Reasons to be cheerful

About 11.00am this morning I realise I’ve had nothing to eat since my breakfast porridge on Saturday. I have a headache and I am ridiculously happy. Let me tell you why.
Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly
Good golly, Miss Molly and boats
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet
Jump back in the alley and nanny goats
Eighteen wheeler Scammells, Dominica camels
All other mammals plus equal votes
Seeing Piccadilly, Fanny Smith and Willie
Being rather silly and porridge oats………………

August 1979 saw the worst disaster in the 100-year history of ocean yacht racing, as a freak storm hit the Fastnet race leaving 15 crew members dead.Starting in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, the 605-mile Fastnet race is one of amateur yachting’s greatest challenges. Competing boats set sail from Cowes, travel along south coast of England, up across the Irish Sea to the Fastnet Rock (the most south-westerly point in Ireland), then sail back across the Irish Sea to Plymouth.

The 1979 race began on August 11 in fine weather, with 303 yachts – carrying 2,500 crew members from all over the world – taking part. But two days later, over a period of 20 hours, they were facing a terrifying, deadly storm, as violent, force 10 winds whipped up 50ft waves in the Irish Sea. More than a third of the yachts were knocked over until their masts were parallel to the water, and a quarter capsized completely.


Meanwhile, my family and me were on our annual camping holiday in Osmington Mills in Dorset. Force 8-10 gales blowing for three days solid. The tent got blown down twice, poles bent, no-one sleeping because of the noise of the wind. The campsite was stripped bare as tents were simply ripped or blown away. We stuck it out, mainly because I’d paid for two weeks in advance. What it was like at sea is unimaginable. In the middle of this, coming and going on the radio was Ian Dury’s ‘Reasons to be cheerful. Part 3’ to which we sang along through gritted teeth. I put it down to having been in the Scouts (who, as we know, smile and whistle through all difficulties).

I think of this when I’m going through the doldrums, as I have been of late. Because sooner or later, there’s yet another reason to be cheerful. Like going in for my quarterly check-up for my prostate cancer and being told that the new injections are doing the trick, my p.s.a. is down to 4.6 (apparently this is a Good Thing, so I don’t ask what it means) and almost certainly I’ll not be needing chemo or radiotherapy. Not for some time, anyway. And I’m told that sudden attacks of tiredness, headaches and mild baseless anxiety is simply a side effect of big doses of oestrogen. I begin to understand more about the female condition. Or imagine I do. Reasons to be cheerful, indeed.

Good things come for unasked and unexpected. Friday night, about 10.30, I’m idly checking my emails and messages, and there’s a post from Kim Moore telling me that their guest poet for a poem and a pint has been struck down by the ‘flu, and can I stand in at short notice. Can I do it tomorrow, in Ulverston. I’m knackered; it’s a 250 mile round trip. Can I do it? Of course I can. First of all I’m flattered; this is my involuntary mentor and inspiration asking;they’ll pay me. And there’ll be an audience. I don’t know about you, but I realised a long time ago that of all the joys of being alive, the buzz of performance is right up there with the best.

I need to do two 20 minute slots. Imagine! It’s like winning the pools. Gold dust. I need to knock out a gig list. I need to practise it. I need to find out where Ulverston is. I need to get the diesel topped up, to check the tyres. By 3.00pm on Saturday I’m already tired. There’s a traffic jam in Mirfield. It takes me 45 minutes to get to the M62. It should take 10. I discover the windscreen washers aren’t working. I notice the diesel pre-ignition light is still on. I will agonise about this all the way there and back. What can it mean? The delightful satnav lady tries to persuade me to leave the M6 at a junction earlier than I think right. I override her, which means she tells me too often that she needs to recalculate the route. By this time it’s getting dark, time’s passing, I haven’t time to stop to get something to eat (I probably did, but panic is an interesting thing) and when I get to Ulverston I find there is a one-way system that the nice satnav lady is unaware of. At 7.10pm I find a car park and the venue…the Coronation Hall……and I realise I have been seeing it on and off for at least 10 minutes. I am sweaty, tired and anxious. The journey that should take two hours ten minutes (says the AA) has taken three and a half.

Why am I telling you this? Because five minutes later, Kim Moore greets me fulsomely, someone buys me a coffee, I meet Kim’s husband, Chris; someone takes my books and looks after the selling of them, and I sit down in a handsome room full of extremely nice people, and I listen to five splendid poets. One is Kim who reads ‘Men I never married No. 25′ and sends shivers down my spine. And Jennifer Copley reads poems that are wry, precise, sightly off-kilter, funny, dark and memorable. I am already very happy.

I get to read two sets to a full room. In between there is music from Demix. They do John Prine’s Speed of the sound of loneliness , which I’ve loved for years. I sell a goodly lot of books. I am buzzing. I could go on all night. I could take up Kim and Chris’s offer of a bed for the night, but I’m so wired on adrenaline I decide to drive home and sleep in my own bed. I do this in just over two hours, running on fumes and perfectly content(apart from that pre-ignition warning light).

Here’s the thing. This is a one-off. So I’m thinking of gigging poets who do it for living. I think about Pascale Petit and all the others like her, on what seem to be endless train journeys. I think about the ones who drive long distances, regularly, just (just!) to read to rooms of indeterminate and unpredictable size and warmth. I think about the ones travelling from centre to centre, to tutor workshops. I taught just one last year; I was knackered.

Today I’m tired and happy. But I’ve had two huge bacon and tomato baps with a lot of grease. Tomorrow I don’t have to go anywhere. All next week, in fact. Reasons to be cheerful. Thank you, lord for adrenaline. And thank you for all the travelling, gigging poets and tutors who do it again and again and again.

From me, a special thank you to the organisers of a poem and a pint in Ulverston.

Let me persuade you to enter their Poetry Competition, to be judged by another of my inspirations, the poet and wild-swimmer, Clare Shaw. It’s competitions like this that fund great poetry nights. I can’t find a link via google as yet, so I’ll make do by scanning in the details from the competition flyer.

a poem and a pint competition

Next week, another reason to be cheerful…a new guest poet. See you then.










One for the Road

You know what I think? I think everyone who writes poems and worries about the chatter that seems to surround ‘poetry’ should print off the last paragraph of Julie Mellor’s new post…..preferably on an A1 sheet….and stick it just above their laptop or PC or Mac or whatever, and read it aloud every morning. It does my heart good.

Julie Mellor - poet

OftR_Cover_copyOne for the Road, ed. Helen Mort & Stuart Maconie (Smith/Doorstop 2017)

I always feel lucky when I have a poem accepted. I saw my good friend (and good poet) John Foggin on Saturday and he reminded me about how surprised I was when I had my first pamphlet published. I was a winner of the Poetry Business pamphlet competition in 2011. The pamphlet, Breathing Through Our Bones, came out about six months later, in 2012. So, you’d think I’d have had enough time to get used to the idea!
In truth, I still have days when I question how and why my work has made it into print. It’s the writer’s equivalent of impostor syndrome, that difficulty in internalizing achievements, of thinking it’s more down to luck and timing, rather than effort and talent. What has this got to do with One for the Road? Well…

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First pressings (6): in stitches; “Coast to coast to coast” with Maria Isakova Bennett and Michael Brown


A couple of days early because there’s news of a great competition that closes on Feb 10, and you might just squeeze in.

