‘How does the miracle occur?’

This is You, Dear Stranger, by Fife poet Paula Jennings, has arrived in the world, thanks to the remarkable Red Squirrel Press. The poet’s first book dates back to 2002, so there have been a mere twenty-two years (and two pamphlets) since then. And frankly, this beautiful publication is a miracle.

How and why? It’s been a strange story. The work was originally scheduled by Red Squirrel mastermind Sheila Wakefield for 2025. However, late in 2023, Paula was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She might not be around in 2025. She hastened to finalise the manuscript, with the support of her friend and fellow poet Anna Crowe. Meanwhile, Sheila offered to bring the publication date forward by more than a year.

By January of this year, the manuscript was with the publisher. At this point, Sheila asked me to help with the final edit. She herself was feeling awful. Having had had a heart attack two years previously, she feared her acute exhaustion might be heart failure. Basically, both poet and publisher were seriously ill, although Paula, supported by her niece Emma, managed a riveting reading at a ‘Platform’ event in Tayport on February 24. Those who were present are unlikely to forget it.

Meanwhile, with some come-and-go between me, Paula and Anna, minor changes to the manuscript were agreed, dedication and acknowledgements added, and Sheila sent the whole clamjamfrie to her typesetter, poet Gerry Cambridge.

By the time Gerry had designed and typeset the volume, and the proofs were ready to check, Paula’s illness had advanced. Her two sisters were taking it in turns to provide the increasing support required. Mary was travelling all the way up from Surrey regularly; Anne, from Sussex. Paula was less able to respond quickly on publication matters. Publisher Sheila’s health hadn’t improved either.

Everything necessarily slowed down. But gradually all the book elements came together. A photo for the jacket was sourced by Eddie Gibbons and two lovely endorsement quotes arrived from Vicki Feaver and Jane McKie, each of them straight from the heart.

In April, the book went to print. By this time, Sheila had been diagnosed – not with heart failure but anaemia. She was, nevertheless, soldiering on, accomplishing the numerous invisible aspects of book production: allocating the ISB number; negotiation print run and costs; paying the printer; registering the book; commissioning jacket image for the webshop; ordering and checking hard copy proofs; communicating with all concerned etc. And this was not the only publication Sheila was working on. If you thought a poetry publisher’s life was relaxed, think again!

Finally, in the very week that Sheila received the books, she had a crisis. She lost partial vision in one eye, which led to a night on a waiting-room seat in A&E. In the days that followed, this drama was repeated twice. There were mutterings about TIAs (one possible explanation) and retinal emboli (later discounted). Nobody was sure what was wrong but Sheila spent as much time in a hospital that week as she did at home (she must be on first-name terms with the ambulance service now). Meanwhile, the brain tumour was taking its implacable toll on Paula in Cellardyke. She was longing to have her book in her hands. Did it really exist, or had she imagined it?

Despite partial vision and medical summonses, Sheila (with the help of her own family) managed to get a box of books by courier to Fife, where Paula and sister Anne were waiting. Amazingly, four friends arrived at Paula’s house later that week and on May 3, there was an impromptu launch, reading favourite poems aloud, with coffee, cake, anecdotes and laughter. This is You, Dear Stranger had officially arrived in the world and the author, though terribly poorly, has some comfort in that thought. All prayers, warm thoughts or supportive vibes are welcome right now. It’s a horribly difficult time for her. It cannot be other.

This book is something to be proud of, something that will endure. It doesn’t address the experience of brain cancer. It was assembled before the poet had that diagnosis. But Paula has always been a magical person. Her poems are prescient in their evocation of the shadowy margin between the living and the dead, between this world and the next. At times that prescience is eerie.

Once a formal publication exists – a real book – there’s no holding it back. If you’d like to purchase a copy of This is You, Dear Stranger, please, please do. It’s somewhat special. I do believe you will enjoy it. Here’s the link: https://www.redsquirrelpress.com/product-page/this-is-you-dear-stranger-paula-jennings

I will never again take a shower without thinking of the title poem. Here it is.

These are the first moments of the day:
one pillow under your head,
the other in your arms
and you are in this slash of light,
your slopes of skin buzzing with lost hormones.

Outside, the sun scratches furrows up the crags,
a blackbird anxiously practises two phrases

and inside you are about to invent a feasible day.
How does the miracle occur?

