Patti Smith and Spontaneous Kindness

The cumulative effect of everything that's happened this year is a lot to bear, isn't it? I wrote a post the other day about some books and things that helped me get through this year, but walking down to the river today I was trying to think of more personal things too. It's hard to respond to in a way that accepts bleakness whilst also allowing for hope. So, some distractingly nice things first, and then Patti Smith.

First, some family things that were good this year. It was great to take Kieron's mum to San Diego Comicon with us this year. She got to see a completely different side of our life, of her life. She also caught her first Pokemon, and I will remember the spectacular moment when she celebrated her catch forever.

A few months before this, Kieron and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. That seems like it's pretty momentous. We've been together ten years in total, and friends for much longer than that. That's over a decade of bad puns, bad wine and good company. May there be at least another decade more, the glorious beast. We went to visit my family in the mountains in Italy in August. Kieron left a few days before I did, and my three and half year old sort-of niece spent the rest of the week asking me: "Dov'è tuo padre?" i.e. "Where is your father?" Our best guess was that she assumed he must be my dad because the two of us spend so much time holding hands, and she only really associates hand-holding with parents. This is the warmest misunderstanding that has ever arisen from our public displays of affection.

Another wonderful moment that meant a lot to me this year - an act of spontaneous adventuring. We came home from San Diego Comicon via LA for a few days, ostensibly for work, along with our friends Jamie and Katie (Jamie is often referred to as Kieron's work-wife). Kieron and Jamie had a meeting that was going to last maybe half an hour or so, and the idea was that Katie and I would just wait for them in the rental car. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but when they left she remembered something I'd been saying before about this being was my first time in LA, and that I really wanted to go to the Griffith Observatory (the observatory in Rebel Without a Cause, The Terminator, and a million other things) and then she said something like "You know, it's really not so far away from here" and immediately started the car and began driving us away, asking me to look up directions on the phone. What was meant to be a sort of nothing 40-minute wait turned into an exciting secret road trip up a mountain, with me being dropped off and running to the edge to see the big view over LA and take a quick photo as she turned the car around (she has been before, I hasten to add). Chances are we wouldn't have had time to do it at any other point anyway, and it was so much more exciting to do it this way. A small act, in a very privileged trip and all that, I know, I know - but for a moment there it was like being an adventurer. What a thrill. And what a kindness for Katie to think of doing it at all. Small acts of spontaneous kindness make me want to make small acts of spontaneous kindness too.

The other big thing that sticks out for me this year is seeing Patti Smith sing 'Land/Gloria' the week after the referendum. Kieron and I got tickets to go and see Massive Attack, who she was playing with. (They were both great btw, reminding me why I loved them in the first place, how strong and political and relevant they are.) And Patti Smith - well, I've never seen her live before, and I didn't dare to hope she'd play 'Land' (spoilers: apparently she often ends gigs with it now) and when it started I felt that full rapturous sprawl of nerve start to spread down the back of my neck. That song is so powerful - the idea of losing control and then taking it back again. It's a song full of ideas and drive and hope and action. And, of course, someone took a video of it at the gig we were at, so you can experience it too - Patti Smith's guttural anger and rage and passion funnelled into a communal experience that acknowledges horror but refuses to submit to it. 

Happy New Year's Eve, everyone.

Meaningful Things

Here is a list of things this year — books, games, tv, etc — which have been particularly meaningful to me (ignoring single poetry collections for now, as they need a post of their own). Thank you to the people who made these things, which helped make this stupid year more bearable.

Currently & Emotion: Translations
ed. Sophie Collins
(Test Centre)

A great anthology of translations — all different types of translations, unexpected source materials and strategies for handling them — designed to stimulate translation culture. All the pieces are so interesting (along with insightful intros to each one) and I think are mostly taken from longer works, the majority of them by women, like Anne Carson's Albertine Workout, Rachael Allen's 4chan Poems, or Vahni Capildeo's Measures of Expatriation. This feels like a force for good in the world, clearing a path for a strong thoughtful future.


Pamphlet Series
various authors
If a Leaf Falls Press

I'm signed up as a subscriber to receive every pamphlet produced by If a Leaf Falls Press (set up by Sam Riviere) and it's been a recurring source of intrigue and pleasure. It's only been running this year (and, disclaimer, Sam published a pamphlet by me among them) and they're in super-limited editions, with no way to predict what's going to arrive. Pamphlets included anything from lists of Uber car pickup names & dates, an apparent patient's diary of observations, a list of alternative titles to film names (eg Twelve Hangry Men, which made me spit my tea out when I first read it) and all kinds of stuff. Always interesting, always different, always a delight when a new pack of pamphlets drops through the letterbox.


Bojack Horseman

KG and I only heard about Bojack Horseman this year, so had the joy of being able to binge watch three whole seasons in a row. If you don't know it, it's an animated comedy/drama for adults about a washed up actor in LA who, back in the nineties, was in a very famous tv show. He's also a horse. He has a friend, another actor, a labrador called Mister Peanutbutter. His agent is a cat called Princess Caroline. But his biographer Diane is a human, as is friendly moocher Todd. I'm not sure why, but this mixture of animals and humans works across multiple levels — simple one-liners as well as more nuanced extended humour at times. Plus it's fun to watch animals and humans interact in familiar but surprising ways. Forget all that though — this is not a quiet distracting comedy, it's also a drama. A bleak, cynical, blunt, and only occasionally warm look at celebrity and creative life in LA (but mostly bleak). The next season is coming out next summer and I can't wait. Here are the opening credits so you'll get an idea of tone.


