Archive for December, 2009

The decade’s best poetry books: my picks, part one.

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

It seems like everyone and their dog is doing a “Best of the Decade” list of something — books, films, songs, whatever. I started thinking about a list of Best Poetry Books, and have been sifting through my bookshelves for hours, trying to whittle down the choices from what seemed like hundreds. So many fantastic poetry books have been published in the past ten years by large and small presses alike, but in the end I managed to slim the list down to just a handful. Here are the first of my picks!

Ruin and Beauty: New and Selected Poems by Patricia Young (Anansi Press, Toronto, 2000).
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Patricia Young on this blog — I’ve been a huge fan of her work since I found Ruin and Beauty in a bookstore in Victoria, Canada in 2007. It’s a wide and varied selection of poems from her seven full collections, and utterly justifies Young’s status as one of Canada’s most important contemporary poets. There are so many fabulous poems inside, but my particular favourites are Looking For A Man, a poem about an alcoholic father’s strange power over his two young daughters; Weird Genes, about a family of sleepwalkers; When The Body Speaks To The Heart It Says, a poem I was even moved to write a response to; and The Fire, in which Young describes her child’s discovery of fire and builds this into a metaphor for coming of age. As you can probably tell even from these short descriptions, Young’s poetry is original, imaginative and shows impressive range. One of my favourite poetry collections not only of the past decade, but of all time.

Nine Horses by Billy Collins (Random House, London, 2002).
Again, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about Billy Collins on One Night Stanzas (in fact, others have written about him here, too!) — he’s a big favourite of mine, for his writing but also for his work in the wider poetry community. He is a great believer in the idea that there’s a poem out there for everyone, and has done fantastic work in promoting poetry to children and young people. To date, he has published more than ten collections, but of those from the last decade, Nine Horses is definitely my favourite. It feels a little darker than his previous works, and John Updike described the poems inside as “startling, more serious than they seem.” I’d particularly recommend Royal Aristocrat, (which I’m possibly only fond of because it’s about a typewriter); the fabulously sarcastic Litany; and No Time, the shortest poem in the collection in which Collins fleetingly reanimates his dead parents as he drives past the cemetery in which they’re buried. I’m aware that Billy Collins is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m tempted to say that the legions of stuffy critics lining up to say he’s “sentimental” or just writes prose with line breaks in it are seriously missing the point. One of my favourite things about Collins is his refusal to take poetry seriously — Poetry-With-A-Capital-P is thoroughly ridiculed (see Litany) and I’m sure Collins would be the first to hold up his hands and say that he’s not trying to do anything radical, different or even particularly clever. What he’s repeatedly pointed out, however, is that there needs to be some poetry out there that anyone can appreciate on some level — rather than writing for university educated reviewers, he’s writing for the average man or woman on the street. The critics can pontificate about the rights and wrongs of that all they like, but it’s working — Collins is one of the most widely read poets alive today. Read Nine Horses, and you may well see why.

Looking Through Letterboxes by Caroline Bird (Carcanet, Manchester, 2002).
Caroline Bird’s debut collection Looking Through Letterboxes was published in 2002, when she was just fifteen years old, and studying her GCSEs in high school. The book was huge, receiving wide critical acclaim, but Bird had already found success — by the age of fourteen, she’d aready won the Simon Elvin Young Poet of the Year Award twice. It’s all utterly deserved: Bird’s poetry is refreshingly original and amazingly assured, achieving a tone that many far more experienced poets strive for in vain. The poems are complex but accessible, weird but poignant, youthful and devil-may-care but also highly relevant. I absolutely love Bird’s ideas for poems — the complaints of an old red callbox in the poem Pissed Off Phone Box — but also the deft execution of these ideas: “Hoodlums // scrawling their latest love / in the yellow pages of my favourite book.” Other favourites from the collection include The Radiator In Your Room (”I’m thinking of all your knife-in-the-dark remarks, / the way you fold yourself into bed like a fig-roll / and blow out the lights with the breath of a switch”); Seven Ways Of Looking At A Fire (”black / wigwam / with a yellow hat / and a red umbrella, / opening and closing, / dancing”); and I Know This Because You Told Me (”If I take money from your wallet it is called crime; // if you take money from my piggy-bank it is called borrowing”). In short, I absolutely love this book — it feels wicked and audacious. Buy it!

More to come… but what are your favourite poetry books of the decade, and why? Get thee to the comments box or write a list of your own — just be sure to link me!

