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It is a bright, sunny autumn day in London, with intermittent rain (English paradox), as I wrap up a week's blogging here, and the Prime Minister has personally intervened last night to defend military cuts from Osborne's urge to cut. I have hoped, this week, to offer some "new bearings" in British poetry, but without sticking slavishly to birthdates or generations, though I have been, it is true, mostly casting a warm eye on the younger emerging talents. Lists and canons are invidious, only until one imagines what we'd do without them, especially in this intertwined and networked world with so very many talented poets out there. It is easy to mock Eliot and Leavis for the April cleaning they offered in the Twenties and Thirties, but it did allow us to read a number of good poets in a new light. I am a big believer in anthologies, as an art as well as a skill, and it is no coincidence that I have been offering a mini-virtual anthology at this blog, named for the finest series of American poetry anthologies ever compiled. Some anthologists (unfairly, it seems to me) become comic figures of loss, like Oscar Williams, their great efforts on behalf of others ultimately swept away with the big bad broom of "time", that so many of us foolishly hope will come and make everything orderly on the poetry shelves. Time, instead, tends, I think, to maintain the order that came before, which is why Eliot's argument about individual talents shifting the canon was always as progressive as it was reactionary - properly dialectical. Without critics, editors, anthologists, and eagle-eyed poets and readers constantly on the look-out for what was great, or good, or merely thrilling in the big book of old poems, then perhaps those orderly shelves will merely remain undusted, and samey. I will make two predictions about the contemporary poetry consensus, and how it will be read in 100 years (2110): one, Seamus Heaney will still be being read; and two, one of the other poets who will be considered few of us have heard of (or may not yet be born). Poetry's canons are made both of the famous, universally-acclaimed, prize winners, who confirm what we think poetry is, and is also formed by those transformational and utterly unexpected types who jump out of nowhere and show us what poetry could be. I think both kinds of poet should be welcome. There is a third kind of poet, I suppose, the kind who does shuttle diplomacy between the accepted, the traditional, and the radically new - or, perhaps, goes between communities, schools, nations, languages, canons, genres, media, bringing back news to the tribe. I call these poets The Go-Betweens, and without their energy and commitment to packing poetry in their bags when they travel, and declaring it upon arrival, we'd be all the poorer for it. Before sharing them (these final 8!) with you, on this my seventh day, I want to remind... Continue reading
Posted Oct 16, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Today, Hilary Clinton made headlines in Britain, by “expressing concern” about plans to cut spending here on military procurement. I mention this to underline how interconnected the US/UK relationship – “special” or not – still is, not just culturally, but military-industrially. Meanwhile, David Cameron and General Petraeus have been meeting over the botched rescue of a British citizen kidnapped by the Taliban, and maybe killed accidentally by an American rescuer, who may have thrown a hand grenade that killed her as she lay on the ground. Though there is a documented “Atlantic drift” in the poetry community, as much binds as releases the two former great powers, both watching the rise of China. Poets in the 20th century in the Anglo-Saxon world tended to speak of a mid-Atlantic current, that saw the loan-lease of poetic talents, such as Auden and Eliot. Hugh Kenner, a Canadian, wrote about this, in A Sinking Island, and then there is Fishing By Obstinate Isles, let alone A Shrinking Island, Jed Edy’s title echoing Kenner’s. I don’t think we can any longer speak of mid-Atlantic poets (Robert Lowell was one, at ease in London as Boston). I was tempted to call them Pan-Poets, or the New Jet Set (a little ungreen). I have therefore decided to call them Atlantic/Pacific poets – poets whose national identities are enwebbed in travel, education, and publication, in several nations at once, and therefore, in their cosmopolitan internationalism creatively scramble the tired old nationalist labels. In the process, they release the English-language poetic tradition since Modernism into its widest swing, the compass arm describing a very wide arc of styles and experiences, indeed. Other poets I have featured so far this week could have been included here, but this list includes a poet born in New Zealand, one born in Australia, one born in America who intelligently and creatively engage with the British and American poetic traditions, as well as ones closer (perhaps) to home – whatever that might mean. Kathryn Maris, a New Yorker now based in London, was educated at Columbia University (BA) and Boston University (MA, Creative Writing). She is the author of The Book of Jobs (Four Way Books, 2006) and a second collection forthcoming with Seren in the United Kingdom. Her awards include a Pushcart Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, and fellowships from The Fine Arts Work Center and Yaddo. Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry, Slate, The Harvard Review, and Poetry Review. She has written essays and book reviews for Time Out, American Poet, Poetry London and New Welsh Review. She teaches creative writing at Morley College and Kingston University. Her poems are anthologised in Oxford Poets 2010. Doubting Thomas Call me Infidel, or just call me Tom. Call me handsome, call me cold, call me bitter, call me cad call me No-Better-Than-Judas-Iscariot call me bachelor, call me saint, call me numb. I was abused, I was married, I took pills, I was left, I was in love, I was a... Continue reading