Richard Scott
The Rialto

Richard is a very good friend and his first pamphlet of poems came out this year — it was so good to see it (and it just won the Michael Marks Awards — hooray for him!). I really love his poems. They navigate a world of love, sex and sensuality, seducing us over and over with language. Can't wait to read more. It's dark and wonderful, full of desire. (Also it just made me laugh that in googling for this cover I had to type in "wound richard scott" which is the last thing I'd ever want to do.)


My Favourite Murder
Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark
Feral Audio Podcast

Two LA comedians sit in a room and tell murder stories to each other, punctuated by contributions from a vocal cat called Elvis. And it's brilliant. Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff combine humour, horror and a basic human desire to avoid getting murdered by serial killers. It says a lot about this horrible year that I've found shows about death to be enormously reassuring.


Joshua Williamson & Mike Henderson
Image Comics

Continuing this theme of being heartened by murder, I've binged through all of Nailbiter this year, an ongoing comic at Image Comics. You can buy up to issue 25 in collected trades, though the final (eep!) arc is currently being released in single issues, with the finale coming in March). It revolves around a fictional town that has produced a disproportionately high number of America's serial killers, and we gradually get to discover why, with darkness, suspense and humour. I binged through this initially as an excuse to make sure it was a suitable gift for my mother-in-law (who expressed interest in it when we took her with us to San Diego Comicon this summer) and it certainly is. But she'll have to wrestle me for it.


Neko Atsume

I cannot believe I'm still feeding these damn cats. Purchased at the start of January 2016, this phone game is something I have checked into at least twice (if not more than twice) every single day this year, and it's one of the gentlest, sweetest secret pleasures I have. It's less "game" and more "show me my garden of cats who will soothe me".


New Boots and Pantisocracies
ed. WN Herbert & Andy Jackson
Smokestack Books

Bill and Andy started up the New Boots blog shortly after the election last year, and it's been a heartening reminder that poets can and do want to engage, directly and productively, with the political horrors of the past year and a half. This anthology of poems from the blog was published this year by Smokestack and it made me so happy to have in the house (and, yes, disclaimer, I have a poem in here too). The blog itself is no longer updated daily, but still puts out strong and interesting work when it does.


No Man's Sky
Hello Games

This is the opposite of political engagement. This is me running away into space alone and hiding. And mining. And feeding and befriending compound dinosaurs. I think this is a wonderful game (I know it's had a lot of criticism this year, but I don't agree with any of it). I've spent a huge and relaxing amount of time exploring beautiful new worlds that, thank goodness, have nothing at all to do with this one.


RuPaul's Drag Race

So rude, so crude, so glorious. Not without its controversies, especially in earlier shows, but I have given myself over to this as a source of pretty consistent joy. A reality show for drag queens that you can watch on Netflix, this show is capable of tremendously petty, shallow yet wickedly entertaining scenes, as well as honest heartbreaking moments of emotional intensity. Come for the bitching, stay for the glamour, humour and celebration of drag. Sometimes I want to get one of RuPaul's catchphrases inscribed on my wrist as a tattoo for constant reference: "Good luck. And don't fuck it up." Here's a clip of one of my favourite regular features The Snatch Game.


Centres of Cataclysm: Celebrating Fifty Years of Modern Poetry in Translation
ed. Sasha Dugdale, David & Helen Constantine
Bloodaxe Books

This is a great anthology too, full of poems about migration, war, revolution and hope. It's an almost overwhelming testimony of resilience, and celebrates fifty years of Modern Poetry in Translation magazine. I did some work on helping clear permissions for this, and so many poems in here break my heart again and again, by all sorts of poets from all sorts of places (eg Primo Levi, Kim Hyesoon, Miroslav Holub, Anna Akhmatova, Pasolini...). So, I'll leave this post, and this overall diabolically shitty year, with a quote from a Seamus Heaney poem that's included in this anthology (a translation of 'The Sibyl' from Virgil's Aeneid). The lines that follow straight after these are "A road will open to safety / From the last place you would expect... " but, as I'm not totally convinced I dare hope for safety, instead I'll end it here. Best wishes for next year, folks. Am breathing in now.

     But whatever disasters befall, do not flinch.
     Go all the bolder to face them, follow your fate
     To the limit.

Poem for Someone

I saw someone apologise to Jamie
saying they thought they’d understood
what it felt like when Brexit happened
but now realised that they hadn’t
and summed up Trump like this:
“It feels like my country died.”

I started following historian Simon Schama
as he retweeted people arguing with him.
One guy said, “Let’s give him his 100 days.
While being most watchful.” Schama replied:
“He’s already unleashed evil... white supremacists
who now rejoice and spread poison.”

He continued: “If our optimistic reading is
he’s a cynic not a fascist, then we are in deep trouble
as genuine fascists will feed off the betrayal.”
Then I read tweets by my friends like: “First
Brexit, then Trump, and now the boiler’s broken.”
Then Leonard Cohen died and everyone went quiet.

My lines get longer and more awkward
as I struggle to manage my reactions.
I think of the last line in Denise Riley saying:
“You will bear what can not be borne.”
It gives me hope whilst reinforcing darkness,
the sense that everyone is divided, broken.

I am ashamed of hope. It feels too soon for hope,
for the privilege of ‘coming together’ to fight,
rising above, and all those platitudes. There is no
rise, no one side who should be better than the other,
telling who and how to act, vote, think or spit.
There is only history and what reality can teach us.

