Half Term…with apologies

Apology first. Last week, I promised you we’d be having a guest, and not just any guest, but one who’s celebrating the launch of his second collection. One way or another, circumstances have conspired to leave me a bit addle-brained. I was planning to be up on Skye next Sunday, away from wifi, and recharging my batteries, wandering about the landscapes that have decorated my Facebook pages on and off throughout the year. Like this.

skye march 2012 019

I was planning to invite Effie Macpherson round for tea and Dundee cake, and to thank her for not minding my putting her in poems. I’ve had to cancel that trip. On the plus side, I’ll rebook it for March, when the days are longer, and the trees are bare, and there’s still snow up on the tops. Silver linings, wherever we look.

In the meantime, I thought I’d take the chance to share a couple of poems, and some of their context. As I get more depressed and angry about the current government with its slim majority, cutting a swathe through everything that has made my life worthwhile for 70+ years – essentially the democratic social concensus laid down by the Attlee government of 1945 – I think of all the people I knew who made that possible. Essentially the working men and women, and the returning troops of the British Army, who were determined that there was no way there would be a return to the pre-war world of social inequality. My father-in-law, Stan, told me how, after fighting in the Far East, he and his comrades got the news that Churchill had said they could stay there as long as he thought it necessary. Who were they to be asking to come home? And I guess no one really remembers Churchill’s pitch about how we could all happily return to the pre-war status quo. I also wonder about how significant it is that so many of the politicians familiar to me in the 50’s had been serving soldiers.Men like Dennis Healey. Aristocrats with a Disraelian sense of social obligation, like Macmillan. We thought him a figure of fun in the 1960’s. Look who we have now.


Here’s the PM, larging it in a Defence debate about Syria. Tony Blair was another who could get all Henry the Fifth when it came to sending other people’s sons to war. They have a lot in common, these two. Not least, that they have never been in uniform, have never known privations of any description, and have never faced anyone trying to kill them. I have a strong belief that if they had, they would talk a different talk. They have never known how loyalty to your friends and comrades is essential to your, and their, survival.

Last week, Facebook poets were all in a flap because Roger McGough is supposed to have complained about the absence of rhyme and anger in the poems he was judging for The Bridport. I can’t get angry or worked up about that. If you’re going to be angry, then make sure you don’t waste it getting red and indignant. Like the PM, for example. And I am angry. A lot of us are. So, in this half term cobweb strand, I’ll take a deep breath, and remind myself why 1945 is so important, and say thank you to the generation that made it possible, and to wonder how they feel, watching their achievements trashed and belittled by ideologues just as mad as the fanatics who destroyed the Bhuddas of Bamiyan, and lay waste to treasures that have stood for two millenia.

This first poem, for Stan, came about because, as he passed 80, he developed Parkison’s Disease, and needed all the support and care of the NHS. And he got it, in spades. He knew what life had been before it; he knew what hard times were like, growing up in Liverpool after WW1. He was a lovely man, and one who served in the Far East, on reconaissance in the jungle.


He knew how it was stumble on mutilated corpses, how it was to do a forced march in tropical heat and humidity, and what it was to infiltrate enemy front lines. Like so many of his generation, he didn’t talk about it much. He wanted just get on with his life, his work as a butcher, to give his children a good life. He used to tell me stories, every now and then when I went up to cut his hair. Here he is.

Short back and sides

It’s fine, Stan’s hair. His wife, Vera, says:
He gets it from his mother.
They were all fine haired, her side.”

He’s soft-skinned, too. Big hands
with liver spots. They tremble, agitate
an invisible test tube, like a chemist.

Big ears, lobes like small ox-tongues.
He likes his hair cut short.
Curious to be holding his head still,

gentling the clippers in the back of his neck,
hearing the buzz, feeling light hairs fall.
I’ve eaten snake, he says. A python.

He could butcher anything the lads brought in.
He’ll not eat curry. When you smell that
you know you’re closing on a village.

On Recon. they’d take the headman’s son.
Shackle him on the bonnet of the Jeep.
See, if no one made a fuss we’d know

no Japs was up the trail. Drive him for a bit
then let him off. The skin of his scalp is fragile,
scissors cold on the pink of the skull.

His goalkeeper’s hands beat a soft
tattoo against his knee, When he remembers
he clasps them like a handshake, or a prayer.

In jungle once, he came upon a pal
pinioned to a tree, opened up from throat to groin,
his piled entrails at his feet, a black buzz of flies.

I’ve never told our Vera that. I tidy round his neck.
I’ll shake the teatowel outside on the step,
watch the hair blow, like dandelion clocks.

His hand have freed themselves.
He has forgotten them.


I’m privileged to have known him, and so many others, like the communist History teacher I worked with, who’d been in the debacle of Arnhem, like my uncle who was at the liberation of Belsen, like another Stan I worked with in a warehouse, who was at Anzio, and so on and on and on. At the same time, I remember men like my Dad who were kept at home in reserved occupations. Pitmen, steelworkers, munitions workers, textile workers. We forget that soldiers need uniforms and that someone has to spin the yarn, and weave the cloth. I suppose, too, that we forget how the textile industry around the Heavy Woollen District was in its heyday making army blanket and uniform cloth for as many armies as would buy them. No matter. These were the working men and women who, without a shred of ideology in their bodies, taught me socialism. So, a poem, of sorts, for them.

“……wiseowl Leeds
pro rege et lege schools, nobody needs
your drills and chanting”
[Tony Harrison: ‘The Rhubarbarians’]

According to their cloth

I knew one man made a forced march in a column,
full pack and rifle; heat and scrub, humidity, thick dust;
forty miles in a single day and never knew a battle plan.

