02 May 2015

The Oxonian Review 2015 poetry competition

This is Florida
The competition was judged by Jamie McKendrick and a reading of the shortlisted poems was held at the Albion Beatnik book store in Oxford. Those willing and able followed up with a celebratory meal at the Al Shami restaurant afterwards. Everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and it was marvellous fun.

My poem is my jaundiced response to having to travel to Florida one too many times for work, with all the Disney families and the snowbirds chasing the last of the sun. It's part of a sequence of poems about how office drones and IT workers like me make our living.

18 February 2015

Elemental Path Debuts The First Toys Powered By IBM Watson

Picture (c) Elemental Path
A friend wrote to me today: "I'm about half impressed, half creeped out here, but pretty sure I'd check with a child's parent before gifting one of these." 

He was talking about Elemental Path's new line of smart toys for children which will be powered by IBM Watson (the same machine intelligence that won the quiz show Jeopardy), and which the company says will enable the toys to hold meaningful conversations with children, and to evolve with a child as he or she grows.

There's an article on the toys here and the project can be found on Kickstarter if you want to buy one.

It's easy to get this sort of thing out of proportion, and to start sounding like an old person. But (crazy idea) why not encourage kids to go out and talk to other children instead?

The toy is intended to contain specific educational content, and I'm probably overthinking things again, but who gets to decide what content? Will the Jesuits release their version? Do you get to pick the world view of your toy (libertarian, creationist, objectivist etc) or are they all plain old liberal secularists?

I can see some potential therapeutic uses for the toys (with autistic children for example), but beyond that it feels like a bad idea. I admit I bought my kids a Furby when they came out, but the thing about Furbies is that they were endearingly rubbish. These toys have the potential to be just too good: childminder, pacifier, teacher, friend...

Note: according to the article, none of the founders of the company is a parent.

21 November 2014

Weird Google Stats

For a couple of months the most visitors to this blog have come from the Ukraine, which was interesting. What freaked me out on further analysis is that the post getting the most hits was "You want weapons..." which is a Dr Who quote where the weapons are books and the arsenal is a library.

I hope things get better in the Ukraine soon.

13 November 2014


A child cross-legged in rain
leaves collapse outside bright gates. Teachers
bow heads as pigments break.

summer forgets
the unwilling city

spilling their guts out,
rust, helicopter blades, blush
of the sycamores

The child gets up. Face scratched
with autumn and loss. A bell aches.

the takeaway
smells of chilli and garlic
in any weather

(and this child, the sort who speaks
in three registers at once, speaks:)

“I’m not hungry. STOP!
This petulant orange, your plastic
parenting. I’d rather eat Lego.”

I will buy you some eggs.
We need to have words.

Love? How much for these?
I weigh the bright change
in the weather, my pocket.

On the way home, we shuck dried
poplar leaves from the pavement.

I read your letters
the full moon in the garden
the only sunlight

dark with yolk, broken overnight. And
letters, little chalaza, never spell it out.

I remember your hard
boiled humpty-dumpties: shaky
painted smiles and felt feet.

The note on your bedroom door:
                                    buggr ov.

Open up! And you hit
the high note, the long aa,
private harmony of pulsars

We don’t talk of the child and rain.
Sliver humpty’s head with a butter knife.

Rain and children
are never in short supply,
vide: history.

vide: I empty my words into the flower pot
and I spot the spit of us on the top deck of a bus.

Strangers smell of your fists,
even at this distance. I’ve delayed
at so many bus-stops for you.

57 varieties of salvation
and none of them any bloody use.

Enough to crack a heart. Enough to lick
a thumb, to strum a breast pocket,
to ask (messy pup) blood or ketchup?

My first day at school wasn’t better –
a nose bleed of Smash and curly laces.

All those bloody leaves,
and the moon half cut. The child
is farther…        [I forget]

You forget the child is the mother
of invention. Lies, beside herself.

I buried the hamster
in that flower pot. Words decompose
into sun flower.

a corona of tongues,
a wreath for the darkness.

her second-hand Halo,
her phone, on silent, ringing
out, the worst in you.

We named you Joe for a reason.
Wanted a blank-slate of a name.

It’s dark, the air's sweet
as a fridge. Go home
or you’ll catch your death.

Nights like this open outwards into night,
like a car door turning on the interior light.

19 October 2014

Three drivers. One Steering Wheel. Go.

2014 Jerwood/Arvon mentors and mentees

I'm two thirds of the way through the Octanka digital literature project that I committed myself to at the beginning of this month.

I'm taking it in turns with fellow Jerwood/Arvon poetry mentees Deborah ‘Debris’ Stevenson and Holly Corfield Carr to write a renga of linked poems or poetic fragments. The renga is made up of tanka, of which one poet provides the first, three line, stanza (equivalent to the modern haiku), and the next poet provides the concluding two line stanza - and so on. We exchange the fragments via Twitter.

The three of us have very different writing styles and subject matter. I check my Twitter feed with a mixture of terror and excitement to find out where we're heading next. Sometimes there's a fantastic  buzz of collaboration and sometimes I feel we're all fighting for the steering wheel of a car heading towards a cliff.

