It's once again some time since I last reported but plenty happened in writing terms (let alone in terms of what else was going on in the world) in the second half of 2020. Some of the highlights included the fact that, for the first time ever, I won a poetry competition outright. This was the Saltaire Festival Poetry Competition - my own local festival! It was one of those occasions where, on reading the 'Green Aire' theme, I seemed to know exactly what I wanted to write - about discovering local walks under lockdown, while more traditional destinations were unavailable. For anyone interested, an anthology of the winning poems and the short stories in its sister competition, is available for £7.50 + P&P.
As noted in a previous post, these things tend to come along like corporation buses, but I was no less delighted when I found out that I had won the Ilkley Literature Festival's Walter Swan Poetry Competition. Again, this festival is special to me as it is where I first decided I could actually do something with poetry, under Kim Moore's guidance at the 2014 festival. This feels like my most significant achievement yet. There's a video of me reading the winnng poem (I'm about 13 minutes 50 in, while comments by the judge, Professor John Whale, are at around 11 minutes).
It's only fair to mention some of the other journals and anthologies that have been kind enough to include my work. I have had poems in Dreich journal, The Angry Manifesto and Wet Grain, but I was most surprised to find myself in very illustrious company in 14 magazine, along with David Harsent, Zaffar Kunial and others.
In terms of anthologies, I was very gratified to find a poem in the voice of Baudelaire's mistress, Jeanne Duval accepted for Civic Leicester's Black Lives Matter collection, as well as to see my poem 'Second Avenue, Heaton, 1992', which had previously appeared on the Poem of the North website, reprinted in Fragmented Voices' The Language of Salt. There was also poem in Yaffle Press's anthology, Whirlagust II.
After a busy end to 2020, it was a great start to 2021 to find that my pamphlet, Smithereens, had been selected for publication by 4Word Press. There will be a launch announced shortly!
It's a thankless task at times, this poetry lark. Submitting to magazines, anthologies and competitions, waiting months to hear, only for rejections to trickle back - usually just after the submission deadline for a publication for which you thought (almost certainly wrongly) that your tied-up poem would be a dead cert. Still, nobody makes us do it. When moved to complain, I often think of the line from the old Gang of Four song (with appropriate gender switch), "She said she was ambitious / so she accepts the process."
Sometimes, the effect is amplified by corporation bus syndrome - month after barren month, with several good things coming at once.
Thus, last week I found out that, for the second year running, I had been longlisted for the Fish Poetry Prize. Granted, there were 295 on the longlist but out of 1,952 it's not bad - and it puts my poem on a par with one by Kim Addonizio and means that it must briefly have caught the attention of Billy Collins.
Even better, though, was having a poem highly commemded in the York Poetry Prize - one of two that were shortlisted. 'The abattoir is Eden' derives from a visit to Malaga, late last year. We went to wonderful pop-up Pompidou Centre in the city, where there was an exhibition entitled Utopías Modernas - 'Modern Utopias'. Given the 'Hell in a handcart' state of the world then (and now), we felt that utopia was something we needed, and the exhibition was, indeed, fantastic. In one part of the gallery, two films were running consecutively on a loop: one was a piece by Chris Marker, while I failed to notice the author of the other - as I now greatly regret. The latter showed footage of an abattoir run in reverse, so that the slaughtered cattle were reassembled and restored to life, before being trucked back to an idyllic life in the fields. It's an idea that has been used a number of times before but I found it strangely moving and, after being unable to shake off the image, I realised I had to write about it. It's great that it connected with the judge, Sean O'Brien.
You can take a look at the poem and at me reading it on the York Prize page, along with other winners including my poetry friends Wendy Pratt, Emma Storr and Jo Haslam. Alternatively, here it is:
It has been a tough few months for most people I know. We had the nightmare of how things might go in the lead-up to the election. And then the nightmare came true. We know we have to live with it for at least five more years.
For the past few years, Christmas hasn't felt much like Christmas and, in the context of everything else that has been going on, it would be understandable if it felt even less like it this year. However, we have involved ourselves in a few community activities and reminded ourselves of just how lucky we are to live in a great place, surrounded by great people. Today, on Christmas Day, when we went out for a walk in beautiful surroundings and clear blue skies, with almost everyone ready to wish us a happy Christmas, it really did feel like a day when renewal was possible, which has always been at the heart of the idea of Christmas - or of the celebrations around the solstice, if you prefer.
