What you need to know about Po

I don’t mean Li Po, though I might well have done. 

No – it’s what I was thinking on the train on the way back from the Poetry Book Fair at the Conway Hall in London last Saturday. Free Verse, as it is also called. And it was free – and much given away and many things purchased. A day with a buzz. An event that more and more feels a necessary part of the business. So many lovely people turn up and chat. Some marvellous connections, snatched cups of tea in the park, postcards, events, principles, values.

On the way home, on a very long and slow Sunday train between London and Fife, I read right through the Poetry Almanac 2016, a book of about 250 pages generated for the book fair by its organisers. I should probably say it’s ‘curated’ by them, although that word makes me think of cured bacon, which is the wrong connotation. This nice fat yellow book is precisely what it claims to be: ‘a Most Excellent Guide to the Year’s Poetry & Poetry Publishers’. 

I remember poring over the Writers and Artists Yearbook, or more precisely, poring over the poetry bits of years and years of yearbooks. Same with The Writer’s Handbook: I got it for the poetry section and all the rest came along as well. But this Almanac volume is ALL poetry and so – for a poetry obsessive – just the ticket. I like the essays at the front (not just because one of them is a chapter from my own book) especially John Clegg of the LRB bookshop ‘On Selling Poetry’, a subject I am somewhat obsessed with).

I read right the way through pages 154-245, which is the publisher listings, the pages where publishers say whatever they say about themselves. An amazing range of poetry publishers. In fact, quite extraordinary.

I remember when the editors of Poetry Almanac returned my HappenStance section to me for checking. I was appalled by what I had written and cut it right back, and I’m glad I did. But it’s so hard to write about what you do and why you do it, what you publish and what you look for – when it comes to poetry, of all written forms the most impossible to define. If I could define what I was looking for, then people would send that thing to me – and that would be terrible. If I could define it in advance, how could it surprise me? 

The unexciting phrase ‘new and exciting’ does get into these publisher entries quite a lot, and those who have read my new book Down With Poetry! will know how I feel about that, even though I understand how and why it gets where it gets. But this really doesn’t matter. To anyone interested either in getting work published or in publishing the work, this is THE handbook of the year. It has poems in it too – an added extra. The poems, in style and form and reader pay-off, do not vary as much as the publishers might think they do, I think. But that’s a topic for discussion another day.

Anyway, I’m going to quote two bits from the Almanac that I specially like. One is from zimZalla:

zimZalla publishes poetry objects, with recent releases including badges, poems in styrofoam with free chips and sauce and a pair of poetic garters.

The other is from Tony Frazer at Shearsman:

What I do not like at all is sloppy writing of any kind; I always look for some rigour in the work, although we will be more forgiving of failure in this regard if the writer is trying to push out the boundaries. I tend to like mixing work from both ends of the spectrum in the magazine, and firmly believe that good writing can, and should, cohabit with other forms of good writing, regardless of the aesthetic that drives it, and regardless of whether the practitioners are happy about such cohabitation.

Would you like a copy of the Almanac? Want to know what is going on in the poetry scene — who is doing what, where, why, and what they have to say about it? I think clicking on the book image below should take you to the purchasing page. 

Jacket of the Almanac, which is cream in colour with a background of stars - with mapping of constellations -- but that is quite faint. You don't see it at first glance. To third in purple caps is POETRY ALMANAC 2016, centred. You also see a purple spine to the left with the same words in cream on purple background.  


On my desktop I have a file titled To Do List AUGUST.

That’s because I belong to a species of human beings known as listmakers. It’s not a bad species. They are never ever listless.

The list on the desktop varies in length. Just now it comprises 24 items. It will never become a list poem. (I espouse lists, not list poems.)

I add and remove things to this list daily. In fact, just now I added eight things just because I started to think about what I needed to do today in addition to what was already on the list.b2ap3_thumbnail_MAILSHOTONE.jpg

However, seven items of the 24 have been on the list all summer. Two involve having cups of coffee with friends, or writing reviews, or whole publications.