I'll miss it when it is over.

If you want more background on the Octanka project, try Deborah's blog here or Holly's blog here. All of the tweets in the project use the hashtag #octanka, and all of the underlying poems are retweeted from the @octanka account.

09 August 2014

The SAFT battery man

Sometimes you're reminded you don't quite speak the same language as everyone else. Last time that happened I was 17 and the SAFT battery company had just launched itself on the black country. Their rep's car was always parked by the Butterfield Close flats in Dudley. It was blue and had SAFT written all over it in yellow and was driven by the SAFT battery man. Oh how we laughed. It was a source of low grade humour for months, until one day the car disappeared. No one was surprised: who did they think was going to go into a shop and ask for “some STUPID batteries please”?

And now, nearly 40 years later, Liz Berry's book reminds me again that I don't quite have the Queen's English, even though most of the dialect words in her book haven't passed my lips for years. I don't think people in Oxford would know what a donny was (on the other hand the Postie gives me my mail with a cheerful "Hello my lover", even in front of my wife, so I suppose everywhere has its idiosyncrasies).

Black Country is Liz Berry’s first full poetry collection and it leads off with “Bird” in which the poet is transformed. The choice is appropriate for a first collection as "Bird" is one of those statements of poetic intent that poets write early in their career, laying claim to their domain:

                I raised my throat to the wind
                                                         and this is what I sang…

It is also an appropriate statement of intent for the collection: birds roost everywhere in its pages - starlings, throstles, wrens, sparrows, swallows, larks, pigeons filthy with petrol - in poems ranging from the documentary Grasshopper Warbler to the fantasy of The Year We Married Birds.

A lot of the early poems are written in the persona of Berry's younger self and have a wonderful, ferocious energy. She loves transgressive V signs: whether it is a bicyclist’s legs or an upended sow’s skyward trotters, her poems repeatedly turn what could otherwise be a sign of female submission into a splendid "fuck off" to anyone offended by their jouissance.

Berry's use of dialect and phonetic spelling fully justifies the title of the book. I think that dialect is technically hard to pull off in poetry: it often feels like the poet is stretching for an authenticity or a connection that they do not have the rights to, even when that is not the case. Everything in Black Country is earned and unaffected. Berry has lived and breathed these words, or if she hasn’t she’s such a damned good writer that it doesn’t matter. The book switches effortlessly between poems in “pure” English, poems spotted with local cant, and poems larded with dialect like Sow, without any obvious change in quality or authorial control.

One of my favourite poems is the terrible wonderful "Echo"

                                            wherever girls’ voices are lost,
                                            I am

followed closely by "Christmas Eve"

                                 and although we can’t ever go back or be what we were
                                 I can tell you, honestly, I’d give up
                                 everything I’ve worked for
                                 or thought I wanted in this life,
                                 to be with you tonight.

Although this is a first collection, it is assured, mature and utterly confident in itself: if there are any missteps I didn’t find them. The only thing I can find to criticise are the titles of the poems. They are flat. Sometimes they barely describe, let alone evoke, the poems - but that’s as bad as it gets in this wench's answer to  Mercian Hymns. I love Geoffrey Hill, but it’s a damn sight more fun hanging with Liz.

Being a black country lad, I do have a couple of quibbles: her publishers say that canting means flirting, but in our family it meant gossiping or "going on" - especially at great length and wasting time. And where were Teddy Gray’s Herbals? But these are minor cavils about a brilliant book.

22 May 2014

Feeding pigeons out on a limb

Deborah Stevenson and Jacob Sam-La Rose

To the Roundhouse yesterday for the launch of Deborah Stevenson's poetry pamphlet Pigeon Party where Jacob Sam-La Rose did a brilliant job of MC-ing the event.

As you'd expect from Debris Stevenson it was a launch party like no other. Or as a friend put it: "Deborah totally smashed it".

The aftermath - this pigeon stuff just does not wash off

04 April 2014

10 March 2014

You want weapons? We're in a library. This room's the greatest arsenal we could have.

Paper can be written on, printed, illuminated, illustrated, annotated, highlighted, defaced, written over, scored out, erased, and written on again. It can be cut, ripped, torn, shredded, crumpled, spindled, folded, drenched, digested in acid, composted, riddled by insects, invaded by hyphae, and burned to extinction.

Compared to the plastic bag, that cockroach of the apocalypse, paper is one of the most perishable and human materials we have invented.

Sappho's books were first ordered burned by Pope Gregory Nazianzenn in 380 CE and again by Pope Gregory VII in 1073 CE - burnings which were driven by the anti-pagan zeal of the Byzantine emperors, rather than any queasiness over Sappho’s sexuality. Poets may be the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but our legislators are often unable to resist a bit of make believe.

Given such treatment it is no surprise that Tzetzes, writing in the 11th century, said that “time has frittered away Sappho and her works.” But things are never as simple as that where paper is concerned.

