Archive for May, 2009

This week’s Featured Poet Weston T Holder interviewed…

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Tell us about your poems.
Gosh… I don’t really have a ‘style’. I write because some have said I’m good. I’ve turned to short stories as of late… for no particular reason. I usually write about morbid subjects… and I have a small series on ashes. Of course, I haven’t revealed those to the not-so-adoring public… and I might not do it now!

How long have you been writing?
About 7/8 months. My first twelve ‘poems’ were written in one night.

Do you have any publications to your name? What’s the next stage for your work?
No, but I’ve thought about it. Starting with ONS! My next stage is… getting more responses to my poetry. And getting published.

What do you think is your biggest poetic achievement to date?
Experimenting with new types of poems. And Red Mahogany. And I like coffee!

What’s the best thing about writing poetry? And the worst?
The best thing is being known for what you write — not by who you are. The worst? Not being known for who I am. :D

Got any suggestions for young, upcoming poets?
All critique is good. ALL OF IT. Even if it says you suck. You can use it to improve.
Don’t stop writing. Get bored? Try something else. Write a short story (even if it does end up being about 10 pages…). Find something you’re good at. Watch some clouds or shadows. Find something inspiring. Doesn’t matter what.

Who/what influences your poetry?
My family, conversations, fire, destruction, prisons, pictures, things off the NASA website, visits to museums, love, lies, hate. They all influence the poems I write.


this just
isn’t ri

you don’t
have a second

first impress
ion it’s
just the
way things

;yetthe sky
flows o
n north,.

into for
land is, not th
e best joint
o n theblock

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Procrastination Station #39

Friday, May 29th, 2009


I really don’t want to give too much attention to this issue or this woman at all — but I do agree that, regardless of other factors, Mr Walcott’s poetry is truly incredible, and we all need to remember that // in other news: Benjamin Zephaniah!

Ten Questions for Poetry Editors

Jim gave me a heads-up to the Top 100 Poetry Blogs, and particularly How A Poem Happens. Thanks Jim!

How to deal with distractions.

A great list poem from the Writer’s Almanac.

Found online this week: A great series of choruses from Eric Hamilton’s latest poetry project // Former Featured Poet McGuire on Summer Apples // Input/Output from ONS regular Col // New work from former FPs Ryan Lamon, Morganne Couch and Chris Lindores // Blood Pudding Press, being nice about ONS. Buy some of their stuff!

Tattoo stuff!: I am always wary of this particular tattoo, but I think this example is lovely // a tattoo for maths geeks! // a gorgeous gallery of tattoo photos // a gorgeous gallery of tattoo paintings

Weird conditions of the human mind…

I just discovered a load of cool new photo blogs: Happiest People Ever // Awkward Family Photos // Junk Shop Photos (some via)

I also love Maybe You Shouldn’t Buy That new writing pen, anyone?!

Terrifying diets.

And finally… love this!

Have a great weekend! x

(Photo by allthishappiness)

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More from this week’s Featured Poet, Weston T Holder

Friday, May 29th, 2009

Hopefully you’ve had a chance to check out some more examples of Weston’s work over at his deviantART — here’s another poem, interview tomorrow!

Red Mahogany

i feel like
red mahogany
with coffee

against a
grand piano
playing sad
low keys

keeping time
with an
cursing the

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(Photo by HenriBlock)

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Things I Love Thursday #39

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

My horribly scatty but talented graphic designer/illustrator sister lives here, and I am down to stay with her for a few days. Newcastle is frighteningly different to Edinburgh — when I’m here I really miss the cafe culture, for example; and there are less hippies, less tattoo parlours, less bookstores, less pashmina-flipping toffs. My sister actually hates the place and yearns for the time she can come back to Edinburgh, but I think Newcastle has its charms. If you’re ever over in that direction, be sure to check out Attica, a well-hidden but utterly amazing hoarde of vintage treasures, run by a bloke who looks eerily like Marc Bolan. For that kind of stuff, you’re in the right area — Attica is just off High Bridge, which has heaps of other cool second hand clothes stores, including Period. You should also go and find Scorpio Shoes, which stocks every kind of Doc Marten you can think of and is recognisable by the enormous DM boot on the roof; the Shoe Tree (which is in Armstrong Park), and pay a visit to Tynemouth if you can! I think mostly my sister and I will be wandering the streets, charity shop bargain-hunting (Newcastle is also good for this!), doodling and scribbling, drinking lots of tea and taking ridiculous photos of ourselves. Good times!

