies of What To Do in lieu of payment to author (packaged in a Suzuki drivebelt box, very useful)
  • One box of 23 additional copies of Gnome Balcony in lieu of payment to author (packaged in Suzuki drivebelt box)
  • Twenty author copies of The Mower to be folded, packaged and sent to author, with another twenty he had ordered and some copies of his Sampler, also ordered.
  • Twelve author copies of Cupid’s Dart to author: cards to be folded and inserts (much more complicated) to be folded.
  • Three copies of What To Do, Gnome Balcony, Michael Mackmin’s From There to Here, Peter Daniels’ Mr Luczinski Makes a Move, and Matthew Stewart’s Inventing Truth to Poetry Book Society for consideration for pamphlet choice (six years so far without a recommendation: can our special moment ever happen?)
  • Five copies of Gnome Balcony and What To Do to Agent for Copyright Libraries with accompanying letter.
  • One copy of Gnome Balcony and What To Do to British Library with accompanying letter.
  • Two copies of Gnome Balcony and What To Do to National Poetry Library with invoice, as well as copies of new PoemCards.
  • Two copies of Gnome Balcony and What To Do to Scottish Poetry Library.
  • Copies of cards and poems to Webmaster Sarah Willans, to Gillian Rose (who does the cover images), to two members of my family who get everything, two friends who get most things, and several other people.
  • Copies of Gnome Balcony and What To Do to three Sphinx reviewers.
  • Six other assorted orders despatched to customers and authors.

The Cupid’s Dart PoemCard is a labour of love. I want you to know that the folding and preparation (by hand) takes a considerable time, though it costs no more than the other cards (because I am nuts). So if you can think of anyone for whom it would be appropriate, please send for one. (You’re unlikely to get this one slipped in with an ordinary order.) And by Valentine’s Day next year, I expect a run.

I purchased all the new William Morris stamps from our local post office and had a cheery conversation with the Evil Postman, whom some of you will know of old from Chapters of the Story. I arrived on Saturday at five to twelve, and the ladies at the poet office made him wait for my two drive belt boxes to be duly labeled and put into his bags, by which time it was two minutes after twelve and he was snarling (he snarls with evil charm).

I’ll put them in the SLOW bag. That’ll mean they’ll take at least a week to get there.

I don’t believe him. He has a gleam in his eye when he says (as he always does):

You should get up earlier”.


The email newsletter went out last week flagging three new publications. But guess what I forgot?

This is what it said:

Three new pamphlets. Which will you choose?

Matthew Stewart’s Inventing Truth is a first collection, Matthew works in Spain, and there’s a sense of moving between languages and cultures behind this unusual pamphlet. The poems are almost all brief. But they’re poignant and thoughtful. Moments in amber.

Peter Daniels is a name familiar to most readers of small press magazines. He has been writing good, resonant poems for a long time. I, for one, was convinced he already had at least one full collection in print. He hasn’t, not yet, though he will have soon. This pamphlet contains some competition winners and some new poems. Like the image on the cover, he is a writer of poise, elegance and panache.

Michael Mackmin’s pamphlet Twenty-Three Poems was published by HappenStance in 2006 and sold out quickly. Best known as editor of The Rialto, Michael’s own poems are quirky, different, experimental. If I hadn’t banned the word ‘risk-taking’ from my Sphinx reviewers I might mention something about risks. Instead, I’ll just suggest you read the poems.

The deliberate mistake (not) was failing to mention the titles of the second two new pamphlets (Twenty-Three Poems is long out of print). I thought this would add an air of mystery which would make you go and look for them.

No, that’s not really true. I just cocked it up again.

However, to make it easy, here’s a link to the shop details for

Matthew Stewart’s Inventing Truth


Peter Daniels’ Mr Luczinski Makes a Move


Michael Mackmin’s From there to here

I’m very pleased with these three. Good contrasting poets. Lovely looking publications. I sez it as knows.

Shortly there will be two more. One will be by Kirsten Irving and we think it will be called What to Do. The other is by Ross Kightly and it will probably be called Gnome Balcony.

But nothing is finalised, and I am going on holiday next week. In fact, with luck I will already be on holiday by the time you are reading this. When I come back, the poets, or their muses, may have changed their minds.

Watch this gnome . . .