Wednesday, 17 November 2010

3 poems by Matthew Stewart


Ten years on and perfection’s lost
its distant lustre. My accent

seeps away. Every few minutes
I let some vowels tug me back home,

back towards the cadence of who
I am or was or was or am.

Dad On The M25 After Midnight

Even before the front door’s shut,
I’m in first gear – up past Tesco,
third exit from the roundabout
and onto the slip road at last.
I overtake a Polish truck;
it wobbles as the driver shaves.
Tarmac reassuringly growls.

This is where the housework and kids
recede, junction after junction.
I could head west, then north, then east
- all with a millimetric nudge
of the wheel - but I hold a lane,
perfecting this nightly circle.
It closes back in on my name.

San Fairy Ann

Wit amid blood and Belgian mud,
Nan invoked you daily. Your time
on our tongues and in dictionaries
might be running out, but I’ve passed
your syllables on to my son
in return for his slang from school.

Matthew Stewart works in the Spanish wine trade and lives between Extremadura, Spain, and West Sussex, England. His poetry has appeared in many U.K. magazines and Happenstance Press will be bringing out his pamphlet in 2010/2011. He blogs at Roguestrands

Friday, 12 November 2010

5 poems by Todd Swift

Paddington Recreation Grounds

Boys on their field lit like an aquarium
sad to not be alight, like them, with goals
that a foot or hand can win; poetry’s rules
no less old than theirs, but poets
are not only players on green grass, night
and day, also the old-eyed others
edged in the park, who nod at each leap in air,
each attained yelp and elbowed throw,
the muscular panoply of bodied action
folded into hours with an end; slow to
leave, friendless, they once stood on the line,
or blew as referee, their bones now cold
and all trophies pawned. So poems both play

and hold, gravely, as if a mourner stood,
one self under the hood of the ground, the other,
above, head bowed, to pray. We stand and lie,
this way, to make the words hit home.
So ball and word fly untrue until a hand undoes
the flight by taking it down from abstract
to real motion, feeling out the meaning of its gut,
impacted with the lob’s sorrow-start,
the needing thrower’s heart, which is to gain
the art’s accolades, not be cheered in dismal
parades that sow ribbons on winners,
and never lift the anguished fade that flows
across the dark, onto playing grounds.

After Death, What Words?

The true things are where the heart is most hurt,
As beneath the dirt an isolated bulb is roseate;
What we hate to hear or hold, loss without end

Is beautiful for being absolute – pitiless as ice –
Ice that the sun destroys. Death lends itself to us,
The book with the least lies, the longest pages

Which (uncut, we hope, for awhile) reads us our
Lives, to rise like a tree aching for cold light
Through each knife of wind, each night chapter.


Stay, lie with me when I die
and keep me now I am dead.

Married as the sun is warm
let your arm maintain my head.

Move here beside cold love,
while my new body is identified,

different from what living is.
Hold me on what was our bed.

Fold your arms around what stays
when older forms of love have fled.

My Father In Hydra

Father that was,
Night you bother
My sleep, why?

Once you banged things,
Didn’t you come to me
When I was a child, to

Ask where the friends had gone?
I wish you a solid death –
I kiss your red face.

Hume Road, 1980

Ian, grandfather, one morning, winter
Took me down Hume Road (a short lane)
To wait for the train to Montreal. Younger,

He’d wrap oven-red bricks in towels, lay
Them at his feet, to make the car blind
Momentarily, before the arm’s clearance

Opened the windshield to light
Or night’s stations – those intervals
Made by lamps, small homes lit, fires,

Where curtains slip, lives stumble out in pours
Of illumination as drinkers from just-shut taverns;
This round spill of vision makes winter

More clear, in the Eastern Townships –
Chapters of woodland; whole books of trees.
Trees are somewhere to travel into, not past, only.

Ian guided us in, some ice-still mornings,
To look, crouching, at where a cougar had made
A bed in snow, then rose up to carry on hunting;

Fear then, and a sense of things continuing farther
Onto where branches forded each other, bridging
Bridges of themselves, overgrowth, undergrowth,

The loosely spilling green-brown grass
Of a child’s thinking, a leap to where a lion
Built a round room in the ice, danger, hot brick –

Burning into his ankle, Ian bit awake.
Our car avoiding, on downswerve, the logs
Carried to be timbered, sawdust, shelved to books –

The rail bridge written like escape, Richmond
Expecting the Montreal train in about an hour,
Never wanting to be late when a fellow could be on time.

Todd Swift is a lecturer at Kingston University in English Literature and Creative Writing and a tutor for The Poetry School. His most recent collections are Seaway: New and Selected Poems (Salmon, 2008) and Mainstream Love Hotel (Tall-lighthouse, 2009), and a free-to-download ebook from Argotist, Experimental Sex Hospital. Todd has edited or co-edited many international anthologies, including Poetry Nation, 100 Poets Against The War, and (with Evan Jones) Modern Canadian Poets (Carcanet, 2010). His poems have appeared widely, in places such as Poetry London, and Poetry Review. He has been Oxfam GB Poet-in-residence, and runs the London-based Oxfam Poetry Series. He has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and is currently conducting doctoral research. He lives in London. He blogs at Eyewear.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

2 poems by Michelle McGrane

Lunar Postcards

I. Moondust

Two hours ago, we docked
at Crater Plaskett's northern rim.
Plumes of spent gunpowder
eructed from the landing strip
spinning into galaxies and starfields.
It clings to our helmet visors,
sifts into our spacesuits,
fine jagged particles
infiltrating hinges and joints,
scratching equipment,
shrouding instrument dials
with an electrostatic film.

II. Hadley Rille
I am writing from a lava tube
at Hadley Rille, near the Sea of Rains.
We spent the day gathering
silica-rich soil, shattered rocks,
glassy fist-sized specimens
sampled from the basalt crust.
The Lunar Roving Vehicle
has exceeded all expectations.
Jack and his crew will be pleased.
I look forward to your news.

III. Space Gourmet

We season freeze-dried macaroni
with liquid salt and pepper.
Water is distilled, recycled
from our breath and sweat.
After a week of granola bars,
nuts and bitter orange juice,
the Commander's arm
begins to look tasty.

IV. Counting Clusters

At night,
the lunar module
ticks and hums.
I shift restlessly
in my stellar nursery,
trace the constellations
of your freckles,
striving to sail
these light years
home to you.

The Escape Artist

In our three month acquaintance, Faolán was known throughout circus rings as the Lord of the Fleas. Faolán means 'little wolf'. He was a hairy wee beastie. Agile, a born entertainer and ambitious to boot. Nothing short of global domination would satisfy the Lilliputian star. From tenth generation Saratov Circus stock on his paternal side, his mother was Muirne Mac Nessa, the Irish siphonaptera racing champion. People journeyed from as far as Argentina and the Macau Peninsula to marvel at his mesmerising chariot act, dazzling tightrope performance, virtuoso cannon routine and death-defying fire dance.

There was no one to blame but myself when he ran off with the Ringmaster's silver weimaraner. I should have suspected something was amiss. He stopped feeding when the laughing long-haired bitch sashayed past his trailer, refused to turn cartwheels as I greeted him from behind the magnifying glass. Now, I'm training aerial silk artistes. Of course, it's not the same. My heart's no longer in the hyperbole. Does he miss the good times, the spotlight, the smell of roast chestnuts and candyfloss, the cheering crowds? I sleep with his gold-trimmed tophat and tails, his diminutive whip, in a snuffbox beside my bed.

(Previously published in Magma 46)

Michelle McGrane lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and blogs at Peony Moon. Her collection, The Suitable Girl, is forthcoming in 2010.

4 poems from Helen Ivory's 'The Breakfast Machine'

The Dolls House

The trees that grow
from the nursery walls
do not rustle in the breeze
of an open window.

The jaws of the wardrobe
do not snap shut
when a crane-fly bumbles
into their waiting smile.

But there is a shifting of furniture
in the dolls house tonight,
a slow dragging of objects
across candle-lit rooms.

The kitchen windows steam up
and the unmistakable smell
of melting plastic
drifts from the chimney.

You will notice tomorrow
your new doll is gone.
You will find her blonde hair
lines a mouse nest in spring.

The Reckless Sleeper

All night he has been inventing a vocabulary –
a mythology of cities built like a circuit board;
a skeletal picture of where he’d like to belong.

