“I love Peter Gilmour’s syntax.”

It’s what I found myself saying last week at the launch of the two new publications. Oh dear – five years ago I would never have said anything half so pompous. Now I’m reading submissions of poems and writing in pencil – all over the place – comments like ‘the syntax doesn’t work for me here’.

Perhaps I shouldn’t even use the word, or at least I should clarify what I mean by it. Here is the Merriam Webster definition. In fact, Merriam Webster has three versions, and I think what I have in mind is chiefly the second: a connected or orderly system: harmonious arrangement of parts or elements”.

To add insult to injury, these days there’s computer syntax.  I’m not a programmer, but so far as I understand it, if there’s an error in ‘syntax’, the program won’t run. Sometimes a comma out of place puts the whole thing up the spout.

It’s the same in poetry. Often something in the sentence – a punctuation symbol perhaps, or a subject/verb dissonance, or a descriptive clause that doesn’t seem to know where it belongs – pulls the reader up and stops the poem working. Contemporary poets are fond of fragments – sentences without finite verbs. These certainly have their place. But there are an awful lot of them around.

I have a weakness for single-sentence poems, though only if they’re beautiful. It’s rare for a poet to handle the structure of a sentence so properly and so harmoniously that it can run over several stanzas without the reader once feeling disconcerted or dizzy. Besides, it’s easier to write in impressionistic fragments.

Give me a writer who can construct a prose sentence with elegance and style. It provides me with the sensual pleasure I imagine others get from wine, or a 50-year-old malt. It’s why I love the work of Carson McCullers and Gerald Murnane (and they’re not even poets).

There are writers who can carry a beautiful sentence into a poem. They do it without dropping subjects or toppling weighty descriptive clauses on top of each other. Their nouns don’t look like verbs at first sight and their verbs don’t look like nouns. The work is harmonious to the eye, to the ear, to the brain.

Peter Gilmour is one of these. I’ll close with a sentence from ‘Rupture’:

…….I was enjoying myself in truth,
…….hurrying not just the car but the marriage,
…….not just this last journey but our pilgrimage,
…….to a hot and hellish end.

…….….[from Taking Account, HappenStance, 2011]


Yesterday the Scottish Poetry Library got double kindling.

Yesterday the Scottish Poetry Library got double kindling.

How fascinating that you can publish two collections of poetry, scrutinizing every page of each, yet not till you hear the two poets read, do you realize each of them has a poem (each of them has chosen to read a poem) in which ‘kindling’ is seminal.

Gerry Cambridge and Helena Nelson
Gerry Cambridge and I signing the ‘special editions’



The kindling in Gerry Cambrldge’s poem ‘Notes for Lighting a Fire’ is very different from the process referred to in Peter Gilmour’s ‘Kindling’. But how lovely it was to hear one poet read after the other and suddenly hear that connection.



All in all, this book launch was a splendid event. My sister, who was forced into duty as official camera person, took on this role with reluctance. ‘I’m useless at taking photographs,’ she said.

‘Just point and click,’ I said.


Gilmour and Cambridge launch event (blurred)


So Lou took a great many photographs. Most of them resemble medieval wall paintings in Italian churches, where the actual features have been destroyed by the depradations of hoodlums or time. So those people who felt anxious about being snapped need have no fear. Few of them are recognizable…




Many copies of the books have been sold. Many more are in the post. As ever, the staff of SPL were wonderful, welcoming and warm. The venue is second to none: literary history unfolds before your eyes. The people who came along, bought copies and mingled — the readers and friends — were amazing. I am too tired to say more. . . .


More pictures follow. First some of the recognisable audience, then Peter Gilmour reading, and finally Gerry.

Gilmour and Cambridge launch reading












Peter Gilmour reading from 'Taking Account'















Gerry Cambridge reading from Notes for Kindling a Fire
Gerry Cambridge


It’s my submissions month, so lots of fat brown envelopes are flopping onto the mat.