One man who fell from a plane
in a night full of parachutes,
the wind white silk ; the dark sound of planes
dwindling up into the night and him falling into fiasco;
who taught history, who clung to Communism
like a Tudor martyr to a relic.

Another who drove his jeep into something
that a man might make, experimenting
in a slovenly way with making up an idea of hell;
into a camp made out of rust and rot,
of wire and sweet black smoke and rags and sweat;
No one came to liberate him;
no one to take his eyes from the dark,
no-one to bring him back from the dead.

The one I loved most spun yarn
for uniforms and army blankets.
Reserved occupation. Conchie.
All the same to him. Nobody tried to kill me.
He cut his coat according to his cloth.
Took his suit lengths into Leeds,
to Jewish tailors, emigrés
in small dark shops in narrow streets.

You don’t choose where you are in history.
You cut your coat
and wear it.

So, there you are. Possibly not what you expected on a soft and golden Autumn day. But sometimes, you just have to deal with your anger. Back to normal next week, with a proper poet. I’m fairly sure he gives not a fig for formality (other than the formalities of poetic form) but come smartly dressed anyway. Tuck your shirts in. No inappropriate shoes or hairdos.

Short back and sides was First Prize winner in the Ilkley Lit. Fest Poetry Competition, judged by Blake Morrison

According to their cloth is part of a 4 poem sequence in the Leads to Leeds project which is curated by the estimable Helen Mort. There are some absolutely cracking poems on the site. Here’s the link:        http://leadstoleeds.com/

Reviewing the situation………………and a Polished Gem [11] Maria Taylor


Last week I think I said something about worrying about a hook to hang the cobweb strand on. This week’s is quite shameless. I suppose I’d been working my way towards writing ‘reviews’ when I started sharing the work of poets who I thought might languish in obscurity despite their manifold talents – poets who hadn’t been published. They had that in common. At some point I wrote an appreciation of Julia Deakin’s work, because she said no one had yet reviewed her work, even though she had two published collections, as well as a Poetry Business winning pamphlet. But the first proper review I wrote was for The North, and by a happy chance, one of the collections reviewed was by my guest for today, Maria Taylor. I’ll plunder some of that review for this cobweb strand, with due acknowledement to The North.

I remember I was very nervous about it, and I thought I’d better read some poetry reviews, not only in The North but in other magazines and journals; I have to say that my heart sank. Maybe I was reading the wrong ones, but I was instantly time-warped back to university and the strange language of ‘Lit. Crit.’ It was a register I had to learn, but I hated it. All of it. I was informed, in no uncertain way, that I was not, on pain of derision and contempt, to use the word I. The reasons were never made explicit, but it was made very clear I had to assume an authority I did not have, and to use the word we. ‘We are not sure of the perfect grasp of the conventions of the sonnet’s rhetorical structure and authorial voice in this less than authoritative sequence.’  That sort of pretentious claptrap. We recognise. We are profoundly moved. Never you. The reader is taken on a lyrical journey into darkness. And I would think: how do I know what ‘the reader’ thinks. I only knew (on a good day) what knew. I knew straight off what Tony Harrison was on about. Uz. Uz. Uz. I’m with Caliban. I’ll not thank you for learning me your language, Durham University. ‘We’. It’s an arrogant impertinence. I’ll tell you what I think. You can make your own mind up. We’re not in a fictitious, collusive relationship. It was still going on when, years later, I was marking undergraduate essays. I was told not to write on their work: What do YOU think? You’re not an authority. Just be plain and honest with me. If you don’t understand it, then tell me, and tell me why.

I have no patience with reviews that have an agenda of league tables and pecking orders, or with reviews designed to showcase the writer. Here’s an analogy. I’m addicted to Sunday Supplement restaurant reviews…well, to A.A. Gill’s, anyway, because I like acidulous writing. But you know the kind of thing when it’s bad. Where the reviewer riffs on his/her sojourn in Calabria or some remote upland village in the Tatras…for about 1000 words, and then spares a 100 for a dismissive review of a new Turkish/fusion joint in Notting Hill or Golders Green. Always in London. Or, at a pinch, Edinburgh. Their London. Their world. They sound like second rate Brian Sewells, but without the wit or scholarship that makes you not mind the strangely plummy enunciation. Stuff that, for a lark, I thought. Let me say thanks, right here, for Don Patterson’s new book on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. That’s the voice I want to hear, authentic, idiomatic, partisan and partial. I reckon it gives me permission to write the way I want. You’ll either like it or you won’t but at least you’ll know what I think. And make up your own minds.

And so, having got that off my chest, let me set about persuading you why you should be as enthusiastic as I am about Maria Taylor, who I first met, like so many others, at a Poetry Business Writing Day, and whose company I have looked forward to ever since. Let me introduce you. Or rather, let her introduce herself:

‘I am Greek Cypriot in origin and was born in Worksop and lived in Notts as a child. My family moved to London when I was 6, after my father found it increasingly hard to find work in the local power stations. We lived in Acton. When I was 18 I went to Warwick University to study English Literature and Theatre Studies, and then onto Manchester University to study for an MA in English. I worked as a Teacher until I had twins at 30. After the twins were born, I found myself going back to poetry. I’d actually studied Creative Writing with David Morley at Warwick, but had strayed off the poetry path. It was partly David’s influence that guided me back to poetry. Since then I’ve been busy writing and reading. I’ve had poems published in various magazines, including The Rialto, Ambit, Magma and The North. In 2012, my first collection Melanchrini was published by Nine Arches Press and shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. I currently teach Creative Writing at De Montfort University in Leicester. I also have a blog, find me at: http://miskinataylor.blogspot.co.uk/.