He is wrapped in a blanket of grey paint,
and sometimes an apple will roll to the surface,
sometimes a mirror, or an apple in the mirror.

Sometimes a lion will lift a lazy paw
and pull the blanket from the other side of the bed;
leaving him exposed to the dark of the room.

He walks on the surface of heaven,
he holds his own heart in the palm of his hand,
his eye is a metronome; candle, bird, candle, bird.


In this, the dawn of the apocalypse
the cowboys have itchy fingers
as they ride into the centre of town.

Not a squeak can be heard
from the people that live here,
though a dog howls, chained up in a yard.

A game of cards sits unplayed
on a kitchen table. The winner
hides under a bed, unsure of his hand.

After Hours

At night the mannequins
come alive in the basement

and the ones in the window
unhitch all their clothes.

In their new state
they are unshod and sexless

and when the conductor
(a demiurge in spangled jacket)

taps his baton
they all sing with one voice.

Helen Ivory was born in Luton in 1969 and has a degree from Norwich Art School. Recipient of a 1999 Eric Gregory Award, she has three collections of poetry with Bloodaxe Books, the most recent being The Breakfast Machine(2010). She is currently working towards a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at UEA, is an Editor for The Poetry Archiveand Deputy Editor for the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

3 poems by Maureen Jivani

Open Heart

I had a heart in my hands once.
It shivered like an injured bird.
I had to stop those fibrillations
to steady that pale heart,
cooled, in its cage of bone.
Such an enormous task,
it took all the long afternoon.

But we had opera, laughter
and a tunnel of light
in that dungeon-cold room.
And sometimes it leapt,
that insensible heart, like a flying fish
or one left behind when the tide
goes out. Poor heart to be stranded
like this, a fist of blubber, in my small hands.

Going Under

Here, waiters are tall and carry silver salvers:
the dead on a plate, cabinet doors open and close
of their own accord. Venetian crystal sparkles
like a new love. The hostess grins while flaming Sambucas.

Faces float
masks accumulating dust.
A woman breezes past
wearing gold shoes and a décolletage to die for.

In the mirror, an elderly man
removes his gloves; one slips in silence to the floor.
The grandfather clock chimes the hour.

I sigh in an effort of remembrance.

An upstairs bedroom, a drab light spools through shutters,
spills across a bedraggled bed, a white glove resting
on a bedside table.

I turn, expecting a kiss I once knew.

In that Country

You did not kiss me
in a hotel room,

one with blistering paintwork
and an over-night ensemble

laid out on a single bed.
Nor did we talk about this later

in a conference room
between the keynote speaker’s

brave attempt at, ‘The Trouble with Words’
and the delegates’ response.

At coffee, we never lingered
over those last half-inches in our cups,

nor noticed the changing rhythms
in our breath, the finger-tips of space

between our hands. So at the close,
we did not dawdle in the court-yard,

fumbling for car keys, our heads spinning.
And you did not say, ‘I’ll miss you’

while a west wind skittered the gravel
at our feet and the green-eyed stray

wailed its lament
by the white-washed wall.

Maureen Jivani has been published in magazines and anthologies in the UK, America, New Zealand and Australia and has won awards for her poetry. She has a pamphlet of poems: My Shinji Noon, and a full collection: Insensible Heart, published by Mulfran Press. Insensible Heart was shortlisted for the London Festival Fringe Award 2010. She is currently working on a second collection of poetry and a book of short stories.

Maureen at peonymoon and Mulfran.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Ted Hughes Poem

“Last Letter” by Ted Hughes

What happened that night? Your final night.
Double, treble exposure
Over everything. Late afternoon, Friday,
My last sight of you alive.
Burning your letter to me, in the ashtray,
With that strange smile. Had I bungled your plan?
Had it surprised me sooner than you purposed?
Had I rushed it back to you too promptly?
One hour later—-you would have been gone
Where I could not have traced you.
I would have turned from your locked red door
That nobody would open
Still holding your letter,
A thunderbolt that could not earth itself.
That would have been electric shock treatment
For me.
Repeated over and over, all weekend,
As often as I read it, or thought of it.
That would have remade my brains, and my life.
The treatment that you planned needed some time.
I cannot imagine
How I would have got through that weekend.
I cannot imagine. Had you plotted it all?

Your note reached me too soon—-that same day,
Friday afternoon, posted in the morning.
The prevalent devils expedited it.
That was one more straw of ill-luck
Drawn against you by the Post-Office
And added to your load. I moved fast,
Through the snow-blue, February, London twilight.
Wept with relief when you opened the door.
A huddle of riddles in solution. Precocious tears
That failed to interpret to me, failed to divulge
Their real import. But what did you say
Over the smoking shards of that letter
So carefully annihilated, so calmly,
That let me release you, and leave you
To blow its ashes off your plan—-off the ashtray
Against which you would lean for me to read
The Doctor’s phone-number.
My escape
Had become such a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted,
Only wanting to be recaptured, only
Wanting to drop, out of its vacuum.
Two days of dangling nothing. Two days gratis.
Two days in no calendar, but stolen
From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.

My love-life grabbed it. My numbed love-life
With its two mad needles,
Embroidering their rose, piercing and tugging
At their tapestry, their bloody tattoo
Somewhere behind my navel,
Treading that morass of emblazon,
Two mad needles, criss-crossing their stitches,
Selecting among my nerves
For their colours, refashioning me
Inside my own skin, each refashioning the other
With their self-caricatures,

Their obsessed in and out. Two women
Each with her needle.

That night
My dellarobbia Susan. I moved
With the circumspection
Of a flame in a fuse. My whole fury
Was an abandoned effort to blow up
The old globe where shadows bent over
My telltale track of ashes. I raced
From and from, face backwards, a film reversed,
Towards what? We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.
Why did we go there? Of all places
Why did we go there? Perversity
In the artistry of our fate
Adjusted its refinements for you, for me
And for Susan. Solitaire
Played by the Minotaur of that maze
Even included Helen, in the ground-floor flat.
You had noted her—-a girl for a story.
You never met her. Few ever met her,
Except across the ears and raving mask
Of her Alsatian. You had not even glimpsed her.
You had only recoiled
When her demented animal crashed its weight
Against her door, as we slipped through the hallway;
And heard it choking on infinite German hatred.

That Sunday night she eased her door open
Its few permitted inches.
Susan greeted the black eyes, the unhappy
Overweight, lovely face, that peeped out
Across the little chain. The door closed.
We heard her consoling her jailor
Inside her cell, its kennel, where, days later,
She gassed her ferocious kupo, and herself.

Susan and I spent that night
In our wedding bed. I had not seen it
Since we lay there on our wedding day.
I did not take her back to my own bed.
It had occurred to me, your weekend over,
You might appear—-a surprise visitation.
Did you appear, to tap at my dark window?
So I stayed with Susan, hiding from you,
In our own wedding bed—-the same from which
Within three years she would be taken to die
In that same hospital where, within twelve hours,
I would find you dead.
Monday morning
I drove her to work, in the City,
Then parked my van North of Euston Road
And returned to where my telephone waited.

What happened that night, inside your hours,
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen,
As if it was not happening. How often
Did the phone ring there in my empty room,
You hearing the ring in your receiver—-
At both ends the fading memory
Of a telephone ringing, in a brain
As if already dead. I count
How often you walked to the phone-booth
At the bottom of St George’s terrace.
You are there whenever I look, just turning
Out of Fitzroy Road, crossing over
Between the heaped up banks of dirty sugar.
In your long black coat,
With your plait coiled up at the back of your hair
You walk unable to move, or wake, and are
Already nobody walking
Walking by the railings under Primrose Hill
Towards the phone booth that can never be reached.
Before midnight. After midnight. Again.
Again. Again. And, near dawn, again.

At what position of the hands on my watch-face
Did your last attempt,
Already deeply past
My being able to hear it, shake the pillow
Of that empty bed? A last time
Lightly touch at my books, and my papers?
By the time I got there my phone was asleep.
The pillow innocent. My room slept,
Already filled with the snowlit morning light.
I lit my fire. I had got out my papers.
And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: ‘Your wife is dead.’

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Hilary Menos

Congratulations to Hilary Menos whose collection 'Berg' has been awarded the 2010 Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

Here are 3 of Hilary's poems to wet your appetite.


After the Larsen breakout of ninety-five,
when a mound the size of Rutland calved with a howl
into the Amundsen sea, and bergy bits and growlers
surrounded Cape Longing, we were on standby.

