Odds and Ends

Still haven't found time to blog about my time at StAnza, Scotland's international poetry festival held in St Andrews, yet - though I intend to get round to it soon. In short, it was a great (long) weekend: particular highlights including readings from Bill Manhire, New Zealand's foremost contemporary poet; the excellent Simon Armitage; poetry centre stage with Robert Crawford and Kate Clanchy; and the launch of Roddy Lumsden's new collection, Third Wish Wasted. And I enjoyed taking part in the poetry breakfast on young poets, as well as the tall-lighthouse Pilot reading (alongside Abi Curtis, Adam O'Riordan, Jay Bernard and Emily Berry) and pamphlet signing, both of which proved popular.

Before I get to doing a proper write-up then, I thought I'd flag up a few forthcoming odds and ends: I've two new poems that'll appear in the next issue of Poetry Matters on the Tower Poetry site, and a short sequence that'll crop up in a future issue of Stand magazine. Also in the next two issues of Stand, I've a couple of reviews: first of Colette Bryce's Self-Portrait in the Dark; second of Glyn Maxwell's Hide Now. And I've completed a fair number of critical perspectives of poets for the British Council Contemporary Writers site which'll go live in due course, including Robert Crawford, David Constantine, Patrick McGuinness, Carol Rumens, Tom Paulin, and the late Mick Imlah.

Alongside forthcoming reviews for Magma and the TLS and working on new poems, then, I'm having a happily busy time of it - the only problem being that man flu has recently halted me from doing much at all productive; hunched as I am over the PC with a mug of tea and packets of honey and lemon Lockets. Even if you are misguided enough to do so, however, please don't extend your sympathies - many, not least my girlfriend, will amply attest to how utterly pathetic I am when afflicted with only the slightest of sniffles.


Maura Dooley's Life Under Water

Just a quick post to point anyone interested towards this week's TLS, March 20 2009 (No 5529), which includes my review of Maura Dooley's T.S. Eliot shortlisted Bloodaxe collection, Life Under Water.


Poetry Feature: Conor O'Callaghan

Conor O’Callaghan, an Irish writer born in Newry in 1968, is one of those poets who critics may lazily – albeit quite rightly – describe as ‘one of the best of his generation’, though he actually seems to fall on the cusp of two generations. Or at least has fallen short, despite having appeared in seminal Irish anthologies, of major British anthologies and promotions – too young for the New Poetry and the PBS’s New Generation campaign; inexplicably missing from the Next Gen and falling short of the cut-off point of Roddy Lumsden’s forthcoming Identity Parade – as inadequate as these may ultimately be at fully checking the pulse, let alone establishing the hierarchy of the literature of a given period (history will do that), they still (usually quite rightly) cement reputations, develop readerships, and give a representative flavour of poetry at the time. This isn’t to badmouth these publications or promotions, but to note that given the inevitable parameters, some genuinely talented and worthy writers often get sidelined or miss out through nothing more than plain bad luck.

This aside, I hope I’m right in reckoning that O’Callaghan’s work will stand the test of time. I can only reach for the usual platitudes in urging you to hunt down copies of his three collections published by Gallery Press to date – The History of Rain (1993) and Seatown (1999), collected together in Seatown and Earlier Poems (2000); and the excellent Fiction, published in 2005 – showcasing the development of an exciting and original poetic voice sounding itself out in poems that are engaged and engaging, witty, smart and sharp, but above all, driven by an energetic music that is as capable of challenging and amusing as it is of moving the reader.

In his review of Seatown in the Times Literary Supplement, Stephen Knight pointed to James Fenton, Robert Frost and Philip Larkin as pronounced influences in O’Callaghan’s work, and for those who are fans of any of these major voices in post-war poetry, you won’t be disappointed by his poems. But at the same time, quite rightly, Knight states that ‘despite the presence of these pungent voices, O’Callaghan’s poetry is marvellously his own’. This is largely to do with the knowingness of the poems, which amounts to more than the winks, nudges, sarcasm and irony that crop up in much contemporary verse. Instead, particularly in Fiction, O’Callaghan’s poetry combines the suggestive, deliberative and symbolic capabilities of verse with the inventive, imaginative qualities most readily associated with fictional prose, often to startling effect. This includes the likes of ‘Out-takes’, exploring the sounds left behind from a recording session (‘leftovers from a cleaned up / final version’; suggesting our polished, distorted view of ourselves); ‘Reception’, where the poet remembers an event from his childhood which turns out to be a story he was told ‘over a glass of ropey Chianti’; ‘Hello’, a sequence of poems exploring the invention of that phrase for ‘the blower, / since some kind of formula / for an opening exchange / had to be agreed upon / to get the ball rolling’; and the excellent vignette ‘The Narrator’, who ‘during the break in chapter / gets up to stretch beneath a skylight’, a theme returned to in ‘The Present Writer’, who ‘gets a kick / inhabiting the third person, as if talking across himself / or forever clapping his own exit from the wings’.