[Lets’s also add that she’s review editor for Under the radar, and asked me to contribute a review for that. Told you. Shameless hook].


When I first read Melanchrini, what caught my attention first were the poems that explore her ‘identity’ and the problems of identity that especially trouble (I think) her Dad, who finds himself a stranger in his homeland when he returns, years after. I grew up during the time of the British in Cyprus; one of my cousins, a few years older than I, was a National Serviceman, trapped on wire, under fire , under a hot sun, and under a truck, for 14 hours one day in the 50’s. Many of the neighbours’ lads were squaddies in Cyprus. It was good to be given the perspective of the poems about her parents’ families and their villages.

This is what I wrote about her in The North [53] 

‘Maria Taylor’s Melanchrini, whose title I take as the touchstone for the whole collection – melanchrini – ‘the dark-featured young woman’ ,it seems, is, and isn’t Maria herself. An alter ego, a persona, that gives her license to watch and comment. Born in England of Greek/Cypriot parents, she and many of her personae inhabit the edgelands of overlapping, and sometimes antagonistic, cultures where a sense of identity and belonging sometimes feels hard to come by. She has an uncle who’d refused to speak since ‘I married an ‘englezo’’. Maybe you have to be of a certain age to take on the full resonance of this, but you can do no better than to start with Thea. There’s enough backstory implicit in this to tell you exactly where you are:

She calls my mother copella,meaning lass elsewhere
………her icons scan me from walls, I keep my knees shut.

Thea would like to know if I’m married, so she asks
my father, who tells her ‘yes’ and ‘to an English man.’
She stares through me to yesterday’s village,
where bombs are hidden in melon stalls by heroes
and levendes, meaning lads, are hung from ropes.

The ‘levendes’, these ‘heroes’ were hanged by the British. As Maria’s character says in Ashodel Revisited ‘forgetting’s harder than you think’. It is for her aunts and uncles and cousins. And then there’s that odd little detail that appears in at least one other poem: I keep my knees shut. I like the apparent simplicities that carry complexities of emotion. I like that a lot.
I like, too, the way Maria Taylor can come across as edgily hip and sardonic. In 99/2000, as bells toll the end of the millenium: ……

somewhere around the eight we finished
the last hilarious fuck of the twentieth century

but the toughness and urban savvy isn’t exactly as it seems. Our love was still a secret..because mum and dad haven’t been told. Why is that? And there’s something hugely wistful about the last stanza, when she goes back alone to pick up her parents from her aunt’s house.


On the mantlepiece a calendar, with a Byzantine icon
of St Michael, his stiff painted wings trying to open,
my mum and dad wondering how long they’d keep hold,
me saying ‘Happy New Year, I’m here, let’s go home

Where exactly IS home? her poems ask, again and again. Her dad doesn’t know; he’s a stranger in his own village, and her mum is too busy at the Singer to answer. We’re not excluded, quite. But we’re on the edges, neither one place or another.
Maria Taylor can, like Hilary Mantel, ‘do’ hospitals, and their patients, like Frances and Belfast Annie (Ealing Hospital, August 2000), she can spring linguistic surprises, like the one of Auntie’s aphasic busrides to the supermarket; she inhabits the world of myth with great aplomb, and, with huge relish, recreates the urban world of markets and betting shops, and the older world of Soapsud Island, where

….slum-kitten children
mewled around your knees, shedding Mary-blue tears..

I actually copied that poem out by hand, not least for those ‘slum-kitten children’. In the meantime, you can relish some new ones.

The first one, I was delighted to have. My cousin Brian might have been one of these squaddies, pink as flamingoes

Theodosia, Larnaca, 1955

Soldiers at St. Lazarus, sickening for home,
pink as flamingoes crowding the salt-lake in winter,
clustering in huddled stands. Theodosia ponders
overheard church talk. They don’t look like devils.
They wilt in khaki, grateful for a friend’s cigarette,
tilting fair heads to light from a match.

An exchange. She leaves her country for theirs,
Theodosia feels the weight and drub of summer sun
aware that the old life will soon be put to sleep,
yet she is still here, her mother’s remaining virgin.
Tea-skinned boys play around uniformed legs
begging for the smallest piece of English chocolate,

shoeless feet making a blur of Cypriot dust.
Theodosia feels a sting as she passes, knowing
dust finds a way into eyes, bringing tears.
She makes her way home to chores in a kitchen,
returning to her mother’s side, a living ghost
of blood and bone, they scale and gut in silence.

With the combing of a blade, scales loosen and fly,
knives rip through tangled waves of cord-knots,
heads kept low as hands work at their task
as a sea opens between them, a surge and swell
that carries away children, leaving emptied rooms
and vacant beds, the alpha and omega of loss.

Her mother speaks to virgins at night, but icons
refuse to answer. The quiet remains by day,
only the little sounds of ratcheting knives
speak for them, as they slit from belly to gill
confronted with the crewel work of the interior,
washing blood from their hands, starting again.

There’s riches in this poem. Emotional riches, and the rich sensate textures of things. Maria nails my attention instantly with unforgettably exact language..the combing of a blade,   the crewel work of the interior. Completely surprising and right. It catches at my heart, this elegy for the emptied rooms of emigration, the lonelinesses of the left-behind. More of the sea in this next one, that I asked for because I’m haunted by the notion of mermen and selkies. Probably because I only understand them imperfectly, if at all. It just seems to me they are unspeakably sad, caught beteen sea and air, not quite knowing who they are or why.