It’s my submissions month, so lots of fat brown envelopes are flopping onto the mat.

The furore of Christmas is also in the air. Pressure builds, pressure builds. Santa is King at the Kingdom Centre, with grandparents and small queuing up. When a poetry submission is sent recorded delivery, and I have to drive to the sorting depot at the other side of town to pick it up, I get testy.

But all three new pamphlet publications are here finally, as well as three new PoemCards. Consequently, packets are being parceled up and sent thither and hither, fro and to, hence and whence.

And as for the new hardbacked (the only HappenStance hardbacked) book by Gerry Cambridge, I have just ordered extra large padded envelopes for the customers who send for more than one (It is nice. It does make a good Christmas gift, and at the moment all copies come with a PoemCard featuring what I call ‘Gerry’s pink poem’ laid in).

I’m afraid all the special editions of Notes for Lighting a Fire, those lettered A to Z, are spoken for, so if you’ve asked for one and haven’t had it confirmed, it’s because I haven’t had your email (this sometimes happens when people hit ‘reply’ to the newsletter, instead of as suggested. If this applies to you, I am sorry.) If you would like a signed copy of either Gerry’s book or Peter Gilmour’s pamphlet and are in Scotland, come along to the launch next week at the Scottish Poetry Library — Saturday afternoon. There will be snacks. There will be something to imbibe. There will be some excellent people.

Stamps, stamps, stamps. I am keeping the post office going single-handed, I swear.

Rather than the usual blurb about new publications, I thought I’d share a few lines from each, some of the phrases or stanzas I’ve come to love while working on these them. Just a wee taste of the bits that crackle.  Looking at the extracts, I can see they look a little ominous—even a bit grim maybe. Remember what Kay Ryan said? “Poetry never adds to your burden. It never weighs you down.” These poems are charged with energy. They lift you up.

Besides, for anyone thinking of making a submission, there’s an insight into what I liked and continue to like, since I can’t explain that in words, only recognize it when I see it.


Sue Butler: Arson


as magpies, aging, luck. As women
gossiping. As Elgar, Tess, Kier and why.


Peter Gilmour: Taking Account

and how can they who lack holiness know

how the unhallowed spirit sticks and dies?


David Hale: The Last Walking Stick Factory

Between jobs, he designs a coffin,

roughs out measurements,
makes it snug
but with room for expansion

Sue Butler: Arson

Now she tells the tribal elders
she’s leaving the land. They mock
her desires: Fool. Look

which side your bread is buttered

(they like to speak
in metaphor).

Peter Gilmour: Taking Account

I married a woman who killed herself.
Our children then were thirteen and fourteen
and I, fifty, and God, they say, is ageless.


David Hale: The Last Walking Stick Factory

………………….Our work calls for edges,

the sharper the better. Even though I can see
what you say is true, we’re running out of lint and pins

and words for pain, and surely this is beyond probability,
this tendency of restless steel drawn as if by moon

or some other magnetic force through skin and nail.
No mere carelessness could spill so much blood.

Sue Butler: Arson

We drink tea and nothing happens
until something slight
puts down its mug, opens the door
with hardly a click.

Peter Gilmour: Taking Account

No, they are not my parents.
Mine were never that intimate,
as I have said, will say again
as many times as are required.
Were never that intimate!
Will that do? Is that enough?


David Hale: The Last Walking Stick Factory

There’s a man with a rope
running through the woods
this cold November day,

looking for a tree,
a bough—anything solid,
manageable, quick.


It’s here. The fire has been lit.

It’s here. The fire has been lit.

The official publication date for Gerry Cambridge’s Notes for Lighting a Fire is January 2012. But we have made good time and the first set of volumes arrived out of the blue this week, such are the vagaries of printers.

Gerry’s book is not blue, however, but the colour of the top of the milk in the days when milk came in bottles. And it is a proper hard-backed book with a paper jacket. It will sit on the shelf and not disappear.