Posted Oct 15, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Yesterday and today the world experienced the Chilean miracle at Camp Hope, where thirty-three miners were rescued after months of doubt and darkness - a time they survived with optimism, creativity, and inspiring communitarian spirit. The event, to my mind equivalent to the moon landings in terms of human and technical drama (not a unique thought, I am sure), is particularly resonant of the literary style of "magic realism" which came from Chile's part of the world, a style that saw the miraculous in the everyday. It therefore seems apt to celebrate, today, poets whose work touches upon, in a variety of ways, fable, dreams, enchantment, faith, and the extraordinary - poets I will label (if just for this post), "The Fabulists". When discussing this with one of the poets included below, Matthew Gregory, he had this to say: "it seems to me a kind of new Romanticism of some sort, allowing for the frivolous and the camp, something like the Victorian horror crazes, but, when it works, with something of a truthful enquiry, is like the best of magic realism. It seems to be happening generally, doesn't it? In the mid 1990s, I'm quite sure there wasn't as much vampire love on television as there is now. And in poetry, on the whole. Underwood, Kennard and sometimes Emily Berry write with many voices, untrustworthy narrators, ghosts and anthropomorphic subjects. I think reading Charles Simic, James Tate, the Eastern Europeans/Polish (Holub, Szymborska) and some Ashbery is where we'll find the nerve of this particular ache." Now, a few grumpy critics in Britain have complained that these labels I am applying may be constraints for these poets as they develop - which seems to miss the point of these posts entirely - as with all literary labels, these are provisional, arbitrary, and, indeed, like literary criticism itself, equivocal, in a creative sense. I offer these as ways to read and appreciate these poets, but not as "Swiftian" "puffery". There is nothing satirical about it, and very little puff. Though I do like Puff the Magic Dragon. Kathryn Simmonds was born in Hertfordshire in 1972 and worked in children's publishing and the charity sector before pursing writing seriously, although she has written poetry since childhood. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 2002 and her pamphlet Snug was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2004 as a result of their annual competition. Her first full collection Sunday at the Skin Launderette won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2008 and was short listed for the Costa Poetry Award. She is also interested in prose and dramatic writing - her short stories have appeared in The Barcelona Review, The Liberal Magazine and a number of anthologies, and she has written a play for Radio 4. Now living in north London, she works as a writing tutor for the City Lit, Morley College and The Poetry School. Simmonds is one of the only poets in Britain who, though subtly and never condescendingly, replies to... Continue reading
Posted Oct 14, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Last night, Howard Jacobson won the coveted Man Booker Prize for best work of fiction of the year published by a Commonwealth author (hence the exclusion of Americans), roughly the UK's equivalent, in prestige, to the Pulitzer. Jacobson was not the bookies favourite, but he has been on the radio and in the papers all week over here, arguing for the importance of comedy in fiction (he is a very funny writer). This morning, on BBC 4, he explained how he felt that all novels should be funny, always. I am not convinced by this claim, yet at the same time recognise the many comedic contributions to the form by British writers of the last century, such as Waugh, Wodehouse and Amis (pere). Light verse in England, as I intimated on Sunday, is itself a noble genre - what would British poetry be without its Copes, its Smiths? Auden and Larkin were often at their best when funny. Poetry couldn't cope without its humourists. I thought about following the "New Seriousness", in all seriousness, with "The New Comedy", but that seemed a bit wide of the mark. Establishment poetry in the UK sometimes seems a bit shy of laugh-aloud humour in poetry. When comedy appears in British poetry it can tend to be either pub-stand-up funny (and a bit crass) or rather po-faced (very few Cambridge school poets are funny often). Not very precise, really, but maybe it helps to imagine what the middle-ground of poetry humour might be - not so much wit, or comedy, as the willingness to perform, in some way, one's work - a generosity towards