Resist sadness. Like when asked, “Is this the protest?
How long does it last?” a woman said: “Four years.” Resist
despair. Be prepared to stand up for vulnerable people and do so.
Don’t fear difficult situations. Engage. Mock less. Find words
of love. Listen harder. I learnt the collective noun for wombats
is a ‘wisdom’, and for one small moment I stopped being afraid.


BEAR is coming in May 2017 from Bloodaxe Books!

Danez Smith's Dinosaurs

It's been slow going in terms of blogging recently, but a breakneck pace for everything else. "Feel like time's moving too quickly? Then cram more in!" That seems to have been my approach so far this year... Anyway, am just checking in quickly to post a link to a piece I wrote for Anthony Wilson's blog about Danez Smith, called Away With The Dinosaurs. I will be updating this blog again soon. I suppose it's good that I have at least been blogging somewhere...

Swings, Roundabouts, Rollercoasters

I've been reading a few end-of-year lists, whether about books or blogposts, music, films or poems. I quite like them. They help me see what I've missed or remind me of things I'd forgotten. Perhaps not when they're conservative sausage-fest lists though, which interest me less. But in general I like looking at them. They help me try to make sense of things. The key word for me this year, personally, has been: busy. That may be an understatement.

This year has been on rails. Frantic. A rollercoaster car that somehow manages to navigate the curves at high speed without falling off and plummeting into the earth. I definitely signed up to the ride, but have rarely felt like I had any control over steering the thing. Just stay in the car and hope for the best.

I've been teaching (and planning, and marking) all year, postgrads and undergrads, which has been hard at times but hugely rewarding. I've had my regular work deadlines (editing comics and other freelance) coming round on a monthly loop across several different projects and publishers. The main publishers are based in San Francisco so we tend to work very late hours around deadlines. We've travelled a lot for work. Comicons are great fun but they're also exhausting. The comics themselves are really satisfying to work on. Swings and roundabouts, as well as rollercoasters.

Then there's the Poetry Comics book I made, and the two exhibitions and assorted workshops that went with it - they've pretty much dominated the year for me. It doesn't sound like much in a sentence, but you can read more about the whole thing here. Then there was the annual Poetry Book Fair which I organise with Joey Connolly - more people through the doors than ever, more publishers, and thus more work, but I think we just about managed to pull it off. Next year: more help. I've done some fun readings too - furthest away was at Toppings in St. Andrews, biggest was probably the Newcastle Poetry Festival. I gave a paper at the Goldsmiths Poetry Conference, ran a comics workshop at Nottingham Uni with Delightful Husband, wrote reviews, read new books, watched new films, rewatched Die Hard, all that stuff. The book I realise I've purchased most frequently this year, in order to share the delight with others, is Tom Jenks' & SJ Fowler's 1000 Proverbs (Knives, Forks & Spoons Press) which you'll find a sample of here.

Any end-of-the-year list is largely personal. What stands out most for me (perhaps unsurprisingly, given how much time I spend running around like a coke-addled labrador) are all the personal things, many of them moments I've spent with family and friends. I threw my husband a Tolkien-themed 40th birthday party and everyone came round to decorate hurridly for the surprise - I looked around our house in glorious chaos, mid-bunting, mid-light hanging, mid-dressing, and fell in love with everyone in the room, all busy and helping each other. I laid on my back on the Aldeburgh stone beach in November and fell in love with the stars. I fell in love with my husband over and over after the silliest things, rarely the most meaningful. I swam in the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Our little cat became so relaxed one evening when purring on me in bed, she stretched over and fell off it completely, and our laughter scared her right out of the room (she came back). I cried a little hearing Joanna Newsom play live again. I cried a little reading Ray Fawkes's The People Inside. I loved eating toasted sandwiches with my parents at Turf Lock on the River Exe. We went to the Empire Strikes Back Secret Cinema event and watched Ben Kenobi die ten feet in front of us. My mother-in-law stroked R2-D2 like a pet.

I've also been to an extraordinary number of weddings this year, for my age. It feels horrible to lump them all into one "wedding" box though. The older everyone gets, the more significant weddings seem to become. It's very different watching 40 year olds get married than watching 20 year olds. They were all weddings of people we've seen go through horrible and wonderful times, and were all so different. I feel lucky to know so many people still doing anything as optimistic as getting married. This year has been filled with love.

Except when it hasn't, of course. What else have we seen? An election that put a Tory majority back in power. An expansion of our warmongering in the Levant. More bombings. More homeless refugees in need of aid. Paris. Paris. Record-breaking hurricanes. Climate change realities. Beloved public figures shown to be sexual predators again. A seemingly endless run of shootings in the States and so much systemic racism. At the same time, we saw close-up photographs of Pluto for the first time. A snapshot on the way to infinity I can hold in my hand on a screen and experience, all so briefly, before I turn it off and zoom back into my own life, rush down a sandwich, drink a glass of water. I don't know how to make sense of the world.

Perhaps the word isn't just "busy" but "tired". I'm so tired of the news, the world, these horrible things, the sense of inability to effect change, the lack of time to engage with it anything more than superficially. I'm so immensely glad of all the opportunities I've had this year, and it has been amazing, but it won't do. I need more time. We all need more time. We're running out of time.

Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire

I'm using this title strictly in the Tolkienian sense: escaped from goblins, only to be trapped by orcs. The goblins in this case are poets; the orcs are comics creators. Does that make me a half-orc, half-goblin hybrid? I'm definitely not a change-the-world-one-hobbit-at-a-time protagonist. Perhaps I'm a dwarf? I quite fancy a tremendous beard for the winter.

The day after getting home from the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, I headed straight to Thought Bubble comicon in Leeds with Delightful Husband. Delightful Husband, if you don't know, is a comics writer. I edit his indie comics, for Image and Avatar, both of which are comics publishers based in the US. (I'm an editor by trade. More on this at a later date.)

The opposite of quiet beach-combing and silent book reading, taking a table at a comics convention is all about chatting excitedly to excited people, selling books, and trying to make sure everyone is fed, hydrated and gets to their events on time. Delightful Husband and his co-creator Jamie McKelvie are doing pretty well at the moment. In the main, they're there to sign people's books and banter. The more people that come, the more they need help behind the scenes to take money and track sales, that sort of thing, so I go along to help. The whole day is fuelled by nervous energy and the enthusiasm of thousands of people delighted to celebrate their solitary reading experience with a very real, visible community of others.

Comics has no "and now I will give a reading of my work…" option. Comics have to be experienced in their entirety on the page by a sole reader. (Has anyone arranged a mass-reading of new work at a convention? A twenty-minute panel of a long-awaited issue that is displayed on a giant screen, one minute for each page, with everyone's oohs and aahs mingling into each other's? They must have done. That could be fun.) On the whole though, the nature of the medium means conventions focus on the presence of creators: getting stuff signed, telling creators how much something meant to you, browsing new work on tables, and attending panels where creators and publishers discuss the medium, the industry and the stories themselves. This doesn't feel quite the same as a poetry festival, where the focus is almost always on the work, as though focusing too much on anything else would not be appropriate somehow. My impression is that people attend comicons predominantly to celebrate work they have already enjoyed, as well as then browsing giant halls full of new work and picking things up. Comicons feel like a celebration of fandom, as much as of the work itself.

And that thing of wanting to meet the creators - that's not a small or silly thing. It's a moment of connection which makes the work all the more real somehow. Look - this was made by a real person. It's not just magic. Or, if it is magic, then here is the magician whose hand you are shaking. In poetry you can also get a sense of this by watching someone give a live reading/performance of their work, but that option doesn't exist in comics. 

All of this stuff makes me want to ponder more over the ways we, in the UK, experience and celebrate poetry book publishing, and whether it's comparable (Spoiler: it's not. They're completely different artforms. But the comparison is interesting in what it throws up, I think, I hope.). I run the Poetry Book Fair that takes place in London every Autumn (I'm Director, the delectable Joey Connolly is Manager). I feel like a large thrust behind the fair is: come and see what's happened in contemporary poetry this year; browse 50 publishers' tables instead of 50 websites. That's largely because there is no single place you can go which will tell you what books are coming out this month in poetry. It's baffling. The Poetry Library isn't always sent stuff in a timely fashion and they don't have the staffing to pro-actively chase people on a monthly basis. The PBS lists things quarterly, and even then only lists what it is sent, and not everyone sends. If you try and search for the last 30 days of "poetry" on Amazon UK, you get 75 pages' worth of results due to the large amount of self-published work which is made available there. There is no single place that feels like it's tracking what contemporary poetry publishers are doing every month in a timely or comprehensive fashion. We've started setting up monthly lists of "new poetry this month" on the Poetry Book Fair website, but it's still very much a work in progress.

Another dramatic difference for poetry is that there is no single bookshop where you can go and see shelves of "New this week" "New last week" etc as you would in local comic shops up and down the country. Why do we have no local poetry shops? God knows there's enough books being published to put on sale. There's something here perhaps about reading speed - about what we want from poetry. Maybe we don't always want what's "new", but rather what's "good", or what will "endure". That statement has so many problems I don't even know where to start (though certainly the implication that comics must therefore be "ephemeral" by contrast is infuriating and utterly untrue). Let's go more safely back to bookshops. The lovely Poetry Book Shop in Hay has books by lots of different publishers, and does a good trade in first editions from what I recall, but doesn't feel hugely contemporary. That may just be me - I admit I haven't been in for a while. The radical Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham sounds amazing but has a broader scope than just poetry. Things may change in London on that front soon - there have been rumblings. Other indie bookshops have better and worse relationships with small presses. Many small presses aren't centrally distributed, which makes things more time-consuming to arrange. There are lots of problems here I'm intentionally glossing over for now. Just to say: problems.

The point I want to make is that browsing new poetry books is next to impossible, other than physically going to the Poetry Library or trawling through loads of independent websites, some of whom don't even offer any samples of the work ahead of purchase. New readers will take a chance on a new book with a press they haven't heard of if they've been pointed at it by someone / somewhere they trust. But otherwise, what is going to persuade them to take that leap, and how will they even hear about them in the first place? Social media has been an invaluable tool in helping both publishers and poets promote their work. (It also makes it easier to identify the various tribes, groups and factions.) Individual events are increasingly important to the visibility of new publications and poets, but we run into the same issue there of how people hear about them in the first place, not to mention the geographical constraints of live events. Spoken Word and Live Literature events operate slightly differently too - forgive me for focusing on book publishing for the moment. Live webcasts are a great idea. There are more and more ways round this that people are using to their advantage these days. But not all poets do readings. Some of the ones who do write work that is better experienced on the page anyway. It's a messy area. Reviews are also important in drawing attention to different publications, though I'd like to do some research in this area as I've heard conflicting things from publishers as to what effect reviews / prize shortlistings etc have on sales. Review copies are not always sent out as a matter of course. Reviews can take their time to come, too, and the limited reviewing space available in magazines is very competitive. 