Glaciologists from Colorado to London
argued over fracture mechanics and bed forms.
Every satellite map looked like a storm
breaking. We put a watch on the ice tongue

Now everything mattered; melt water ponding,
the crystallography of frazil ice, the hole in the ozone layer
the thermodynamics of polar-bear hair.
We sandbagged East Anglia, Holland

They came like brides, majestic over Barking Reach,
queued to check-in at the Barrier, their tabular tops
reflecting weak sun, waltzed towards Wapping
and Wandsworth, cold and hooded, each one

like an inmate from some asylum holding the flowered
hem of her ancient slip too high up her pale thighs,
a thousand mile stare in her eyes,
saving the last dance for the Post Office Tower.

Wheelbarrow Farm

When hell freezes over, he swears by three things.
Lard on the lips. Two pairs of socks. His wheelbarrow,
crucial on the steep when even the Ford won't grip

This morning he opened the door to a clean sweep
right up to the dairy's slate slab step, frost
spangling the tank, and briefly he's ten years old

but now it's taking the piss. Grunt glares at the snow
and it glares back. He kicks the water trough,
heels a hole through the ice. First floods, now this,

the daily round, in arctic sludge. Milk substitute
for the calves, a scoop of pellets for the fowls.
He rolls out a silage bale in the cubicle house

and forks it to the cows, sets a can at the yard tap
drumming up chilly water for the dogs,
for the lambs in the barn, the fifty hogs on the hill.

A neighbour phones on the scrounge for the loan of a box
and a tow out of the ditch where he spent the night.
Grunt goes off to do what he does best

apply excess force in a tractor. He's back at noon
to fix a burst pipe, by which time two sheep on the hill
haven't moved for an hour; are past fixing

Dirty snow starts to fall as Grunt, grunting,
moils up the slope, hauls one into the wheelbarrow,
picks his way down, and barrows up again.

Extra Maths

My father is giving me extra maths. I am ten.
If one tap fills the bath at the rate of a litre a minute
and one fills the bath at the rate of a gallon an hour
and water escapes from the plughole at two pints a second
how long before we can take a bath?

I stand on one leg. My brother is watching TV.
Outside the other kids are bombing the hill on a go-kart.
My father gouges his pipe with his penknife,
dumping black tar into his cold baked beans.
My mother hates it.

Upstairs, water seeps over the rolled enamel rim,
steals down the side of the bath and through the boards,
easing its way down the white plastic flex
of the light fitting over my father's head
at a rate incalculable to man.

Poems by Hilary Berg from the pamphlet 'Wheelbarrow Farm' and award-winning Seren collection 'Berg'.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Charles Wright Poem and Interview

Charles Wright showed up on my reading radar only four or five years ago.

Since then I have sometimes wondered why I persist in reading anyone else.

His publisher in the States is Farrar, and as far as I know, only Stride has published his work over here. Laudable though that is, the Stride books are of poor quality and scattered with misprints - particularly damaging to a poet like Wright who uses the line so creatively.

Wouldn't it be good if Bloodaxe furthered there reputation for bringing eminent U.S. poets to these shores by publishing a nice big selected? Or is that more up Carcanet's street?

Anyway, here's a short one I pulled off the net.

Clear Night

Clear night, thumb-top of a moon, a back-lit sky.
Moon-fingers lay down their same routine
On the side deck and the threshold, the white keys and the black keys.
Bird hush and bird song. A cassia flower falls.

I want to be bruised by God.
I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.
I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed.
I want to be entered and picked clean.

And the wind says “What?” to me.
And the castor beans, with their little earrings of death, say “What?” to me.
And the stars start out on their cold slide through the dark.
And the gears notch and the engines wheel.

Charles Wright, “Clear Night” from Country Music: Selected Early Poems. Copyright © 1982 by Charles Wright. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press,

Source: Country Music: Selected Early Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1982)

Monday, 13 September 2010

Bernard Spencer

Another book I'm looking forward to and which we have Bloodaxe to thank is
Bernard Spencer's 'Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose', due for release in February 2011.

Spencer died in 1963 and as far as I can tell his work is better known and admired among poets than the reading public. It deserves a wider audience and hopefully this will start to change that.

A Collected Poems was last published by OUP in 1981 and before that by Alan Ross in 1965.

I happen to know this because I chanced across a copy of the latter in a book shop on Charing Cross Road in the early 90s and was impressed by how contemporary-sounding many of his poems are.

I figure this is why he is so admired by other poets since they can enjoy and use his work far easier than, say, Auden's.

His work is conversational, often elegant, and precisely detailed. He sometimes reminds me of Louis MacNeice, and as in the poem below, Elizabeth Bishop.

Boat Poem

I wish there were a touch of these boats about my life;
so to speak, a tarring,
the touch of inspired disorder and something more than that,
something more too
than the mobility of sails or a primitive bumpy engine,
under that tiny hot-house window,
which eats up oil and benzine perhaps
but will go on beating in spite of the many strains
not needing with luck to be repaired too often,
with luck lasting years piled on years.

There must be a kind of envy which brings me peering
and nosing at the boats along the island quay
either in the hot morning
with the lace-light shaking up against their hulls from the water,
or when their mast-tops
keep on drawing lines between stars.
(I do not speak here of the private yachts from the clubs
which stalk across the harbour like magnificent white cats
but sheer off and keep mostly to themselves.)

Look for example at the Bartolomé a deck-full
of mineral water and bottles of beer in cases
and great booming barrels of wine from the mainland,
endearing trade;
and lengths of timber and iron rods for building
and, curiously, a pig with flying ears
ramming a wet snout into whatever it explores.

Or the Virgin del Pilar, mantled and weary with drooping nets
with starfish and pieces of cod drying on the wheel-house roof
some wine, the remains of supper on an enamel plate
and trousers and singlets ‘passim’;
both of these boats stinky and forgivable like some great men
both needing paint,
but both, one observes, armoured far better than us against jolts
by a belt of old motor-tyres lobbed round their sides for buffers.

And having in their swerving planks and in the point of their bows
the never-enough-to-be-praised
authority of a great tradition, the sea-shape
simple and true like a vase,
something that stays too in the carved head of an eagle
or that white-eyed wooden hound crying up beneath the bowsprit.

Qualities clearly admirable. So is their response to occasion,
how they celebrate such times
and suddenly fountain with bunting and stand like ocean maypoles
on a Saint’s Day when a gun bangs from the fortifications,
and an echo-gun throws a bang back
and all the old kitchen bells start hammering from the churches.

Admirable again
how one of them, perhaps tomorrow, will have gone with no hooting or fuss,
simply absent from its place among the others,
occupied, without self-importance, in the thousands-of-
millions-of sea.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Robert Hass: New and Selected Poems from Bloodaxe

Robert Hass's 'The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems' was brought out earlier this year by U.S. publisher Ecco.

Continuing its excellent work of publishing outstanding American poets, Bloodaxe will be releasing it in the U.K. in January of next year.

I couldn't think of a better way to start the new year and can't wait to receive a copy.

If you've not read his wonderfully meditative work before, here's a taster.

Dragonflies Mating


The people who lived here before us
also loved these high mountain meadows on summer mornings.
They made their way up here in easy stages
when heat began to dry the valleys out,
following the berry harvest probably and the pine buds:
climbing and making camp and gathering,
then breaking camp and climbing and making camp and gathering.
A few miles a day. They sent out the children
to dig up bulbs of the mariposa lilies that they liked to roast
at night by the fire where they sat talking about how this year
was different from last year. Told stories,
knew where they were on earth from the names,
owl moon, bear moon, gooseberry moon.


Jaime de Angulo (1934) was talking to a Channel Island Indian
in a Santa Barbara bar. You tell me how your people said
the world was made. Well, the guy said, Coyote was on the mountain
and he had to pee. Wait a minute, Jaime said,
I was talking to a Pomo the other day and he said
Red Fox made the world. They say Red Fox, the guy shrugged,
we say Coyote. So, he had to pee
and he didn’t want to drown anybody, so he turned toward the place
where the ocean would be. Wait a minute, Jaime said,
if there were no people yet, how could he drown anybody?
The Channelleño got a funny look on his face. You know,
he said, when I was a kid, I wondered about that,
and I asked my father. We were living up toward Santa Ynez.
He was sitting on a bench in the yard shaving down fence posts
with an ax, and I said, how come Coyote was worried about people
when he had to pee and there were no people? The guy laughed.
And my old man looked up at me with this funny smile
and said, You know, when I was a kid, I wondered about that.