I suppose I should declare an interest in today’s post, having been a beneficiary of “Coast to coast to coast” and of Michael Brown and Maria Isakova Bennett who accepted poems of mine for the first two issues of their lovely limited edition, and hand-stitched little gems. And I must say thank you to Robin Houghton for this photograph of Open Eye Gallery and its surroundings, which I found via Google. And to the audiences of both launches who were, quite simply, a delight. Plus a thank you for the pleasure I felt to find myself published alongside the likes of John Glenday…how good is that!

As ever with this occasional series on small poetry presses I ask a standard series of questions, and the publishers do all the work for me by answering them. Because Michael was snowed under with his teaching work, Maria’s answered for both of them…like this:

If you could kick off by describing what you’ve done so far, that would be nice. A story is always a nice beginning. Then tackle the following questions. If it’s OK, I’ll then create the illusion of a dialogue, as though we’re all sitting in a room, with cake and coffee. That sort of illusion.

The Coast to Coast to Coast story so far

Coast to Coast to Coast, a hand-produced, stitched, limited edition journal, was launched on Aug 17th 2017 at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, but the idea for a stitched journal had been in my mind for years, and particularly since creating fabric sculptures over 10 years before. Those thoughts were just that until Michael and I saw some handmade books and a small press exhibition. One discussion developed into another, and at the beginning of last year, I thought that if we didn’t turn thoughts into action, we’d spend years musing, and maybe never create the first journal.

I tend to work (in art and writing) without a particular plan, but with a kind of faith that the next step will come out of the one I’m working on. I think this has a lot to do with a background and interest in art, and being aware of the distinctions between fine art and craft drummed into me over time by various tutors.

So, with this way of working and creating in mind, Michael and I announced Coast to Coast to Coast, asking for submissions for Issue 1 in April of last year. The first issue was a wonderful learning roller coaster on which I learned everything I thought there was to know about tissue papers, needle sizes for my sewing machines, bookmaker’s thread and its alternatives, and about how to alter font sizes so that pages printed to the size needed for Coast to Coast to Coast whilst still being legible.

From the beginning, the concept of the journal was as collaboration, especially in terms of the editing and arranging launches. It’s enormously important to me to have a co-editor, and Michael and I read the poems without seeing the authors’ names (Martin prints out poems), and come to decisions together about selections. This process is extremely valuable because, although we often have similar tastes, it’s enjoyable to have vigorous discussions about strengths and weaknesses. Due to the format of the journal, and again because of the concept behind it, we don’t want more than 20 poems in an issue. This gives us very tight parameters to work within. I would say that although the labour involved in producing each journal as an individual work of art is intense and demanding, the most difficult part for me is emailing rejections.

albert open 1

The importance of the launch is integral to the concept of the journal, and as with ideas regarding forthcoming issues and the direction in which the journal will travel, ideas about the launches are quite organic. We want regular launches in Liverpool, but envisage other coasts and other locations and settings too. There’s an exciting project in the pipeline for the summer (awaiting confirmation).

Although the principles and the concept of the regular journal are set as the basis for Coast to Coast to Coast, we’re open to developments. For instance, we recently opened submissions for a competition*, the winner of which will receive 30 hand-stitched copies of their pamphlet, and we’re in the process of planning a special location issue.

There seem to be hundreds of small poetry presses about, and I imagine they struggle to make a living, competing as they do for what is essentially a niche market. Which are the ones that you particularly like yourselves, and why?


I’d say I’ve got catholic tastes as far as journals are concerned and while I enjoy and admire the ‘bigger’ journals such as Poetry London, PN Review, and Poetry Review, these serve something different to what Michael and I are doing. I have real delight in being accepted by and receiving copies of Abridged, (a Derry Journal) edited by Greg McCartney with its various formats and sizes and arresting photography often linked to exhibitions. In terms of smaller presses, I loved Butcher’s Dog and Elbow Room. Crannóg, published in Galway has been a long-term favourite— I’m always excited to see the covers as well as the range of poetry inside. There’s a wonderful archive of small poetry journals in the Central Library in Liverpool and I can’t help feeling that spending time in that archive fuelled desire to start the journey. I love artists’ books, and this love must have been an important motivation behind Coast to Coast to Coast. We don’t want to compete with or duplicate what exists or has existed though.

Something lead you think: there’s room for another. What was the trigger that persuaded you to set up your own publishing venture?

I love artists’ books, and this love must have been an important motivation behind Coast to Coast to Coast. We don’t want to compete with or duplicate what exists or has existed though– our journal is an art piece / object in addition to being a poetry journal, and is produced in limited editions.

How about the poets you’ve chosen? Did you have any particular criteria, or were you blessed by happy accidents?

We have open submissions, so we don’t really know what will come in, but word has spread beautifully so we’ve had some established poets sharing word of our journal on social media which has meant an even greater spread. Fortunately, both Michael and I have similar taste when looking for poems for the Journal. The only set criteria is length, due to the size of the journal.

Tell us something about your design choices. Did you consciously decide you wanted a house style? Did you have any models that you wanted to borrow from?

 Everything about the journal – format, the nature of the hand-stitched cover, the way it’s fastened and packaged – comes from a desire to create an art object and a small journal that we hope will be treasured, read and re-read. I suppose in some ways I wanted to create something that’s the antithesis of ‘too much’. I love all sorts of poetry, but I’m interested in the idea of the labour that goes into honing a poem and I wanted a sense of that labour to be present in the creation of the journal, and for the journal to really value each poem selected and published. The issues are created as limited editions (70 for issue 1 which sold out in a week). I hope that due to its size, the poems within its hand-stitched pages will be reread and maybe returned to like little meditations




Tell us something about the snags you encounter…how about how you set about the business of marketing, about getting the brand out there. It may be that it’s something you feel a bit at sea with. How do you get folk to review the stuff, for instance? How do you feel about the business of competitions for small publishers…stuff like the Michael Marks, for instance? Riff on this topic as you feel appropriate

 I don’t really have a marketing bone in my small body – I’m the person who sold a car for fifty pounds to a guy who knocked at the door because I felt sorry for him – but I’ve learned that if I believe in something enough, I’ll learn what I have do to make it work. I try to access the help I need as I go. I created a website with the generous help of my eldest daughter and I’ve started using all the relevant social media, but try not to be excessive so it doesn’t take time away from making.  From the paper to the wine and refreshments at the events, the whole project is self-funded. Hundreds of hours go into the making of the journals and the project as a whole, and I don’t see any funding in the near future, so I’m happy to create the occasional competition if it means the journal can grow. We’re very new, so we haven’t really looked at the competition in the field and haven’t been reviewed, as far as we know. However, we have just placed Coast to Coast to Coast in the National Poetry Library in London, and we’ve had wonderful reviews from individuals on websites and blogs, and at launches.

What next? More in the pipeline?