Jenson Button.
OK, prepare yourselves for some motorsport chat, because Jenson did it again this weekend, and at Monaco, too! After the Spanish Grand Prix I claimed in public (ie, Facebook) that my money was on Jenson, and got a whole load of flack about how ‘it’s a fluke, he won’t keep winning, Monaco will be the deal-breaker,’ so I am very pleased that he’s come through again in such style! I wasn’t always a fan of his whinging behaviour at Honda last season (although I’ve always supported his teammate Barrichello),but he’s undoubtedly a great driver who deserves a Championship (even if he does forget where to park sometimes!) — lets hope he gets one! Jenson FTW! (Also, there’s a lot of kvetching going on at the various F1 forums about Jenson’s 5 wins out of 6 — apparently it’s not exciting. But it’s about the racing, not the winner, not the Championship at all really… and for me this season has been the most exciting for a long time! Bring on the Turkish GP!)

White Oleander.
I’ve started reading novels again, thanks to Miriam, who gave me a huge heap of them (right now I am halfway through Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Blind Assassin‘, which I’ve already read about four times). Last week, I devoured White Oleander by Janet Fitch, an absolutely great book about an emotionally damaged female poet and the poisonous hold she has over her young daughter. It’s a big, spiralling novel with a lot in it, but I read nearly the entire thing in one sitting. Some of it clunks a little — the idea that Ingrid becomes an incredibly famous poet, for example, when the occasional poems Fitch includes are basically dreadful (she should definitely stick to writing prose)! I also bought the movie, which is OK but impossible to like much after the book, as it misses so much good stuff out — they also changed it so Ingrid is a visual artist, rather than a poet, which really pissed me off. Why could she not be a poet? Would it make the movie too “highbrow”? Very irritating. Robin Wright-Penn is fantastic, though. Anyone else read this/seen the film?

Honourable mentions: charity shopping — I scooped heaps of great poetry books (Eddie Gibbons, Gillian Allnutt) over the weekend, just mooching round the thrift stores in Stockbridge // spending nearly 24 solid hours watching motorsport: F1 qualifying, Formula Renault, British Touring Car Championship, Red Bull Air Racing, Formula 1 Grand Prix. Thank you ITV4! // Making mix CDs // looking forward to my travels this summer — a week in the Lake District, a week in North Yorkshire, a weekend at Nozstock Festival in Herefordshire (THE BUZZCOCKS headlining!!!). Nowhere exotic, but it’s going to be good! // Plotting things, as always // Twitter. I am becoming sadly, sadly addicted.

Et toi??

(Photo by Bakerella)

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This week’s Featured Poet is Weston T Holder

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Weston is a young poet (just 13!) and a regular commenter here at ONS — I also know his work from his deviantART scribblings! He wanted to introduce himself, so here’s a little information about him, and the first of three of his poems. Enjoy!

“My name is Weston T. Holder, I live in McDonough, Georgia, and I go to a private school. I’m possibly the biggest dork ever, I’ve written about 60 poems, and I’m currently working on a rough manuscript for a poetry book and a 10-page short story. I’m a huge poetry fan, from the likes of Jude Skylar to the brillance of Will Soule. My dreams are to be published and maybe become that one huge position, The U.S. Poet Laureate! I also hope to win next year’s Scholastic Writing Award, for the heck of it. I am a Baptist Christian — my religon doesn’t influence my poetry much, but e.e. cummings does. I hope to be a great poet someday, and some have said I have irrevokable talent and potential (I don’t agree with them). I’ll write on any subject, from hate to loneliness to ashes. Many of my poems have been written during school time and carried around on torn scraps of paper all day. I’ve been writing for almost eight months. This gets a little personal, but i’m actually in love with another poet my age, which is a scary and rare thing to find.”


When feelings come to
Pass ill return to this place
And find that the grove
Was just to save face.

And the shoreline’s edge
Came lapping the dead oak
And the salt killed the dirt
And let the rest choke.

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Favourite poets from YouTube — Part 8: Beat Generation

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

So, as you all know, I am a bit of a Beat Generation nut… and a lot of people say “I don’t know much Beat stuff, where should I start?” Well, YouTube is not the greatest Beat resource, but there are some gems there. Here’s good old Allen with ‘Father Death Blues’ — see also America (music by Tom Waits), Howl (read by John Turturro and Allen Ginsberg), & A Supermarket in California (poem starts at about 1:28).