In the shower you are still no more
than a spinal column topped by
a roundish ball of memories.
The water taps and taps at you
like a patient sculptor
and then

there now
that’s you in the mirror, behind the steam;
this is you, dear stranger,
tying on your bones, your strung muscles.


My dad always said he thought he had a book in him. He was a voluminous reader, but he died with that story unwritten.

Why, oh why did he never write it? Or even some notes about his early years? Who taught him to snare rabbits? Who made him expert with a shotgun and fishing rod? How did his own father die?

My mother did better. She finished a pamphlet of tales about her grandmother’s family, and after that, I was able to put some of her memories together in book form for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren when they’re ready.

Because they will treasure them one day. The older you get, the more these things matter. When Hamish Whyte did his memoir of Edwin Morgan, it was important. And not just for the greater good of literature.

As a result of all this, I enthused when a former work colleague, Morag Ridings, told me she wanted to write her life story. She had already done an illustrated booklet about her first husband’s life and death for his three grown-up children (and their children). The technology is there. It can be done.

But a full memoir is a big thing. She said she needed an editor. So I read the narrative chapter by chapter as she put it together, and all this started during lockdown, a good time for such things. She worked incredibly hard, but I am a tough critic. Anyway, the book grew, and as it grew, Morag’s natural aptitude blossomed. She wrote and revised, revised and wrote.

I’m not easily impressed but—blimey—the style she was developing was astonishing. She was accessible, compelling, interesting—a joy to read.

After two years and several drafts, there was a book. Two hundred and thirty-six pages of A Girl from Glasgow. I designed and typeset the volume, and did the jacket. She paid for the printing. I put it on Amazon. Friends and family bought it. She cheerfully lost money on nearly every copy sold. It’s costly to create something like this, and frankly, you have to self-publish it, because unless you’re a celebrity or have done something of historical significance, no commercial publisher would take it on.

Her Amazon reviews were wonderful. This is my favourite:

Wow—I am lost for words. From the moment I picked up this wondrous book I could not put it down. Personal favourite chapter of mine was “Living with a Teenage Boy”. This was disconcerting, awe-inspiring and amazeballs.

We printed 150 copies, and then another fifty, and then another fifty. We have a few left.

If you know anyone who grew up in or around the West End of Glasgow in the forties or fifties, or anyone who worked in further education (the Scottish colleges, or ‘techs’) in the eighties and nineties, I particularly recommend Morag’s book for them. (If they email nell [@] happenstancepress.com, I’ll invoice at cost without an Amazon fee.) The book is fascinating. On a human basis too, it’s deeply affecting—both sad and funny.

Humorous, pragmatic, resourceful, Morag wrote the book my father never got around to. It’s an inspirational example for anyone thinking they might do the same.

But thinking is no use. Here’s what you need to do.

Get a piece of paper or a computer, or whatever you use to write with. Write a heading: CHAPTER ONE.

Then keep going.


I first met writer and poet Clare Best in 2009. That’s when I published her poetry pamphlet Treasure Ground, which grew out of a residency at Woodlands Organic Farm on the Lincolnshire Fens. In the poems, a Romanesco cauliflower has the allure of a Grecian urn; and a corn dryer opens a world of silence. Clare wrote about Lincoln Red cattle too, and how to read them; and about sheep, and how they read us. First, her poems were distributed in the produce boxes distributed to 2,000 Woodlands customers. Later, Treasure Ground was sold at farmers’ markets. We had to reprint!

Although their author was much invested in them, the Treasure Ground poems weren’t personal. So when Clare went on in Excisions, her first full collection, to write about about her double mastectomy, in naked detail and with unparalleled openness, I was astonished. Astonished and humbled. But she can do that. She has that skill. Each time you think you know her, she peels off another layer. She’s unafraid to talk about those things we keep most private. Or perhaps she is afraid but — after many years of preparation — uses her fear to fuel the creative act.

That’s certainly what she does in The Missing List, a prose memoir about an abuser, her own father. And then just last year in her most recent poetry book, Beyond the Gate, the central focus is another deep grief. This time the ache at the heart of things is the act of choosing to end a pregnancy. What a difficult thing to speak about! Could anything be harder?

Many women (and men too) go through their lives with shadow children, lost family members who died before being born. Privately, the unborn are remembered. Publicly, they don’t exist. How do the mothers who couldn’t mother them manage their loss? What can be done with this reserve of secret pain?

