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What to buy for Sebastian? And Robin? And Uncle Jock?

SHOP

There are four new HappenStance poetry pamphlets. Would your friends and relatives enjoy one of them as a seasonal gift? Which one? I don't know. love them all.   

But ever helpful, I thought I'd offer some buying tips. (All are the same price – £5.00, or £3.75 to subscribers.)

Bookmarks, D.A. Prince

A set of poems inspired by the markers we leave in books. It would appeal to the sort of person who loves reading, and leaves piles of books lying around (it comes with its own bookmark so that's a special touch). Poets should be inspired by it too: there's food for thought here about poem-stimuli. All D.A. Prince's poems have layers: you can read them for their surface meaning and immediate interest, and then go back many times over.

Honeycomb, M.R. Peacocke

This is a slender set, only 24 pages long. The poems inside are delicate, careful and emotive. The connecting theme may be age and ageing but the touch is light. It does make a good gift for the older reader, but I think those who love lyrical work would also take to it instantly, at any age. And for anyone who already knows M.R. Peacocke's work, it's a must.

The Lesser Mortal, Geoff Lander

This is a great gift for scientists —perhaps in particular scientists who don't think of themselves as poetry readers (also a good gift for artists who don't think of themselves as scientists) — or young folk planning on science degrees. The contents are beautifully formal (rhymed and metrical) and fun to read, though far from trivial in their preoccupations. Geoff Lander is meticulous in his footnotes too, added value and pleasure here.

Briar Mouth, Helen Nicholson

An unusual first collection by someone who hails from the west coast of Scotland —some of her more eccentric Scottish relatives feature here, as does her experience of growing up with a stammer. Helen Nicholson, (a founder member of Magma) writes with wit, subtlety and charm. An especially good gift for those with Scottish connections, or interested in communication (Helen is now afundraiser for a Dundee-based charity for children and young people with speech, language and communication difficulties).

And what about Now the Robin by Hamish Whyte, published earlier this year? There's a seasonal bird on the front cover, and two festive robins on the last page too (see illustration below). One of the finest feats for a poet is to write simply: Hamish Whyte does it with bells on. Now the Robin will appeal to anyone who loves sitting in a garden. And of course people called Robin.

Last but not least, there's a HappenStance poetry party next Saturday at the Scottish Poetry Library where you can see these publications and decide for yourself. Do come if you live near enough — but reserve a place because space is limited. There'll be cakes from Alison Brackenbury's Aunt Margaret's Pudding, something festive to drink, and of course some poets and poems.

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THE POETRY ELF FAILS TO WRITE THE RIGHT SORT OF BLOG

MAILSHO_20181118-122706_1 HappenStance mail in waiting

They have switched the Christmas lights on in our town and the shops (those of them that are still in business) are full of tinsel and elves.

Here at HappenStance HQ, two elves are busy putting bits of paper into envelopes. Tomorrow a mailshot goes out to the 310 postal subscribers and 100 or so electronic ones.

We have four new pamphlets out (or will have by tomorrow) and are hoping that some people will want to buy some as seasonal gifts. Poetry needs all the help it can get to find its way into people's houses. But assuming you buy one, the little folded, staple-stitched publication you will hold in your hand has weeks and weeks and weeks of activity behind it. It's the claws of Art, which extend to many activities.

First there's the acreage of time that the poet put into each line: the thought, the revision, the doubt, the risk. In some cases, this takes years. Well, you know about that.

Then there's the discussion of the poems one by one with me, the fate of the semi-colons, the ones that didn't make the cut, the titles that were changed, the order of contents — all of that business. Hours, rather than weeks, but then subsequent weeks of email exchanges about drafts (with four different poets at the same time).

There's the image on the cover and the discussions with Gillian Rose who draws them between fighting off small children. There are the images she and I rejected, and the days spent in In-Design and Photoshop trying (and frequently failing) to make the jacket look like I want it to. 

There's the title registration and uploading of jacket images to Nielsen Bookdata, and then, after an interval to allow them to be processed, the giant Amazon (oops, I haven't done Amazon yet — so add that to the list of things to do today, 21 and counting).

There's the trip with the pamphlet pages to be printed to Robert and Liz at Dolphin Press in Glenrothes, about a mile from here. Yes, this is very old-fashioned. I print them and take them. There's the review of what endpapers we have left or can use from Robert's stock. 

Then, for Robert at Dolphin, there's the making of the lithographic plates, the printing, and this time round there's the day the stapling machine broke and Robert spent three and a half hours fixing it (I think that was part way through D.A. Prince's Bookmarks, but it could have been Geoff Lander's The Lesser Mortal).