Thinking about that story just now, early morning heat,
first day in the mountains, I remembered stories about sick Indians
and—in the same thought—standing on the free throw line.

St. Raphael’s parish, where the northern-most of the missions
had been, was founded as a hospital, was named for the angel
in the scriptures who healed the blind man with a fish

he laid across his eyes.—I wouldn’t mind being that age again,
hearing those stories, eyes turned upward toward the young nun
in her white, fresh-smelling, immaculately laundered robes.—

The Franciscan priests who brought their faith in God
across the Atlantic, brought with the baroque statues and metalwork crosses
and elaborately embroidered cloaks, influenza and syphilis and the coughing disease.

Which is why we settled an almost empty California.
There were drawings in the mission museum of the long, dark wards
full of small brown people, wasted, coughing into blankets,

the saintly Franciscan fathers moving patiently among them.
It would, Sister Marietta said, have broken your hearts to see it.
They meant so well, she said, and such a terrible thing

came here with their love. And I remembered how I hated it
after school—because I loved basketball practice more than anything
on earth—that I never knew if my mother was going to show up

well into one of those weeks of drinking she disappeared into,
and humiliate me in front of my classmates with her bright, confident eyes,
and slurred, though carefully pronounced words, and the appalling

impromptu sets of mismatched clothes she was given to
when she had the dim idea of making a good impression in that state.
Sometimes from the gym floor with its sweet, heady smell of varnish

I’d see her in the entryway looking for me, and I’d bounce
the ball two or three times, study the orange rim as if it were,
which it was, the true level of the world, the one sure thing

the power in my hands could summon. I’d bounce the ball
once more, feel the grain of the leather in my fingertips and shoot.
It was a perfect thing; it was almost like killing her.


When we say “mother” in poems,
we usually mean some woman in her late twenties
or early thirties trying to raise a child.

We use this particular noun
to secure the pathos of the child’s point of view
and to hold her responsible.


If you’re afraid now?
Fear is a teacher.
Sometimes you thought that
Nothing could reach her,
Nothing can reach you.
Wouldn’t you rather
Sit by the river, sit
On the dead bank,
Deader than winter,
Where all the roots gape?


This morning in the early sun,
steam rising from the pond the color of smoky topaz,
a pair of delicate, copper-red, needle-fine insects
are mating in the unopened crown of a Shasta daisy
just outside your door. The green flowerheads look like wombs
or the upright, supplicant bulbs of a vegetal pre-erection.
The insect lovers seem to be transferring the cosmos into each other
by attaching at the tail, holding utterly still, and quivering intently.

I think (on what evidence?) that they are different from us.
That they mate and are done with mating.
They don’t carry all this half-mated longing up out of childhood
and then go looking for it everywhere.
And so, I think, they can’t wound each other the way we do.
They don’t go through life dizzy or groggy with their hunger,
kill with it, smear it on everything, though it is perhaps also true
that nothing happens to them quite like what happens to us
when the blue-backed swallow dips swiftly toward the green pond
and the pond’s green-and-blue reflected swallow marries it a moment
in the reflected sky and the heart goes out to the end of the rope
it has been throwing into abyss after abyss, and a singing shimmers
from every color the morning has risen into.

My insect instructors have stilled, they are probably stuck together
in some bliss and minute pulse of after-longing
evolution worked out to suck the last juice of the world
into the receiver body. They can’t separate probably
until it is done.

Robert Hass, “Dragonflies Mating” from Sun Under Wood. Copyright © 1996 by Robert Hass.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Emergency Verse: Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State

Here is a link to a Guardian article about an e-anthology, 'Emergency Verse', that was released recently and which I contributed a short poem to.

The anthology was edited by Alan Morrison and includes work by, among others, Debjani Chatterjee, Michael Horovitz, Simon Jenner, Judith Kazantzis, John O' Donoghue, Mario Petrucci, Naomi Foyle, and Michael Rosen.

Monday, 9 August 2010

New Poem

... and here's something from the weekend:

After Connie Bensley

I’ve heard all his stories before
and I am sick of them.
They have no affective content
and they try to persuade

the listener to think about him
the same way he would like
to think about himself.
My eyes glaze over.

I think of a beaver’s dam
stretching across a river;
a brittle construction snagging drink cans,
plastic bags, and all sorts of crap.

John Clegg Chapbook

Just want to share some of John Clegg's excellent work up at Silkworms Ink. Rumour has it Salt will be putting out a debut collection in the next year or two... Look forward to it!

Four Walls by Iain McGilchrist : Poetry Magazine [article/magazine]

Four Walls by Iain McGilchrist : Poetry Magazine [article/magazine]

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Extract from 'Fifteen Minutes'

We have the potential
to become
fully perfected Buddhas.
We have only
to strip back the skin
of our unenlightened selves
to the banana
of our Buddha-nature.
Electric fan cools
my right ear,
smoothly spinning the air
like candyfloss.
Inside it must be dark.
This way you get
to surprise yourself.
Meeting you
after all these years
is pleasurable.
Imagine, all of this time
turning a blind eye
on myself; the best
I could do
was to let it go.
You wouldn’t treat
a dog that way,
would you?
How long, exactly?
All of it, I guess,
minus maybe
a few hours, max.
Go in far enough
you come out
the other side.
Office furniture.
Brown filing cabinet.
Unsettling materials
I suddenly feel
compelled to describe
as though my life
depended on it.
The former occupant
painted the walls
toothpaste green.
Worked for them.
Grey and white marble lino.
Grimy accretions
around the edges.
Up close everything
is scratched
or has in some way
from its original
pristine condition.
Look as though doing
something important.
6 minutes to go.
Yin-yang mouse mat.
Facebook minimized
to taskbar.
I see Bernard Welt
has come online.
A small balloon
of happiness rises
though reputation
cannot end suffering
either since you
do nothing for it.
When the end feels right
I start again.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Book Available from Amazon

My collection 'Waiting for the Sky to Fall' is now available from Amazon.

Regulation of Counselling

For anyone interested in what is happening with counselling and regulation, this article by Steve Cox from 'Therapy Today' should be of interest.

Defining Moments by Steve Cox

To be born in ‘interesting times’ is said to be a Chinese curse. I certainly experience the current ‘regulation climate’ as an interesting time. As to whether these times qualify as a curse is down to us. I believe that the present regulation debate is very important and that the current climate presents a big challenge. I also think that these are defining moments and it is a time when each of us has a responsibility to fulfil. However, before saying more about aspects of responsibility, there are some observations I would like to make.

First, I want to comment on the coming together of the psychotherapeutic community. I don’t think that I have ever witnessed such a collective outcry from across the spectrum of the different schools of psychotherapy. And secondly, I want to talk about what our different approaches are uniting around and why this is.

I believe the key issue that regulation exposes is one of human rights and especially justice. This is true whether you are for or against regulation. Those in favour of state regulation are concerned that clients are protected by the law and that practitioners found guilty of malpractice or abuse towards their clients can be disciplined or struck off. One of the arguments against regulation is that abusive practitioners could easily hide behind the legitimacy of registration and that regulation would not ensure the protection of clients – indeed, it may well endorse many incompetent practitioners while at the same time imposing negative limitations upon the profession.

One example used against regulation, now familiar to most, is that being a licensed doctor did not stop Harold Shipman from murdering his patients, and current control and standardisation measures, such as the Care Quality Commission, divert resources away from care and towards bureaucracy within care-providing establishments. However, the bigger question seems not to be whether regulation is a good or a bad idea, but rather how regulation or non-regulation comes about – after all, as counsellors we expect process to play a central part in outcomes. Judging from the deluge of articles against state regulation in Therapy Today, how we are regulated and who regulates us seems to have provoked a huge outcry. Central to these questions underlies an even more fundamental question: what are counselling and psychotherapy? And I hear a resounding answer to this question, amplified in the form of what counselling and psychotherapy are not. For example, psychotherapy is not medical and counsellors are not healthcare professionals.