There's also the issue that many indie presses are run alongside other full-time jobs, so there is precious little time and money available to make the books in the first place, let along promote them. And who's to say that just because you want to write, edit or publish poetry, that you're going to have any inclination or skill at marketing and advertising it? All of this keeps bringing me back to this disappointment that there is no central consumer hub or information service that regularly, comprehensively and impartially tells us what's new in the world of contemporary poetry publishing. There's no formal "Previews" magazine or brochure in print or online, beyond the efforts of individual presses to promote their own lists. It's no wonder that we become tribal about our presses, and our poets. Which is not to say that that's a bad thing of course, in terms of cultivating an audience for each publisher, bit by bit, but we can do more.      

Another difference to the world of comics is the majority of people who walk through the doors of the Poetry Book Fair are poets themselves (at least that's what our feedback suggests). My impression is that this is more the case with poetry than with comics. There's a sense that everyone is judging peer-to-peer, and I think there's something innately different about the medium which encourages this. Simon Armitage (on Celebrity Mastermind, no less) described poetry as "the most democratic artform" because all you need is something to write with and something to write on. Anyone can make a poem. (That doesn't mean it will be a good poem, but you can see why he said it.) The same is notionally true of comics, except that drawing ability is generally more of a barrier than using linebreaks is, though there are of course notable exceptions to this too. I think it means there's a different sense of relationship with the artform though. In the absence of career-altering sales figures for almost all poets (especially the living ones), all that remains is the work, and the ego. And when everyone who walks through the door has both, things get interesting.

We don't like thinking of indie presses as being "in competition" with each other. We don't like thinking of contemporary poetry as a "marketplace". But it is, whether you bring cash into it or not. (And I do understand the instinctive dislike of bringing cash into it. "No poetry in money etc etc". There are ways though. Which reminds me, here's some fun marketing from Penned in the Margins.) I suppose overall what I mean is: at present it feels like the landscape of contemporary poetry has a few big obvious forests and mountains on it, but much of value is hidden away in cave networks that you have to fight to find, or that you may gradually stumble across given enough time and energy. While I love the idea of secret caves filled with poetry gold, more people need to know about them if they're going to survive. I don't want to live in a cave. I want a better map.  

This is where I run out of thoughts for today, as I'm getting into the territory of Very Big Questions. Let's say I'm laying this down for further mulling over in the future. Maybe I'll say one more thing about the book fair first that seems relevant though. The list of exhibitors at the fair has expanded year on year (from an initial 22 to this year's 88). The audience has grown too (800 through the doors this year) but not at the same rate as the exhibitors. That is a point of interest to me, something solid I want to do a bit more thinking about and research into.

Anyway, Thought Bubble was great. I bought lots of interesting new books. I met Kate Beaton and talked about meat (if you don't know her work, look at this immediately). Delightful Husband djayed for DMC (yes, that one). We danced till 3am. I talked to some people about the Poetry Comics book I edited this year. I caught up with existing friends, one of whom is now being described to everyone as "Sauron Mike" (See how I'm bringing things back to the Tolkien reference at the start? Trying to fool you into thinking this blogpost might have some kind of structure? Also, I've just double-checked, and the Tolkien line is actually "Escaping Goblins to be caught by Wolves". Not an orc in sight. Oh well, dwarves it is.). We caught the train home late on Sunday night and Delightful Husband slept through the journey sprawled all over me in complete exhaustion. We are now enjoying a bit of quiet time at home with the cat.

Talking to people is exhausting. But unpredictable. And so much fun. It's great when people whose first love is an artform that must be experienced in solitude can get out and celebrate it with others.

It's On The List

I haven't kept a blog, or a diary, for ages. Having had a full few days at this year's Aldeburgh Poetry Festival though, I felt like I wanted to start one. There are things I want to write down to look back on and remind myself of. Let's see how it goes.

I'm sharing a house with poets Richard Scott (& partner), Anna Selby and Ed Doegar (& partner), all of whom are lovely, lovely people. Richard and I were in this house last year too. The view from the sash window feels like an old friend. We've rented it house from Thursday to Thursday, wanting time to decompress after the festival and have a little poetry holiday. I hope to read and write lots in the remaining time (though we leave tomorrow). I also hope to eat a battered sausage on the beach in my pyjamas.

Anna and I arrived on Thursday and bought some essential supplies. Cheese, wine, toothpaste, that sort of thing. We had a very leisurely evening inside, ignoring the rain. I love spending time with Anna - she's such a generous gentle person who does a mean sideline in mischievous glints in the eye. We got takeaway pizzas and talked till two in the morning on the warm sofas. Friday morning was, subsequently, very lazy, both of us having tedious bits of work to try and get out of the way.

