No hiding place…. and a Polished gem: Matthew Stewart


This still from Werner Herzog’s ‘Encounters at the end of the world’ has been called ‘one of the great existential moments of modern cinema’. It’s one that has me in tears. For some reason this one penguin has has left the tribe (according to wikipedia , a group of penguins on land is called a waddle. Other collective nouns for penguins include: rookery, colony, and huddle. None of them seem to credit their air of social purpose. I’ll stay with tribe). The others are purposefully plodding seaward, towards food and salvation. This one is equally purposefully heading inland to a certain death. The camera pulls back, and goes on pulling back until the penguin is microscopic in an infinity of white. Herzog’s voice-over speculates that the only reason for this behaviour is that the penguin has become insane. It’s heartbreaking.


I should say that I’ve spent the last couple of days in bed, feeling physically done in. A bit like the early symptoms of flu, without the coughing and sneezing. Just very tired and achey. So this post post might be more incoherent than usual. Still. Press on. Basically I’ve been thinking about how to introduce today’s guest poet, who happens to write short poems…not necessarily lyric, but short. I’m very conscious that I don’t do short, and admire poets who do, mainly because I think it takes more confidence and craft and discipline than I have. I suspect I’m afraid of white space, because, essentially, it leaves no hiding place. Every word is exposed, and has to justify itselfScan 3

Here’s a bit of one of my writing workshop notebooks. You don’t need to read it to see that it fills the page, edge to edge. No line breaks, no white space except for that between the words and the lines. If I ever try to write a first draft that looks like a poem I get stuck, because I start looking at words and phrases and I start thinking, and stop writing. It’s the way I am. It’s just easier to write a lot without stopping and worrying. I’ll leave that idea there, because I fancy writing some posts about how some of my poems came about, and this extract will feature. But you see what I mean. I hope.

Let’s try another tack. How about a one-line poem…say, from Blake’s Proverbs of hell.

the cut worm forgives the plough

The space around it invites you to consider it as significant, and it’s instantly vulnerable to scrutiny. If it works at all it’s because it yields up layers of meaning or significance. Ask yourself where the stresses go. If the stress falls on cut then it invites you to think of what the alternatives might be. crushed? slain? Why cut? Is it that if it’s a slight wound, it can bring itself to ‘forgive’. Just an worries. What if the stress is on worm. What if it was dog or wolf or…After all ‘worm’ can imply weakness, moral, spiritual, physical. But what if there’s an implied unspoken qualifier? Even the cut worm. Hmm. What if the stress is on plough. Do we understand that the plough may be forgiven but not the ploughman. It turns out that it looks like one short line, but it’s powerfully ambiguous and complicated. Who knows what Blake intended. We might even want to read the line in the light of everything else he wrote. You see what I mean. Short poems surrounded by lots of white space need to do a lot more work than lines in a long poem where they can hide in the forward push of rhythm or rhetoric or emotion. I can’t write them…or, at least, very rarely, and when I do they’re not much good. Which is why I admire those who can, which brings me to our Polished Gem for today; Matthew Stewart.

I met, and heard, Matthew for the first time about a month ago when he read at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. I knew his poetry blog, Rogue Strands,and I’d read about him in posts by Paul Stephenson and Abigail Morley.

You can check those posts out via these links….worth reading, and save me some time while I’m feeling muddy-headed.

I liked the poems a lot. I liked their urbanity, their layeredness. I like the way he told them, and the way they were robust enough to stand up for themselves when they had to compete with non-poetry chatter at the other end of the room. One reviewer, Rory Waterman puts it better:  “Matthew Stewart is a poet of consolidation, truth, and freshness, with a masterful sense of economy. His poems matter, and his first full collection has been too long in coming. These poems have the rare quality of resonating a long way beyond their modest physical limitations.”  Exactly

So I asked him to be guest, and here he is. The biog he sent me is brief, succinct, and somehow just right as an introduction for a poet unafraid of white space.

“Matthew Stewart works in the Spanish wine trade and lives between Extremadura and West Sussex. Following two pamphlets with HappenStance Press, both now sold out, he has recently published his first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, with Eyewear Books. He blogs at




The four poems he’s sent me to share are all from The knives of Villalego, and they make me think of a phrase I’ve used before in my posts. Dark watcher. The point of view of the unseen observer, or at least the overlooked observer who can see what’s going on but can’t affect or change what happens. Maybe it has something to do with the fact of his living in and between two countries and two languages. It’s something that Kim Moore picked out in one of her Sunday Poem blogs when she posted one of his poems : Twenty years apart

Ignore the smells, swap Spanish for English,
back streets of Villalejo for Oxford.
Muttered stories mirror muttered stories.
I’m still in the background.

Kim commented:

the outsider is always an outsider, whether in Villalejo or Oxford. When the speaker in the poem urges the reader to ‘Ignore the smells, swap Spanish for English’  the reader starts to realise the speaker is an outsider where ever he goes.Yes. It’s that quiet understatement, a sort of self deprecatory quality, a rueful one, but a truthfully observed one too. There’s more than that in the collection, though. Enjoy this selection. I’d love to sit and tell you why I enjoy them as well as telling you I do. But this bug, whatever it is, is asserting itself. Maybe I’ll come back in a couple of days with a clear head and finish the job properly. But I promised our guest he’d be featured today and a promise is a promise. Here we go.

The 23rd


i.m. George Stewart


It casually loiters in the fourth line

of April, pretending not to stalk me,

the expiry date on David’s passport

and the start of a trade fair in Brussels.

It knows full well you chose your namesake’s day

to die, as if you were somehow afraid

I might forget. As if I ever could.



You’ve reached 020…


I dial and dial, never leave a message.

What I dread is your picking up one day

and your voice turning unpredictable.


I love to hear it tinny, caught on tape,

giving a number rather than a name,

as if you were the prisoner, not me.

Sooner or later


For the moment it skulks

below forgotten gifts

and out-of-favour shirts

in the spare-room wardrobe.


Maybe tonight, maybe

next year, a sudden call

will bring it centre stage,

rushed to the dry cleaners.


They’ll hanger it. Shoulders

will thrust like instructions

for use. There’s not a hope

of dodging the dark suit.


Let me finish for the time being, though, in the kind of place you’d be happy to be a visitor. You might feel like an outsider in some Spanish village cafes and bars, but the smell of hot oil and frying dough, and chocolate (and, possibly, caporal tobacco) speaks a universal language. I’ll take it for my comfort this evening.

Chocolate con churros


The vat of oil must haze the air,

the batter sticky but slick.

He pipes it gently through the nozzle.

Spatulas dance as it ripples

in ring after fizzing gold ring.


Just after dawn his café steams.

Hunters, half-cut teenagers

and widows all hunch over cups

in the hubbub of the churros

being dunked in chocolate.


Thank you, Matthew Stewart, for poems unafraid of white space, that prove that when it’s done right, less is more.


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.