I have some sympathy for the Health Professions Council (HPC) which I have heard described as a ‘pretty benign organisation on the whole’. They must be wondering what on earth all the fuss is about? But concerning regulation, fuss and passion are in abundance. What seems to be coming to light is a fight to preserve an emerging cultural identity, an identity that professes that counselling and psychotherapy are the antithesis of the medical model. Months before the subject of regulation hit the fan, a number of prominent articles appeared in Therapy Today from across the spectrum of psychotherapeutic approaches, espousing a paradigm difference between therapy and the medical model. To me at least, this issue of difference reveals an essential understanding as to why so many therapists are saying that they simply cannot and will not work under the auspices of the HPC.

The fuss, therefore, goes to the very heart of elemental principles. For a very large proportion of therapists it appears that the paradigm difference that I allude to presents an ethical issue that underpins all. The medical model is an illness-oriented perspective, whereas psychotherapy tends to be a human potential model which embraces change, growth, emancipation, and adaptation; it is not a reductionist activity.

Some differences between psychotherapy and medicine
While I do not want to restate what has already been eloquently covered by others, it does seem helpful to articulate some key aspects of difference between the medical model and psychotherapeutic approaches to distress. The medical model can be described as an ‘ABC’ approach, where ‘A’ is diagnosis, ‘B’ is treatment, and ‘C’ is cure. The patient is recognised as being sick and, according to the presenting symptoms, given a diagnosis. The sick person is in need of an expert who will prescribe treatment, and the treatment will effect the necessary cure. Dysfunction and malfunction are synonymous with biochemical disorder which is evident in the presenting symptomology.

The point here is that the way we view human distress colours our actions towards it. If we view distress as an illness or something broken, we might say that it requires psycho-technological or pharmacological intervention. However, if we see distress as a reaction to an unhealthy environment or frustrated potential, then, from a different vantage point, a certain kind of relationship offering conditions for adaptation and growth would be seen as necessary.

From a psychotherapeutic viewpoint, diagnosis compromises the possibility of successful therapy because therapy requires uncontaminated, detailed, subjective experience as a fundamental starting place. Yalom urges psychotherapists to avoid diagnosis. It has, he says, ‘precious little to do with reality. It represents instead an illusory attempt to legislate scientific precision into being when it is neither possible nor desirable.’1 Sanders makes the point that ‘diagnosis requires an already vulnerable person to submit to the arbitrary, damaging “authority” of the expert diagnostician’.2 ‘Moreover,’ he says, ‘it is an unscientific, amoral authority borne out of historical precedent, political expediency, and maintained by professional interests.’

Regarding diagnosis, Rogers wrote: ‘In a very meaningful and accurate sense therapy is diagnosis, and this diagnosis is a process which goes on in the experience of the client, rather than in the intellect of the clinician.’3 Freeth states: ‘Assessment, diagnosis and treatment are at the heart of the medical model. This is at odds with relationship-centred psychological therapies – and raises many questions for those working in healthcare settings.’4 And Rowland points out that ‘diagnosis does not take into account the person’s process of feeling and function’.5

The psychotherapeutic community does not ignore the issue of biology; after all, biochemical phenomena affect and describe our every organismic action. It is well understood that environmental conditions shape and promote biological responses.6 It could be said that the counsellor is also helping to create a biochemical solution to problems. However, the counsellor’s effect on biochemistry is environmentally caused, by way of relational interaction, rather than pharmaceuticals.

Environmental factors
Biochemical interventions are predicated on Newtonian science that specifically relate to genetic determinism.7 However, in stem cell research Lipton7 demonstrated that environmental factors affected the health of the cells under investigation. He showed that by (re)placing ‘sick’ cells (which he had made sick via an unhealthy environment) into a healthy environment, this caused the cells to recover. Lipton explains how this information translates to human biology: ‘Epi-genetic control is different from genetic control.’ He goes on to say: ‘Now we recognise that the nervous system is responsible for reading the environment and then selecting the appropriate genes that the organism can use to build a structure or create a behaviour that will allow it to survive in that environment.’7

Lipton states: ‘The reason this is important is because it signifies that you have a massive ability to modify your genes.’ However, he goes even further in pointing to the errors of medicine: ‘The problem is that conventional bio-chemists have completely ignored the role of energy fields and quantum mechanics.’ More recently he reports that bio-physicists have revealed that ‘the molecules that give us our structures and functions respond to quantum mechanical fields much more effectively than they respond to chemical information’.8 This information is important for psychotherapy because we act as part of the interactive catalytic force that promotes the ‘energy field’. Lipton concludes that: ‘Energy turns out to be 100 times more efficient at transferring information than chemistry’.7

A different philosophical perspective
I am conscious of not wanting to appear as though I am ‘medicine bashing’, while at the same time I want to address the issue of disproportionate power and authority held by medicine within our current health and social services. Proportionally the importance of medicine in relation to people’s health has been generally overrated. The main improvements that have affected health in Western history have come about as a result of environmental improvements, ie improved sanitation and nutrition.6 In part I address the current status quo or imbalance, given that the medical view dominates healthcare services. It is vital that counselling and psychotherapy does not become a subsection of healthcare, which is dominated by medicine, because it offers a different philosophical perspective.

Cooper9 brings together an impressive body of empirical research evidence regarding a wide range of psychotherapeutic practices that demonstrate efficacy. Research findings from King’s10 randomised control trial show that counselling is significantly more effective than conventional GP treatment (the use of antidepressants) in the treatment of depression. Cooper reveals that ‘from a wide range of controlled trials, meta-analytic studies have shown that, on average, counselling and psychotherapy have a large positive effect – greater indeed, than the average surgical or medical procedure. Put more precisely, 80 per cent of people will do better after therapy than the average person who has not had therapy.’9

By its very nature, medicine is expert or professional-centred and often institutional-centric. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, works via a partnership and requires the agency of the client and, therefore, it is relationship-centred. The difference in clinical philosophy is of primary importance. From quantum physics to social sciences, increasingly contemporary science accepts that knowledge is a human creation and we must account for the effects of our participation in our inquiry.11 Gaia theory12 embraces the world as a living system and therefore re-incorporates humanity as part of the interwoven texture of the planet – we are in nature, not outside of it. Leicester and O’Hara claim that: ‘Once human subjectivity is reclaimed as an essential and legitimate dimension of all knowledge, we can give the same kind of value to the qualities of subjective experience that we have up to now reserved for the abstractions of objective science.’11

Because of relational dynamics and understanding, psychotherapy moves increasingly towards wider inclusivity of interconnectedness, as Laing said: ‘Human beings relate to each other not simply externally, like two billiard balls, but by the relations of the two worlds of experience that come into play when two people meet.’13 Counselling and psychotherapy are therefore progressive in outlook and move from a self-psychology to a people- or species-centred outlook.

If we understand distress as the symptoms of a failing person, as medicine does, we enforce conditional limitations on all of humanity. Instead of encouraging people to understand and accept themselves, a label of illness such as depression invites people to disown their problems and encourages them to relegate the unwanted as discarded parts and to mask themselves with medication. Pathology implies that a certain way of experiencing equates to being ill. Therefore, these symptoms need treating to make them go away – it’s not me, it’s my illness – and this has a powerful and detrimental impact on all of society. In contrast, therapy encourages the application of nurturing attention and exploration. Schmid says: ‘The challenge is not so much what has gone wrong, but where the possibilities are to facilitate the process of life, ie the self-healing capacities.’14

The limitations of evidence-based practice
Our institutions already focus inquiry on symptom reduction rather than growth as the indicator of successful therapy (for example, in CORE evaluation). Evidence-based practice (research methodology) inhibits growth because it focuses on what is already known. Rogers put forward a very different view, focusing on the process of how truth is discovered: ‘It is not a confidence in truth already known or formulated.’15 Schmid asks the question: ‘How can we understand another person?’16 He states: ‘If we try to understand the other person from one’s own perspective we finally end up at something we know already (this is termed “epistemology of the same”).’16 Surely we would do better by pursuing practice-based evidence. Del Loewenthal draws attention to the limitations of evidenced-based practice options by saying: ‘...therapies which appear to work may be privileged – particularly in public services – because they lend themselves to current notions of evidenced-based practice. There is, however, the danger that narrowly defined demonstration of effectiveness has become more important than whether or not they are necessarily better.’17

At present regulation provokes a collision of competing psychospheres (see O’Hara18). By introducing state regulation, which seeks to standardise all psychotherapy in a way that appears to be medical and institutional-centric, the Government is geared to limit our capacities to grow. This is particularly alarming because at present counselling and psychotherapy are exhibiting such vibrant activity and creative expansion. Presently, we are expanding our understanding through practice-based evidence, scholarly publications, research studies (both quantitative and qualitative), and excellence in training (from diploma to doctorate levels). There is cross-fertilisation between approaches; increased validation of therapeutic practice and theory with developments in neuroscience; and meta-analysis shows counselling and psychotherapy to be more reliable than most medical procedures.