The first event was Dean Parkin's book launch. He's been with the Aldeburgh festival for something like 16 years now, and this will be his final year, coinciding with the launch of his first collection (yay!), published by The Rialto, in the Peter Pears Gallery. I got in just before it was going to start, managing to get one of the last chairs in the crowded hall. He gave a charismatic and congenial reading, and you could feel the audience beaming back at him. I left fairly soon afterwards and doubled back to the house, slightly overwhelmed by the number of familiar faces in one room. It was lovely to sneak a seat next to Fiona Moore (whose HappenStance pamphlet launched at the same time as mine in 2013), and I could hear her determined shout of "Is anyone driving to Snape now?" as the event finished, as she was keen to get over there for the next event. (Aldeburgh is split across two sets of venues - the first in the town of Aldeburgh, where the entire festival used to be based, and the second at Snape Maltings, in the large concert venue though, along with other recital rooms and gallery spaces. There is a bus, but sometimes events clash.) Anyway it worked, and she got there.

Anna and I followed her over later. We went to a discussion on language and nature between John Burnside and Helen MacDonald, which made me immediately want to read H is for Hawk. The main thing that jumped out of the general conversation for me was the observation that it's not the planet that is being destroyed by humans ("it's been a ball of ice, it's been a ball of fire, the planet will be fine" said John) but rather ourselves. 

Afterwards we went to the first main reading of the weekend. Robert Seatter (another lovely human, on the board of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and chairs the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize) introduced the reading, mentioning that new Director Ellen McAteer was unable to attend the festival. Unfortunately we were just slipping in as the announcement was made, so I'm not sure of the reason, but hope all is well. It must be heartbreaking to work so hard on something and not be around to see it happen.

Robert also announced that the winner of this year's First Collection Prize was Andrew McMillan (whilst adding that any one of the books could have won, all being such interesting books by Rebecca Perry, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Liz Berry and Jim Carruth). I have to confess that I haven't read Andrew's book in full yet, though I've heard glowing reports from those who have. It's on the list! I'm hoping perhaps keeping a blog again will help me to stay on top of my reading better.

After that, it was Helen Mort's reading (she won the prize last year), which was charming, earnest and very endearing. Kei Miller read next. I should perhaps add a disclaimer here to say that I love Kei Miller's work intensely and so am already predisposed to enjoy his readings, but still I have to say he was on fire. As usual. There was something very quiet about his reading that night. He smiled a lot. He's someone you feel really enjoys reading, which isn't always the case when watching poets.

Then came an interval and some of us took the opportunity to sneak away to the Plough and Sail pub. We missed Jeremy Reed's reading, which I understand involved a beret and glitter and 1960s bohemia. The pub was just fine though. Followed by another pub - a visit to the Cross Keys back in Aldeburgh.

More poets! Much merriment, much drinking, much conversation. Then a walk home via a lie down on the pebble beach and a good hard stare at the stars. We may have carried on talking nonsense at the house about poetry and perfection. We may have only got to bed around 4am. We may have seen the moon come up, with Mars and Jupiter around it, and smiled in delight at being out of London and by the sea, listening to the waves. Before bed I took this photo from an upstairs window, using my shadow to try and block out the light of the room while I took it. It only occurred to me the next day that it's like a live-action version of my Flying into the Bear pamphlet cover, with its constellations swimming inside the bear's outline.

I had a long bath on Saturday morning and read in bed. The first event for me was John Burnside's talk about birds in poetry. As often happens with these talks, it was as interesting for the peripheral references and context-giving information as it was for the formal content. He read Richard Mabey's sound poem in Brick magazine which attempts to transpose the sound of a nightingale singing into words, which looked amazing on the page. I'd like to go to the Poetry Library and fish it out. I think it must be in this issue.

Also in this talk, I enjoyed what he was saying about a Robert Penn Warren poem using the bird not as a crude symbol or mere extended metaphor, but as a vehicle for exploration. This chimed a lot with the way I use animals, so I scribbled it down in my notebook. Yes, must confess I went to the talk with an interest in "using the bird as… XYZ" rather than just with interest in poetic birds themselves ("poetic birds" sounds like something rather different, doesn't it?). Anyway, there was a sense of trying to capture and communicate complexity with nature writing, rather than over-simplifying things with, say, a nice polite inoffensive, purely descriptive, bird poem.

After that I went for a cup of tea and a sausage roll in a friend's house which bore the following sign above the staircase: YESTERDAY RETURNETH NOT / PERCHANCE TOMORROW COMETH NOT / THIS IS TODAY / ABUSE IT NOT.

Then what? Oh yes, Jeremy Noel-Tod's talk on RF Langley. I hadn't really registered Langley before, and now feel this is rather terrible. Loosely in that Cambridge gang, and writing a lot about East Anglia, and was shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread Prize (you can listen to some poems on the Poetry Archive site). He died in 2011 and was awarded the Forward Prize posthumously for Best Single Poem that year. Clearly I have not been paying enough attention. I went to the talk primarily because I think Jeremy is an interesting character (whose humour I enjoy enormously on Twitter) and wanted to hear him talk about a poet in detail. I wasn't disappointed on either count. Given that he only had 45 minutes, Jeremy did such a good job of showing us poems, weaving in context about Langley's life and writing habits (I loved hearing him talk about "zigzag rhymes" when looking at the internal rhyme in one of the pieces), and showing us extracts from his journals which seem very interesting in their own right, even before you get to the poems. They've been published by Shearsman. Another book for the list. (Maybe that's what I should call this blog? "It's on the list!") I went straight to the back and bought his Complete Poems once the talk was over.  

Both of these events, incidentally, were in the Baptist chapel in Aldeburgh. There were A4 coloured sheets tacked up around the hall walls showing the ten commandments, with additional imperatives underneath each one, rather an unusual context for secular poetic discussions. Underneath the third one (You shall not misuse the name of the Lord) was the line "Take God seriously". In Comic Sans.