Here’s Bill Burroughs with ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive. There is a fair bit of Burroughs on YouTube… see also Words of Advice for Young People (try to ignore the terrible video montage!), When I Stopped Wanting To Be President, The Do-Rights and what?! William Burroughs advertising for Nike?!

I absolutely love Diane Di Prima and want her to be my crazy poet aunt. Here she is doing a few on ‘Lunch Poems.’ See also April Fool Birthday Poem For Grandpa and a sample from Coming to terms with impermanence.

Undoubtedly the weirdest-looking (and possibly just the weirdest) Beat, here’s Gregory Corso reading Bomb (and telling off the audience at 0:38!). See also Marriage (read by the wonderful Ian Dury), and a snippet of Corso: The Film.

Others: Not fully “a Beat,” but here’s a sweet visualisation of Frank O Hara’s ‘As Planned’ // Jack Kerouac reading from American Haiku and from one of his novels (I can’t work out which — anyone know?).

As always, tell me your favourite YouTube poems!

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Featured Magazines #13: Thirteen Myna Birds

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

13 Myna Birds
Editor: Juliet Cook
Established: 2008
Based in: Unknown
Submit via email:

Thirteen Myna Birds is a blogzine that believes in the transient, fleeting nature of art… or at least, that’s the way it seems. Submit a poem to them, and if they decide to publish it, it won’t be around for long — your poem appears, and then pretty soon, it is gone. It’s five minutes of fame in poetic form: it’s what marks this zine out from the rest.

So yes… if you’re looking to set your poem in stone, put it out there for all to see for all eternity, this is not the place for you. There are no archives — your poem is featured in a list along with 12 others, and as new poems are listed, you are bumped downwards until you fall off the end (at this point your name is “etherised” at the bottom of the front page). However, there is something quite cool about this concept, I think — if you visit the blog regularly, you always have something new to look at. Each time you re-visit, you see the existing poems in a new context, they evolve by association. And let’s face it, when you publish a poem anywhere, how many people are going to go back and read it over and over and over? Especially if it’s been there for years? The only thing you miss out on is a permalink to stick on your MySpace page.

So Thirteen Myna Birds does not follow standard publishing procedure… but that’s OK, because they’re pretty non-standard anyway. Adorned with an unflinching photo of blood-spattered doughnuts and a diagram detailing the best way to remove organs and bones, the scanty submission guidelines (scroll right down) request that all poems sent be equally unflinching, daring, quirky, and weird: “[we are] seeking the evocative, the connotative, the creepy, the odd, the paranormal, and the dark.”They’re not sticklers for form — if your piece is even vaguely poetry-like, they’ll take it: “poetic blurbs and blurts and brambles and darts such as dreamscapes and petite fictions” are all welcome. All they ask is this: make it weird.

Weird can be good. Some of the stuff that appears on the blog is really, really good. As well as myself, Thirteen Myna Birds has featured work from the likes of Morganne Couch and Cassandra Key. Right now they’re featuring a piece by Howard Good. Every time I visit, I find something I like. When you submit, editor Juliet will repond quickly and with as little fuss as possible… your poem gets posted quickly and you get told about it (just as well, you need to screencap before it slides away!). Even if you just want a weird and wonderful read, it’s worth visiting.

Know a zine, journal or other publication that deserves some recognition? Let me know in the comments box or by emailing!

(Photo by ※ Eἧchลn†rễsŞ ※)

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How to get a regret-free literary tattoo — Part 3: No regrets.

Monday, May 25th, 2009

So, in Part One I talked about preparing yourself, and in Part Two, how to pick a design that’s right for you. However, one of the trickiest things about getting a tattoo is reconciling yourself with the fact that this is for life (unless you have £££ for surgery!). Here are a few pointers to make sure you have no regrets!