If we are to be regulated it is vital that we are regulated by an authority that understands the intricacies and dynamics of counselling and psychotherapy, by a body that understands the fundamental differences between ‘conservative’ traditions such as medicine, and ‘leading edge’ disciplines, such as psychotherapy. It is vital that counselling and psychotherapy stand outside of healthcare in order to work alongside it. Mearns asks: ‘Will the humanity of the counsellor corrupt the medical model of mental illness? Or will the medical model of mental illness corrupt the humanity of the counsellor?’19 I realise that psychological distress can be as painful as physical pain and that pain killers in the form of psychotropic medication may well be of benefit to some people, but as Moncrieff says, it is ‘better if we are honest that that is what we are doing, rather than trying to pretend that we are curing their illnesses’.20 Surely it is time to demonstrate the competencies of a different kind of profession, a profession that can effect change, growth, emancipation and adaptation and not just manage symptoms.

Our responsibility then is to make this interesting time count. Alarming as registration might appear, it also provides a golden opportunity to give our profession the ‘hard sell’. Now is the time to hit the campaign trail.

The psychotherapeutic community has within its grasp a powerful gift for a troubled world and we must be passionately proactive in ‘selling’ this gift. This is no time for a quiet revolution – we need to make as much noise as possible. I find myself wanting to echo Sanders’ passionate cry: ‘Let us campaign for the de-medicalisation of life, rather than the proliferation of new diagnostic categories for everything from relationship and sex to eating and shopping.’21

Steve Cox is a senior accredited member of BACP and has been a practising counsellor/psychotherapist since 1995. During this time he has worked as a counsellor, supervisor and trainer in the voluntary sector and in education. Currently he manages a bereavement service within a hospice in North Hampshire. His theoretical approach to therapy is person centred. Please email


1. Yalom ID. The gift of therapy: reflections on being a therapist. London: Piatkus; 2002.
2. Sanders P. Principled and strategic opposition to the medicalisation of distress and all of its apparatus. In Joseph S, Worsley R (eds) Person-centred psychotherapy: a positive psychology of mental health. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books; 2005.
3. Rogers CR. Client-centered therapy. London: Constable; 1951.
4. Freeth R. Working within the medical model. Therapy Today. Lutterworth: BACP. 2007; 18(9):31-34.
5. Rowland B. Depressed process: a person-centred view of depression. Person-Centred Practice. Ross-on-Wye: British Association for the Person-Centred Approach. 2002; 10(1):27-34.
6. Kellehear A. Compassionate cities: public health and end-of-life care. Oxfordshire: Routledge; 2005.
7. Lipton B. The biology of belief: part 1. Intouch. Northampton: The Healing Trust. 2009; 4:4-6.
8. Lipton B. The biology of belief: part 2. Intouch. Northampton: The Healing Trust. 2010; 5:4-5.
9. Cooper M. Essential research findings in counselling and psychotherapy. London: Sage; 2008.
10. King M. Randomised control trial of non-directive counselling, cognitive-behaviour therapy and usual general practitioner care in the management of depression as well as mixed anxiety and depression in primary care. Health Technology Assessment. 2000; 4(19).
11. Leicester G, O’Hara M. Ten things to do in a conceptual emergency. International Futures Forum. Fife: Triarchy Press Ltd; 2009.
12. Lovelock JE. Homage to Gaia: the life of an independent scientist. New York: Oxford University Press Inc; 2000.
13. Laing RD. The politics of experience and the bird of paradise. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books; 1967.
14. Schmid PF. Back to the client: a phenomenological approach to the process of understanding and diagnosis. Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies. Ross-on-Wye: World Association for Person Centered & Experiential Psychotherapy & Counselling. 2004; 3:36-51.
15. Rogers CR. Remarks on the future of client-centered therapy. In Wexler DA, Rice LN (eds) Innovations in client-centered therapy. New York: Wiley; 1974.
16. Schmid PF. The challenge of the other: towards dialogical person-centered psychotherapy and counselling. Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies. Ross-on-Wye: World Association for Person Centered & Experiential Psychotherapy & Counselling. 2006; 5:240-254.
17. Loewenthal D. Case studies in relational research. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2007.
18. O’Hara M. Psychological literacy for an emerging global society: another look at Rogers’ ‘persons of tomorrow’ as a model. Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies. Ross-on-Wye: World Association for Person Centered & Experiential Psychotherapy & Counselling. 2007; 6:45-60.
19. Mearns D. The humanity of the counsellor. The Mary Kilborn Lecture, Strathclyde University, Glasgow; 17 May 2006.
20. Moncrieff J. Biological imbalance in the brain – does it exist? Therapy Today. Lutterworth: BACP. 2007; 18(8):28-31.
21. Sanders P. Decoupling psychological therapies from the medical model. Therapy Today. Lutterworth: BACP. 2007; 18 (9): 35-38.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Poetry of Louis Simpson

Some thoughts.

I like the way he abandoned strict rhyme and regular metre after his first three collections, and worked at a freer verse from his Pulitzer winning fourth collection 'At the End of the Open Road' (1963) until his last 'There You Are' (1995).

I like very much his commitment to plain speech that was evident from the start of his career and found even more varied expression once the shift mentioned above had taken place.

Before that change, whilst their was already the commitment to unshowy diction, the poems read like an outsider trying to write their way into a tradition - a formal, romantic tradition that derives from another continent in a previous century and which I think must have already started to sound archaic to most mid-twentieth century American ears.

His early war poems, for example, are embarrassingly poetic, not least because he is more often interested in the experience of being a young poet, doing the American in Paris routine, than with the horror and hardship of war. They certainly can't compare with the war poetry of say Randall Jarrell or Keith Douglas.

However, this outsider status also eventually served Simpson well in providing him with a range of subject matter for his poems. His poems return to his early life in Jamaica and Russian Jewish ancestry on his mother's side, whilst exploring his ever-deepening sense of the American way of life - he moved to the States when he was seventeen.

I can hear Chekhov and Hemingway behind the poetry of the second half of his career. Indeed, prose writers rather than poets come to mind when thinking about the influences on his work.

Of those influenced in turn by Simpson, I can hear Carver (unsurprising), Simic and Kleinzhaler (there are many good city poems with a cast of urban eccentrics) and on this side of the Atlantic, Hugo Williams (Simpson was at the height of his poetic career and published in the UK by OUP when Hamilton and Williams et al were honing their brand of plain spoken minimalism).

I like the narrative element in most of his poetry. As he states in the Preface to his Collected Poems, he 'can hardly enjoy a poem that is all idea and has no visible place or action.' This means the poems are frequently about the lives of other people, other places, and how the poet relates to them.

I love the careful use of punctuation in most of his poems. I like the way his poems fill the page. They are not often long but when they are they are made up of irregular length stanzas and broken into clear sections, each one functioning like a paragraph. He is a poet with the skill of a very accomplished prose writer.

Description is noun-based, deft and vivid, giving rise to a tremendous amount of suggestion, discomfort and ominous silence. Chekhov and Hemingway again come to mind.

Reading his Collected Poems, one also becomes aware of an interest in Buddhist thought and meditation. There is clear-eyed observation but also humility and compassion, especially in the poems about broken lives.

Later on the poems shift from the city to suburbia. Updike comes to mind thinking about the poems describing marriage and small-town family life. In such poems about the lives of ordinary individuals the novelist's imagination is very much evident.