I found him in a fishpond at a lonely end of the park.
His eyes reeled me in, under curdled waves. I felt a hook
pierce at my throat’s flesh.

I scooped up his thrashing body, carrying him to my bath.
I sang him underwater lullabies, but his tail stayed fixed.
A fin twitched in place of toes.

Nothing I gave pleased him: roll-mops, fish-sticks, cockles.
Soon, he outgrew my bath, water flowed over the edge
in hot, melancholy sobs.

My tame life was murder for him. He trilled and clicked
in a wild ocean tongue. Another world demanded him,
full of reefs, corals, anemones.

He didn’t even wave goodbye. I avoided the park, the pond.
I went over to the library, read books about old romantics
who’d lost mermen like me.

These women grew old while lovers grew young; taunted
by names writ in water. Somewhere, we must all be weeping,
in bathrooms, or alone at the bay.

What do I say about this? Nothing that it doesn’t say for itself. Matthew Arnold, John Waterhouse; eat your hearts out. And one more to finish this Sunday afternoon before I go and do something with aubergines and cauliflower, coriander  and cumin, and then watch Scotland being thrashed by whatever the Southern hemisphere serves up (sorry about that. I have several passions, poetry and rugby being foremost). Last one, then.

Not About Hollywood

I sit next to Uncle Tony in the waiting room
who says he’ll be lucky to get six months

and can’t be sure if it’s his blood pressure
or the ghosts in his head that’ll kill him.

He wears a jacket removed from a corpse
with his life savings stitched under tweed,

‘So they don’t get at it,’ he whispers,
they being banks, governments, wives.

My mother’s seen it all. I was born
into melodrama. But we’re still here for him

the way a scratching post is there for a cat.
He talks. We listen to the silences.

Magazines find their way onto our laps
and we lose ourselves in other lives:

premieres, evening gowns, red carpets.
He gets up, humming something staccato.

His step falters. We tell him not to worry
as his name flashes in blood-red lights.

There’s a line that arrests me,  My mother’s seen it all. I was born / into melodrama makes me want to spend time with Maria Taylor’s poems . Thank you Maria for being my guest. It was, as they say, a blast. Now, buy Melanchrini, and queue nicely while she signs the books. And then check out where these three poems first appeared.

‘Merman’ and ‘Theodosia, Larnaca, 1955’ were first published in Melanchrini (2012)

‘Not About Hollywood’  first appeared in ‘New Walk’ Magazine.

See you next week. Just in case, come dressed smartly. I hope we’re having a very important guest, but he hasn’t told me if he’s coming yet.

Readings and open mics. : A beginners’ guide

open-mic.1 jpg

One of the abiding joys of this time of year…providing it’s like this Indian Summer….is cobwebs. I go outside of an evening for a smoke, and watch spinneret filaments that drift on the air, shining and fading and shining. They may be a couple of metres long, almost weightless, and they may just drift pointlessly or catch an anchor. Until they find a hook they go nowhere. Which is what it’s like, week on week. I have an idea of who or what I want to write about, but as Sunday approaches I start to wonder where the hook will be. And, at some point, the world offers me a gift.

Last night there was a programme about Ted Hughes; prime time, Saturday night. There were things that snagged and irritated, like the contemporary obsession with not trusting the word or the still image, with snipping the fabric of things into bite-sized portions, and with laying an instrumental backtrack to every bit of speech you might prefer to attend to.  Since I’ve recently lost about 50% of my hearing,  I’ve learned that I can’t hear the words through the aural fog of ‘background’ noise. And yet, despite all that, despite there being no Mexborough or Lumb Bank, and no ‘Remains of Elmet’, I was very happy. Because Frieda Hughes was a joy. And then there was Simon Armitage sitting in the Hebden Bridge Picture House, telling me about how he was taken there as a Sixth Former to listen to Hughes give a reading. The way Hughes would sort of shuffle on, and without any drama, make the hairs of the neck stand up and the blood quicken, and the whole world become more alive…by reading poems. I saw him in a big auditorium at York University in the 80’s. Exactly the same effect, those vowels, the cadences, the passionate energy.

Simon Armitage said that it was revelatory for him, that it taught him why poetry was important, essential. He said it was why he was a poet. That without Ted Hughes he probably would not have been. I have to say that listening to Hughes, after all those absorbed years of reading him, had the effect on me of confirming that I would never write poetry, because what would be the point. I got over that 20 years later, and I have to say that it was Tony Harrison who put the idea in my head that I wanted to write poetry. But what really did the job was the business of reading my own poems aloud to people I didn’t know all that well, first in writers’ workshops, and then at open mics., where I learned to enjoy having an audience (in a way that being published doesn’t quite do it), and enjoy other people enjoying having an audience.

So, today I’m going to write a thank-you letter for every open mic./reading session I’ve ever been to, and for the circumstances that led me to be organising ( with my mate Bob Horne..an Undiscovered Gem in the cobweb’s early days) live poetry readings every month at The Puzzle Hall Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge. And to write a newcomer’s guide to open mic.s. Me being the newcomer. I intend it to be light-hearted and to cause no offence. But I have to say I have a bit of a history when it comes to not meaning to cause offence. Fingers crossed, then.


Sometimes it’s like this, isn’t it. A few faithful souls gathered ( or huddled) on hard stacking chairs in a bland space. This one seems to be without heat. It’s not unknown.