1. Pick a design that means something…
I discussed the potential problems behind a ‘passing phase’ tattoo (like the recent Maori tribal craze, or in more literary terms, a Harry Potter homage, for example) in Part Two, but when I say “means something,” I’m talking about something beyond “a design you won’t be embarrassed by when you’re 40.” The fact is, you can make any design mean something to you — and that’s the secret to living life as a tattooed person without regrets. Rather than just picking something you like on an aesthetic level, or something that reflects an element of your persona right now, it helps to attach a deeper meaning. All my tattoos so far have marked major events in my life: getting a first for my undergrad dissertation (actually, I did one of those ‘I’ll eat my hat’ things, saying that if I got a first I’d go and get a tattoo, thinking I never would. Duh.), graduating from my MA, etc. Whenever I look at my tattoos (see point 4), I look back at those events — it’s a lasting reminder of something cool, which means it’ll be a lot harder for negative connotations to creep in, I think. Tattooing something that has been really significant in your life (rather than just something you like) also adds meaning — RT Press poet Eric Hamilton recently had this design from Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons tattooed on himself… not the greatest book as Eric himself freely admits, but one his cellmate in jail gave to him; the tattoo is a commemoration of that time, that person. Basically, it doesn’t matter what meaning you attach to your ink, just that, chances are, you’ll be a lot less likely to regret it later if it does mean something, rather than just being a whim or a reflection of your current tastes and ideas.

2. …but don’t get inked on the rebound!
So like I say, getting a tattoo to recognise a significant event or person is a great idea… but make sure the event or the person has and always will have positive connotations for you. A lot of people get tattooed when they come out of a relationship — I suppose it feels like one of those ‘new start’ things, like buying a whole new wardrobe or shaving your head. However, getting tattooed is far more permanent, and if you do it when you’re feeling bitter or fragile, chances are you’ll regret it later. Tattoos that commemorate negative happenings can be fine, but all too often your ink becomes a symbol of something you later realise you’d rather forget, when it’s associated with something like a death, a personal failure, the end of a relationship. One of my golden tattooing rules (because yes, I am planning to have more, no matter how much my mother sighs about it!) is that I’ll never get a tattoo that marks a love interest or relationship — I’ve heard far too many horror stories. Just look at Johnny Depp, who famously had to change “Winona Forever” to “Wino Forever” (er, yep…) when he and Ms Ryder divorced. I know we’re talking about literary stuff, so how about this: you may love and adore that e.e. cummings quote from your last Valentine’s card now (cummings is VERY trendy for tattoos at the moment by the way!), but will the two of you always be head-over-heels in love?

3. Build your design into your life.
I mean it: get your design down on paper, perfect it, and then make sure you look at it every single day. Pin it up next to your bed, doodle it in margins, draw a ‘first draft’ on your skin with Sharpie marker, show it to your friends. Do this for a good while — I suggest months, particularly if it’s your first tattoo, and I’d say the bigger the design, the longer the time you should ponder. If you can look at your chosen design every single day for six months without getting sick of it, that’s a good sign. I thought about my first tattoo design for literally years and years — yes, partly because I was just chicken about getting it done — but I’m glad I did. I’ve had other designs which, at the time of devising them, I was positive I wanted to have inked… now I am grateful every single day that I didn’t actually go out and get them done there and then, but waited and thought about it, and the phase passed! If you’re serious about getting your first ink, you really should be thinking long and hard about it. Maybe less so for future tattoos, but the first one is a biggie.

4. Realise that it’s not that big a deal.
OK, after the first three points this seems contradictory, but actually, I think tattoos are less regrettable than most people think. Yes, I know a few people who’ve regretted their ink, but usually those people have learned from the mistake, and either learned to embrace their misguided tattoo as a symbol of their youthful zeal (or the like!), or designed themselves a kick-ass cover-up. I don’t know a single person who’s regretted a tattoo so much that they’ve had to fork out to laser it off. Non-tattooed people see this as a very big barrier, and I think it’s the main reason a lot of people decide not to be inked. However, what the uninitiated don’t realise is that actually, after a while (and this sounds weird, but go with it) you stop seeing your tattoos. OK, I am not head-to-foot covered, but The Boy, whose whole arms are pretty well-illustrated, says the same thing. In truth, you don’t have to look at this image you’ve chosen every single day of your life… it just becomes another physical feature, like your eye colour or a birthmark or the shape of your toes. Chances are you won’t regret it because you won’t notice it after a while… other people will, and I think actually, that’s the thing to take into consideration. How will other people react to you when you’re tattooed… and will you always be happy for them to react in that way?