Clare Best addresses such questions in Beyond the Gate, and her consideration is personal. By no means every poem deals with the issue head-on, but quite a few touch on it. Others ‘have their roots in the soil of that experience’, as Clare puts it. And because the experience is so difficult to talk about, we decided we would tackle it. We would read some of the relevant poems together, we would talk naturally about the thoughts that arose, and we would record the discussion and make it public. We would open the gate.

The resulting audio session was planned but not rehearsed (we didn’t know in advance exactly what we were going to say). It lasts about forty minutes. Several poems are visible on screen as we speak or read, though not the longest — the one that deals most directly with the pregnancy and its ending. We don’t discuss ethics. We consider only the poems, and the way they approach what it is to live with the irrevocable and unchangeable consequences of a grievous decision.

The link below will take you to the YouTube recording if you would like to listen.


Happy New Year to wildness and wet! Because there’s plenty of that stuff round here. It brings to mind ‘Inversnaid’ and I know I won’t be the only one muttering “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet!”, although maybe I don’t absolutely mean it. Not after the last few weeks.

I’ve never been to Inversnaid village, which is on the shores of Loch Lomond, seventy odd miles to our west. But right now it’s soggy underfoot in Fife too. My new-ish trainers, I noticed this afternoon, are letting water in. Perhaps they didn’t expect quite so much of it.

It hasn’t been raining continuously, I guess, but all the same, it’s profoundly, deeply wet, with the winter woods bare and shining. Drifts of dank leaves are sludging all the pathways. Ditches are waterlogged. Drains are clogged. Burns are swollen with brown, muscly water. Brand new ponds have invaded fields and woods as if they intend to stay. Mud and muddles, dubs and puddles. Boots on, and headgear, gloves and scarves.

It’s not cold though. More faintly misty, grey round the edges. Mysterious. You see the tails of squirrels frisking just above your eye-line. Anything could happen in weather like this. The ground under our feet could sink and we could go with it. We’re walking in clouds.

Only one poem will do, and Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote it in the 1880s. It’s the antidote to gloom, even if the “beadbonny ash” (the rowan with its glorious red berries) had all its jewels eaten by the birds before Christmas. No matter! It’s beaded with raindrops now.

[Illustrations courtesy of poet Eddie Gibbons, who called in a little AI and worked magic]


This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

On Choosing the Wrong Name

If I had another life, and was choosing the name of my imprint again, I wouldn’t go for ‘HappenStance Press’. Before I tell you why, I’ll explain how the name HappenStance first came about.

Back in 2005 I was thinking a lot about poetry publishing, turning half an idea over and over in my head. I was on holiday, and on holiday I sleep deeply and I dream.

So I had a vivid dream in which I had set up a poetry publishing imprint called ‘Happenstance’. Next day I wrote my sister an unusually long letter. I told her about my dream. I’m going to go ahead with it, I said. I’m really going to do this. I was excited.

But was ‘Happenstance’ the right name? I liked the sound of the word, but not its connotations. I wanted an operation that was deliberate, carefully planned. The more I thought about it, the more I kept remembering W H. Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’.

My press could reverse that, Mr Auden, I thought. It could make poetry happen. And I could take a stance on the way it happened.

But it wasn’t just happenstance. It had to be HappenStance. The second half of the word had to be capitalised and italicised because that … was the whole point. And so I began.

There was, however, so much I didn’t know. So much.

For example, I failed to see that I was the only person who would ever care about that distinctive detail: the capital S, the italicised Stance.

For everybody else it would just be Happenstance Press (there are at least two bands with the same name, as well as a Rachael Yamagata album and a brand of footwear, not to mention a dozen or so novels).

At first I used to remind people about getting the format of ‘HappenStance’ right. Especially my own poets. Most of them cocked it up, and still do. I ve stopped reminding them. I see it wrong in bios everywhere, in books, in magazines. Reviewers of HappenStance books almost invariably write ‘Happenstance’ (why should they care?).

And then, worst of all, I was forced to get it wrong myself. That’s because in some online software, the heading styles won’t accept a mixture of regular and italic font. Often, it’s one or the other, unless you save the heading as a graphic, and you can only usually do that in banners. Sigh.

So some of the headings on the HappenStance website have the Stance italicised. Others don’t. I expect if I forked out enough money it’s all fixable, but the circumstance of HappenStance has never been lucrative and the website mostly uses freeware. This is poetry, after all.