an audience. The idea that poetry can entertain, can delight, as well as inform, is vital for many poets in the UK, and so today I wish to welcome three poets, who, in a variety of ways - either through music hall tradition, or sheer musicality, staging plays, or simply slamming them, have explored the ways poetry can reach wider audiences, without sacrificing quality or vision. Each is respected, published, and admired for the way their language works on the page. Yet each has one ear on the stage, as well. They might be surprised to find themselves linked in this way, but for me, these are some of the rising best of the UK's poetic Entertainers. A.F. Harrold is based in Reading, England. He was born in Sussex in 1975. His publications include two full poetry collections, Logic And The Heart (Two Rivers Press, 2004) and Flood (Two Rivers Press, 2010), and one limited edition collection in collaboration with artist Jo Thomas, Of Birds & Bees (Quirkstandard's Alternative, 2008). Also, two collections of comic prose and poetry, Postcards From The Hedgehog (Two Rivers Press, 2007) and The Man Who Spent Years In The Bath (Quirkstandard's Alternative, 2008), and a book of poetry for children I Eat Squirrels (Quirkstandard's Alternative, 2009). He has performed poetry, comedy and cabaret around the world, at many festivals. In 2008 he was the Glastonbury... Continue reading
Posted Oct 13, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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This week, the BBC's theme has been "fairness" - as multiple cuts to the State continue to raise serious concerns. Today, the Browne report (from Lord Browne, a former head of BP, of all unwelcome things) suggested removing the fee cap for university tuition which is now held to less than £4,000 a year, even for an Oxbridge education. It is thought that fees could go as high, under this scheme, as £12,000 per year, for better universities; obviously, the fear is that some universities wouldn't be able to compete and would close, as far fewer students attended. Already, England has some of the lowest rates of access to higher education in the Western world. Fairness indeed. Is poetry fair? Is British poetry? What would "fair poetry" even mean? As Christopher Ricks has shown in his recent book on literary friendships and influences, poetry gets along through a never-ending series of near-invisible, highly nuanced, events that inflect the lives of poets - by which I mean, support, alliances, favouritism, friendship, critical approval (or destruction) and so on. Poets swim in terribly difficult waters, and, in the UK, are far less likely to be philanthropically underwritten. There has yet to be a Ruth Lilly moment in British poetry. Even Faber & Faber gets Arts Council funding for some of its publications, such as its recent Young Poets series. One wonders if any of that will last the big axe coming. How will this impact the next wave of younger poets? Certainly, as I have sought to show recently, there is a kind of splendid resurgence of quality poetry among the young, those under 40, in these isles. I find the talent and variety nearly-overwhelming. It is hard to imagine, on the basis of their debuts, which of these brilliant twenty and thirty-somethings, will one day be the new laureate, so spoiled for choice are we here. One group of young poets has emerged that I would like to designate "The New Seriousness" school. In it would be poets like Sarah Howe, Jon Stone, James Brookes, and Toby Martinez. Not that these poets aren't seriously funny - they are, at times, but that their work is inventively stretching beyond the less-challenging mainstream models of the last few decades, without giving up on the lyric tradition. Taking more cues from, say, Geoffrey Hill, or American poets, than Heaney or Paul Farley, they write with an awareness of the Muldoon-Paterson linguistic-brio patterns of musicality, but are darker, more imaginatively engaged with history, and intertextuality. They read like the future. James Brookes was born in 1986 and has lived in Sussex for most of the last twenty years, less than a mile from the birthplace of Shelley. He studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Warwick, where he became Contributing Editor of The Warwick Review. He won an Eric Gregory in 2009. The TLS review of his pamphlet The English Sweats (Pighog Press, 2009) included the following: "in every sense a generous book... Continue reading
Posted Oct 12, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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On my second day here, I want to extend the range of poets I wish to share with you, by offering three poems by three poets, who, each, in different ways, broaden the mainstream of British poetry, and, challenge its norms, without becoming iconoclasts. The first, Giles Goodland, makes nonsense of the old us-and-them tussle between experimental and mainstream that so occupied the poetry battles of the last decades, with his poems that are variously lyric, or avant-garde, and sometimes both; often inflected with surrealist play, and an interest in formal constraints. Primarily, as a lexicographer, he is fascinated by words, and lists. He is becoming a very significant mid-career poet in Britain. The second, Carrie Etter, is also admirable, for her hybrid ability to