But before the stapling, there's the collating of pages (usually Robert and Liz's daughter Nicky does that), the filling of boxes. There's me driving there to pick up boxes, and me and Matt staggering along to the house with them (the hall is full of cardboard boxes and we haven't even picked up Meg Peacocke's Honeycomb or Helen Nicholson's Briar Mouth yet).

And the flyers. Each new pamphlet has a promotional flyer, so those take a while to design and make, and then they're printed by Robert in time for the mailshot, into which (this time) goes not only four flyers but a bookmark, a postcard, a Bardcard, a newsletter and (if it applies) a subscription renewal slip. The postcard was printed by Moo (costs a fortune but they do a good job), the bookmark by Solopress (cheaper and not bad). Designing and uploading and ordering these – a day for each one.

The newsletters take an age to write. Each time I'm fearful of forgetting to mention something or someone essential and obvious. The brain gets too full. Some days I could forget my own name. And there has to be a product page in the online shop for each pamphlet, and an updated poet's page for the poet, and an electronic version of everything in the right place at the right time for the online-only subscribers. All that stuff is ready now: I spent a couple of days on it last week, but it's not yet visible. (Don't publish the product till you're ready to sell it!)

Besides, first I had to update the  publications in print list, and the subscriber list, making sure as I can that the second of these is accurate and that the address labels correspond with the list (there are always anomalies because some people renew by cheque and some online, and the two systems need a human being to bring them together). That takes another half day. Then finally I print the address labels.

Matt collates all the bits and pieces for the mailshot, gets very grumpy, tells me whether we have enough envelopes of the right size, fills the envelopes and sticks on the labels, and checks them off on the list one by one, adding in reminders to those who are due to renew. He usually discovers (and brandishes) at least three mistakes I've made somewhere. The whole process takes him three days and quite a bit of backache, and I am not allowed to interrupt except with meals. Finally we put them in sacks and drive them in a pony and cart (not really – it's a small red car) to the sorting office on the other side of the town. (NB We haven't even sold one pamphlet yet.)

Then there are copies to be sent to the authors (they get twenty complimentary pamphlets), and copies sent to the copyright libraries, and Scottish poetry library, and Southbank Poetry library, and complimentary copies to old friends and supporters, and review copies hither and thither, and there's the bemused expression on the face of the lady in the post office when I arrive to buy another three hundred quid's worth of stamps. Yes, the cost is scary!

In fact, the cost in time and money and elves is all upfront. It takes faith. By this stage, the bank account is at rock bottom so we wait anxiously to see what will sell and when. New publications help to sell the ones that are already done and dusted (literally) and sitting hopefully. 

Oh, I forgot to mention the publisher's blog. That is this VERY document, which has failed miserably to do what promotional text should do – mention the most important thing first.

Well, let me see. What was the most important thing? Oh yes, the titles of the four new publications. Here I am talking about making them and the key fact of selling them and I haven't even told you anything about them. 

Nor have I mentioned the reading window NOT being in December, but in January now. That's important too. Oh bum.

Watch this space. I have just spent four hours writing the wrong sort of blog. I'll be back tomorrow. 


Recent Comments
Oliver Comins
Dear Nell - if I had some sparkly lights in your town, then I would switch them on for a short while each day...to celebrate being... Read More
Sunday, 18 November 2018 23:31
Helena Nelson
Dear Oliver -- If you came to visit, then we would get a double set of lights and have them on constantly until you went away. As ... Read More
Monday, 19 November 2018 09:41
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MORE ON SMALLS

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So last week it was small poems for washing up with, but I forgot to mention one.                                                                            

Not sure how I forgot, but maybe it's because it's in the middle of the puddings, when actually it has nothing to do with recipes or cooking. Except possibly a connection with one of the ingredients not being there.

By 'the puddings', I mean Aunt Margaret's Pudding, Alison Brackenbury's book full of more than just poems and more than just recipes.

Somewhere in the middle of this book there is a very tiny poem. But a tiny poem can punch above its weight.

It's called 'Lincolnshire Water' and goes like this, and this is all there is – shortest poem in the book:

Here is strong land, whose grass
does not spill foaming milk,
where I still hear, in February,
taps hiss cold silk.

That's an old poet's trick – starting with a statement that says what something is not.

No dairy farming in Lincolnshire, then – no crying over spilled milk. No, this little poem is building towards something else – a last line that's perilously hard to say out loud. Try it. 

Taps   hiss   cold   silk.

Your mouth has to make each of those monosyllables separately. Each makes its own clear sound, with 's' and 'k' the loudest consonants. It's a line of only four syllables, but long long long on sound and resonance. Each word carries its own full stress and weight ('spondee', if you like the proper metrical term).

Taps   hiss   cold   silk.

Now there's a poem for washing up with!

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SO WHO WROTE ‘FERISHTAH’S FANCIES’?