I see new presses popping up all the time, and the imprint names always interest me. When ignitionpress sprang into existence, I chuckled hollowly. All one lowercase word, right? Two words squashed together. Bold font for the first word only? Ha! Asking for trouble.

And right enough: check it out. Sometimes you see Ignition Press. Sometimes you see Ignitionpress. Sometimes you see ignitionpress. On the home page where everything ignites, there’s both ignitionpress and ignitionpress, but then the second version is white on black, and it’s hard to mix bold and regular characters in WOB.

Anyway, such is life. All I’m saying is: if I had my time again, I’d keep it simple. A nice regular font; a word with a pleasing shape and sound. That would do. Be easy to remember. Be easy to spell. Be easy to fit inside a URL.

As for Auden, that troublesome quotation about poetry not making things happen is drawn from his 1939 work ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’. The whole poem is well worth revisiting. But here’s the relevant bit, and it doesn’t say quite what I always thought:

[ … ] poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

So poetry, after all, ‘survives / in the valley of its making’. Hands off, you poetry executives! It’s a river: it flows on, it survives. It is, as much as anything else ‘a way of happening’. I like that. (Valley Press might like it too.)

But ‘HappenStance’ is the name I did choose, eighteen years ago. I have completed my main phase now, the determination to make books happen. I’m on my last titles, and although this ‘way of happening’, the poetry thing, sits central to my life, I won’t make many more publications. The launch of one of the last is next week, Tuesday 7 November at 7.00 pm at the Devereux in central London. The magical book being launched is Matthew Stewart’s Whatever You Do, Just Don’t. It includes twelve poems about a football team, something I never in a million years thought I would like. But I do. Details of the event are on the events page of the website.

Please come along to the London event and say hello if you live near enough. (Spell ‘hello’ any way you like.)

Missing the Lesser Mortal

My long-standing friend and HappenStance poet Geoff Lander has died. We were almost exactly the same age. We met as students: he was studying Chemistry and I was wrestling with English Literature. He and his friend Simon used to come and drink mugs of instant coffee with me and my room-mate Clare. I don’t recall what we talked about half a century ago, but while the connection with Simon got lost, the one with Geoff (and Clare) survived. We exchanged Christmas cards all our lives, with news and family photos.

In the last fifteen years, communication with Geoffrey (as he often called himself) was by email, from Bexleyheath to Fife and back again. He knew all about HappenStance Press and took an interest from the start, but I had no idea that after a life-changing stroke (which led to early retirement, among other things) he would start to write that poems himself. Not poems about loss or disability or acute unhappiness (all of which he experienced) but witty, rhyming pieces about politics, science and current affairs.

Geoff was a formalist. He’d tried free verse but it didn’t work for him. When he wrote without rhyme or metre, the results were wooden, whereas the pattern and challenge of a formal structure gave him wings. He read closely, carefully and widely, especially the lyricists and noble rhymers of the twentieth century: John Masefield, Rudyard Kipling, W S Gilbert, A E Housman, Hilaire Belloc. He loved Auden and MacNeice too, and even Larkin. He would find a poem he admired, analyse its form, and then try doing it himself, again, again and again.He sent me many of the results, and I would tell him what was wrong with them.

It took a while until he really got his head around metre. I love rhyme but I’m a hard taskmaster. I was tough with his: no half-rhyming cop-outs, or singulars matched with plurals. He worked intensely on this and got better and better.

Latterly, he would send me something he’d been working on for ages, and tell me it was finally ‘finished’. I would send it back, pointing out the things that needed adjusting. He would write back, ‘Have I ever told you how much I hate you?’ I loved that. Then he would really finish the poem.

He had a whole array of talents. He possessed a fine tenor voice and had sung all his life in choirs or, in earlier days, light opera. (His email address was jussiblo9@ etc, a nod to the singer he most admired: Jussi Björling.)

He played piano and violin.

He could draw, a dab hand at head and shoulders portraits and wacky cartoons. He would regularly make entomological depictions of insects: butterflies, bees.

He loved gardening, and cooking: made great bread and fabulous dumplings.

All of this was on top of his background in science: he had excelled at university and completed a PhD in Chemistry.

But he was a private person. He didn’t write about personal feelings, with the exception of rage. His fury about social inequality and shambolic politics found its way into poems. If only Boris Johnson knew how frequently he had fallen victim to Geoff’s scathing turn of phrase!