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In 2009, I…

Monday, December 28th, 2009

I did a big post of this ilk last year — basically a TiLT on the grand scale, saying “thanks” for all the cool stuff that happened in my life in 2008. It got a great response from all of you, and some of you even followed suit and made your own lists, which I loved reading. So without further ado, here’s my love-letter to 2009. In 2009, I…

* Started up my own small press, Read This Press, and have so far produced four chapbooks: Skin Deep: An Anthology of Poems on Tattoos and Tattooing; You Old Soak: Poems by Chris Lindores; Sharks Don’t Sleep: Poems by Eric Hamilton; and Masters: an anthology of poems by the University of Edinburgh Creative Writing MSc Poetry Class of 2009.

* Was nominated for the Scottish Variety Young Scottish Writer Of The Year Award.

* Kept Read This Magazine going throughout its second year – now plotting a total overhaul to (hopefully) turn it into a far superior publication!

* Started making recycled and upcycled jewellery out of a variety of bits and pieces (but mostly typewriter keys) in order to financially support Read This Press somewhat. I have now found that I love doing this, and set up shop.

* Helped my friend Stefa to set up the this collection project – a collaborative project designed to bring together poets and filmmakers. It’s still in the works so watch this space!

* Celebrated my 23rd birthday by moving flats (yes, I am insane) — I relocated from Edinburgh’s very central Grassmarket to Stockbridge, a little community on the outskirts of the New Town. It feels like living inside a Shirley Hughes book, I love it!

* Went to StAnza Festival for the first time, to see the tall lighthouse poets, Kevin Cadwallender, Alan Gillis, and attend a talk on young Scottish poets. All good stuff!

* Went on my first writerly retreat on the shores of Loch Tay with my MSc classmates.

* Read at five nights of the Utter! PBH Free Fringe Poetry Festival and two nights of the Underword PBH Free Fringe Poetry Festival, as part of the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival.

* Read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2009

* Also read at: The Bowery Book Club, VoxBox, The Golden Hour, The Golden Hour Book 2 official launch, and a bunch of other places.

* Took up the post of Residency and Education Director at the London Poetry Festival and helped to organise readers and visitors for the 2009 festival.

* Celebrated One Night Stanzas’ first birthday.

* Set up a second shop to get rid of some of my huge vintage clothing collection: Edinburgh Vintage

* Continued my work as a Lecturer in Literature and Communications at Telford College, and did some freelance English and Creative Writing tutoring in my spare time.

* Graduated from my MSc in Creative Writing with distinction, and celebrated by going for high tea at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh.

* Started my PhD in Creative Writing and Contemporary Scottish Poetry — if anyone has any info on William Burrough’s stay in Haddington or the Edinburgh Beat scene, let me know!

* Took Read This Press to the StAnza Poetry Market, the Scottish Poetry Library By Leaves We Live fair and the National Library of Scotland Christmas Poetry Pamphlet Fair.

* Started working on a super-top-secret but absolutely huge poetry project… I can’t wait to share it with you!

Magazine publications in 2009: Tontine, Issue 15 // Moloch, Issue 3 // Veto Magazine // Thirteen Myna Birds // The Glasgow Review // The Clearfield Review // Form.Reborn // Stop Buying Stuff // The Cadaverine // a handful of stones // The Chimaera // Tattoosday // Oxypoet // Trespass // Anything Anymore Anywhere // Umbrella

Other publications in 2009:
The Scottish Poetry Library’s 20 Best Scottish Poets of 2008 Anthology // The Scottish Poetry Library’s 20 Best Scottish Poets of 2009 Anthology (forthcoming) // 5Px2: An anthology of poetry in English and Italian // StAnza Festival’s Homecoming Haiku anthology // The Golden Hour Book Vol. 2 // Poetcasting Podcast for Pomeranate Magazine // Edinburgh College Of Art’s “DUO” anthology (collaboration with artist Lizzie Stuart) // Poetry Podcast for the Scottish Poetry Library // Poetry Podcast for Anon Magazine (under “Day 4″) // Vicious Verses and Reanimated Rhymes: Zany Zombie Poetry for the Undead Head // Edinburgh & South East Scotland: A New Edinburgh Travel Guide, ed. Vivien Devlin // The London Poetry Pearl Anthology // The Positivity Blog, // The Secret Society of List Addicts

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End-of-year resolutions for poets.

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Think I’m a little early for resolutions? Think again. Those New Year’s Resolutions you make every year… how many of them do you actually do? I am guessing not that many really come to fruition, and here’s my theory: you need a deadline. If you’re against the clock, you’re more likely to be focussed and determined to succeed — in theory! See if I’m right — revisit your 2009 New Year’s Resolutions and see how many a) you still want to achieve (I find my ‘wants’ at one end of a year can morph into something very different by the time I get to the other), and b) you think you can get through by 31st December. If you don’t have any resolutions, try doing at least one of these…

1. Send your work to That Magazine you’ve been eyeing up. Everyone has one or two magazines that they’d really like to place their poetry in, but aren’t sure whether they’re up to it. I have a friend whose motto is: ye willnae ken until ye gan, or in other words, how do you know whether you’ll make it or not until you submit the darned poem and find out? The worst thing they can say is ‘no thanks.’ You have twenty days… so submit already.