 Issue 3 and 4, and a special issue, will be published before the autumn. In addition to this, an individual poet’s journal (mini pamphlet), will be published early summer. This means I’ll be sewing at least another 300 journals over the next few months. I think that’s enough to be going on with, but I’m sure I’ll come up with new ideas while the sewing machine’s humming.

We have some new ideas about how the launches are going to develop, and some ideas about specific and interesting locations to add to the concept of Coast to Coast to Coast.

Any advice for them as fancies doing it? If you could have done anything differently, what would you have done?

 I’d say if you really want to do something creative, set out and let it grow as you go. Be prepared for lots of hard work and little (if any, initially!) financial reward, so make sure it’s for the love of art, the curiosity about the development of the project, the admiration and respect for poetry, the amazing feeling of bringing people together. I’m trying to think of ways to keep the project viable as it develops.

Anything else I’ve forgotten that you’d like to add?

 Bringing together poets from different parts of the country to a city that I love and feel proud of is enormously pleasurable. One big bonus has been the number of non-poets who’ve happily come along to launches. It’s always heartening to receive even a sentence of feedback about the work that we do. We’re encouraged enormously by comments we’ve received at launches from people who now own copies of the journal. It’s exciting to see how word about our project has spread and to wonder about where it might travel…Coast to Coast to Coast

*that competition…..this image comes from the ‘Coast to coast…’ Facebook page  But you can find out more via the  page.

coast to coast 5


Should you want to know more about Michael Brown and his own poetry, there’s a great interview with him on Roy Marshall’s poetry blog …via this link


Maria has been a guest poet on the cobweb…you can find her in the archive for 2015.

If you want the handy biogs, then here they are

  • Michael’s work has been published widely including in The Rialto, Butchers Dog, Lighthouse Journal, Other Poetry, Crannog, The Moth, South Bank Poetry, Envoi, The North, Brittle Star, New Walk and The Interpreter’s House. He was selected for the Advanced Arvon by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke in 2013. In 2014 he won the Untold London Competition with his poem, ‘From Hungerford Bridge, Looking East’.He was shortlisted for the Bare Fiction Collection prize judged by Andrew McMillan in 2015. He was placed third in the York Poetry Prize, 2015, with the poem Water Lilies and recently collaborated with Maria in projects at the Walker Gallery and Open Eye Gallery.In 2017 his poem ‘The Waiting Room’ was shortlisted in the Basil Bunting Award judged by Ahren Warner.

    The pamphlet, Undersong (2014) is available from Eyewear Publishing.

    His most recent pamphlet, Locations for a Soul appeared in 2016 from Templar Publishing. He is currently working towards his first poetry collection.


    Maria has an MA (distinction) in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, a Masters degree in Education from Liverpool University, and postgraduate qualifications in Fine Art and Art History.

    She has poetry and reviews widely published in the UK and Ireland, wrote and performed ‘The Ferry on the Mersey’ in partnership with the BBC, as their Merseyside poet for the 2016 National Poetry Day festival, and appeared in Eyewear’s anthology of The Best New British and Irish Poets, 2016.

    Over the past year, Maria has been highly commended for her own and collaborative work in several pamphlet competitions, and has been shortlisted and placed in several International Competitions including Bridport, Keats-Shelley, Cinnamon Prizes, Plough and Mslexia.

    Maria was highly commended by John Glenday in the Wigtown Poetry Competition, has been awarded first prize in the Ver Open Poetry Award, and commended last year by Andrew McMillan in the same competition.

    and finally, both won Northern Writers Awards last year and places on the Poetry School New North Poets Mentoring Scheme, 2017.


Now then. What next? I genuinely haven’t a clue. I’ve come to rely on a Wishlist of poets I’ve met recently and who I want to be guests. Essentially, I have to have heard them reading and to have been moved and enthused. Ian Parks was the last one…but I’ve run out of ‘poets new to me’ just for now. I think I’ve also run out of ‘issues’ that I feel an urge to write about. There’s one more small publisher who I need to contact, but not for a little while. I’m looking forward to a couple of writing residentials in March and April, and I’m very excited to be reading in Cork in March. I have no doubt they’ll fire me up with new stuff. But in the meantime, I suspect I’ll be taking a cobweb break till I have something that feels worth sharing.I hope you’ll all still be around when I come back. Thank you for reading xxx


Them and [uz], or just us…and a polished gem. Ian Parks

Well, here we are, back again. I feel as though I’ve been away on a virtual training course, and you’ve had the supply teachers in. So I’m delighted that none of us has lapsed into bad ways, and you’re all smart and bright. Ties tied and shirts tucked in. Lovely.

As you know, if you did your homework (course you did), I’ve been bothering about polarisation, binary thinking, either/or, North/South, them/us. I suppose it starts where most of my ladders start, with Tony Harrison.

‘All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see

‘s been dubbed by [As] into RP,

Received Pronunciation please believe [As]

your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’


‘We say [As] not [uz] T.W.. That shut my trap.

I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘flat cap’)


You can tell the Receivers where to go

(and not aspirate it) once you know

Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes,

[uz] can be loving as well as funny.


I love that last line. Loving as well as funny; subtle as well as blunt. First time I heard him read this poem I was struck by the anger at the decades-old personal insult, and only secondly about the attack on cultural appropriation of Culture. The Capital C is intentional here. The class-based appropriation of Literature and Poetry. Harrison describes the poem as a slow-burning revenge on one of his teachers at Leeds Grammar School in the early 50s. The school of eloquence went on my bookshelf alongside E P Thompson’s The making of the English working class, Marsden and Jackson’s Education and the working class, Richard Hoggart’s The uses of literacy; those OU Foundation Course books for Industrialisation and culture and novels like Gaskell’s North and South, and Disraeli’s Sybil. All of them exploring the memorable phrase of Burke (quoted by Harrison in another of his poems): a dreadful schism in the British nation.

Back then I was young enough to remember being made to feel inarticulate and clumsy when I went to Cambridge for a scholarship interview, very conscious of my accent as well as of my clothes. (Ah, that Italian style suit and grey winkle pickers). But old enough to believe that some sort of battle had been won, that comprehensive schools would soon be the accepted norm, that public schools and grammar schools would naturally die, and that cultural relativism would replace a narrowly defined idea of High Culture and its ownership by a self-sustaining elite. Well, what goes round comes round, I realise 40 years later. Here we are in 2018 seriously supposing that Rees-Mogg and Johnson could be Chancellor and PM!

I suppose that in various ways I’ve been made complicit. As in delivering a curriculum for trainee teachers which required them to ensure that children were competent in Spoken Standard English….I don’t have a problem with that, in as much as I value the ability to shift easily and at will between S.E. and the various dialects I’ve adopted as I moved around northern England. What was harder was to break down the deep-rooted belief that SE and RP were somehow inseparable. The idea that Standard English could be spoken in any accent was something fiercely contested by many of my students; matter/water full rhymes? you’re having a laugh. But no, I wasn’t. And I’m not. It’s curious, isn’t it, that it never seems to apply to Scots or Irish or Welsh accents (or at least, to ‘educated’ ones. Dylan Thomas, Heaney, MacCaig, Lochhead et al). American ones, too if it comes to that. Of course, if you’re American you might tell me that a Tennessee or West Virginia or Mississippi accent is low-status. Which goes to prove some sort of point.