5. Try one of two of these ideas before you get inked to further banish regret!
Turn your tattoo design into a personal “tag,” like a graffiti artist — obviously this is easier if your design is relatively small or relatively simple. Doodle your tattoo on the front of your notebook, put it on the head of your letters or the corner of your email signature. Make it your Facebook avatar — use it as a kind of personal logo. Firstly, if you can do this without getting sick of it, that’s a good sign. Secondly, it may become such a part of your identity that you can’t not get it inked! // Make a list of the pros and cons of being tattooed… or if you’re already tattooed, of having this particular tattoo. Is it controversial? In a very visible place? Marking something important to you? Are these pros or cons, or both? Writing it down will make it more structured and help you make a decision. // Draw your tattoo on yourself. I know this sounds ridiculous, but it makes sense! OK, you may not be any kind of tattoo artist (if you have a really unsteady hand, get a friend to do it for you!), but it’s a representation of what your ink will look like ‘on’, which can be important… like clothes, tattoos can look very different on your skin than they do on the hanger, as it were. Make sure you use non-toxic ink (Sharpies are good and come highly recommended by tattoo artists, in fact), and that it’ll wash off relatively easily! // Make a few alternative designs. It might just be a tweak here and there that makes them different, but this is for life, so you need to get the right one. Try them all out in the ways suggested above. Do a straw poll — ask your friends and family what they reckon. Take suggestions on board — yes, it’s your tattoo and very personal but sometimes a “have you thought about…?” = striking gold.

Are you tattooed, in a literary way or otherwise? Do you have a tattoo you regret, other suggestions to banish negative feelings? You know where the comments box is! Part IV… soon!

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Featured Poet Mandy Maxwell Interviewed

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

Tell us about your poems.
My poems are extremely varied in style and content at the moment as I am, in the words of my tutors at Newcastle University, finding my voice.
I’ve written about a wee girl peeing herself in class, (which I do admit is autobiographical), about Michelangelo becoming so fed up with painting the Sistine Chapel (which took him four years) that he decides to call up Pope Julius II to ‘pull a sickie’.
I’ve written about having a crush on a high school teacher, being unable to seduce her, and having her daughter instead and more recently I’ve been putting pieces together about Glasgow – perhaps because I’m in the Newcastle area just now and missing home. Possibly also because I am finding my one, identifiable voice and writing about home comes naturally to me.
I’ve also recently been looking at traditional forms of poetry such as the villanelle, the sestina (or the dreaded sestina as I’ve come to know it) and the sonnet. There’s more to form, I discovered, than the very strict, purist sense and I’ve been trying to develop my work into a more accessible take on the traditional forms. So far I’ve had some success with this. Finally I’d say my poetic philosophy is an adopted philosophy from the poet Colette Bryce, who told me recently that, when it comes to writing poetry, I should simply follow my nose.

How long have you been writing?
I haven’t been writing for so long. I started my first Professional Writing course in Glasgow in 2005 at the GCNS – Glasgow College of Nautical Studies. I completed a one-year course, which I’d totally recommend for anyone starting out, as it gives new writers the chance to read their own work to audiences around Glasgow alongside poets such as Des Dillon, Tom Leonard, Bernard McLaverty, Magi Gibson… and it opens doors for new writers.
I had some success following the course, I was published in the SQA anthology Write Times, I read my work in lots of venues around Glasgow and most importantly, I think, my confidence as a writer grew.

Do you have any publications to your name? What’s the next stage for your work?
My work has appeared in The Glasgow Review online, Mslexia Magazine, in the SQA Write Times anthology and Northern Lines.
In March I will be featured in Diamond Twig for poem of the month. I have work soon to appear in The Black Light Engine Room and Eleutheria.
I’ve also read my work on several community radio stations, including Leith FM which is loads of fun and I’d really recommend it if you get the chance.
I’m currently completing my MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University and working on my final folio of 40-50 poems, which I hope will form the majority of my first collection.
I have the first few sparkles of a PhD research proposal dancing around somewhere too.

What do you think is your biggest poetic achievement to date?
OK, my biggest poetic achievement to date may be that occasionally in Newcastle, where I read my work a fair bit, people will come up to me on the street, or once in a supermarket, and say –- oh, you’re that poet from the other night, you were really good etc, and it’s really lovely. Sometimes they even remember what I’ve read and that’s even better!
Second biggest achievement to date –- earning a whopping two-figure sum for some poetry related work I did recently. It’s the high-life!

What’s the best thing about writing poetry? And the worst?
The best thing about writing poetry is that it takes you somewhere you can’t quite explain, but you just know you never want to come back from. The worst thing about writing poetry is having to come back.
Ok, so that was the poet’s answer. The real answer is I just enjoy it, it’s not forced, it’s not a labour (well not always) and when it works it feels amazing.
The worst thing about writing poetry – the pay!