move between the differing parts of the poetry playing field - as academic, anthologist, and poet; Etter's own work is popular (and, performed beautifully) but also willing to explore language and form. Her recent anthology of experimental women poets is a highly-useful and timely intervention; further, Etter, as an American expatriated to London, occupies that vital continuum that began with Pound and Eliot (and Frost) of Americans in England who actively shape the poetic discourse of the country, and very much belong to two nations. Finally, the most cosmopolitan of the three is the Oulipo-inspired Paris-based poet-editor Rufo Quintavalle, half-Italian, half-English, whose Francophile interests have intersected with a long project to ingeniously incorporate text from Whitman into his own poems. Again, commonplace ideas of identity and labels are complicated here - it is almost silly to attempt to place his poetry, though another link with Britain is surely the Oystercatcher pamphlet, recently become a hallmark of innovation and surprise. Giles Goodland is a poet who lives in London and works in Oxford as a lexicographer. He has had several books of poetry published from the mid-1990s, when he won an Eric Gregory award. These include Littoral (Oversteps, 1996), A Spy in the House of Years (Leviathan, 2001), Capital (Salt, 2006) and What The Things Sang (Shearsman, 2009). He has also produced chapbooks for the Dusie Kollektiv and recently had a pamphlet from Oystercatcher press with the title Near Myths. He has a PhD from Oxford on the subject of "Modernist Poetry and Film of the Home Front, 1939-45"; his father John Goodland was one of the key poet-editors of the 1940s in England, and worked with Nicholas Moore. Giles is the winner of the 2010 Cardiff International Poetry Competition, one of the most important of its kind in the UK. Spider Spider, you are curled up in death like you were too cold an image of you sleeps in the mouse but also is tangled in beds seamstress of pulselessness for whom the trees make sense over a pallet a suspended grab disquiet earth the air was taken from there are birds left in which liquid spoke and seconds to none each motion ends with the finger dusted in answer you tell me shadow is... Continue reading
Posted Oct 11, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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I am glad to be back blogging at Best American Poetry, today, this auspicious ten-ten-ten. London has been experiencing – at last – an Indian summer this weekend – today was 20 Celsius and sunny, which has briefly elevated spirits – otherwise, the UK is in the midst of a slow-moving train wreck, as the Coalition government plans to announce its major (40%) cuts to the State later this month, which has most leading Arts organisers predicting disaster. Some pundits claim this is a sharper knife than ever Thatcher wielded, so it is a fraught moment, to be sure. But, as if dancing on the Titanic or Nero-fiddling in Rome, the poets are playing on, business as usual. This Thursday was “National Poetry Day”, and there were hundred, likely thousands, of readings across Britain, in schools, libraries, festival halls and so on. Announcements play a big part at this time. The Forward Prize for Best Collection went to Seamus Heaney, for Human Chain. Notably, Walcott’s brilliant White Egrets was nowhere to be seen on the shortlist. Which is a pity, because, in terms of late style, it is arguably the better book by an older Nobel laureate. Human Chain has touched the British poetry world for two reasons: a) they cannot resist Heaney’s charms (he is truly afforded Wotan-like status here); and b) the sentimental human interest behind the work (illness, ambulance rides) has, in anti-Eliot fashion personalised the poetry and made it come alive for the mainstream. Heaney’s towering status over in Britain (and of course Ireland) is all the more notable for the fact it finds no balance from an equivalent “foreign” presiding spirit, from, say, the Americas. There is no current British consensus as to who the great American poets are, as when Lowell, Berryman and Plath, in the Sixties, achieved eminence in these isles with the support of Alvarez; or, for that matter, Olson, or Ginsberg, did, from different sources. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that the main American poets admired or read by the British are Billy Collins, WS Merwin, CK Williams and Louise Gluck. Jorie Graham, John Ashbery, Stephen Burt, CD Wright, and Charles Bernstein would be lesser-known but admired experimental figures. I am speaking of reception from a mainstream perspective, here. Obviously, some poets and poetry readers would be more savvy, but there is no Heaney-sized figure to counterbalance his claim on greatness. Even Yeats had Eliot and Pound to pull against. Heaney, in this British orbit, only has the influence of Muldoon. Muldoon’s new book is out here recently too, but has yet to really make an impact. I expect it to be short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize in due course. The other big news on National Poetry Day was from BBC broadcasting stalwart Melvyn Bragg, who had conveniently discovered a “new poem” by Ted Hughes from his archives at the British Library, which was promptly published. This has led to dubious Facebooking grumblings from the poetariat,... Continue reading