Miners on the Pit Road, oil on board, by Norman Cornish

In the 1960s all sorts of artists, writers and actors seemed to rise out of the north. Not all from working class backgrounds, but enough. It seemed revolutionary at the time (as though D H Lawrence had never been) and novels and films were set in Northern cities and pit villages and towns. They called it ‘Realism’. So why does this Norman Cornish painting seem somehow cliched, predictable? Initially he may have been taken on board by established culture in the way of a John Clare…like an idiot savant, or Alfred Wallis…naif. It’s interesting that so many of these coalfield paintings show men on their way to or from work. Why from the back? So you see where they’re going, I suppose. The thing is, though, that these painters painted the world around them. IT was what they saw and knew. As it was with Lowry. When Zola wrote about miners and their world it was shocking. The thing is, you make art, if you make it honestly, about the world you really know. I’ll let that hang.

What’s the point I’m making? I’ve probably got side-tracked…probably by chucking North/South into the list of binaries at the start, and then not focussing on another element of Harrison’s poem, namely, that’s not afraid of rhetoric. And also that it’s not afraid of being accused of having a chip on its shoulder. Which it does…that’s why he wrote it. But that’s not all it is. Why am I bothered? Because I suspect I’ve got a chip on mine, and I want to be open about it.

Twice in the last couple of years I’ve been told directly and indirectly in workshops that some of my writing doesn’t cut the mustard…not because it’s technically deficient but because (in one case) my ‘voice’ is predictably ‘northern’; Hovis advert, was the phrase that stuck. The problem appeared to be that if I wrote about the landscapes and people of my past I could not avoid nostalgic sentimentality and that my ‘voice’ gave the game away


because (in another case) I’m too rhetorical, that no-one comes to poetry to be lectured or argued at.

I try to imagine the same folk applying similar criteria to poets who want to explore their own sexual history, their gender, their colour. Still, what I’m doing is laying down markers, because I firmly believe there’s a North/South divide in poetry…or perhaps I mean there’s a London/everywhere-else-in-England divide, and maybe that it’s sustained from both sides. We like ‘sides’ in English culture, don’t we. I think that there are stereotypes out there of ‘northern poetry/voices’ and I think there’s part of the poetry world that doesn’t like the kind of rhetorical voice that poets like Steve Ely (for instance) speak in; a world that thinks that poems about, say, the destruction of industrial communities and their cultures aren’t really up to snuff. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? possibly. Am I totally wrong about this? You’ll let me know. If you’re still listening, that is. You’re right, it’s time for today’s guest and polished gem, Mr Ian Parks., who is from the north and writes about it. As did Ted Hughes. The mistake is to think that’s all there is to it. So let’s meet him, shall we.

mexborough 1

Ian  is the only poet to have his work published in the Morning Star and the Times Literary Supplement on the same day. Born in 1959, the son of a miner, he went on to teach creative writing at the universities of Sheffield, Hull, Oxford, and Leeds. His collections include Shell Island, The Landing Stage, Love Poems 1979-2009,  [uz can be loving as well as funny] The Exile’s House and, most recently, Citizens. He is the editor of Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry, was writer in residence at Gladstone’s Library in 2012, and Writing Fellow at De Montfort University Leicester from 2012-2014. He currently runs the Read to Write project in Doncaster.  His versions of the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, If Possible, will be published by Calder Valley Poetry in 2018. What a track record! Let’s start with a poem I asked him for after I heard him read it recently in Huddersfield. The title’s apt.

The Great Divide

 She looked at me and saw the bitter streets

where I was born – the valley floor that offered

no escape, the Chartist cobbles hard rain

rained upon – and everywhere a sense of failing light,


streaking the uplands, making a theatre of them as it did:

the unrelenting grimness of the north,

its chapels, pit-heads, slag heaps, union halls,

processions through the darkness, millstone grit.


A great red furnace blazing from the Humber to the Sheaf

fought-over, misbegotten, stratified.

She looked straight through me to my father’s eyes

black-rimmed and smiling after a long shift


and as she gazed a cross the great divide

I let the balance of the landscape strain and give

as if the world itself was undermined

and felt – not pity at the thought of it – but anger first, then pride.


[from Shell Island (Waywiser 2006)]

It’s a poem that has all the elements that well-meaning folk have tried to steer me away from; there’s one line in particular that might be seized on and waved at me as a warning

the unrelenting grimness of the north (and all its standard accoutrements).

But that would be to ignore the passionate, almost biblical, vision of:

A great red furnace blazing from the Humber to the Sheaf

That’s the moment that pulls me in, because it’s not just ‘visionary’ ( a great red furnace of struggle and immense creativity, a mighty forging) but also, in my memory, a real landscape that you might have seen from Pennine gritstone edges where Chartists and other early socialists would meet, the valleys and plains of Lancashire and of the West Riding, all in a fume, and the failing light streaking the uplands ‘making a theatre of them‘. It’s real and a dream simultaneously, a poem where resentful anger and pride tug in different directions. And it’s a poem about love.

In an interview with The Ted Hughes Project, Ian explains the place, the people and its landscapes …the juxtaposition of pit rows and farmland that Lawrence wrote about,  that poems like this grow out of.

mexborough 2

I think it’s worth quoting a goodly chunk of it. He was asked:

What’s it like to be a poet from Mexborough?

“That’s a question I often get asked. I’ve always wanted to be a poet and my Mexborough roots are deep. I was born in the front room of the house I now live in – a stone-fronted terraced house on the main road through town that used to serve as the registry of births and deaths. I often think of the Mexborough people who passed through it to register births, marriages, and the deaths of men killed in pit accidents.


There was no poetry in my family. As far back as anyone can remember all the men on both sides of my family were miners. Mexborough was defined by mining and, to some extent, still is. Although the town was predominantly industrial when I was growing up, all I had to do was to lift my eyes to see the fields and woods that surrounded it; and a wooded valley with a river running through it remains the inner landscape of my dreams. To get from the town to the countryside you had to use the ferry over the Don, and one of my earliest memories is of being pulled across the river to the other side. As I grew up that journey became symbolic, passing not only from town to country but also from control to freedom, from prose to poetry.



From an early age, I was aware that the place where I lived had a rich and textured past, a past that was very much alive in the present. Looking back, I think the presence of the railway had something to do with me becoming a poet. The main line ran just past our house, and I used to lie awake listening as the trains rattled off to destinations east and west. That opened up the possibility of elsewhere, so important to the imagination, and to poetry too.


I lived in my imagination – a rich inner life fed by the sights and sounds of the town around me, the people of Mexborough and the broadness of their vowels. Coal arrived on the doorstep by the ton and women in scarves still scoured their windowsills.

I went to Mexborough School and soon became aware that Ted Hughes had attended too…and another poet, Harold Massingham…….. The importance to me was that two poets – and two excellent poets at that – had attended the same school, walked the same streets, and made the fabled crossing over the ferry.