Although it is estimated that only ten per cent of Sappho's works are currently known, it is a remarkable, and heartening, fact that we discover more of her poems every year. One poem was found amongst the grave cloths of a mummified crocodile. Others have been found on the torn papyrus, or cartonnage, used to pack bodies in coffins.

Earlier this year a complete poem was discovered on a papyrus fragment found during the excavation of the municipal dump of the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. The townspeople of Oxyrhynchus seem to have treated the dump as a landfill library, disposing of every sort of written paper there, from census records to grocery lists. And because paper was so precious, the pages are often palimpsests: compound documents of title deeds, household accounts,  letters and homework, all superimposed on one another. And poems. Somewhere in all those layers of writing there are poems, poems by Sappho, lost for thousands of years, and invisible to the naked eye, but revealed by laser scanning...

Fragment 38

"you burn me" - Sappho
a thousand years
after they first drew breath
her words burned  
do you understand?
her words
Heretics and
are best cleansed by fire 
again you misunderstand -
we are scientists
not Philistines 
we advance by experiment
destroying any data
that contradicts our hypothesis
until we arrive at the truth

He embraced censorship
As proof that the poems
He abjectly doubted
Had hidden merits
So deadeningly absent
From the works they left him
His hopes of immortality
Pinned on a body of work
That didn't exist 
Poets died
But he saved their books
His attic
Became the library of Alexandria
The place of the cure of the soul
- Or so he imagined
Before the nightmares began
Before he assumed the mask 
Of Herostratus

The PaperLove Blog Hop is a celebration of all things paper! Follow the links to discover more bloggers who love paper and use it to inspire and delight. And if you want to explore a whole world of paper, and stretch your paper passion further with a host of creative projects, why not join the innovative new online course PaperLove (starts March 31). Led by me, book artist Rachel Hazell, PaperLove is a five week creative adventure for paper lovers. Find out more here.

Participant list
Majo Bautista / Tona Bell Louise Best Cathy Bluteau / Jennifer Bomgardner / Giova Brusa /Lindsay Buck / Beka Buckley / Joanna Caskie / Jonathan Chapman (Mr Yen) / Halle Cisco / Sarah Clare / Cathryn Clarge / Dawn Clarkson / Rhiannon Connelly Jenny D’Fuego / Molly Dhiman /Ian Dudley / Ayisatu Emore / Akmal Farid / Monika Forsberg / Claire Fritz-Domeney / Louise GaleChrissy Gaskell / Julie Hamilton / Emma Hawman / Rachel Hazell / Holly Helgeson / Claudine Hellmuth / Kim Henkel / Sarah Hoffman / Joanne Hus / Paula Joerling / Beth Kempton / Julie Kirk / Eos Koch / Katie LaClair / Kristy Lankford / Michelle Manolov / Doreen Marts Rosie Martinez-Dekker / Tori Mears / Maria Mederios / Lise Meijer / Debbie Miller / MaryJane Mitchell /Suzy Naidoo / Grace Noel / Hannah Nunn / Camilla Olsson / Jo Packham / Rachelle Panagarry /Monette Pangan / Melanie Paul Nicole Piar / Jen Pitta / Liz Plummer Julie Reed /Michelle Reynolds / Lisa Rivas Angee Robertson / Natalie Ryan / Aisling Ryan / Elisabet Sapena / Kyrrha Sevco / Jamie Sprague / Elizabeth Steele / Terri Stephens / Juniper Stokes / Mary Tanana / Maike Thoma / Linda Tieu Gabrielle Treanor / Tammy Tutterow / Deborah Velasquez / Jordan Vinograd Kim / Cat Whipple / Brooke Witt / Katie Wood Amelia Woodbridge

18 February 2014

Follow me for papery goodness

I'm taking part in the Paper Love blog hop this March. (Click the Blog Hop button on the right for more information, or if you want to join in yourself).

I have to say, however much I love paper and pens (and I have a serious habit) the vast majority of my writing and editing gets done on the iPad these days. I feel bad about that, but it is just so ergonomic and convenient.

On the other hand, I do have a Hobonichi Techo planner, a handmade notebook, a brace of Herbin pens, and a pocket full of Kaweco pens on my desk at the moment, so...

Anyway, if you want to read a blog post about my love of paper, check back on the evening of 10 March.

17 February 2014

22 December 2013


A visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in my teens fixed my lifetime fascination with his art. Seeing the familiar paintings in real life made me realise how much wattage they lost in reproduction. The few pictures I'd found weak or pointless when I saw them in books made perfect sense when they were right before my eyes. With the usual contrariety of youth, it was Van Gogh's pen and ink drawings that moved me even more than his symphonic paintings.

Another early love was the printmaking of Durer and Rembrandt, and all of this fed naturally into an interest in Japanese art.

Gregory Irvine's book traces the influence of the rise of Japonisme and the Art Nouveau movement on Western art, including Van Gogh, Whistler, Monet, Manet, Klimt and Schiele.

Greg maybe a friend, but this is a seriously good book, being named by the Financial Times as one of its books of the year.