He also wrote about what he admired. I published a pamphlet of his poems about great scientists in The Lesser Mortal in 2018. It was enormously educative for me.He attended at least two local poetry groups, and would often comment wryly on how his own work didn’t fit in with contemporary expectations. Sometimes he would deliver the more ribald pieces in a mock-cockney accent, or the voice of a literary ‘toff’. Here he is, for those who would like to hear his voice, with a pastiche of Masefield:

The Craft of Poetry

The theme of Welling Poetry Group’s meeting 27.10.2018

I must go down to the library where this week’s theme is ‘craft’.
Craft in out-dated meter? Don’t be so bloody daft!
There is no skill in the triolet or the bawdy limerick
and as for the curse they call light verse—fetch me a sick-bag, quick.

No, do not waste a second on that worn-out jingo Kipling—
nobody dare admit today they like his rhythms’ rippling.
Art in the murderer Deever? or that guileless Gunga Din?
And above all else that twaddle ‘If’? —file ’em in the rubbish bin!

I must go down to the library and read them this pastiche
(its shifting-metric balderdash belongs in a passé niche).
I’ll say no one should give a damn if the odd stress get misplaced,
then laugh at the hornets’ nest I’ve stirred, outwardly po-faced.

A recording of him reading the above himself is here: https://soundcloud.com/nell_nellson/the-craft-of-poetry-geoff-lander

Geoff was variously kind, thoughtful, and infuriating on any issue on which he’d already made up his mind. At times he drove me nuts, and I loved him. Latterly his health was failing. His diabetes was an issue and so was balance and, increasingly, deafness. He was subject to fits of what he called ‘the black dog’. He decided it was time to go and took the necessary steps to secure his own speedy exit.

Funeral details for those who knew him are here: https://geoffreylander.muchloved.com/

When struggling with strong emotion, formal verse does help. Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce, etc. Geoff was especially fond of a rondeau (and even a rondeau redoublé); he wrote many of them. The poem that started him off was the well-known First World War lyric by John McCrae, ‘In Flanders Fields‘. So I chose that form to remember him with. I worked on it carefully, but can’t let him check it to see if he approves. So I hope he would understand why I changed the rules at the end, just as he did himself in making his departure.

In Lander’s Fields

A flawed rondeau for Geoff

Geoff Lander’s gone (he liked to go
without a fuss). He used to know
much about music; also why
an acid needs an alkali
and how a well-made loaf should grow.

And he could write. Short days ago
he rose, made bread, saw sunrise glow,
wrestled with rhymes. But now this sigh:
Geoff Lander’s gone.

I knew him kind to friend or foe
though on himself prone to bestow
scant praise. Geoffrey could make you cry
singing a simple lullaby —
with such a voice, a man might fly.
Geoff Lander’s flown.

A long short story

‘Short’ is a funny little word. But you know what it means. Shorten a story and it gets smaller. That’s how you cut a long story short.
But for some reason, ‘shorten’ (vb) has another meaning, namely to add fat to, in order to make something tender and flaky eg pastry, shortbread biscuits. An old meaning of ‘short’ is crumbly, as in short pastry — and shortbread, traditional in Scotland at Hogmanay.

    Who put the short in shortbread?
    It wis me, ma, it wis me.
    I added the butter and mixed it all up
    and baked it in cookies for tea.

    Who et the hale plate o shortbread?
    It wis you, ma, it wis you.
    I made it, I baked it, I gaed to wash up —
    you scoffed it afore I wis through.

Once, long ago, my mum taught me how to make shortbread. At least, she said she would. But ‘helping’ her with any bit of cooking really meant watching her do it.

I would look on as she weighed the ingredients and rubbed the fat into the flour and sugar with her finger-tips. Then she pressed the mixture into a solid mass, lifted it onto the work surface, and rolled it flat with the big rolling pin.

I sat on the tall stool and observed. When would I be allowed to do something?

Finally, I was allowed to cut cookies out of the dough with the pastry cutter and prick each one with a fork, a neat pattern of dots.

She was the one who put the tray of biscuits into the oven, and lifted them out again when the ‘pinger’ buzzed.

I shook the caster sugar over them. Oh, and I ate them.