I think, on reflection, it’s fair to say that Mexborough made me the poet that I am. After living a lifetime in different places all over the country, circumstances have brought me back to live in Mexborough. The vitality of the people, the relish for language, the landscape of my childhood, and the invisible connections to the past are still there. The trains still criss-cross my dreams and the poems, inexplicably, keep coming.”

And here are two of them. I asked for Gladstone’s Axe, because the backstory of Ian’s residency at Gladstone’s library is fascinating, but more because of the connections he makes between two utterly different lives

Gladstone’s Axe


Something apocalyptic in the way

he took it to the root of everything,

striding the grounds of his Welsh estate

impervious to the rain and felling trees.

He solved The Irish Question between blows,

the last trunk creaking, crashing down


when he was in his eighties, close to death.

The statues and the paths are overgrown.

It’s in the room below me where I sleep.

On rain-dark mornings such as these

When all I hear are misused words

Like freedom, trust, austerity


I want to break the intervening glass,

remove it from its velvet case,

grip it tightly with both hands

and without reverence or restraint

go out into the waiting world

and do some felling of my own.


[from Citizens (Smokestack 2017)]

I like the fierce directness of it; and I like the the fact that when Burke wrote about a dreadful schism he was writing about the problem of England and Ireland. Who’d have thought a residency like this would discover an affinity with Gladstone of all politicians.

One more, before I tidy up for today.

black prince

Queen’s Square


That strange lull between Christmas

and the start of the New year

when nothing ever happens except rain.


Head down I cut across the square –

the Black Prince pointing from his horse,

his torso awkward, swivelling


with water streaming down his armoured back.

On the platform, counting down

my last train stood, about to leave.


Coloured lights strung the periphery

or hung suspended from the massive tree.

I felt a tugging at my sleeve


and saw a ragged, half-familiar face

under the lights, pressed close, the sack

of some grey cowl around his neck


but fading quickly into the crowd

like someone sinking in the sea

wide-eyed and looking up to find some hope


but finding none and letting go,

holding on just long enough

to say Don’t you remember me?


[from Citizens (Smokestack 2018)]

The apparent plainness of this and it’s stripped-down observation draws me, the reader, into a strange meeting, poised between then and now, on the threshold of leaving. The place is studiously real, but what happens in it is disturbing and dreamlike. Haunting. There are little discords that snag. A sack under the tired Xmas lights that’s a grey cowl. The face in the rain might be dream or a drowning refugee. Why can’t the poet remember the face? Why can’t he help? It’s a poem that bothers me and won’t let go. I think that’s what poems should do. At least some of the time.

Thank you, Ian, for the poems, and thanks to the rest of you for staying with me. Next week’s post will be entirely non-contentious. See you then.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already done so, check out Ian’s books. You can find most of them on Amazon. Or do it the hard and ethical way.

A Climb Through Altered Landscapes (Blackwater, 1998),

Shell Island (Waywiser, 2006),

The Cage (Flux Gallery Press, 2008),

Love Poems 1979-2009 (Flux Gallery Press, 2009)

The Landing Stage (Lapwing, Belfast, 2010).

The Exile’s House, (Waterloo, 2012)  

Citizens(Smokestack 2017).



ps. Roy Marshall interviewed Ian for his blog. August 2013. Check it out.


The rest is silence : that P N Review thing

playground 2

“Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting.

In the silence that surrounds all poetry we quote

Tidd the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:

Sir, I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting”

Tony Harrison: On not being Milton


If I had to pick one particular inspiration it would be Harrison, and if I had to pick one poem of his, it would be this…..the business of being articulate when everything conspires to make you silent, or, if that fails,  dumb. I come back, again and again, to the doubleness of that line

the silence that surrounds all poetry

At one extreme, it’s the silence that allows a poem to be heard. It’s the space it’s given to yield up all it wants to articulate. The other extreme, of course is the silence of complete indifference, the lack of any kind of attention or response.

When I found a few years ago that I genuinely wanted to find out what I needed to articulate, I chose to to write poems. Probably because I haven’t the stamina or the invention for anything longer. Whatever. The thing I was surprised to welcome was the silence of the process. And to find language coming out of a silence in which I wasn’t imagining an audience, and therefore at no risk of imagining argument or opposition. It was just the business of concentrating on the moment, to find out if it was as significant as it seemed. Sometimes it was. More often, not. I found great consolation in this, and subsequently in the quiet company of people who wrote and shared poems.

I don’t know when I became aware that,  there were factions and competitiveness in this business of writing poems as in almost any walk of life;unhealthy kinds of ambition, too, and also envy and mean spiritedness. I do all I can to avoid the company of the vexatious, because what I need more than anything is serenity. Sometimes the noise of it all is too loud, and you can’t escape it. But maybe you can say your piece and walk away. So I shall.

My Facebook page is full of posts about Rebecca Watts’ article. I’ve read the article several times because it seemed to generate such angry responses. And I’ve read a lot of them. There were two that generated more light than heat for me, from Roy Marshall and Greg Freeman. Roy, in particular, takes a systematic, carefully analytic approach to Watts’ article, and it’s well worth your time. The links to both Roy’s and Greg’s are


I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you read the original P N Review article. If you haven’t, then stop right now, go and read it, make your own mind up, and then come back if you have a mind to. In fact, you could do worse than read Roy Marshall’s piece. The thing is, I don’t want this to be about what x or y said about what a or b said about an article that folk may not have read thoroughly. And I don’t want to be taking sides or joining gangs.

I came across a thing on FB yesterday in which a wise man is talking about the polarisation of political discourse. He argues that, right now, that polarisation can’t be resolved; there is no real discussion, because we have ‘a contempt problem’. He says that when you encounter contempt (and I think Rebecca Watts is contemptuous in the course of her article) then answer with warmheartedness…ask yourself, will you do the right thing, or make the problem worse. My problem is that I’m given to being intemperate; I shall do my best to follow that advice.

Lets’s start by declaring what I believe, and believe in.

First of all, we get nowhere by arguing via labels and abstractions. Rebecca Watts makes statements like these:

“Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form?

When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry?”

Don Paterson has recently weighed into the argument, and generally helped to simultaneously muddy the waters and add to the polarisation, and writes, without a shred of shame that

“the poetry world [has been] split apart”

There’s an assumption that we all know what they mean and tacitly agree on what we mean by poetry. I make an assumption that too often it’s written as though it came with a built-in capital ‘P’;  I can hear that capitalisation even when it’s not written down. The thing is, I think , this kind of language is meaningless for practical purposes .

It’s not exclusive to the discussion of poems. “Poetry” is as useless a word as “music” or “art’. If “poetry” as a meaningful category includes every kind of oral poem from The Odyssey and Beowulf to McGonagall, John Cooper Clark and Kate Tempest, and poems in print from The Pearl to Howl then it’s difficult to see how anyone can assume we all know what it means. So let’s talk about poems. Then we may get somewhere. We’ll have arguments, but at least we’ll know what we’re arguing about.