2. Read your poetry at an event. OK, so plenty of my readers are old hands at the whole public reading thing, but I still get heaps of emails from people saying “I want to read my poetry to an audience, but I’m terrified!” Now is the time to get up there and just do it. I know of heaps of Christmas-themed poetry events happening in my local area, so it’s likely you can find one or two, too. Get thee to an open mic!

3. Enter a contest. I know there are plenty of people reading this blog who’ve never done this, either! The contest circuit is quieter at this time of the year than at other times, but there are still plenty open for entries… there’s a good list right here… just remember to read the rules/T&Cs carefully before you hit ’send’.

4. Sign up to Twitter if you haven’t already. Here’s why!

5. Buy a poetry collection from a small publisher — and buy it direct from the publisher! Don’t go giving Amazon all your money! Going to the small press’ own website will mean that the vast majority of your pennies go straight to them… and their fabulous poetry book gets sent straight to you!

6. Commit an act of poetic terrorism, Christmassy or otherwise.

7. Give up a crappy habit (for a while). Yep, this one comes up on just about everyone’s New Year’s Resolution list… which is why people often fail. Habits are incredibly difficult to crack — whether your habit is smoking, procrastinating or even just talking too much. So try this… give up your bad habit just until 31st December. That seems a whole lot more manageable than ‘for good,’ right? Then take it from there.

8. Write a poem. Believe it or not, there are even some people who stop by ONS who’ve never written a poem in their lives. People! Do it now! It doesn’t have to be the world’s greatest literary masterpiece… it can just be about your cat. But give it a try. You never know what might happen…

Let me know your end of year resolutions!

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The 3 best poetry books published in 2009…

Monday, December 7th, 2009

I was recently asked by Michelle McGrane, who blogs over at Peony Moon, if I would share with her readers my three favourite poetry books published in 2009. Michelle has compiled quite a list — it spreads out over an epic eight blog posts — writers from all walks of life give their picks and recommendations from the past 12 months, and it’s a great way to compile a ‘to-read’ list as well as get an insight into what everyone’s been reading! I thought I’d also share my three choices with you guys too, and give you a bit of background info on why I picked them.

#3: Cover Story by Dave Coates
I was anxious to get some small press publications in my list, and they don’t come much smaller than Forest Publications. Run out of Edinburgh’s fabulous free-access arts collective The Forest, ForPub (as it is affectionately known) is volunteer-run and not-for-profit, but produces some truly amazing little books, not only of poetry but of prose and essays too. Although they’re small, they take huge pride in what they do — their chapbooks in particular are little works of art, featuring fabulous illustrations on ingeniously layered acetate covers. Priced at £2 each, these little gems are well worth picking up!
As for Dave… perhaps I am a bit biased, as he’s a Read This Magazine editor and one of my fellow MSc classmates, but I genuinely think his work deserves to make my list in spite of that. He’s a poet who really revels in sound, connotation and colour, and who strives to put a new spin on familiar tropes like “memory poems”, and in particular, the good old “bird poem.” Dave is starting to make a bit of a name for himself in the Edinburgh literary scene, and I hope that’s going to continue… if this chapbook is anything to go by, he more than deserves the attention!

#2: Dances With Vowels: New and Selected Poems by Kevin Cadwallender
Again, maybe I am a tad biased because Kevin is my editor, but he’s also one of the best performance poets of his generation, and I do not exaggerate! Kevin’s published many, many collections over his long poetic career, but this is his first from the lovely Smokestack Press, and it’s like a Greatest Hits album, gathering together the sparkliest poetic gems from all those previous publications and putting them all in one place, along with some brilliant new material for good measure. There’s nothing to match hearing Kevin reading his poems live, but reading this book comes a close second — favourite picks are the hilarious “Colouring In Guernica”, and the title poem “Dances With Vowels”, an idea so brilliant I desperately wish I’d thought of it first. This is a fairly hefty book full of great stuff, so definitely worth parting with your pennies for.