Posted Oct 10, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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I had a wonderful May Day party at my flat in Maida Vale today, to celebrate, among other things, a housewarming, and a recovery from ill health; many friends gathered, and, as the weather turned, and rain bucketed down, we came inside, until midnight (GMT) for tea and wine. Many poets attended, including Alan Brownjohn, Tim Dooley, Denise Riley, Barbara Marsh, Kathryn Maris, Nancy Mattson, Mike Bartholomew-Biggs, Emily Berry, Katrina Naomi, Leah Fritz, Giles Goodland, Mr Social Control, Liane Strauss, Ashok Bery and Kavita Joshi. However, as I began to contemplate this, my last guest blog, I became a little wary. Surely, there is something ill-timed about shipping poems from Britain to America at a time when British Petroleum is destroying a way of life for many Americans. As I am no supporter of the oil industry, and neither are the final three poets I wish to share with you tonight, I can only say that we are very sorry to see such a human disaster visited upon you, and wish you a very speedy recovery from this terrible spill. Over the last week, I've wanted to share varieties of new (and emerging) British poetry with readers of this important blog. At the beginning of the week, I suggested a tentative list of 25 poets worth following as their work develops. I might have let that list drift to 40, and added poets like Jay Bernard, Ben Wilkinson, Camelia Stafford, Jon Stone, Ahren Warner, Katrina Naomi, Sam Jackson, Declan Ryan, Christopher Horton, and several others. The point being - there isn't yet a definitive shorter list of who "the next next generation" will be in the UK - partly because the current period is remarkably fecund, volatile, and under-studied. One of the paradoxes of Digital Age poetry is that, as we know, there are more poets than readers, but, even more to the point, more good poets than "bad ones". This democracy and wide spread of ability and quality leads to "a good thing" - lots of good poems - but also can tempt critics, and readers alike, into avoiding the harder work of winnowing. Not to exclude, but to allow extra attention to be applied to certain poets and texts, if only so that some poems get studied, read again, and memorised. On reading the recent anthology Identity Parade, I remarked that while it contained work by several major poets (Alice Oswald, for one), and several very important newer poets (Jacob Polley, Daljit Nagra, and Patience Agbabi, for instance), it had few poems that marked this period as instantly "great" - that is it had many very good poems, but only a handful that were (or seemed to be immediately) extraordinary, in canonical terms. In Britain, the emphasis on the brief lyric poem concentrates the idea of such a focus, because New Criticism celebrated these lyric poems most of all, as well. It may be impossible to compare one age with another, one period and another, but have the... Continue reading
Posted May 1, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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As May Day looms in Britain, so does May 6 - the national election, and, judging from last night's final leaders debate, the UK is facing either a hung parliament, or a weak Tory government. Sadly, the hapless PM, Gordon Brown, with his awkward grin and huge sense of purpose, has blundered once too often, and perhaps put Labour out of office for a decade (which might prove a godsend, as the austerity measures that are coming, to save Britain from a Greece-style collapse, will make any elected parties more Sheriff of Nottingham than Robin Hood). May in Britain is not yet summer - though, judging by the monsoon outside, it is the rainy season; this Bank Holiday is yet another very British let-down weather-wise - the last week was Clegg-sunny, and now, suddenly, it's cold, damp and grey again - no BBQ getaway just yet, then. The sense of inevitable boom and bust, shine and rain, and poetic class struggle - the dialectics of the place - seems confirmed by the latest news that arch-provocateur and original Brit Beat poet, Michael Horovitz will challenge elitist genius Geoffrey Hill for the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford; suddenly, Britain has a contest between two older men who represent utterly different sides of the poetics spectrum, yet are both well-educated and impressive readers of their own work. Is there such a thing as a Hung Poetry Parliament? There is surely such a thing as a poetic horn of plenty. In preparing this week of blogs featuring younger British poets (which ends tomorrow with a Welsh poet) I was conscious of the great challenge to be representative - Britain is Wales, and Scotland, as well as England - and beyond London are regions with many accomplished writers and poets, and key cultural hubs. One such place is Norwich - home to the University of East Anglia, the Norwich School of Art and Design, and important arts festivals, museums, cathedrals, schools and galleries. I sub-titled this post "The Norwich School" because each of the three young men I wish to bring to readers today has a link to this city, and it is in Norwich where they met, and, in one way or another, influenced each other, formed affiliations, and developed editorial projects together. Each is also very individually a poet in their own right, with their own trajectories and interests, but the sense of a connecting thread is strong enough to justify an omnibus feature today. I was glad to include all three of them on the Oxfam DVD, Asking A Shadow To Dance. Nathan Hamilton is the nephew of Ian Hamilton, who was the most influential poetry-critic in England during the late 60s and 70s, a connection he is both proud of, but also, rightly, modest about, yet it does seem striking as both poets resemble each other both physically, in temperment, and aesthetically - each is tall, lean, and values control, minimalism and authenticity in their poems - and... Continue reading