In fact, one can't help but think of Wordsworth's undertaking in the Lyrical Ballads, updated to near-contemporary America. And the aspect of American life Simpson most frequently portrays is the failure of intimate relationships, a loosening of the social glue.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

New Poetry

I love taking off
but want flying to be over.
When I close my eyes
and look into my heart
I see the jagged rocks of fear.
I also see a lion.
Yellow buoys across the bay
like rows of continuation dots.
Hey, why aren’t they passing
the ball to that girl?
Three blind mice.
Stars between pine trees,
the sound of the sea
breathing in and out.
I accept suffering
because I don’t want
desire to ever cease.
My wife notes how some
young women are both slim
and big-breasted.
See how they run.
The rocks like old elephant skin.
I wonder if anyone else
is looking at the clouds,
the vivid purple flower
I can’t name spilling
down the hillside.
Whatever the philosophers say,
things will not go away.
I like this because it is
exactly how I want to do it.
Cicadas like a fridge on the blink.
Money makes me nervous.
Waiting in line to buy something
almost makes me shit myself.
Hexagons of wobbly light
on the sea floor – Jane’s observation.
Italian women in bikinis talking,
hands on hips, on the shore.
Husbands apart, arms folded.
Orange evening skin.
Van Bronkhurst scores
a screamer from 30 yards –
the trajectory like certain
beautiful lines of verse.
Ice in pink wine.
Passionate recollection of self
as a passionate youth.
Those bitter-sweet years
when we were trying to be poets.
Rhyme: what an odd device –
as though poetry resides in it.
Bed-hopping gives you back-ache.
A new poem arises out of
a reorganised self-concept.
Like her father, my daughter
is learning to swim in the Med.
It gets deep very quickly.

extract from 'Fifteen Minutes'

Ginsberg and Bunting

For those of you who haven't already seen it, there's a great photo of these two on Silliman's Blog.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

1st July 2010

Thank you to those who sent messages wishing my book well on the day of its release.

The day was strangely typical, though as far as poetry goes, I exchanged a spare copy of Seeing Stars for Identity Parade which I'm taking on holiday on Sunday along with The Best American Poetry 2004 (ed. ,Lyn Hejinian). I'm also packing the latest issue of Poetry Review and Louis Simpson's collection There You Are - both of which arrived in the post while I was out.

Louis Simpson has been one of my favourite poets for many years and I was pleased to see Bloodaxe reviving interest in his work by publishing a selected collection earlier this year.

The first poem I read of his, appropriately enough, was in Paris, about 20 years ago. Perhaps it was in Hall's anthology. I loved it immediately and knew that was how I wanted to write. Strangely enough, I didn't make any effort to get hold of his individual books until about a year ago.

This past year I have ordered and read everything he published, with the exception of his last individual volume There You Are. I hope the renewed interest in his work is an indication that readers and poets are once more prepared to appreciate verse that strives for Chekovian simplicity - with all the subtlety and nuance that provides.

I look forward to reading the review of the Bloodaxe book in Poetry Review, and only wish I'd had a chance to write it myself.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Release Date

Here it is, my Waterloo Press collection, beautifully designed by Matilda Persson.

It went to print last week and because of its inclusion in the PBS Bulletin will now be released on 1st July.

It will be available then from Waterloo Press via their website at:

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Publishing Update

I've just heard from Naomi Foyle at Waterloo Press that my collection is going to print tomorrow.

She also passed on the good news that it has been mentioned in this quarter's Poetry Book Society Bulletin.

Copies will be available from Waterloo Press via their website from the start of July. Pre-orders may be taken a few weeks before if anyone feels they can't wait!

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Joe Dunthorne's Pamphlet

It's bright red and got a sexy font and it's out now: Joe Dunthorne's enviable and deserved Faber debut pamphlet.

There are only 500 copies and judging by the comments on Facebook they're selling fast, so get your order in if you want to read the poems that kick-start a potentially illustrious poetry publishing career.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


San Calisto

Bernard Welt

I first came across the work of Bernard Welt through his poem 'I stopped writing poetry' in the Best American Poetry series.

I've just ordered his 1979 collection 'Serenade' and noticed he has also co-authored an interesting short book on American mass culture called 'Mythomania'.

His work isn't very well-known in the U.K. and I hope this goes some way to addressing that.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

i.m. Dermot Curley

Just as I finished writing my blog on 'Endings', I heard the news, belatedly, of the death of a very good friend who I had not seen for almost fifteen years.

On and off over the years I had tried unsuccessfully to make contact with him again. However in recent months, with the help of Facebook, I had been getting closer to re-establishing contact, until this morning when I made 'friends' with one of his relatives and discovered the news.

The news has left me shocked and saddened and full of happy memories together with him and his wife Natividad and their baby boy Benjamin.

Shortly after what turned out to be the last time I saw him, I wrote the following poem.

for Dermot

You, in a cream cotton suit, carefully
coat the chicken in golden breadcrumbs
and lay it in a pan of lightly sizzling oil.
For the third night in a row you’ve gone

straight from work to your father’s,
helping him to operate the oven he’s never
had to open. Now you’re cooking
for me, still a little lost in London,

and wondering what your mother would
want to hear at her funeral tomorrow.
Larkin? Not enough on the side of life.
You’d like Neruda, but decide instead

on some words of your own. Then make
a call to check the booze has been arranged.
That’s it; time to yourself. Outside
we toast out of habit then eat in silence.

Traffic nearby drones as if distant,
muffled by the smoggy pollen-thick air.
Swallows swoop in the man-made sunset,
aim at the roof and disappear on impact.

It must be getting on because the tequila
has burnt down like a candle, worm
like a wick, and the students upstairs have
quit their repartee. I start to make a hash

out of something painfully obvious;
how these are the best and worst of times,
the richest seams; then turn my head to
a jacket on an empty seat. Minutes later

you come puffing out of the darkness,
grinning like a naughty schoolboy,
holding up two big peaches
scrumped from your neighbour’s garden.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Publishing Update

Waterloo Press has been in touch to confirm it's aiming to get 'Waiting for the Sky to Fall' out 'by 7 June'.

After unavoidable delays it will be a relief just to have it published. Some of the poems in the collection were written more than ten years ago so it has felt like a long process with a long overdue conclusion.

The collection also contains more recent work, but once it's out I'll be pleased to leave it behind to concentrate on another collection that reflects more accurately the sort of work I've been doing in recent years.

There are however plenty of off-cuts - the length of the book means that I can't include everything publishable written in the past 15 years. I'll look forward to seeing if they can fit into a second collection alongside more recent work that is noticeably less in the short set-piece lyrical tradition.

What's left to do now, it seems, is to confirm the design of the book. Waterloo Press chooses beautiful colours for its books which makes it difficult for me to select one over the other.

Co-editor and poet Alan Morrison has come up with an apposite image of a classical statue cowering slightly under the weight of some oppressive force. Initially I wanted an image of the statue of Dante in the Piazza dei Signori in Verona, but copyright wouldn't allow it and Alan's choice has more suggestive force to go along with the title.

And finally there is the promotion to think about. I've always thought of poetry as an intensely private practice and dislike reading in public. I have little enthusiasm for the 'po-biz' side of poetry so will find it difficult to bring myself to do readings. WP is working on getting its books sold on Amazon so that should make it easier to shift a few eventually. I will post again nearer the time with details of buying directly from WP, for anyone who is interested!

Monday, 19 April 2010

Anxiety of Influence

This morning I got out the hand-written drafts of four different poems written in the past few months, to type and save on my computer. (How disappointing they looked without the original excitement that accompanied their inception!)

Reading through them I could see where they were influenced by my reading of Zbigniew Herbert at the time. Two were even unpunctuated and one was attempting an overt play of philosophical ideas which is pretty alien to my usual way of writing.

Transferring them to hard drive, I started to make some changes and realised they were now beginning to look and sound more like something by Donald Hall whose selected poems I've been reading for a fortnight and finished just yesterday.

The influence is probably less apparent to someone else, but it reminded me just how strongly newly-written poems can be shaped by poems that already exist.

The solitary nature of writing can encourage one to imagine that poems are created in a vacuum. In reality, a very meaningful tacit exchange takes place, sometimes across continents and centuries, between poets and poems. Even the most individual and original poem sets out from and ultimately furthers a tradition of other poems.

Viewed this way, each 'new' poem could be seen as another stanza in the poem/s that preceded and influenced it; and all of the discretely titled poems ever written, sections in the epic of Poetry.

As such, it is amusing to look back to my teens when teachers and older poets would talk about finding 'your own voice', as if each of us has this unique completed vocal aptitude waiting to be uncovered. Linguistic theory doesn't support this view of language. Rather we constantly acquire and reinterpret what we hear around us. The better advice would be to forget about finding a non-existent Voice and concentrate on absorbing as many voices of other poets as possible.

The very personal space I inhabit when writing a poem, and which I imagine is somehow most profoundly me, may well be a misinterpretation, and instead be a way of being that finds me connected fundamentally to other people. Perhaps it would be better to say that the act transcends the Other. This is why it can feel like such a sustaining activity and not at all lonely despite the long hours alone.