My mother was a good baker and rarely used a recipe. She did teach me how to remember the ingredients for shortbread. ‘It’s easy,’ she said. ‘Just remember 6, 4 and 2. Six for the flour, four for the butter, two for the caster sugar. Divide by two and it’s 3, 2, 1. That’s the proportions and they always stay the same, no matter how many biscuits you make.’ 

This lesson stuck, though I was no arithmetician (nor was she).

More than sixty years later, I make shortbread a lot. 

Tonight I’m making it for Hogmanay. I associate it with my mother, of course, who also sang a lot. It came back to me this evening that one of her regular numbers was ‘Momma’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread‘. I always assumed ‘shortnin’ bread’ was shortbread. In the USA, ‘shortening’ is baking fat. In the UK, all that remains of ‘short’ in that sense is ‘shortcrust’ pastry and ‘shortbread’.

Happy New Shortbread!

Fresh-baked shortbread. A good time to drop in.



And come to that, why read them? If I pick up a magazine that mixes poems and reviews, will I turn avidly to the reviews? Nope. Unless – just possibly – I know there’s something controversial in one of them. I will start by reading the poems: first the poets I know, then the ones I don’t. I may get to the reviews later. Maybe.

There’s only one type of review people turn to immediately with an adrenalin spurt — yes, it’s the one that features their own poems. In fact, it may be the only thing they read in the magazine.

Poets generally like to get reviews of their books, though they don’t always like the reviews they get. They’re far less keen on the writing side, that is to say writing reviews of other poets’ books. A few, however, do take on the review task regularly, uncomplainingly and reliably. They are usually – but not invariably – unpaid. Reviewers are the Cinderellas of poetry. There are no national prizes or shortlists for them (fortunately). Occasionally, of course, a review does draw considerable attention by upsetting people, generally unintentionally.

Between 2005 and 2017 I ran Sphinx Review: an online publication offering short written responses to poetry pamphlets. I had a co-editor (Charlotte Gann) and a team of 14 – 25 reviewers. Each time a set of reviews was ready, an email newsletter went out. We had just over 400 subscribers; the ‘open’ rate was about 33% and the click rate 45%. People also arrived at individual reviews through FaceBook, Twitter, email and word of mouth. Some were widely read. Some were copied onto other websites. Some were hardly read at all. But since they’re online, they’re there for as long as the site lasts. They help make a poet googlable.

Running Sphinx Review cost masses of time and a growing sum of money. So finally I have stopped. My bones are creaking.

But why start it in the first place? I thought it was important. I still do. I’m a publisher. I put out books and pamphlets and I want them to be noticed. I want there to be a conversation. And I believe in putting your money, as they say, where your mouth is.

The Sphinx approach to reviewing has always been unconventional, and bound by certain principles. We reviewed nearly all the pamphlets that come in, not just the classy ones. We ran more than one review for a pamphlet, provided we had more than one copy. When we had new reviewers, we worked with them to build confidence and sharpen style. Our reviews were short – hopefully too short to be boring. Our editors (Charlotte Gann and myself) were dedicated and painstaking.

I believe it’s good for poets to write reviews. It makes them better readers; it makes them think things through. It makes them look closely, makes them re-read, check references and examine their own prejudices. It teaches them poetry tricks they can use themselves and poetry faults they can avoid. Writing good, accessible reviews is an art worth working at.

Ah but I find it easier to say why poets should write reviews than why they should read them. I’d like to think people might read interesting and original reviews for pleasure. But do they?

On Saturday 5 November, 2022, I took part in a poetry panel as part of the Push the Boat Out festival in Edinburgh, a live event. We were wrangling over the ins and outs of reviewing. And the very next day, on Sunday 6th, HappenStance poet D A Prince was on a panel in Poetry in Aldeburgh doing something similar, a live event with a live-streamed option. So these topics are topical and lively. Do you read reviews of poetry books and pamphlets? And if so, why?



 In December 2012 I blogged about the spoon poems in Richie McCaffery’s Spinning Plates. Lovely work. Richie is a collector of old things, notably spoons and books. I’ve been a bit of a collector of both too. In the end I had to stop. I developed ambitions to possess cutlery far beyond my means.

Writing that blog back in 2012, I also popped in a poem by Hilary Menos. And now things have come full circle, because it happens to be in a whole pamphlet: Fear of Forks.

So it seems cutlery poems appeal to me a lot. You don’t get many of them on Ebay, and Hilary has written more than any other poet I know. They needed collecting, and cherishing.