Perhaps I'm just being seduced all over again by the notion that underpins New Year resolutions and the like but I felt positive for the first time in a long time. Along with the Christmassy feeling, the words of Brecht (I keep feeling the need to quote him at the moment) occurred to me: "Wherever life has not died out, it struggles to its feet again".
2020 won't be easy. It will be a struggle. But on Christmas Day, at last, I feel up to engaging with it.
In the meantime, for what it's worth, here's a poem about a day like today.
A day in the middle of winter
When a year can’t wait to get to its close
we’re left with a day in the middle of winter,
cold, short, hard and bright in the dark,
something that can be everything
by being nothing but itself.
And if that day took on flesh, it might as well
be a new-born baby, not needing precious gifts,
not needing the worship of millions,
just the love of a mother, the support
of a father, whoever he might be.
And if the baby dies on a cross
or lives to old age, rises or stays
in the tomb, it will always have been
that naked, helpless child; and if the days
lengthen, if life stirs, dies back and returns,
there will always have been that cold,
short, hard, bright day in the dark,
with the whole world turning on it.
I'm totally made up about the fact that my poem, Second Avenue, Heaton, 1992 has been selected as one of 50 poems for the Poem of the North project. I'm even more delighted about the fact that it was one of five, from those 50, to be chosen as the winner of one of the five Cantos. That's reward enough in itself but a year's membership of the Poetry Book Society is definitely a cherry on top!
I have three rather colourfully illustrated poems in the latest copy of Scrittura magazine. Book town is a relatively new poem. I'll leave it to the reader's imagination whether it concerns a real town and if so, what that town's location is.
Peasant poet is an old idea, recently re-written.
Three avatars of the unicorn, on the other hand, is one of my oldest poems. I just couldn't let go of it, and I'm delighted that it's found a home at last!
I was very pleased to have two poems published a few months ago on the Runcible Spoon website, run by Kathleen and David Strafford. Kathleen is an American-born, Yorkshire-based poet, whose debut collection, Her Own Language, was published earlier this year.
The two poems were Huntress moon and Lunaria annua. The first of these arose from the names of the full moons, which seem to have been widely popularised over the last few years. I observed a hunter's moon (October), but on starting to write about it, my notions of that particular full moon seemed to be more about the huntress goddess, Diana, particularly in her encounter with Acteon. After writing this poem, I decided that I would write a number of other poems related to the moon, but would give them my own names, rather than rely on the traditional names. More have been published, and I will share some of them shortly. They also form the basis of a collaboration with composer Keely Hodgson, which we hope will result in a performance-based piece later this year and early next year.
The second poem concerns honesty - a plant whose seed pods have many different names in different cultures, but whose Latin name brings in a further 'moon' connection.
I have been more than a little neglectful of news on here recently, but I'm hoping to put that right for the future. There are quite a few publications I wanted to share, and I'll start with the publication of a long poem in five sections (or a sequence of five poems, depending on how you want to look at it) on the Canadian website www.ekphrastic.net/, which is run by artist Lorette C. Luzajic . You can read the poem(s) (and see the paintings they're based on here:
I saw the Zianigo Frescoes in the Ca'Rezzonico during a visit to Venice a few years ago. Painted by minor rococo artist Giandomenico Tiepolo (son of the more famous Giambattista) and with subject matter drawn from the Commedia dell'Arte, they were far removed from the art I was used to seeking out in Venice - but I was captivated by the sense of carnivalesque misrule embodied in Pulcinella, who seemed to be presiding over the final stages of the decline of the Venetian republic.
I wrote the poems some time ago but was at a loss as to where to place them - they were too long for most publications and lost much by not being able to be seen alongside the paintings. Thus I was delighted when The Ekphrastic Review took them earlier this year, and placed them in an appropriate setting. I hope you enjoy reading them!
I will be reading at two events as part of the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe.
On Tuesday 3 October, 9:15-10:15 at Ilkley Playhouse (Wildman), I will be with my fellow Templar Poets, David Coldwell, Ian Harker and Tom Weir. David's pamphlet, Flowers by the Road, came out earlier in the year, while Ian's debut collection, Rules of Survival, is newly published. Tom's All That Falling, from 2015, was one of the best collections of the last few years, and included a poem that was highly commended in the Forward Prize.
On Monday 9 October, Rhubarb's anthology, Un/forced will be launched, also at Ilkley Playhouse (Wildman), 9:15-10:15. As well as my fellow hosts, Nick Allen, Kristina Diprose and Lorna Faye Dunsire, there will be guest appearances from SJ Bradley, Mark Connors and Mandy Sutter.
I would love to see you at either (or both!) events.