What’s a poem? I won’t assume that you all automatically know what I mean when I use a word. So I’ll use a working definition/explanation which I’ve shared more than once. You might not agree with it, but you’ll know the premises I’m arguing from.  I rely on Clive James, not in the sense that I think the fact that he’s famous validates my case, but because he’s articulated what I couldn’t quite articulate for myself.

James writes about the ubiquity of bad poetry:  ‘At a time when almost everyone writes poetry, but scarcely anyone can write a poem…. there are…..Slim volumes by the thousand….full of poetry…but few..with even a single real poem in them’ 

[you see..there’s a difference between ‘poetry’ and ‘poems’ and poems are what I’m interested in]

“A real poem?  A real poem is  ‘Well separated’ . You hear ‘the force of real poetry at first glance’ ” (I love that!).

Because ‘Even if you don’t set out to memorize a real poem, it somehow seems to be memorizing itself for you’. 

I think I probably punched the air when he wrote about ‘poets who want to keep technique out of it, because they don’t have any’ and set this side by side with ‘the spectacular expression that outruns its substance.’ What an important idea that is ..just that one word ‘substance.’ 

How good it is to be reminded that a poem has to be about something real and concrete, because ‘everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment…whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.’ 

Of course, you have to have the ability to be alive to the moment that insists you write it, and ‘Confidence is the attribute that can’t be taught’. Like a class rugby player’s sidestep. Like the way Picasso or Hockney put down a clean simple line that’s the only line that will do.

To be honest, I doubt that Rebecca Watts would take much exception to any of that, and I suspect that it underlies what is unfortunately an intemperate and incoherent article. A couple of examples. At one point she quotes from a Rupi Kaur, a poet who’s attracted an internet following of thousands.

i don’t know what living a balanced life feels like 
when i am sad 
i don’t cry, i pour 
when i am happy 
i don’t smile, i beam 
when i am angry 
i don’t yell, i burn 

I’d argue that there’s not a memorable phrase or line in this. Nothing to surprise, nothing to make you think, nothing interesting. It’s the verbal equivalent on a selfie posted on Facebook. Maybe that’s why it works for her followers. And it looks like a poem. Maybe it is…..but it’s also not very good. It doesn’t connect with me because it only seems interested in itself.


That’s about it. For me. Watts goes on, however:

“Commenting on the appeal of Milk and Honey, Kaur’s publisher Kirsty Melville insisted that ‘the medium of poetry reflects our age, where short-form communication is something people find easier to digest or connect with’.


poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.”



have a think about this: a publisher insisted [Watts’ words] that the medium of poetry (poems?) reflects our age because it’s a short-form communication that people find easier to digest.

Right…it’s a proposition. It seems to have a grain of truth in it. Worth unpicking, anyway, if only to qualify or repudiate it. But what Watts does is rhetorically and logically dishonest: look, she says,  “in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened.”

Simply, this isn’t what the publisher said or did. Certainly she didn’t offer a definition. And certainly not THE redefinition. Generalising/universalising from a single instance that isn’t even an instance of what you claim is at at least sloppy writing, and at worst, downright intellectual dishonesty. Floodgates? Really? She goes on a little later, following this thread


“Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish are her [Kaur’s]UK equivalents, dragging their significant and seemingly atypical followings into the arena of establishment-endorsed poetry. Both developed profiles on YouTube as an extension of their presence on the slam/performance scene”


“Even McNish has deduced that her ‘poetic memoir’ Nobody Told Me won the Ted Hughes Award ‘because of where the poetry has gone, not for the quality of the writing’.”

Two things annoy me:

One is the pairing of McNish and Tempest. One has street smarts, has put in the hard miles, has worked all levels of  the slam/performance circuit…and since the age of sixteen has lived the life she writes. One is authentic. The other isn’t. It’s sloppy writing to cavalierly pair the two.


Secondly, I talked about contempt, earlier. The two underlined words will do to illustrate what I understand by ‘contempt’. We’re invited, implicitly, to see Tempest and McNish as boors and bullies, coercing and ‘dragging‘ their followers along. There’s a contempt for their followers implicit in that. And the sneer of ‘even McNish’  implies that though she’s not very bright or smart, something should be obvious …even to her.

It’s this intemperance, this contempt that undermines the value of the article,  that polarises, and indeed, makes the world a worse place. That this is done in the name of something a civilised society would do well to value is simply unforgivable.


Do I rate Holly McNish’s poems? Mostly, no. If I ran a magazine and this turned up in the post, would I decline it?

so now 
stinks of shit 
from sewers, seeps to streets to poison kids 
preaching, it lies in gutters lined in teenage kicks 
deflated footballs, mud and teenage sick 

with stomachs thick and sagging centres 
minds left numb and fun repented 
it snatches fire-filled beating teenage hearts 
pours water over bursting teenage sparks 

In a heartbeat. But I wouldn’t tell anyone but her. And I’d politely explain why, starting with the meaningless of that phrase and the line break that makes it worse: seeps to streets to poison kids / preaching…..

Boredom that stinks of shit preaching what, exactly? It’s vacuous. I guess you might get away with it in a full-on performance rant, when there’s no time or space to ask what means, and you just go along with the nihilism. Ditto the naff rhymes. But I doubt it. The syntax is naff, too. It’s bad writing.

There’s another thing that really bothered me. It’s this question that Rebecca Watts poses, en passant:

When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry?

I think I grew up to believe that an honest engagement with your subject, yourself, your audience and your medium was a sine qua non. For the argument to have meaning you’d need to consider its contradiction..that dishonesty/insincerity/cynicism might be acceptable. Because if they’re not, then the opposite becomes a requirement. I think the mistake Watts makes here is that she treats the proposition as a sufficient condition. I don’t think we’d have a problem with saying that honesty alone is not enough, and also that it’s necessary. Sincerity won’t automatically make good art. Nothing wrong with reminding ourselves about that.

I could write a lot more, but praise the lord, Roy Marshall and Greg Freeman have done that for me.  I hope the whole business doesn’t  close off a genuinely engaged reading and discussion of poems which is open to thinking about three questions that underlie the Rebecca Watts article. That will be forgotten, but the questions shouldn’t be.

One: are there such things as poor, badly written poems. Are there bad poems?        Examples, please

Two: are some bad poems and their authors excessively/inappropriately praised/rewarded

Evidence, please

Three: If the answer to Two is ‘Yes’ is this having a deleterious impact on ‘poetry in general’ (how would you know?). Put it another way; does it encourage people to write bad poems?


I said ‘three’ but I chuck in another.

Four: why does it matter, if 99.9% of the population have no idea that this conversation’s taking place.


And with that, I’m off to enter some poems in some competitions. Because I do.

Next week a proper post with a proper poet who writes proper poems. And a nod to Tony Harrison with whom we end

My mind moves on silence and Aeneid VI


One of those days

skye 2011 004

A short and apologetic post, this. I’m not sure how it would be if it was crisp and bright and cold and blue. But it isn’t. It’s one of those days of cold rain and sleet that can lower the spirits even if you’re in a wonderful place. It’s a Sunday afternoon that reminds me of one in Achnacloich on Skye, when it never got properly light and the sheep were too miserable to bleat. The Scots have the best word for it. Dreich.