An interesting (to me) aspect of lists is how all the items look the same size. But individually some are much bigger than others. A great advantage of a list, though, is that deleting a quick item (like ‘make dentist appointment’), removes a significant proportion of the string. It shortens the list just as much as, say, ‘write autobiography’.

Five items on my current list are connected with the Blame Montezuma! anthology (there were eight yesterday, which is cheering). But I have photographed the chocolate fish and added them to the webpage. I have designed and ordered the badges. I have ordered and received the chocolate tasting buttons for the event at the Conway Hall on September 6th. I have sent out the copies already requested (though not the sample copies to shops.) Have I mentioned how the first 25 website orders will get free fish? But they won’t go out till Wednesday because I don’t pick up the fish till Wednesday (it’s on my list).

Only one item on the August list has to do with the garden. It looks small. ‘Do garden.’ But it is big.

When August ends, I will save the list to the ‘To Do’ list folder (2014) and rename it To Do List SEPTEMBER and save back to the desktop. There is a system to all this.

I shouldn’t have started thinking about the list. The act of thinking has caused me to add two more items. No, three.

Also I’ve just realised that writing this blog isn’t even on the list. That means I need to add that too so I can have the pleasure of deleting it later. Oh – I’ve just thought of another thing. Posting the mail. That’s 28.

Item 28 involves a car and filling several postboxes. The photographs with this blog are what’s going into the postboxes.

Inside the envelopes, there are flyers and postcards and a newsletter. For every publication, I make a flyer. Four of those flyers were on the list last week, but I removed them when they went to Robert at Dolphin press. I hope the flyers are nice things in and of themselves: they try to be. They have a sample poem on them and order details – because we are also desperate to sell poetry here. (It’s not edible and you can’t sit on it.)

You could think of all this HappenStance activity as an admirable occupation. Or you could think of it as crazy. Why the hive of industry? Why the flying flyers? Why the persistent communication with four hundred subscriber/readers?

Poetry. That stuff. Once I just wrote it. Now I write it, and write about it, and print it, and publish it. And finally, the most difficult bit of all, peddle it. I am not a member of the salesperson species. I am, in fact, a fully-trained understater (as well as a listmaker). And I have never ever been good at making money, though I can make a number of other things, lists being only one.

You don’t need to know any of this. But if you’re one of the 400 subscribers, an envelope will reach you on Tuesday or Wednesday of this week. All you need to do is open it, read the contents, and buy something.

Then enough money may arrive here to print the next publication. Which would be good. Or not; depending on whether all this is admirable or crazy. It could be both.

Oh! A semi-colon got in there. I must be weakening. Time to cross ‘write blog’ off list.





Balanced, rational, reasonable, sensible, sane, sound . . . .

Just look at those respectable adjectives!

They line up like nice little soldiers, reliable and trustworthy. Then see what happens with their anonyms (of which there are many more):

Aberrant, bananas, barmy, batty, bonkers, cuckoo, daft, deluded, demented, gaga, insane, kooky, loony, loopy, lunatic, mental, nutty, psycho, rabid, raving, senseless, screwy, unbalanced, unhinged, unreasonable, unsafe, unsound, unstable, wacko, off your rocker, out of your mind, away with the fairies, lost the plot.

Mental illness isn’t funny. But all those describing words? They mock it, stick it in a safe place on the back shelf, where we keep things we don’t want to contemplate.

Because of all that, it’s hard to write about—hard to evoke that reality where the brain doesn’t work properly—without inviting horror movie scenarios or enlisting the sympathy vote. Marion Tracy’s début pamphlet, Giant in the Doorway, steers a bold course between these torturous extremes.

Giant is about childhood with a mother who lurches from ‘normality’ to insanity. Some of the poems (in the voice of the child) struggle to make sense of what’s going on, but there’s no self-pity. The narrator is (like most children) a tough little individual. At one point she herself becomes the friendly giant, protecting her older sister from the terrors.