Or more comfortably, a few faithful souls, in a nicely carpeted library, or a bookshop….


and if you’re extravagantly lucky, it’s in a well-lit space with a nicely balanced mic., a big audience and picture windows looking out to the dark sea. But whatever the circumstances, the rules are the same, and I’m going to riff on what I think they are. To put it in context, I’ll say thankyou to some models and mentors,and then sharea couple of anecdotes and exemplars…

Models and mentors first: There are three readers in particular I’ve learned from. Kim Moore, for teaching me about the business of rhythm and breathing right. Clare Shaw for her pacing, the clarity of her diction, and for her passion. Steve Ely for insisting with every syllable that what he’s saying matters. All three for their absolute, unapologetic belief in the import of what they’re doing.

Two anecdotes:

One: I was a guest reader last week at The Red Shed in Wakefield. John Clarke, of The Currock Press, and Jimmy Andrex, make sure that a reading is an event. Everything is purposeful. The open mic. segment is run like a well-oiled machine. Egos are left at the door. And, an absolute revelation, Currock Press sell the guest readers’ books from their own book table, so you don’t even have to fish around in your pockets for change, and you get the chance to take to people who want to talk to you.

Two: I once went a long way to be a guest at one place where the audience was scattered aound a big space, the open mic. went on first, and went on. And on. Then there was a break in which several open mic.ers put their coats on and went home. The place shut at 10.00pm. I started my reading at 9.50pm. I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen Kim Moore give up the ghost because there was a couple in the small room of the pub who simply went on talking loudly, regardless. But, you get the picture. So what can be done? It’s mainly common sense, but what I’ve learned is mainly as a result of, among other things, being a drama teacher.

For organisers of readings and  spaces 

Make sure all your readers are the focus of attention.

Use lighting intelligently; if there are spotlights, don’t have them shining in anyone’s eyes. If you don’t have them, then see if you can just light the reader. It’s nice to read into a darker space. Tealights on tables are nice…easy to do.

If you can’t manage lighting you can always manage the space. If the audience is sparse, then make sure they’re sitting together. Make them feel like it’s a crowd. See if you can’t organise your seating so that you don’t have part of your audience outside the reader’s peripheral vision.

If you have tables that people sit around then put flyers for your next event on the tables you want people to be sitting at. Whatever you do, create the illusion that it’s full.

If you have a mic. please check the sound levels. Find out the optimum distance from reader to mic. Show your reader how it works. Remind your reader that tapping mics. to see if they work is a crime punishable by death. You will, of course never restrain the ones who instantly take the mic. out of the stand and  pretend they’re in Guns and Roses. Say the serenity prayer. There are things no-one can change. (slams are different; but I’m not writing about them).

And, for goodness’ sake, at the very least have a whip round for your guests. Travel is not free.

For readers. Reading

Rehearse. Rehearse your timings. Find out how long you have, and rehearse how many poems that is when they’re read aloud. Stick to it.

Know exactly what you want to do. Do not faff about in a reading with stuff like ‘Now,what shall I do next?’. You should know.

My personal preference: if you’re reading from more than one of your books or pamphlets, make copies of the poems you will read in one folder…plastic pockets…in the sequence you want. Then you don’t need to be picking up and putting down and casting about. And a personal thing…don’t for any reason read from an iphone or a tablet. The light they throw makes it look like you’re in some strange communion. The text isn’t big enough. You faff about with scrolling. It’s horrible. Like I say, it’s a personal thing.

When you rehearse, it pays to read at a fractionally slower pace than your normal conversational speech. Slower is better.

You don’t have to be loud to be heard. Quiet makes people listen. But it only works if you give the words their full value. Hit those consonants, especially the end consonants. It slows you down a bit, it does justice to your poems, and you can’t mutter when you do it.

If you’ve not done it before, remember this. You’ve been invited to be there; you have a right to be there. Don’t be apologetic about it.

If you think the seating could be better (see above) then say so. Learn the ways of the mic. Do NOT tap it.

When you get up, take a couple of moments to look round the audience. Just leave a little space of silence that says ‘I know why I’m here. I know what I’m doing’

Thank them for being here, say thank you for the invitation. Say something nice about the support if you have one or about the poet you’re there to support.

If you’ve books to sell, tell them at the beginning. Make sure they know you are published. Not showing off. It’s context. They listen differently.

Know how you’ll introduce the poems; rehearse your anecdotes till you think it’s spontaneity. That’s to be part of your time allocation.

If you have a small group of poems in the set, then say that’s how they’ll be read, and not to clap till the group’s done. It’s worth deciding if you want applause along the way, any way. But tell them. Avoid uncomfortable silences. While we’re on with that, think about how you end a poem so the audience knows it’s finished.

Wear a watch. Check your time. Think ahead if you’re looking like overrunning and decide what you’ll drop from the set. But whatever you do, make sure you have a poem that will be an obvious finisher. If you mainly do bleak, like me, give them one that makes them smile. Or laugh.

Tell them they’ve been great. Thank them for having you. It’s not rocket science.


If you’re the compere:
(and let’s be clear about this: I’ve been doing this for no time at all, but I know when it works and when it doesn’t. How do you learn? From watching people who are good at it. And from things you can learn from teaching drama)

Find out what your guests would like you to say about them in their introduction; you might think you’ve done your homework, but ask anyway.

I’m assuming you know how to be mine host, and how the mic. works, and how to make everyone feel happy, but just a couple of things about open mic. segments. This is stuff I learned from Winston Plowes of the Hebden Bridge Shindig, and I’ve faithfully followed his example.