I caught the bus in to Snape with both Anna and Richard (Richard had arrived with his partner that Saturday morning) and we headed straight for dinner at the Plough and Sail. In America I believe the term for carrying two drinks at once, once in each hand, is double-fisting? I double-fisted my dinner, ordering two starters instead of a main and eating from both plates side by side together. Yum. Important to keep up energy during a poetry festival (even though I still felt too tired throughout, and still went to far fewer events than I'd planned to. I've felt very busy overall, but remain disappointed in my own stamina and attention.)

Then we went to the main reading - Valérie Rouzeau, Kim Addonizio and John Burnside. Valérie read in French, with her translator Susan Wicks reading the english translations. I heard Susan talking about Valérie's work and reading some translations earlier this year in Newcastle and was glad to hear Valérie read in person. The poems are very musical and the reading was a delight. My French is so rusty, I could only pick up the odd words here and there. But there was one piece in which she referred to a letter ("Letter to / from Jacques" I think was the name of the poem, or something like it) and said in French something like "Il a commencé par coeur, et terminé parce que" - literally "it started by heart and ended because", and the "because" is just left there hanging. (Why? Just because. That sort of thing.) Anyway the music of it in the French is so wonderful: "par coeur / parce que", the heart so closely linked by rhyme to the absentee explanatory "because". There was no way to render this into English while capturing both rhyme and meaning though. It should feel disappointing, but instead it was glorious. I love translations when I can't speak the original (what I don't know about the original doesn't bother me) and I also love translations when I can. Even funnier are these half and half situations, where I might catch some words but not others, different connections and misunderstandings forming in my head, making me all the more excited to see what happens in the translation happening in front of me.

American poet Kim Addonizio was next. She brought the house down (That phrase is theatrical in origin, not literal, right? Right.). I think perhaps she should have closed the festival. She had the demeanour of a closer. I only know individual poems of hers. She seems to have been frequently anthologised over here by Bloodaxe (and the New and Selected Poems collection which has just come out is from Bloodaxe), or maybe it's just that the poems of hers I've read have jumped out at me. I'm certain I've read her poem "You Don't Know What Love Is" (which continues "but you know how to raise it in me / like a dead girl winched up from a river" in an anthology of poems to be read at weddings. Anyway, she was great: deliberate and forceful and funny and gave a memorable performance of "Penis Blues" which was written, she said, in the midst of a "penis drought", and during which she invited three brave gentlemen from the audience to perform blues-like song and dance behind her while she read. Lots of wonderful images in that poem, as in the others. I particularly enjoyed the visuals on "There's a flock of penises headed south". She finished with a harmonica solo.  

Then an interval. Then John Burnside reading (mostly) new poems from his forthcoming book. The title was, I think, Still Life with Feeding Snake. Many of them were long poems, drawing multiple threads out of a single winding narrative. There were lots of striking images, but I think I'll have to wait for them on the page. He was a warm and gentle reader, and I found the other events he did very interesting. However by this point I suspect I had too many penises swimming around my head from Kim's reading to be able to change gear properly.

Then came the poetry scrum. We got a lift back to the Cross Keys with friends and what started as a fairly relaxed drink quickly turned into a sweaty heaving throng of poetry musical chairs. Poets of all shapes and sizes, tables, benches, pub dogs, all vying for space. I love festivals for exactly this sort of environment. You don't get a chance to talk to the people you'd planned to spend time with, but instead have all manner of interesting conversations with other people you hadn't met before (or just hadn't spent any time with before). We were wondering in the pub on Sunday what the collective noun for poets should be. Someone dourly suggested a "gripe" or a "virus". That night to me felt more like a lively "gaggle", lots of excitable honking before going home to sleep with our heads under our wings. Though for general use I think a generous word would be needed. A sea of poets. A galaxy. A blanket.      

On Sunday I went in for the New Voices reading at noon. I'm envious of people who have done lovely things like swim in the sea and walk along the marsh into Snape (Anna's done both, after eating her breakfast up the coast in a bird hyde, the beautiful minx), but I settled for the shuttle bus. New Voices. Who read? It was Christie Williamson, Rebecca Watts, Zaffar Kunial and Miriam Nash.

Christie was great, reading poems in Shetlandic and English. It ended very emotionally and there was such a kindliness to his delivery. (Also I really wanted to take a photo of us together as if to say: "Look! We're in the same room at the same time!" sort of way because of the similarity of our names. He suggested we do a reading together. I think we should make this happen.) Rebecca dramatised the everyday to epic proportions in a very controlled, dextrous way. Zaffar I thought was amazing - I hadn't known his work at all beforehand (he's one of Faber's last round of pamphlet poets). He started with a poem about chasing a cricket ball into a bush, and turned it into a glorious piece about losing time, and finding it again, a sense not quite of "otherness", but of "away-ness". Having read his pamphlet too now, there's a lot in it about dual-parentage and complicated family backgrounds. It's in no way the same, but being half-Italian on my mum's side, with a tangle of English, Welsh and Scottish family on my dad's side, feels messy in a vaguely similar way, at least in terms of the linguistic interactions and confusions, the absence of a singular identity. His poems seem so good at being able to articulate these sorts of messiness. I collared him after the reading to tell him how much I liked it and have already begun stalking him on social media. If I'd been in Miriam's place I would have been terrified to follow him (a few people even gave him a standing ovation) but she marched straight to the podium and gave a determined and very confident, assured reading.