Got any suggestions for young, upcoming poets?
There are so many routes a young, upcoming poet could take. I’d recommend finding a really good, honest and supportive peer group. Its one thing to scribble away in your own bedroom, looking for the odd comment from family or friends, but it’s an invaluable component of a writer’s life to find peers who are willing to comment constructively and give informed opinions on work.
I seriously think that’s the only way a writer can develop, by putting his/her work out there to a group and accepting the feedback, good or bad. It might be within a university setting because there are so many excellent Creative Writing courses around the UK and it’s an excellent way to meet the right sort of people, or it might be in a writing group. Either way, finding like-minded people and working with them is essential.
I’d also suggest reading contemporary poetry and loads of it. A new writer has to know what’s out there, what’s being published, what works for people. I’m not suggesting a poet should write for an audience or should write what’s in trend, but what new writers will find when sending work off as submissions to lit mags and anthologies etc, is that they are advised to read the work previously published before submitting.
To write good poetry I think you must be able to read poetry – plus its fun.

Who/what influences your poetry?
Influences on my own work are contemporary poets such as Carol-Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Colette Bryce, W.N.Herbert, Sean O’Brien, Ruth Padel, Roger McGough… the list would go on!
Living by the sea in Tynemouth, where I am now, is inspirational. My current course at Newcastle Uni is inspiring and challenges me in ways I wouldn’t have considered on my own. My classmates constantly inspire me and I’m always influenced by the amount of talent I come across in the most unexpected places. Of course, like any writer, I’m inspired by the everyday: signs in shop windows, conversations over-heard on public transport, graffiti and occasionally the contestants on X Factor.

Michelangelo Pulls a Sickie

Last night I dreamt of Coliseums and conquests,
gladiators in half dress, spreading over
clear blue canvas. Of air conditioning,
dining al fresco, and cabriolets driving
along Roman roads. I woke this morning
with a crick in my neck, gazing at the ceiling,
paint peeling grey from white
like old angels wings in half flight.
I dreamt of Adam in the night. Bushed by Eve
and her appetite, he had sickened of pie
and apple wine, he said gardening was over-rated.
I think I’ll stay at home today, call Julius
with a stomach ache, to fix this house
perhaps I’ll decorate.

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BBC2’s ‘Why Poetry Matters’: my (not altogether nice) thoughts.

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

I’ve just finished watching the BBC’s Why Poetry Matters show on BBC iPlayer, part of their Poetry Season — you too can watch it until Wednesday, here. However, I have to say in all honesty, I wouldn’t bother.

I was turned off this ‘Poetry Season’ idea from the word go: i.e., seeing the trailer, which featured the gruesome Lauren Laverne giving a bad reading of a poem in a multi-storey carpark. I also read the Radio Times (my mum buys it, OK?) piece on the season which only made me shudder all the more. However, I knew I couldn’t not watch this show, so I steeled myself, and went for it.

It doesn’t start well… Griff Rhys-Jones (who don’t get me wrong, I quite like) leaping around like a loon in a field of daffodils, reciting… well, guess which poem? Why is it that that is the poem the media always choose to use (remember that hideous –and it’s for real! — Visit Cumbria ad?)? The poem every single person in the country knows off by heart whether they like it or not (and generally they don’t) — one that’s been used to torture schoolchildren for generations? Needless to say, this opening did not have me jumping for joy… and actually, I am tempted to re-watch and count the number of times the name “Wordsworth” is spoken. Too many, anyway.

In fact, there was far too much emphasis placed on the old, dead, white, male, well-known schoolroom poets. I made notes: Marvel, Tennyson, Hopkins, Milton, Keats, a bit from King Lear, and of course, dear old Wordsworth. The only contemporary poet who got a look-in was Aidan Henri, and even then, only for about three seconds. Mostly, the poems were ill-chosen and read stuffily (or raced through, like Simon Armitage’s very perfunctory reading of the Keats) — the exceptions being Robert Frost’s ‘A Dust of Snow,’ and Johnson’s famous piece to his dead son, both read excellently by Rhys-Jones (if only he hadn’t started analysing the Johnson piece when he was finished!). Larkin and Betjeman — poets far more fitting for a programme intended to explain to the uninitiated “why poetry matters” — were mentioned, but their work was not quoted. Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ got a look-in, but in the form of an ancient filmreel with a reading by someone who may or may not have been Richard Burton putting on his plummiest accent. At times it felt a bit ‘here are all the poems we learned at Eaton, let’s have a jolly good old nostalgia trip about it, shall we?’ — at one point, Rhys-Jones even said “real poetry… the poetry I learned at school.” The visit to the rich, white, middle-class, middle-aged poetry group in Southend was about the final straw for me (although actually… that might have been Andrew Motion’s classic soundbite: “people need to get used to the idea that poetry is difficult — get over it!” Yet again, new fans won all across the land. Well done, you freaking moron).