Posted Apr 30, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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I was speaking this morning with the fine older British poet, Alan Brownjohn, about the deaths this last weekend of Peter Porter and Alan Sillitoe. We agreed it was a terrible loss. Brownjohn has been doing his part these last few days to publically discuss and properly mourn Porter - a major figure in Britain - by writing in The Guardian, and recording a talk on his work for the BBC. Porter's Selected (Picador, 2010) is just now out, shaped with the editorial eyes of Don Paterson and Sean O'Brien, and is an impressive 400 or so pages. One person's Collected is another Selected - it reveals the sheer scope of his achievement over the past 50 yars. If American readers were tempted to buy one book by an "older British poet" this year, Porter's Selected might be a wise place to start. From a poet in his 80s, now, to a poet who is just in her 20s. Annie Katchinska is perhaps the youngest of British-based poets to have already achieved something of a genuine name for herself; her rise is meteoric, and has some of the precocity and excitement that surrounded the young Dylan Thomas. I for one knew of her work a few years back, when I published her early poems online, and I am sure she was no more than 16 then. Katchinska was born in Moscow in 1990, and currently divides her time between London and Cambridge. One of the other ways in which support for and interest in younger poets is generated in the UK is via the Foyle prizes. She was a Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2006 and 2007. She was included in the previously-mentioned Bloodaxe anthology Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century. Intriguingly, the pamplet (chapbook) has come into its own in the last few years in Britain. There is a major new award (the Marks) for best pamphlet of the year, and several small presses, such as Tall-lighthouse, Hearing Eye, Oystercatcher, and Pig Hog, have generated much excitment with their collections. Faber and Faber, the UK's leading mainstream poetry publisher, with its venerable back catalogue of greats like Pound, Eliot and Stevens, and recent poets like Hughes, Larkin, Heaney and Oswald, is preeminent in its field. Faber decided to enter the chapbook game for young peots, with Arts Council funding, last year or so, and selected 8 poets for the initial run (Fiona Benson, Toby Martinez De Las Rivas, Heather Phillipson, Jack Underwood, Joe Dunthorne, Sam Riviere, and Tom Warner). Katchinska was selected to be "Number 6" in this series, and so her Faber New Poets pamphlet has just been published. Katchinska's work is, as the two poems below might reveal, filled with surprising twists and turns of diction and syntax, at once energetic, and yet able to embody older tones and access more established traditions. Her work is zippy, strange, sometimes erotic, often in-yer-face, and almost always truly surprising. She writes, it seems to me,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 29, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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I read last night in a basement bar in London's East End, as part of poet Declan Ryan's "Days of Roses" reading series. It's become one of the main fixtures of the young London poets underground scene. I was impressed with everything about the look and feel of the place - red walls, ska posters on the walls, a live DJ, a good mic - and an audience of attentive, stylish and alarmingly hip twentysom ethings, the guys smart in skinny jeans, jackets and ties, the ladies in 40s/50s retro summer dresses with enough red lipstick to knock a B52 out of the sky. Some of the poets reading are among those I have been mentioning this week - including Kate Potts, and Sam Riviere. Other fine emerging poets, Jon Stone and Katrina Naomi read, too. Also in attendance was poet Liz Berry, who I am pleased to introduce to you today. Before I do, spare a thought for poor Gordon Brown, the embattled UK PM, who has just today made a major election gaffe by saying what he really thought of a sweet old lady on the campaign trail when a live lapel mic stayed on too long; this may hand the election to the Tories (or Lib-Dems). Anyway, back from politics to The Blind Mice bar in Hoxton, and from there, rapidly, to this intro for Ms. Berry. For, Emily Berry (yesterday's featured poet) is not the only Berry in town. Liz Berry is another poet I was glad to include on the Oxfam DVD. When the director Jennifer Oey and I sat down to edit the film, we knew right away that we needed to start the readings with Liz's