All four read very well. All four were very different. I love the format of this "New Voices" reading - four poets with 15 minutes each, no breaks, bam, straight through! I think it's my favourite at the festival, especially when compared with the 25-minute long readings x 3 of the main events. (I am biased though, having read at the New Voices event last year.)  

Then, a lasagne for lunch and more chatter with lovely people in the cafeteria. It was fun to catch up with Andrea Porter and to compare and contrast comic-cons with poetry festivals. Then came Valérie Rouzeau's close reading. She brought in a poem by Christian Bachelin which was very interesting in its use of allusion and connection. I'd like to go and explore his poetry. I'm hopelessly illiterate about French poetry. It's an area I need to improve on.

A lot of this post has been about what I've not read, hasn't it? I feel bad about that, like I should try and fudge over it, sweep it under the carpet and make myself look cleverer, but then I suppose that's what festivals like this are for. Exposure to new poets you've either been too busy (or too lazy) to look up. I hope I can be honest about those things on this blog too, without coming across like a complete idiot.  

God what else. Can there still be more? Oh yes, of course, the final reading, preceded by a farewell to the Delightful Dean. All change at the festival, it seems. Well, not all, of course. But some, after Naomi Jaffa stepped down (am so glad to have had a chance to hug her, Dean and Michael Laskey this year on the fly - they are such kind generous people). It does feel like a sea change, even if it's only my third year of going to the festival. An Aldeburgh North Sea change. But I'm excited to see how the festival develops in the future.

The final reading was opened by Choman Hardi, reading from her new book Considering the Women, which revolves around her interviews with female survivors of genocide in Kurdistan. Perhaps unexpectedly, given the context, she referred to herself initially as a self-effacing "party-pooper poet" (a moniker given by Dean Parkin). She has inspired the most discussion of any of the poets I'd seen at the festival, and her reading was quite divisive. Some people had a very emotionally charged response, others saying they thought the poems felt less like poetry and more like reportage. As for me? Hmm. The first few poems knocked me out, and I remember thinking immediately that I must go and buy the book once it was over. They were so powerful. But something happened halfway through. I was so glad to be hearing the poems ("glad" is the wrong word), though it was emotionally very tough, and glad (again, wrong) to be hearing these women's voices, but I realised it might not be a book I wanted to go back and spend time in, or to really live in. I don't know what this says about me as a reader. I would recommend the reading itself though, and the work. I felt very present and engaged throughout. The poems were clear and direct.   

Mexican poet Pedro Serrano followed her, and he has one of the nicest smiles I've seen on any man. He stood back grinning at the audience while his translator Anna Crowe read the English versions. I felt like his smile was saying, "Isn't this funny? Look! She's reading my poems! And you are listening!" They were very mellifluous, full of bright imagery. My half-Italian-ness only kicked in properly at the end when the final poem involved the Spanish word "cagar", the same as the Italian "cagare" ("to shit"). What on earth is this poem? I thought, picking up more and more as it went through, and was very keen to hear the translation. It was a poem which uses taking a shit as an extended metaphor for writing. Very funny. There were some lovely images in his other poems too, but the gentle roll of it all meant I was swept along in fits and starts, picking up individual pieces rather than grasping complete poems. This, I'm certain, is due to my own fatigue kicking in rather than anything to do with his reading though. Again, I'm disappointed in myself for not having enough stamina. Also for confessing it here. It's something to work on. (The stamina, and behaving more respectfully, not hiding my confessions.)

Then a break, then the final reading of the festival by Tony Hoagland, who also divided the group I was sitting in. Some people felt his male gaze all too keenly - as did I. (I feel that certain men of a certain age writing about younger women has become something of a cliche at this point, no? Though #notallmen of course.) Others responded warmly to the humour in his poems. As, also, did I. The poems were lively, funny and smart, and I really felt I liked him by the end. I've bought a book of his essays that looks amazing. But I don't know what to do with these conflicting feelings other than carry on and read the work. I also hadn't known about the dialogue several years ago between him and Claudia Rankine, in regard to his treatment of race in one of his poems. It's a very interesting dialogue. (You can listen to an event recording with the whole thing on It seems, in the end, that he stood by his right to have written the poem as it was, and she stood by her right to be offended by that poem as he had written it, but that no real agreement was reached. After a lengthy discussion, I'm not sure we got much further than that ourselves.  

So then we came home and got a takeaway. We ate it. We cleaned plates. We wiped the table. We went to the Cross Keys for a final pint and had a conversation about musical theatre. We came back and lay on the beach. We learnt (thanks to a Night Sky app) about the stars that sit between the Bear and Orion: Castor and Pollux in Gemini, the little dog, then Sirius in the big dog that was coming up over the horizon. Or, more accurately, our horizon was moving down, turning down to reveal it, Canis Major running after Orion and nipping at his heels.

Now I've finished typing this up, and I've just had a conversation with Ed about how the pub is often where we figure out what we think, by having shared conversations there. Anna at dinner was talking about a film called Into the Wild, which asks whether happiness is a solitary or a shared pursuit, concluding that it is only in the sharing of happiness that we truly experience it. Writing is a solitary activity. As is reading. They go together nicely that way. So it's wonderful to go to festivals like this and be able to meet up with friends, make new ones, form new thoughts, listen to other people's, gossip, giggle and all look at the sky together.

I hope I'm going to make good use of this blog too. Of course, this is the first post, and it's bumper-sized. A fiver says the next one will be less than a hundred words.