In the second half of the collection, the poet looks back on her childhood from the point of view of an adult. She’s still trying to make sense of the relationship with her mother, in the way most of us do all our lives. Through the chaos of past events emerges a strong, clear voice. To describe confusion plainly is, in some sense, to take control:

I’m ten the bowl of stars I breathe in move my arms
up and down then out is something I have
no name for and none for this but I know it’s wrong

Giant in the Doorway will be launched next Saturday (8th September) at the Candid Arts Trust galleries in London (the Poetry Book Fair). Matthew Stewart will be launching Tasting Notes at the same time, with wine and a tapa of Iberico Ham. Both new chapbooks will be in the online shop within the next week or so.


Do you believe in synchronicity?

It was Jung who coined the term, of course, and ever since I came across it, I’ve liked it. My mother’s a great believer in meaningful coincidence (which is much the same thing) and has some extraordinary examples.

My favourite’s the story of how she met Herr Buchholz. We were on holiday in Austria in 1966. We had never been abroad before (my sister was 10 and I was just 13), and my mother was determined to practise the German she had been studying in night school. She fell into conversation with a couple who were staying with their daughter at the same hotel. Naturally they asked where she came from and discovered it was a part of England one of them already knew. Mr Buchholz had been a prisoner of war, and was detained in Cheshire, near where my mother grew up. I don’t know what he was doing: perhaps he was a land worker of some kind.

Over the days they stayed in the same hotel, they continued to chat. They discovered they had, unknowingly, been in the same location together before, albeit not in Austria. It was over twenty years previously. My mother was a young woman in her teens and was working for a GP in Bowdon. Word came round that the King (George VI) was passing through. Not one to miss the opportunity of seeing royalty go past, my mother nipped out to view the royal progression (traffic moved slowly in those days). The streets in her part of Bowdon were deserted. She was the only person standing at the roadside apart from a man she didn’t know and didn’t speak to.

That man was Herr Buchholz, and here she was talking to him, nearly quarter of a century later at a hotel in Austria. Now there’s coincidence for you! Later his daughter Charlotte came to stay with us, to improve her English, and eventually I went to stay with them, to improve my German. Charlotte and I are still in touch.

All of which brings me to this week’s happy coincidence. I went to pick up Matthew Stewart’s new pamphlet Tasting Notes from The Dolphin Press. (It isn’t listed on the website yet).

Tasting Notes is, as the title suggests, about wine. The author works as a wine exporter for a Spanish co-operative in Extremadura. He’s also, of course, the originator of Inventing Truth, which came out in 2011 (Matthew blogs at Rogue Strands). Tasting Notes is very different from Matthew’s last publication. This time, the language of wine tasting and marketing merges with something delightfully unexpected. Each of four Zaleo wines has something to say for itself, and not quite what you’d expect.

But this brings me to the synchronicity. When I picked up the pamphlets this week, they were all packed in . . . wine boxes! Naturally I loved this detail, and saw it as particularly auspicious. I am, I think, the only poetry publisher who regularly dispatches boxes of books in car parts boxes (my other half works in a garage). I’ve always delighted in the inappropriateness of the packaging — this time it was the other way around.

Matthew’s Tasting Notes, when it finally makes it into our website shop, will have a link to a site where you can buy the wine to go with it, if you’d like to. This has proved a bit complicated, so it’s not yet accomplished. But not only will you be able to buy wine, you can get some free.

At the Poetry BookFair in London, on September 8th, you’ll see we’re opening the readings with the launch of that very pamphlet and wine tasting! There will, in fact, not only be wine but, just as delicious, a chance to sample the Iberio ham celebrated in one of the poems. And afterwards, a whole complimentary glass of the blushful, if you make a purchase from HappenStance. It’s beautiful drinking, I’ve tried it, so it’s to be hoped I will be coherent. (Joke.) The event is at the Candid Arts Trust, near Angel Tube Station, easy to get to if in or near the capital. Do come along if you can: the programme for the whole day is fabulous.

Besides, there are actually two HappenStance pamphlets launching at the London Poetry Book Fair. The other is Marion Tracy’s Giant in the Doorway. More about that next week. . . .