#1: Nothing Unrequited Here by Heather Bell
Those of you who’ve been with One Night Stanzas a while won’t be surprised to see this book at the top spot — Ms Bell’s name is regularly dropped here, and for good reason. This book is absolutely exquisite, and not just because it’s full of explosive, emotive and highly original poetry. It was hand-made by the truly brilliant Amanda Oaks, founder of Verve Bath Press, and is just one of many utterly gorgeous artisan chapbooks carefully crafted under Amanda’s watchful eye. Since publishing this volume, Heather has found huge success, too — her work has been published in Rattle, The Columbia Review and Grasslimb this year, and she was recently awarded the 2009 New Letters Poetry Prize. All of this is totally deserved — for me, she’s the new Sharon Olds, only better. Do I exaggerate? Buy the book and see for yourselves.

Others that nearly made the list…

Riddled With Errors by McGuire Pure distilled Glaswegian McGuire: “untamed poetry, bizzare stories, jaw dropping honesty, and dark science.”

How To Make People Love You by Heather Bell Heather’s self-published volume from early 2009, now unsurprisingly sold out.

The Ambulance Box by Andy Philip A brilliant and highly original debut collection.

Only this room by Kerry Hardie I only recently discovered Kerry Hardie, but I am very glad I did — her poems are truly stunning, and she’s become one of my all-time favourite poets.

Who’d make your 2009 Top 3?

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Why all poets should… support small presses.

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

A while ago I explained why all poets should… buy zines. Here’s the next in that series!

1. Small presses = hidden gold. There are some poets we’ve all heard of — mention Carol Ann Duffy or Simon Armitage or Billy Collins, and most people can reel off a couple of their most famous lines or at least name a poem or two. Sure, that’s because they’re incredibly talented and widely-read, but it’s also because they’re “signed” by large publishers with teams of PR people, employed solely to spread the word and sell as many books as possible. However, there are plenty of fantastic and highly distinguished poets out there that few people have really heard of, and the only reason is that they’re with smaller presses who don’t have the means to make them ‘famous.’ Most of my all-time favourite poets have names that meet with totally blank stares whenever I mention them, but they write incredible stuff. If you buy small press publications, you’ll find gold — big presses do not have the monopoly on fabulous writing talent!

2. They need your support. Sure, during dark times like these, all publishers and booksellers need your support — but small presses most of all. Profits for smaller presses are generally tiny; most are non-profit or run at a significant loss. Many small presses last only a short time and fold through lack of funds, but without smaller publications, the poetry community would be severely lacking. Think about it from the writer’s point of view, too — a writer whose book is with a small press generally won’t get an advance, or not a very sizeable one. That means they need to sell books in order to make any money from their book — literally, every sale counts.

3. Small presses are where you’ll probably start out. OK, there are poets who are so fabulous that their first collection is immediately snapped up by Faber and Faber without them even having to ask — there are also poets who just get incredibly lucky breaks. However for most poets, a small press is generally the first port of call for that debut pamphlet or collection.
Small presses make it so much easier for poets to get published. If the big publishing houses were the only ones, many poets would never get a chance to put a book out at all — not necessarily because they’re not ‘good enough,’ simply because even huge publishers can only accept a tiny percentage of the stuff they see. Small presses step into the breach to publish all variety of fabulous stuff… which may include your own work, now or in the future!

4. There are loads of them… which is a very good thing! If you want variety, sorry, but the last place you want to go is to a large publisher. The big guys are business-driven — they publish what will sell, which can mean that books from larger publishers don’t provide too much in the way of variety. It’s always a good idea to read stuff that’s new, different, surprising and original, and the best places to find that stuff? In the halls of Small Poetry Pressville. You not only get a huge variety of poetry though — there are a huge variety of publishers, too, all with different focusses and specialities. Variety is the spice of life so make your reading extra spicy — support a number of small presses and you’ll vastly enrich your book list.

5. They offer great value for money! Obviously, cover-price varies from publisher to publisher, but while publishers like Salt churn out £13 books and Carcanet price even their slimmest volume at around the £9 mark, smaller presses are able to stick cover prices closer to four or five quid on their books. How? Because their imprints are smaller, and because small presses don’t tend to have the bell-and-whistles “needed” by the bigger guys (full time graphic design team, typesetters, PR people etc), their overheads are nowhere near as high. Small presses also value every single sale and they know that more people will pick up their book if it’s only a fiver. They’re doing you a favour by making their books more affordable for you — do them a favour, and buy them!

6. You’re supporting local business. Or, you could be! Try if you can to hunt out the small presses in your local area, and concentrate on supporting them. That way, you’re contributing to your local literary scene and helping to keep it vibrant and alive. You’re also familiarising yourself with poets who are probably also local, which heightens your awareness of your immediate literary community and can help you to feel more involved in what’s going on in your area!

Recommend your favourite small press!

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