Make the rules clear.

You know how many open mic.ers you can usefully deal with. You know how much time you have. A simple sum. If you have 12 signed up for the open mic. and you have an hour+, then you can happily allocate them 4 minutes apiece, have time to say something in intoruduction and a bit after each open mic.er. And you can have a short break. Because if you don’t, no-one’s going to be listening by the time we get to number 10 and 11.

Have some sort of signal so they know when they’re coming to the end of their time. Winston Plowes does a one minute warning via the discreet use of a Swanee Whistle. I was very much taken with that the first time I saw it.

Look after first-timers. Make them feel good about it, especially when they finish.

Give each reader a bit of feed back before you introduce the next one. When you thank them, say why…quote them a line you especially liked. Keep notes. Prove you’ve listened to THEM. Use your notes  when they come again. Use them when you introduce them, remind the audience what you liked about their last performance. Encourage them to bring new material. It takes no big effort, but it’s what I learned from teaching drama. Kids don’t know that they’ve learned to do or understand something when they’re doing drama. You need to tell them what it is, so they go away knowing what they’ve achieved. It works in drama teaching. It should happen in all teaching. And believe me, it works with open mic.ers, many of whom have never been given any feedback. They’ll come again.

The rest of it is formalities. You don’t need telling. But I have to remind myself, every time, what my job is. It’s to make people feel good about themselves. And here’s the thing; praise that shows you’ve listened makes people try harder. It makes them raise their game. It does. It truly does.

Well, I’ve been watching you and you’ve concentrated and you’ve made notes, and you’ve nodded, or smiled, or frowned, or shaken your heads a bit, and in so many ways you’ve given me the feedback I need. Thank you. So you can put your notebooks away and I’ll tell you as story.

Once upon a time I wrote a poem called ‘Folk festival folk’. It was in a Poetry Business writing day when Peter Sansom invited to us to write about any recognisable group of people we chose. The only rule was that every line should be a cliche, a stereotype, and exaggeration or a downright lie.The group I chose were the ones I got to know at folk festivals. It used to go down well in folk clubs. I got to wondering if it were possible to do the same thing for an open mic. poetry reading, and if it might be done without causing offence. Tell you what. Let’s find out. Here we go:

Literature –festival- open -mic –poetry- on –a- warm-afternoon-in-June-folk

A big room, and a good-sized house
I’m not that late, and get signed up.
We’ve got such a lot. Of readers. Super. You
may. Have to wait a. While till its your. Turn.
She clipboardsoff.

The mic is something they’re not quite used to
and no-one seems to know what makes it work
Throughout the afternoon its slips towards
the floor as if it’s nodding
off. It’s sensitive to every bump, and buzzes
when they stand too close. Or whines.

Still. Not quite on the dot, and someway off-mic
we’ll give a warm poetic welcome
(though not without a rambling
preamble, and, by no means not
a ‘let’s give it up!) for reader Number One

who drops on stresses as if by acc-Id- ent
and does a dragg-ING rap thats all A-bout
hand-BAGS and something world-weary on hoped-for
passion and hibiscus and missed kisses
if only madeira were nearer. It’s hard to know when a poem
and the next starts. Her pauses give no clue.

No one seems quite sure if clapping is the thing or even if she’s finished.
There’s scattered tentative applause but in the end we settle for
the closed-eyes inward smile, the appraising nod. And a collective. Mmmh.
As if we’ve made our minds up which of Betty’s choice of scones we’ll have.

Next up, Poet Number Two:
Lisbet is immaculate; her poems should wear pashmina and silver boots,
necklaces of plum-sized stones. She en-un-ci-ates, weighs up
every single consonant. At each poem’s end, she sighs , resumes,
a world of china,trays and tea, and sun on lemons
in a copper bowl. Still lives. DEFAULT response, nod and mmms.

Reader Three is Elspeth, unused to microphones.
The agitated lectern goes knock-knock- knocking on the cantilevered arm.
Knock knock. Who’s there. Who knows. Could be the new Liz Lochead,
but no one can hear. DELAYED APPLAUSE, and slightly muted mmmm.

Just before the Break—
a fantastic opportunity to network, or buy books, or smoke –
there’s time, just, for Number Five, Damien, who wears his trainers with no socks,
skateboarders’ trousers, a hoodie, plus fatigue jacket, and mole-black hair.
He reads from his BOOK.
The air is thick with angels and their hornet eyes he chants:
He went down on me till my genitals bled. He garnishes this with lots of ‘fuck’
and so on. There is a collective wince; if it was a sound it would be like
a pious mouse being trodden on mid-sermon in a Wee Free Kirk.

We break for tea.

Brett kicks off Side Two; he’s all the way from Colorado
and appears to be about 15. His first poem is entitled RAGE.
The second is on the theme of TRAGIC HEROES. He is attracted to words like
inconsequential and claustrophobia and unrevealed to the naked eye.
His last one is a sonnet made from gerunds. Boy, we go at some tilt.

We hit DEFAULT for nods and hmms. And so it goes; the line
will stretch out to the crack of jaws.
In sympathy with the microphone one chap has quietly gone to sleep.

We have poems with hearts of diamond,
and heads of gold that rhme with old and bold,
and mermaids and white horses. Which is nice.
Pamela muses on the plight of women
who have gone in for childbirth overlate in life,
and on what other people’s dreams are like.

Ian reads theatrically, with cadences and other variants on the dying
fall. He wears drawstring waisted trousers
and a cravat. His poems are full of snakes and vaguely oriental nights.