Meanwhile, three pamphlets are with local printer Dolphin Press and about to arrive in time for Christmas. They are Arson by Sue Butler, Taking Account by Peter Gilmour and The Last Walking Stick Factory by David Hale. They provide a complete contrast to each other, in the best possible way. I won’t say more yet, though there will be plenty to say.

Pamphlets, of course, do have a habit of disappearing. It is their weakness and their strength. They are unassuming and slight. They don’t make the same demands of you that books do. You can bend the covers without a smidgeon of guilt, and because their soft covers and flimsy centres disappear so readily, they become rare and valuable before you even know it.

There are new PoemCards about to arrive too – even more ephemeral, those proud little upstarts.

It is all go here at HappenStance!


A hive of activity, that’s what it’s been here in the last two weeks. A veritable hive.

A hive of activity, that’s what it’s been here in the last two weeks. A veritable hive.

Poetry activity, needless to say.  I’ve been working with Gerry Cambridge on the book which will come out in November. Yes – a whole book, not a pamphlet. It is to be called Notes for Lighting a Fire and it is terrific. I know I am biased, but even when I take my bias and hold it at arms’ length for appraisal, I still think it is a terrific book. But in the meantime, I’m nervous about getting it right. I have my own sweet little time-honoured method for pamphlets now and this is a different kettle of verse. Having said this, Gerry is so good at what he is doing – and so expert at making publications – he is a joy to work with.

Pamphlets are short and they ought to be easy by comparison. But they aren’t easy. Each one is so remarkably different from the last it wakes me up with a little shiver of anticipation.  On Thursday I posted a first draft to Peter Gilmour, a Glasgow-based writer. His poems are exceptionally intense, several of them triggered by his wife’s suicide. It’s a cliché to compare them to black holes, but they do have that effect of appearing to suck in everything around them, so it’s difficult just to slip from one poem to the next. In the end, I divided the pamphlet into sections to give the sets more breathing space. We’ll see what Peter thinks.

Peter’s is a first publication and so is David Hale’s, which will probably be titled The Last Walking Stick Factory. There are woods in it, and many trees, a coffin and some machines. I particularly like poems about machines for some reason. I’ve been communicating with David for years now – at least three years I think, and some of these poems have been coming and going between us until they’ve become old friends. I’m dying to see them printed. Both this and Peter’s pamphlet create a challenge for cover image – Peter’s poems are more abstract than visual, and David’s image could be the walking sticks, but that might look jokey and silly, and few of the poems are light. Perhaps the weave of the wood. . . ..

And finally, Sue Butler’s pamphlet – not sure of the title yet. Sue’s not a new poet. She has, over the years, had pamphlets from different publishers, and her first book, from Smith Doorstop in 2004, was Vanishing Trick, which is one of those books where certain poems stay with you.  For me, it was ‘The Song of My Weakness’ and ‘A Miniature Fairytale’ and ‘When I Grow Up I Want To Be’, and actually, now I think about it, several others too. I’ve been writing to her for years now, on and off. You have to feel strongly about a person’s poems to write to them. I also identify with her situation – a person who, like Alison Brackenbury – has worked away in ordinary jobs, while squirreling away poems.

I would like to use the last line of one of her Vanishing Trick pieces to describe her own poems, but that’s complicated. I’ll need to quote the poem first. Here it is. It’s called ‘Proposal’, and it’s typical of her work to embed a whole narrative in a few bleak words. Having said which, ‘Proposal’ is not bleak at all, and it reminds me I also have a weakness for poems which cook up a meal. Matthew Stewart can do that, and so can Sue Butler:

……Down back streets with women
……double his age, he queues for pears.

……Inspects the eyes and gills before buying
……herrings from a trawler.

……Bakes their flesh with dill,
……stews a sauce from their severed heads.

……He covers the gate-leg table with a cloth.
……Arranges lilac in a milk bottle.

……At ten to eight he melts fresh butter,
……flash fries the pears.

……Stirs in sugar, cream, crushed cloves
……until every mouthful is deafening.