performance. She has one of those mesmerizing deliveries that captures an audience instantly. Liz Berry, like many of the young British poets, won an Eric Gregory award, in her case, in 2009. She has has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway. Her poems have appeared in magazines including Poetry Review, The North, Ambit, Poetry Wales and Mslexia. Last year Berry was the winner of the Tall-lighthouse press pamphlet competition and her debut pamphlet, The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls, will be published in May 2010 (note, the British call chapbooks pamphlets). She works in London as a kindergarten (early-years) teacher. As the previously unpublished, new poem of Liz Berry's below, shows, her work is an unnerving, and sometimes slyly charming, exploration of the erotic, and the romantic, as they intersect with darkness, innuendo, and the potentially taboo; like fairy-tales, or Lynch, the innocent surface or form of things is potentially always about to be ruffled by experience. Of course, one needs to read British poetry with one ear tuned to its subtle almost dog-whistle effects, for much of its violence and surprise occurs - unlike North American poems which seem to employ a broader register of statement - in the slightest variations played on common, polite speech, and with the English poetic tradition in mind. Decorum... Continue reading
Posted Apr 28, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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In the UK, poets seem, like fish, to first appear in schools - darting about and flashing their stuff in unison, thus often establishing a period style, or styles, that define a moment. One thinks, especially, of the Fifties, synonymous for many with The Movement - or the 30s, and the Auden generation. Tensions arise because, of course, there are other poets, and other modes and manners, that don't get to swim with the big fish. So for every Movement there must be the Mavericks. One of the ways that schools, or generations, used to emerge, in the UK, was through education (the poets would have attended the same university) - another, through being discovered by a critic or editor, as DH Lawrence was (and, indeed, though I have implied there are no important British poetry critics anymore, I did not mean to exclude the impact of established older figures like a Mark Ford, or Ricks, or poet-critics like Tim Dooley and Sean O'Brien and Fiona Sampson. What I have been driving at is the absence of anyone like a Randall Jarrell, more precisely - a poet of the age wading into becoming a symptomatic arbiter of taste for that moment with full authority) Then, more recently, - and controversially in some quarters, promotions were established, with Arts Council funding, to generate interest in emerging poets - most famously, "The New Generation" in the 90s, which arrived around the same time as Britpop and New Labour - and which was followed by The Next Generation. Also, for decades, there have been other markers for young poets of talent - placing in major national poetry competitions; appearances in key journals, like Poetry Review or Poetry London; being included in anthologies - and winning an Eric Gregory Award. Each year, the admirable Gregory process introduces Britain to five or six younger poets under the age of 30, without a full collection. Competition is fierce - and most who win go on to soon after get an offer of publication. All this by way of introducing today's Young British Poet, Emily Berry. Berry, is, to my mind, another of the top five or ten younger poets now working in the UK - of the group without a debut collection out, one of the most anticipated, among many of her peers (along with, say, Helen Mort and a clutch of others). Her work is very much in the school of Kennard - often employing a flat, deadpan prosaic line; sinister or bizarre monologues or poetic speakers; morbid and blackly comic situations. What distinguishes Berry is her willingness to combine the very weird and even taboo, with more traditional poetic pleasures, especially emotionality, and sometimes oblique romantic confession. A fan of The Smiths, she has learned from Morrissey to explore sentimentality and the strange hand in hand. Berry has come to notice through several of the routes mentioned above. In 2008, she won her Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. In 2007, she... Continue reading
Posted Apr 27, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Britain lost another great Octogenerian writer - after Peter Porter - the other day, with the death of Alan Sillitoe, husband of poet Ruth Fainlight, and friend of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (among others). Though Sillitoe - one of the original Angry Young Men of the 1950s (a group he denied belonging to) - is best known as the major post-war "working class" author of the books (and screenplays for) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner- the two key Kitchen Sink films of the pre-Beatles period and launching pads for actors Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney - he was also a poet. Readers today might not think that Sillitoe and Porter had much in common, but it is salutary to be reminded that, almost 50 years ago, in the April 1961 issue of The London Magazine (the Alan Ross editorial debut), George