It can’t be long before my name’s buzzed out on the drooping mic.
I slip out unobserved. Give it a miss. You never know who’s lis –
-tening people at these do’s can be so critical. I’ve seen some taking notes.

They can be really bitchy, poets

Right, if anyone’s still speaking to me next week, we’ll be giving a huge, warm, fulsome Cobweb Welcome to a guest poet who I admire. A lot. Off you go. No running.

Knowing your place. Polished gem [10 ] Roy Marshall

I’m feeling more than normally muddle-headed tonight, for a whole bunch of reasons. I guess having woodburning stoves installed, and a fireplace opened up, and being more or less amateurish when it comes to brick-cleaning acids, and patch-plastering, and getting the hang of a chain saw, and exploring the capacity of a new long-handled axe…that sort of thing…has contributed. I know that I’ve been confusing my planning for guests on future cobweb strands with planning for guests on next year’s programme at The Puzzle Hall Poets Live, and thereby confusing various friends. So, if this week’s web-strand turns out less coherent than you and my guest deserve, then mea culpas in advance.

I think the best thing to do is to say what I plan to riff about, before I introduce Roy Marshall to you, and then cross my fingers that I stay on the right page of the hymnsheet. Two things on the agenda, then. One will be the business of where a writer is ‘located’, what you think of as ‘their place’. The other is the way in which a poet’s collection defies you to pigeon-hole or categorise it. With luck, we may even nail down a connection between the two.

The first issue is that of ‘landscape’. This lodged in my mind last week, probably because I’ve spent a lot of time of late reading Robert Macfarlane on the language of physical, topographical landscape, the iconographies of place. The poet Lindsey Holland put up a short post on her Facebook page about teaching the first session of her undergraduate course on ‘Poetry and Place’. I immediately felt envious. I wanted to be a student on the course, and I simultaneously wanted to teach it. I wanted to proselytise about Raymond Williams and the shifting meanings of the ‘country’ and the ‘city’, of the urban and of the pastoral. I wanted to explore how I become aware that, though I’ve lived in towns all my life, there’s almost no urban imagery in my work at all. I wanted to explore why and how that might be.

I was thinking about this when, a day later, Roy Marshall sent me an email in which he wrote, among other things,

I’ve been very interested in the contrast between us- you are from a place and know that place intimately – I was born in one place and moved three times before I was ten. Also, my mum is from another country. I am currently living somewhere that I don’t really feel is ‘home’, but then I’m not sure where that is exactly.

What interested me was that I have somehow given the impression that I am from a place, and that I know it intimately. It’s true that I know it spatially and visually, but I went to university 100 miles away in Durham, and then Newcastle. I taught for six years after that in Middlesbrough, and lived in a former iron-mining village not far from the sea. After that I lived and taught in Newcastle for four years, and after that, for ten years, in Leeds. I still have traces of a NE accent from that, but not a trace of cities in my writing, except for a short sequence about Leeds this year. For the last 30 years I’ve been living in a small town less than ten miles from where I was born and grew up. More or less in the same valley. And I still don’t know the street names, which tells me that somehow, unconsciously, all this time I’ve been thinking of it as temporary. So if I’m from ‘a place’ I think that place is ‘North’ and my thinking and imagery is ‘North’. The poets and poetry I respond to are northern. I don’t ‘get’ poetry written out of warm or hot or lush or metropolitan or exotic landscapes. It’s my loss but there it is.

Another thing. A friend wrote to me yesterday about the alien nature of a place without trees, wondering how and what Autumn could mean without trees. Trees don’t engage my imagination (except in the context of axes and chainsaws)…maybe it’s the way they obstruct a view; maybe it’s all that greenery and complicated lush texture…but I understand what she meant, how her life and imaginings needed trees. So when a poet says to me that he’s not exactly sure where ‘home’ is, I’m engaged.

Which, with a bit of luck, may bring me to the second thing; it started with a conversation I had with Roy at an open mic. in Hebden Bridge where he was guest poet. We were talking about poets we like (or not) and had no problem about agreeing on our mutual enthusiasm for Julie Mellor and Kim Moore. As we chatted, we came round to a kind of view that in each of their Poetry Business winning pamphlets (Breathing through our bones and If we could speak like wolves) although there was a clear and distinct voice in each, we could not predict or anticipate, as we turned the pages, what the next poem would be like, or about. They are constantly surprising. So many collections (and this is not a negative point) will have at least some thematic element or clear thread of linking narrative. It may be how a lighthouse keeper’s daughter learned to read, or the story of Van Gogh’s paintings, or the progress and failure of a love affair, or the slow death of a parent, or the history of a valley, or…you know what I mean?. It was at this point I said to Roy: you know what? the ‘surprising’ thing? that’s what I like about The sun bathers. Which is Roy’s first full collection.


I reckon this is as good a point as any, on this evening of muzzy thinking, to properly introduce (if you’ve not already met him) Polished Gem Number 10:

Roy Marshall was born in 1966. His mother was born in Italy, his father in London. Roy wanted to be a writer as a child and young man but became distracted for about twenty years during which time he found himself variously employed as a delivery driver, gardener and coronary care nurse, amongst other occupations.
His pamphlet ‘Gopagilla‘ was published by Crystal Clear in March 2012 and was very favourably reviewed by Andrew McCulloch in the TLS.
‘Gopagilla’ has sold out and is no longer available. A full collection ‘The Sun Bathers’ was published by Shoestring Press in November 2013 and has been shortlisted for the Michael Murphy award. The book has also been received very positively in ‘The Warwick Review, ‘Under The Radar’, ‘The North’ and elsewhere. You can buy a copy by clicking on the ‘Sun Bathers’ page of his poetry blog. at http://roymarshall.wordpress.com/.