One of those days when you can wake up feeling an ill-defined guilt, as though you did something wrong the day before but can’t for the life of you think what it could have been. So you make it worse by imagining what it could have been. I was at the Poetry Business Writing Day yesterday. Did I say something inappropriate? Did I break my own rules about how you should respond to a workshopped poem? …that kind of thing.

Or maybe it’s a hangover from getting back to the Meadowhall Interchange and finding I’d left my headlights on when I parked there in the morning. Battery dead. Frost forming on windscreens. 40 minute wait for the nice AA man to come and get me started, and then finding that the radio/satnav/phone/media thingy was now unavailable because it needed an authentification code. Why don’t I immediately write this sort of thing indelibly somewhere inside any car I buy as soon as I get it? Anyway, the Spares/Service departments are closed on a Sunday. Natch. Who needs repairs/parts on a Sunday? but tomorrow if I ring up and give them my car reg. they’ll tell me the 4-digit code. Please, god, grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change. Everything will be fine tomorrow. Yes it will.

And apart from that I have nothing to say. Someone asked me yesterday what I was writing. The answer is that I’m writing nothing of any consequence because I’ve nothing to say at the moment. Probably I need to charge my own batteries and hope all the codes are still working afterwards. I need to fill up with some substantial reading…I’m not sure about what. Landscape. Geology. Mining. The history of London. The Victorian underworld. Etching. Mountaineeering. Who knows. I’m not sure it matters so long as it’s something hefty and time-consuming.

In the meantime I’m waiting for guests to send me poems to share with you, and publishers to tell you about their joys and despairs. And I’m watching Spiral, and McMafia and series 1 of The Wire . And fiddling about with two lovely stained glass panels that our friend Chris has made, but which don’t quite to fit the door. Yet.

Oh..and reading David Constantine’s Collected Poems which will eventually lift anyone’s spirits. So I’ll finish by sharing a couple of things of his that speak directly and powerfully to me on a bleak and miserable day. How about this, from Sunflowers

They lap furiously at the sun

with rasping lion tongue-leaves. But they die

as big men do whose bodies the life finds heavy, they loll

and blacken like the crucified. At evening

you will hear them in the garden flapping their rags

groaning to fall from the fences

flat over the grass



And this on a weekend of women marching to protest the awfulness of the Trump presidency. This is from Atlantis

It dies hard,the notion of a just people;

The wish that there should have been once mutual aid

dies very hard ……………………………….

………………………………………………………..we imagine

a life courteous and joyful; see them lightly clad

loving the sun, the vine, the grey olive.

Over the water, from trading, they come home winged

with sails, their guide and harbinger the white dove


Both extracts are from Watching for Dolphins [1983]


And should I have inadvertently done anyone a discourtesy recently or ever, forgive me.

Let’s see what next week will bring, after the rain.


The nice thing about poetry readings is……. the (un)discovered gems. With guest poet Ken Evans

Apologies. The cobweb’s a day late. It was half written yesterday when the dishwasher started to flash warning signs and to cease work mid-cycle. It turned out after some time that the impeller on the pump was jammed with a bit of broken glass. Or, because you’re keen on poetry, a shard. Anyway, it involved some finicking with tweezers and a lot of mopping. All is now well, so on with the post.

lucky dip stall

The thing about poetry readings is you pays your money (or, more often, don’t) and you takes your choice. We’ve been to poetry nights where the poet(s) and organisers outnumber the punters; one remarkable one in Bradford where the normally designated pub room was full of sleeping bags…….some may have been occupied. And those where the floor is taken by a manic street preacher who cannot be persuaded that the open mic is not the place for his grievances. The ones where the poetry is buried under an avalanche of jukebox and drunken revelry from an adjacent room. One memorable one where the poetry competed with Morris Men in the street outside. Ones where an audience member grows increasingly puzzled until s/he realises it’s not a Union Branch Meeting after all.

And there are poetry nights that are memorable simply because they make you feel good about yourself, about poetry, about the human condition. It was like that last Thursday at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield, not just because of the quality of the poetry, which was great, but also because there wasn’t even standing room. The Albert’s back room these days houses a pool table, and the poets are now out in the front bar, right by the front door on to the street. It’s an interesting space, and becomes even more interesting when a whole bunch of lovely folk hire a minibus and turn up in numbers. It happened in November when Ian Parks (who will, before too long, be a guest poet) was reading with Steve Ely and Smokestack Books editor, the splendid Andy Croft, and were supported by travelling fans from Mexborough…a bit like football, or music. Apparently, they liked it so much that they came again last Thursday to support Neil Clarkson, Emma Storr, Mike di Placido and Mexborough poet,Mike O’Brien, featured below. You might just see the orange barriers outside the door. The council were digging up the street, with drills and mechanical diggers. Which is always interesting.

And Mike Di Placido displayed, courtesy of Mark Hinchcliffe, one of Ted Hughes’ Mont Blanc pens, about which he’s written a belter of a poem in his collection ‘Crow flight across the sun’. It was a special night. Some of them are.

In and among all this are memories of poetry nights where you heard a poet for the first time, one who reads something that stops you in your tracks, makes you sit up and pay attention. Almost all of the poets who have been guests on the cobweb are in this category. Nearly all the contemporary poetry I own has been bought at readings (including some on residential courses)  where I heard these poets for the first time. (most people knew about them already, but that’s not the point, is it?). Ruth Valentine, Steve Ely, Rebecca Gethin, Christy Ducker, Jonathan Edwards, Roy Marshall, Jane Clarke, Shirley McLure…..and so on and so on. Which brings us nicely to today’s guest and (un)discovered gem.

In December I drove over the M62 to Liverpool for the launch of Coast to coast to coast 2, at the Open Eye Gallery on the waterfront near the Pier head. It was a lovely cold night, and I’d forgotten how nice it is to walk, all wrapped up, through mainly deserted spaces like the Albert Dock, and to enjoy light on water. It was like being a student in the 60s again. The world bright, new-minted. I’m hoping to dedicate a post to Coast to coast… in the very near future. Enough to say it’s the brainchild of Maria Isakova Bennett and Michael Brown, and they produce limited- edition, fabric-covered and handstitched pamphlets.


They’re flooded with submissions whenever they invite them, and they attract ‘names’. Their second pamphlet opens with a stunner from John Glenday. There are poems from Suzannah Evans, Stephanie Conn, Paul Stephenson, Rebecca Gethin…

It was a splendid launch, with poets from all over, and one of those readings where I heard lots of poets for the first time. Charles Lauder Jr., Robin Houghton and the one with opening lines that jumped out at me from the page..a poem by today’s guest Ken Evans

“(where no DNA, prints or dental records exist, jewellery helps identification)

What survives is love, and jewellery –”

The whole poem follows shortly, but first, I’ll let Ken introduce’s a fascinating story of his arrival in this odd world of writing poems.