In short, O’Callaghan stuff is the business and deserves a wide readership. And needless to say, his next collection will be well worth waiting for. In the meantime, though, do check out the three poems of his which appear in this month’s issue of Poetry magazine, and the comic ‘The Modern Pastoral Elegy’ in that magazine’s archive. And rather than my blathering on any further here, I’ll let the poetry speak for itself – below is ‘Coventry’, the sonnet that opens Fiction, first published in the TLS.


On a night as clear and warm as tonight,
in 1941, a stray German squadron
with a war to win and a radar on the blink
mistook the quays of neutral Seatown
for the lights of greater Coventry.

On a night as clear and warm as tonight –
when she has gone into an almighty huff
and taken the chat over heaven-knows-what
(or something of nothing with a bit of fluff)
and my lot once again is the box-room futon,
the guest duvet –
                                  I am inclined to think
perhaps the Luftwaffe after all were spot on,
and would give my eye-teeth for butterfly bombs
to fall into this silence I have been sent to.

poem by Conor O’Callaghan
republished with permission of the author
first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 October 2000
from Fiction (Gallery Press, 2005)


PoetCasting and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch

I've mentioned PoetCasting on the Wasteland before - an admirable and, I think, extremely valuable collection of audio recordings of established and emerging contemporary poets, professionally put together by the enterprising young poet Alex Pryce. Andrew Motion's Poetry Archive should watch its back.

Well - shameless self-promotion alert - having been featured on the site in a joint venture with literary magazine Pomegranate, showcasing young poets published in the magazine since its beginnings, I've my own feature on the site now, including recordings of four poems from the sparks.

It was great of Alex to come up and record this and, more generally, for her to run PoetCasting so professionally and diligently in the first place (on visiting Sheffield, she recounted how whenever her mother rings her up, she's invariably on a train heading someplace or other to make a recording). Unsurprisingly then, the poets featured on PoetCasting to date span the height and breadth of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and more are always being added. In fact, on the same day my recordings were done, Gregory Award-winning Sheffield writer Chris Jones and Faber poet Maurice Riordan were also recorded reading, both of which'll no doubt be added to the site soon.

Do take a look at the PoetCasting site then, and if you like the sound of what you find there, subscribe to their feed for regular updates.

Also, on a slight tangent, for those interested in the work of Welsh poet Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, my critical perspective of her poetry is now up on the British Council's Contemporary Writers website.



The scene’s one of wandering back to a tent, through a field of thousands, flag posts and lamp-lit; the pitch hasn’t moved but their damned if they can find it, more having cropped up in makeshift walkways in-between. The sky’s the final shade from its fullest darkness, throwing clouds across itself like fishing boats, streamlined by currents. Campfire smoke drifts across the site, a half-cut mob of guys attempt to resurrect some fading chant, and a man is running in the inimitable manner of one desperately in need of the toilet. Morning darkens. Now one of the crew mutters something to himself, another sparks a roll-up with the same Zippo that was held to the wall of sound and fading whine conjured not an hour ago; a stack of Marshall amps and the wielding of a custom-built, sunburst Fender Strat… If there is a more direct way back it escapes them, left instead as they are circling in on the plot that, altered by darkness, will finally return to the mind as the changed yet half-familiar face of an old acquaintance might… In the meantime, there are only the torches of camps illuminating their puppetry of contents, and the names the imagination might give to the shadows of intimacy, argument and practicality that flicker so suddenly across them… Wings; The Last Dance; Snakes; A Parting Kiss; This is Something

Mew: Am I Wry? No

Was round a friend's place the other night, enjoying a few beers and some albums I haven't heard in a good while, when we ended up listening to Danish alt-rock indie band Mew's album, Frengers.

So many good songs on that record, I can't believe I haven't listened to it properly in so long. And such a refreshing, unusual sound - soaring but subtle vocals, beautiful guitar and electronic arrangements, and a pop sensibility that at the same time is totally atmospheric and cerebral - I can't recommend it enough. In fact, I've just checked their wiki page after typing that, and found that a review of the album described it as 'a work of quiet brilliance, aiming for the epic without straying into the bombastic, offering cerebral arrangements while keeping things accessible'. Spot on.

Above, then, is the promo video for 'Am I Wry? No', the opening track of the album, and as good an introduction to the record as any.