It strikes me that quite a number of poets may be inspired by cutlery. Michael Laskey and D A Prince have unforgettable poems featuring a particular kitchen knife. Maybe more of you have cutlery poems somewhere in your store? Tableware is so familiar, and still valuable. Something useful that’s also beautiful. Or something beautiful because it’s useful.

I have a little silver fork that was given to me as a baby, a christening present. It has a space where my initials should have gone but they never did. My sister had one too. Where did hers go? Who will want mine when I’m gone?

We have a launch event coming up shortly, where I’m going to discuss The Friday Poem ezine with Hilary and her husband Andy. We’ll also speak about cutlery and, of course, cutlery poems. Cutting edge poetry.

Do register and come if you can. I promise an interesting discussion. That’s 6.30 pm (London time) Tuesday 20th September in the year the Queen died: 2022.

Here’s the link for registration (you have to register in order to come): https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_fl3x2aIXTn-yrjmllb3wPw

And do post any spoon (or cutlery) poem below, if you have a short-ish one you’re prepared to share. 

The fork without my initials, and some shortbread I made last night.



Gina Wilson died last month, June 23. She was perhaps best known as a children’s author or (to her clients and friends) as a psychotherapist. HappenStance brought out her first pamphlet of poems for adults in 2010. It was called Scissors, Paper, Stone. I’m going to sound feeble and ineffectual but still I’ll say it. I knew her illness was life-threatening. I knew she would probably die of it eventually. But I feel lost for words.

I’d always assumed she would go on to produce a full collection of poems, maybe two. She had a second pamphlet from Mariscat in 2017 – a real beaut – and she was always working on a poem. She’d send me one or two now and again: always short, but intense. She was a slow poet (my favourite kind). A poem might rumble on for years while she thought it through, whatever it was. Sometimes her results were stunning. Fabulous syntax. Take the title poem of her 2017 Mariscat pamphlet It Was and It Wasn’t. Just ten lines long – but by gum, it stays with you:


Squirrels spend a lot of time
digging up and reburying their store,
checking it’s still there, taking a bite.
My mother used to be the same
with dates and nuts at Christmas.
Never an unopened box of anything
by the Day itself. Funny how people
can’t quite bury a treasure. My brother
dug up our dead rabbit by torchlight
to see if it was safe. It was and it wasn’t.

Gina had first started sending adult poems to magazines in the mid 1990s, won the Frogmore Poetry Prize in 1997. She was already a successful children’s writer. She had several teenage novels (remember Cora Ravenwing?) and one book of poems for kids.

She grew more confident with an adult readership, and wrote more simply. Clean lines. Short sentences. 

She was a member of writing groups. She liked going to the workshops run by Peter and Ann Sansom in particular. 

I kept one of her poems in two versions; she’d sent them to me years apart. The first version had three possible titles and 112 words. The second had one title and 60 words. The first has a simile (‘She looks like the stone goblin’). The second version moves simile into metaphor (‘She’s a stone / gnome’).

She resisted epiphanies (although I should say, bearing in mind her mischievous sense of humour, that one of my favourite poems is dated ‘Epiphany, 2015’). Often she’s so plain, so deliberately distanced from metaphor, that a naturally occurring experience suddenly seems to be one of the metaphors life itself has offered. It’s as though each detail has symbolic meaning if only we could see it.

Sometimes, the book jackets of celebrated poets refer to the author as ‘an important poet’. Gina was never dubbed ‘an important poet’, never even tried to be an important poet. But the pain of this new absence reminds me that she was important to me. And so were her poems.

Poets do leave bits of themselves in what they write, and if the poems are alive, so is a bit of them. 

With her daughter’s permission, I’ll quote one of Gina’s last pieces. She’s still right here in the hospital waiting room, consciously unimportant and waiting to be weighed. Isn’t this a metaphor?

Pandemic, 2020

I’m reading the book my daughter gave me last Christmas,
A History of the World in 21 Women. She likes facts,
something to believe in, and I’m trying to believe in a world
made up of Joan of Arc, Frida Kahlo, Banazir Bhutto …
their wonders reeled off on ten pages each.

Around me, the hospital waiting room is dotted
with very ill people. They whisper in pairs, or sit separated
by six feet, some reading like me or pretending to,
watching the clock go round. Nameless nurses, in blue,
walk through and back and through again.
Once in a while they call someone to stand on the scales.