The show was a mish-mash of weird and random… stuff, too. At one point, Rhys-Jones wandered into a church and tried to vaguely tie poetry and the Bible together as twin emotional liferafts. He went to Faber & Faber and talked for about two minutes about publishing… but only about publishing with them (and again, it smacked of the Old Boy’s Club just a bit). The Secretary of State for Culture got a few seconds, and he used them to show that he doesn’t know much about poetry but does a great line in bullshitting. There was a bizarre segment with Valerie Laws and some beachballs with words written on them (this would have been far more effective if they’d got kids to do the activity, I think), and Simon Armitage’s “poetry operation” with a Keats poem and some Scrabble tiles didn’t seem to be doing anything. Worst — and this really was horrific — Rhys-Jones went to see the ‘Poetry Doctor’, an insipid woman in a nurse’s uniform who “prescribed” poems to him according to his “emotional needs”. Like I say, I was taking notes… they got quite scribbly and profane around this point in the show.

I know, I know… thanks to the stingy BBC they only had an hour to explain what poetry is and why it gets written and why it matters. And yes, some of it was alright — good, even. The segment early on in the show about how we experience poetry as children was, overall, pretty OK. We got to hear a snippet of ‘Jabberwocky’ and Rhys-Jones discussed the integral role poetry plays in young children’s linguistic and social development (although he was quick to contradict Les Murray’s observation that “kids are immunized against poetry at school”; something which is very true and needs dealing with, not glossing over). The most sensible words in the whole thing were spoken by performance poet Charlie Dark (token black poet, which I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t horribly obvious). He talked about how important it is for children to read and write poems about things that matter to them, things they understand; he spoke passionately about how poetry can empower young people, and there were clips of him doing some cool spoken-word exercises with a group of primary school kids.
Rhys-Jones also spoke to the brilliant Ian McMillan, who I love, and who also spoke a lot of sense about the need for poets-in-residence, the accessibility of poetry and the need for all writers to read (”if you bred budgies, you’d read budgie breeding magazines, wouldn’t you?”). More of this type of stuff, and less of the jolly old Boy’s Club, would have been lovely…

At the end, Rhys-Jones went to a slam in London. I got a bit excited at this point, because I spotted an acquaintance of mine (and a great poet, by the way), Catherine Brogan, in the audience. Unfortunately, you didn’t get to hear any of her poetry — instead you got to hear some quite average ‘it’s a hard-knock life’-type slam poetry done by a white girl with a pseudo-hiphop reading voice and a terrible tattoo (just sayin’). And then, of course, Rhys-Jones did the whole WOW PERFORMANCE POETRY IS THE FUTURE THE PAGE IS DEAD THIS SHIT IS WHERE IT’S AT speech — which sounded really sincere coming from a guy who’d spent the last hour praising Wordsworth and friends to the skies…

Yes, OK, I am a huge cynic and this is a pretty evil write-up of what was just supposed to be an hour of light-but-intellectual midweek entertainment. But see where I am coming from: I am a woman (were any female poets represented? Apart from Valerie Laws’ beachballs, not one), I am a contemporary poet (literally five seconds of Aidan Henri and a couple of minutes at a slam. Nothing else post-1970), I am painfully aware of class (Ian McMillan — otherwise, upper-middle all the way), and if not race, then certainly origin (one black poet — everyone else was white. And English). Considering the huge question posed by this show — “why does poetry matter?” — it all seemed rather narrow and inward-looking. Faber&Faber are the only publisher in the world, England is the only country, there are no poets writing right now about stuff that matters right now. Or at least, if that isn’t the case, the BBC doesn’t want to know. The show was not representative — in fact, it bordered on narrow minded, even prejudicial. It was haphazard, and overall it was just safe. I came away still not knowing why BBC2 thought poetry mattered — just thanking God that (I think) I already know.

You can watch Why Poetry Matters on BBC iPlayer from now until Wednesday 27th May.

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