Macbeth's review of Porter's debut collection, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten (from Scorpion Press), expressly linked them, when he wrote that "Porter is perhaps the only poet under thirty-five who has seriously grappled with the same issues as John Osborne, Alan Wesker and Alan Sillitoe." This issue was also noteworthy for featuring the publication of one of Larkin's great poems, "Ambulances". Poets are less angry today, perhaps - though it is intriguing to read some of the comments made on my post of yesterday, espeially the suspicion, in at least one comment, that there is the need for critics and reviewers to clearly state their bias - who they know, and why they ally themselves to some, and not other poets; one commentator admits to listing "mates" and professional acquaintances. My list of yesterday is clearly only one written on a metaphorical back of an envelope - a gesture of goodwill, offering, to the readers of this eminent blog, some names they might not already know, in the hopes some net surfing will open up further reading. Lists are not new canons, and neither are they exclusive - especially when they admit to being only part of the story. However, so tense is the current critical/ reviewing situation in British poetry, that any attempt to suggest more prominent, or worthwhile, figures, can immediately set off warning bells. Why? Well, partly, it is becase, unlike in North American poetry (for example) almost everyone knows everyone else, or easily could bump into them on the relatively small island that is Britain (in poetry); or, more to the point, the main gate-keepers are not reviewers or critics, but editors and publishers. Due to the small-pond feel of things in the UK, reviews tend not to be too critical (but rather, often, mates boosting mates; or savage, as one coterie confronts another) and schools of poets move forward by seizing the upper ground, and dominating the lay of the land as best they can - sometimes this means experimental groups, or The Movement, or The Group, and so on. As such, lists are just as... Continue reading
Posted Apr 26, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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From a distance, Britain (the UK), can appear a weird place – especially these days. It’s just had a week of travel chaos with its skies completely shut down due to an Icelandic volcano. It is in the midst of a major election (to be decided in 12 days) that has been wildly galvanised by its first ever leaders debate on television (!). And one of its most popular TV shows is (still) Doctor Who, about an undying eccentric “time lord”. Current hit records include Kate Nash’s “My Best Friend Is You” where a chirpy British lass writes about sex and dating in frank terms, and Paul Weller (of The Jam) wanting to “Wake Up The Nation”. Britain has been slow to come out of the recession, and, with its youth knife crime, wildly drunken villages and inner cities, class divides (whole swathes of the population still can’t easily access college education), and obsession with celebrity (especially overpaid footballers and size-zero models and starlets) is sometimes called Broken Britain. For others, like Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe, richer than Prince Harry, Britain seems to be working just fine. It’s been observed that America and England are divided by a common language, and, as Hugh Kenner was one of the first critics to point out, the British love-affair with international modernism in art and poetry was of limited duration, to say the least. Charles Bernstein and John Ashbery are coterie poets here, read by few and feared by most who do read them – let alone Hart Crane or William Carlos Williams. Few American (or Canadian) poets are published in the UK. There is a sense of isolation, even xenophobia, in some poetry quarters – and why not? The popular Tory party wants to pull out of membership in Europe. This is a kingdom united, more often than not, in the idea of its superior difference. The battle lines became drawn, again, in the 1990s, when a “New Generation” of popular mainstream poets emerged, such as Don Paterson and Carol Ann Duffy. These are now two of the most successful poets over here, in terms of prizes and cultural impact. Paterson has just won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Duffy is the Poet Laureate. Also popular are Roger McGough, and Wendy Cope. Rounding off the top ten poets, in terms of name recognition, might be Andrew Motion, Craig Raine, James Fenton, and of course, the Irish poets Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. Also beloved, and sadly, recently dead, is Peter Porter, the Audenesque satirist of metropolitan values. Other well-established, if a little younger, poets would include Patience Agbabi, Sophie Hannah, Daljit Nagra, Alice Oswald, Paul Farley, Fiona Sampson and Robin Robertson. Meanwhile, an alternative, small press and avant-garde poetry beavers away in the margins, excluded normally from reviews in the national papers, or notice at the Poetry Society and Poetry Book Society awards. The main poets of this “experimental” mode might be said to include the “Cambridge poets”... Continue reading
Posted Apr 25, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Todd Swift is now following The Typepad Team
Apr 25, 2010