He goes on to say something that I think might throw a small light on that element of unpredicability you encounter in successive poems, the way there’s no driving ideology or thematic urge, but instead an abiding curiosity, which might just be the clear-eyed curiousity of the outsider.

“…… you might say  that I didn’t start reading or writing poem really s seriously or sending any out until I was in my thirties- I think this helped- I had something to write about. Also I had little education in English (unless you count an e grade at A level in the early eighties) and this probably helped a little as no-one was telling me what I could or should do, either in terms of writing or ‘going for it’ submissions wise- my first published poem was in The Rialto, my second came third in the Ledbury poetry comp. I’ve been really lucky (my publisher, John Lucas read my Crystal Clear pamphlet and asked if I had any more poems as he’d like to publish a bookfull!) but I also worked really hard, reading, writing, drafting- and ‘catching up’ on the gaps in my knowledge. Among other things poetry has educated me as I’ve pursued ideas and words and looked things up, and on a more basic level I’ve learned to spell and punctuate properly in the last few years- at school I was the youngest in the year and gazed out of the window a lot.

I think being displaced or being neither here nor there has it’s advantages- and I recognise the traits I value in people regardless of where they hale from. But belonging? I’m still figuring this out, and I guess poetry is the place I belong most of all…”

I think that’s the key for me. Because here’s writer who has worked, and goes on working, at ‘becoming a writer’. By reading and reading, and learning and learning, from as many places and influences as possible. This is a poetry that’s interested in everything and that’s why the collection won’t be pinned down, why it constantly surprises. Time for the poems then. I heard Roy read this first one at The Square Chapel in Halifax, and found its central image completely memorable and telling

Being no twitcher
I can’t tell if it’s a black swan or cormorant

speeding beside the train, the near-naked trees

to turn a glimpse of what must be
the most elegant of trajectories

into a zoetrope that strokes
the rooted eye,

wings fully open and now
closed, neck stretched to spear the sky,

and me in the carriage, alone
and transfixed, as far from that bird

as a child, his eye to the slot of a spinning drum
in an empty Victorian nursery.
First Published in New Walk Magazine

First I liked, a lot, the elision of the zoetrope’s imperfectly synchronised moving image with the flick/flick of something seen from the windows of a fast train. It seems to me exactly right. I like the exactness of verbs: interloping, strokes, transfixed. I like the simple honesty of it all.  I can’t tell. It comes without the knowing self-deprecation of that line of Larkin’s that I’ve never liked, in a poem that I love: someone should know. And finally, that image of the poet, alone, transfixed, not knowing, being involved and ‘outside’, simultaneously. It’s a beautifully crafted poem, I think.

The next poem Roy sent me I’d have chosen any way for its precise lyricism and that one word ‘birl’. And for the surprise of that ‘guillotine’. Love that.


And here too, in the place that loved you back,
your absence grows; in the guillotine of greenhouse
glass, in a trellis slung from the hips of a rose.
The sun hangs in an empty feeder, which jigs and birls
on the cherry tree, a web spans tongue to heel across
your weather-cured shoes, still two sizes too big for me.

From ‘The Sun Bathers’, Shoestring Press (2013)

Nick Drake wrote of  Roy’s first pamphlet:  ‘Absolutely fresh, surprising, precise, concise, vivid, moving.’ I think all those qualities are in this deceptively simple-seeming poem. Finally, one that strikes a completely different note, in the way that I like about the collection, and in the way we’d talked about at that open mic. in Hebden Bridge.

Meat is Murder

When, overnight, his trade was re-named
in letters daubed five-feet high, that bled
down the step and over the pavement

he stopped hanging those soft stretched bodies,
dew-clawed and raspberry-eyed, their felt ears
lifted on diesel breeze whenever a lorry went by.

The son of a butcher, who was the son
of a butcher’s son, he prided himself on brain
and brawn, ruby jewels and red jellies

a plump pink purse, frisked from a carcass
tenderly placed beside rib rack and loin.
That stunned morning he gave me a fiver

to peel plastic blood from the glass with a knife,
while he scrubbed shadows from the feet of passers-by,
then sent me for tins of paint for the sill, black gloss

to better reflect the times. Years later, I saw him
in the paper, and though I’d known he owned a gun,
I’d forgotten how night after night, his moon-face

shone blue in the fly-catcher’s light, that sheened
the scrubbed slab and marble counter, as he listened
for voices over the refrigerator’s hum.

I loved the narrative of this, but, even more, the rich sensuousness of the language, the way the texture and colour of the meat is realised, the way those two verbs frisked and tenderly placed nail down the dispassionate craft of the butcher who takes pride in his work with ruby jewels and red jellies / a plump pink purse; you don’t easily forget the pallid white face in the blue light of the neon flycatcher. As Kim Moore wrote of his work: this is  ‘… very self-contained, poised and graceful writing’
or, as Tim Love wrote: these are ” … the sort of poems that are easy to read yet hard to write” . I’d add one word to that. Apparently easy to read.

Thanks, then, to Roy Marshall for being this week’s polished gem. I managed to muddle through it. I hope it does him justice. Now, off you go and buy The Sun Bathers. All the details you need are above, somewhere. Next week we’ll finally get round to the business of open mic.s and their manifold delights. See you next Sunday. Bring your friends,