I find a lot of people come to poetry through crisis – break-up; divorce; a death; redundancy; an unexpected rift in the weave; an addiction, or the journey from addiction; or simply a mid-life loss of way. This last, though less dramatic, is just as debilitating – a creeping sense of alienation, that won’t be denied.

My own moment came after donating a kidney to my sister who had lupus. An incurable but not necessarily killer-disease, she’d reached the stage of dialysis. Without a donor, it can be a seven-year wait for a good match. Often, twice that. The op. went well, but left me with a collapsed lung (re-inflatable) and a loss of purpose (less easy to breathe air into.)

My job seemed pointless and stressful.  While presenting, I started swaying and for an instant, lost all depth of field, so that the person farthest from me in the room seemed as upfront and close as the person in the front row.  Unnerving. A cardiogram suggested a small stroke – a TIA (Transient Ischaemic Attack.)

[I’ve spent time speculating about the subtext of the gap that Ken leaves between this paragraph and the next. It’s one of those ‘In one bound he was free’ narratives!

“A kidney short, but an Arvon course up, I was away. A Master’s in Poetry at Manchester University under the brilliant John McAuliffe, Vona Groarke and Frances Leviston (and the then-Writer-in-Residence, Colette Bryce), and I was hooked.

Placings in Poets & Players; the Bridport; Troubadour; the National Poetry Prize longlist; Bare Fiction and the Nine Arches Press ‘Primers’ series – all boosted self-confidence, and made me start to think I’ll have a shot at this poetry-stuff, and I began living for the time I could steal at the keyboard/notebook.

I read all the time – as of course, all workshop-leaders tell us we must: mainly lyric North Americans like Henry Cole, Carl Phillips, Jack Gilbert (all recommended by John McAuliffe.) I also learned of the longer and downbeat, wry conversational line of Karen Solie and Louise Gluck; the density of Jorie Graham and the dazzling Sharon Olds, Brenda Shaughnessy, as well as Kay Ryan’s tauter and shorter lines, while Billy Collin’s apparently effortless way with verse won me over.


In 2016, I won Battered Moons, and published a pamphlet, ‘The Opposite of Defeat, with Eyewear Publishing, as well as making runner-up, in the lovely Jacky Kays’ generous judgement, in Poets & Players.


There you go. And now I’m delighted to share some of his poems with you. Let’s start with the one that caught my eye at that December book launch.

True Forensic

(where no DNA, prints or dental records exist, jewellery helps identification)


What survives is love, and jewellery –

a Deposit Box in a tower-basement,

hennaed by heat, gold and sapphire, ruby,


diamonds burnished to a glitter,

scorched from their settings to outshine

their blackened fixtures.


Limbs, so firm and clasped in life,

burn lightly as a willow-branch, browning

leaves, a wick of fat beneath.


Flames dance upon our face, eyes.

The ring on a finger is an emissary

from a thin wrist of skin and time,


shrunken to a flare of alchemy,

distilled to what remains, the opaque,

a flaming geometry.


Our fire-licked embrace cannot shake

the faithful sleep of a Pompeiian dog,

the Viking amethyst, sunk in taiga,


that heaven, crackling, thirty floors above

our heads, brought down upon

the precious, and our semi-precious



Two things struck me straight away. The first was the texture of the writing, the consonants, the near rhymes that tie it together. It sings out to be read aloud. The second was the unblinking way it opens by borrowing from Larkin, and then subverting my expectations by substituting ‘jewellery’ for ‘love’. And the odd juxtaposition of ‘tower’ and ‘basement’. It all jumped off the page at me. And then I was taken by the notion that gems may have as much provenance as DNA is establishing our identity. It’s an idea that bothers, like grit in a shoe.

The fourth stanza is unnerving in the way it sets up the body as fragile, pliant and flammable. I get an after image of an auto da fe. I have to say that I jumped to the conclusion that this was a Grenfell Tower poem. Ken told me that it predates Grenfell. But Grenfell becomes one more layer of meaning in a poem of layers and strata. It was this poem and Ken’s reading of it that made me ask him to be a guest and send me some more.

Maybe it’s because I’m fascinated by the narratives of early polar exploration that I chose the two that I did. Fire and


(based on Mawson’s diary, Antarctica, 1912)


at the food depot, two oranges on a crate under

the tarp. i can’t eat, even though i crave them.


their colour avalanches in my eyes.

cocaine and zinc-sulphate for snow-blindness.


i love such men that would leave them here.

if I perish, i am my last photograph, bent-double


in a hundred-knot wind, snow flying

from my shovel, skating my tripod legs away.


our last husky ate her puppies, which is normal.

we boiled her friends, the paws being toughest.


snow-bridges cave-in, their thunder is company.

a petrel flew into my sled from nowhere.


young Metz raved and broke a tent pole.

‘veh,’ he said, dying in my blistered arms.


i hired him for his hilarious English accent.

a climber, glaciologist, i thought him an idler.


he soils himself, i need his sleeping bag.

i am too weak, no, too lonely, to bury him.

the yellow lips, the other colour in the landscape.


I chose this for the ‘voice’. Maskwearing is liberating, but it’s harder than it looks to find the rhythms of a ‘voice’ and to sustain them. I like the way the tone is set by two phrases

i thought him an idler / he soils himself,

the way they act like a tuning fork for the rest of the poem. How do you read this narrator? If you were an actor, how would you imagine him? A man impatient of weakness in himself and in others. Something of a moral snob, and determinedly stiff-lipped, laconic, sardonic.

our last husky ate her puppies, which is normal.

I love the way the two points of colour, the intensity of the orange, the sallowness of the yellow, seem to dazzle in a monchrome world  It’s a very painterly poem, this, and a carefully managed one. As is the last one for today which attends to the other narrative of  polar exploration; Scott and Shackleton and Amundsen have their heroic/tragic/triumphant/epic journeys. We remember them, the gallant frontline troops, and pay less attention to support systems that made their stories possible. We tend to forget the patient work that has to go on for months and months of no sun, no day. Which is why I chose this poem, for it’s shift of perspective, and I suppose, for the dark humour.


At the Amundsen-Scott Research Station


Night came months ago and stayed ever since:

the moon, not waxing or waning, hangs high,

a mothball in a corner of a dark cupboard,

constant as the wind, a feral pet we feed outside,

seal air-locks against to stop the rasping lick:

we know all our moods, better than our own faces

fractured in iced-up port-holes. Each day arriving

minus thirty-eight, wind-chill off the scale.


Our work is talk, sensitive in the silence to each

blip or whirr of our instruments, an exact spot

the needle touches on the dial of the jet-fuel

in our generator. We dream in half-tones,

our only sunset a screensaver, for memory.

After homemade-hooch (no blow at the Pole

to wipe minds white) and a series of box-sets,

we play a game of who we’d eat first if all else


fails. Irrationally, for a lab full of scientists,

the men say the women, the women, the men.


So, there you are. A day late, for which I’m sorry, but I hope you’ve enjoyed Ken Evans’ poems and voices as much as I have, and that you can’t wait to buy his book. As for next week….I don’t know yet. It’s probably the dark days and early nights. It’s good job I’ve never been sent to the Antarctic.