I guess I'm not alone in sometimes coming across something in a poem by someone else that I've also thought of writing or have actually already attempted. Likewise, in re-reading other poets I sometimes come across lines or cadences that I recognise as being the catalyst for poems that I eventually wrote and whose origins were quickly forgotten.

This is okay. Acknowledgement of influence honours a profound human bond. Anxiety over influence occurs when the poet feels the need to deny those bonds and imagines that his/her work somehow exists entirely separately from other work.

In this respect there are some interesting parallels between counselling and Buddhism. Buddhism takes as an unhelpful illusion the idea of a separate ego. It does not accept the idea of a separate mental entity acting entirely independently. Poetry - or any creative undertaking - is an expression of interconnectedness; of the Mind of which we all partake.

In a way that is far simpler to understand, counselling identifies inadequate interpersonal relationships as a major contributing factor to poor mental health. Contrariwise, the working through of those difficulties and the improvement of meaningful interpersonal relationships is viewed as an important factor on the way to improving mental health.

Given what I have said, reading Herbert or Hall or any poet for that matter can contribute significantly to our overall well-being.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Three Poems

At the moment I'm in the unusual position of having three poems on the go at the same time.

'Waking in Siena on Easter Sunday' is a title that's been in search of a poem for some time. I wanted to write something that collected some of my memories of the times I've visited Siena, but wasn't sure how to go about it until I read Kenneth Koch's poem 'To World War Two' in which he addresses the event in person. I have used this device and begun what reads like a long letter to the city.

One of the things I like about writing a longer poem is putting it aside when I'm not sure how to continue and waiting for a solution to suggest itself. I find this often takes the poem in a direction I hadn't anticipated or necessarily desired at the outset.

This element of surprise in the writing of a poem is something that readers generally aren't aware of. Many people believe poets are completely in control of their material and that a single word couldn't possibly be different to the published version. Poets I have spoken with differ. There seems to be two approaches: those who grapple to control and shape the language and to subjugate experience to their own ends; and those who use language more freely (not less carefully) to represent as well as possible the nature of experience.

Personally I spent many years following the former approach but in more recent times have felt less need to dominate or intrude upon my poems. This life of its own that a poem possesses is, I believe, what all poets seek in their different ways. It might also be why writers return to subjects and develop themes in their work as they seek to capture what eluded them the last time.

'I stopped writing poetry' is a more personal piece exploring how my relationship to poetry has changed in the last five years or so. The title is borrowed from Bernard Welt's incredible poem and appears as a refrain at the start of many stanzas throughout the poem. Writing it - and Welt refers to this in his poem - I'm reminded just how beautiful the stanza can be. That's got to be some unusual aesthetic response but no different perhaps to how painters feel about paint or sculptors about their material.

The third poem is about sweeping the back yard and death. Mandelstam spoke about poetry being a preparation for death as if the poet was a will-writer perpetuating his memory by leaving behind a legacy of poems. In fact all poems are about death, if not explicitly in their content then in the implicit fuck-you the creative impulse says to all that is deleterious about human existence.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

New Shapcott

Thanks to Matthew Stewart (Rogue Strands) for drawing my attention to Ben Wilkinson's (Deconstructive Wasteland) comment on a recent Poets On Fire Forum thread:

I wanted to join in the discussion but since they aren't currently registering new members, the new collection I am looking forward to most of all this year is Jo Shapcott's 'Of Mutability' due out from Faber in July. Has anyone read any original work by her since 'My Life Asleep' in 1998? I can't wait to see what she's been up to...


I'm looking forward to receiving New and Selected Poems 1974-2004 by Carl Dennis that includes work from his 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner Practical Gods, and Gary Snyder's No Nature: New and Selected Poems that includes work from his 1975 Pulitzer winner Turtle Island.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


As I see it, one area of common ground between poetry, person-centred counselling and Buddhism is the way they transcend the narrow confines of the self and embrace the transpersonal. Our relationships with one another are central to each of them.

It's been a long time since I've reflected on why I started writing poetry. The reasons are varied and complex, but one important factor was my sense of isolation. I was a frequently lonely young person who passionately wanted to communicate my burgeoning inner life and be heard by other people. I couldn't do that in any of my relationships, and at the time, I wasn't able to make relationships that could meet my needs.

Thus, poetry became in part a way of communicating meaningfully with other people; of expressing myself and finding people who would listen. It was a survival strategy of sorts. In the absence of satisfactory relationships, it was the best thing I could do.

According to person-centred theory, the self is socially-constructed. Well-being is fostered by satisfactory relationships with our primary caregivers when we are younger. Conversely, complications occur when the nature of those relationships is conditional. This gives rise to conditions of worth in the structure of the developing self that then make it difficult for the individual to develop according to his or her own organismic experiencing process.

Person-centred counselling focuses specifically on creating the type of relationship in which conditions of worth dissolve and clients can realign themselves with their actualising tendency. This relationship is characterised by empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard.

Mental health, then, is to a large extent dependent on the quality of our relationships with other people. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, 'I am because you are.' The self thrives or atrophies according to the degree the individual encounters or is able to foster relationships with the abovementioned qualities.

Returning to myself, in my early thirties my sense of isolation began to feel intolerable. I found myself needing to move away from relationships where there was an absence of relating empathically and no openness or mutual positive regard. My creative coping strategy was no longer enough and I wanted to engage more directly with other people.

One explanation for my move into the field of counselling was to redress this imbalance and to continue connecting with other people, only more intimately. Blogging is one more way of continuing that trend and following one of our strongest primal instincts.

The Buddhist philosophy of no-self extends this idea by rejecting the existence of the self other than on a conventional level of analysis. Reality, it is said, is an interdependent flow of psychic and physical phenomena. In other words, the ego is an illusion - useful, perhaps, practically - but when we see clearly we realise there is no fixity or separateness, only change and connectedness. As the Zen tradition believes, we are already enlightened but our ignorance and fear and attachment to our selves prevents us from experiencing it.

Interestingly, the sort of absorbed state I sometimes achieve writing poetry, or prior to writing, is similar to the concentration developed through meditation. This can result in what feels like a release from the self and a direct experiencing of what Buddhism calls reality.

Likewise, in counselling, in the the right conditions the client may feel safe enough to lower his/her ego-defences (to slip into psychodynamic vernacular!) and experience a profound degree of intimacy. Such moments of 'relational depth' may assume a spiritual significance and resemble what Buber calls the I-Thou relationship. Thinking about it, poems, fully realised, enact that very same dynamic too.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Review of Scattering Ashes on Rogue Strands

Waterloo Press has given my collection Waiting for the Sky to Fall a welcome pre-publication mention on its Facebook page.

There is also a link to Matthew Stewart's poetry blog Rogue Strands that includes a review of my pamphlet Scattering Ashes published by Waterloo Press in 2004.

Stewart, whose own work is due to be published by Happenstance, lives in Spain which means his blog is of particular interest to anyone interested in Spanish poetry.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Waterloo Press on Facebook

For anyone who doesn't read this blog on my Facebook page, you might be interested to know that Waterloo Press is now on Facebook.

In the last few years Waterloo Press has emerged as one of the U.K.'s most interesting and prolific small presses.

Just send them a friend request if you would like to keep up with events and publications and whatever else the impressive range of poets decide to share. There is also a news and views section to follow or contribute to.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Days of March

At the start of March I decided to write a diary poem by writing a 4-line poem for each day of the month.

I find it a useful form to work with, especially alongside work and parenting commitments.

Even so, there have been days when I haven't felt like writing anything, and I have retained those 'empty days' as creative gaps in the poem and all that they suggest.

I hope that by the end of the month the poem will be a curious and honest snapshot of my creative process, as well as documenting the consistencies and inconsistencies of my inner life at a certain point in time.

Below are two extracts.

Days of March


Cycling home from work, I followed a pink grapefruit
rolling slowly down New England Road.
It kept reappearing from under the cars queueing at the lights.
Near the bottom of the hill I turned right, and lost sight of its progress.


Poor, persistent words, nibbling away at the inscrutability of human experience.
Being is inarticulate, pre-verbal. An Everest of indifference, Niagara of bliss.
This morning, I was struck speechless by spring sunlight.
After six years of therapy, I realised: I don't know what I am talking about.