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Nearly all the poetry I read these days is based on the poet's personal experience. I know we're not supposed to assume that 'I' is 'me', but mostly, actually, it is.

So much so, that one could conclude the main purpose of poetry is, and has always been, to share personal experience, mend the heart, shed the anguish, spill the beans.

Except it isn't. For most of history, poetry was much more likely to be fiction or historical non-fiction. Yes, there were short lyric pieces – songs and sonnets – which might be personal. But the long ones, which represented the more ambitious work, told (and re-told) fictional or historical stories.

Chaucer took Troilus and Criseyde, as well as the linked narratives of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

Shakespeare (forget the sonnets) did plays in iambic pentameter, and Venus and Adonis.

Edmund Spenser spent more than six years of his life failing to finish The Faerie Queene.

Milton? Paradise Lost,of course (recently adapted for Radio 4 by Michael Symmons Roberts). He also tackled Paradise Regained (I dare to suggest this will never be adapted for radio).

Longfellow? Hiawatha, of course.

Keats (forget the odes) wrote elaborate narratives – Endymion, Hyperion, The Eve of St Agnes.

Shelley did the same (The Revolt of Islam, The Witch of Atlas), as well as entire plays in verse. Who reads The Cenci now?

Byron? Don Juan.The Siege of Abydos. The Bride of Corinth.

Browning (not Elizabeth, Robert) wrote one verse novel after another (The Ring and the Book), as well as the shorter narratives (My Last Duchess) that school students still study. 

Coleridge? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Tennyson? The Lady of Shalott and Ulysses.

Wordsworth was the odd one out with The Prelude, which was indeed about his own life, but don't forget The White Doe of Rylstone (subtitled, irresistibly) The Fate of the Nortons).

Even Christina Rossetti had Goblin Market, allegedly for children.

Then we get into the twentieth century and the age of the lyric anthology, and suddenly it seems almost everything's personal and mostly no longer than a page. Magazines feature short poems in verse and short stories in prose. We have forgotten now that T S Eliot wrote no fewer than seven verse plays (The Elder Statesman was published as late as 1959).

Okay – there are, even now, exceptions. Occasionally lengthy fictional verse narratives do pop up, even if they don't win the T S Eliot prize. This is the territory of J.O. Morgan (At Maldon and In Casting Off). And even novelists occasionally tiptoe into narrative poems: Vikram Seth (The Golden Gate), Anthony Burgess (Byrne).

(I am struggling to think of female authors of long narrative poems. Is there a gender issue here? Suggestions, please, in the comments boxes below.)

Anyway, let me get back to where I started. During the reading 'windows' that I manage in July and December, I suggest poets don't send more than 6 poems. This, of course, assumes they are not writing the equivalent of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (though if they were, they could send 6 pages).

The poems that arrive usually sit somewhere near the middle of a page, surrounded by white space. Often people feel obliged to include a prose poem (square boxes surrounded by a similar amount of space). The white space these days is creeping into the poem itself, so it may spread out like a wide paper hanky with holes. Either way, 98% of the poems are short. If I get one that's three pages long, to tell the truth, I take a deep breath and sigh.

Except last year something different happened (yes, my entire blog has been building to this point, and I'm grateful if you made it this far).

Joan Lennon, best known for her children's fiction but also a true poet, sent me some verse narratives, of varying lengths. Stories. Some were biblical, some were classical. One was just slightly futuristic.... I found them fascinating, beautifully made, and unusually pleasurable to read.

Then in the December window, one Michael Grieve (whose name was entirely unfamiliar to me) apologised for sending a longer poem. I took a deep breath, began to read and did not look up until I finished, at which point I did – yes – sigh. A sigh of satisfaction.

It suddenly occurred to me I had been reading fictions. Short stories in verse form, beautifully executed. Such a lovely change from the personal piece (which I do not wish to rubbish: it is my bread and butter).

So I asked permission to publish one of Joan's story-poems, and I asked Michael for his (it turns out to be a debut publication in his case). They have materialised: Granny Garbage and Luck.

These are slender one-poem pamphlets. They are utterly readable and great fun. I can't tell you much about them without giving away detail that you need to find out for yourself. I suggest you buy them (they cost very little), read them, and then give them to a friend, someone you can talk to about what happens in the end....

ps I forgot to tell you who wrote Ferishtah's Fancies. Robert Browning, of course. Don't tell me you haven't read it....

Recent Comments
Helena Nelson
Kate Tempest. Yes -- oral tradition -- and maybe some of the ballads singers (more fictional/historical narratives) were female. W... Read More
Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:10
Helena Nelson
Oh YES -- had forgotten Barrett Browning's The Battle of Marathon and Aurora Leigh. Good point! And The Farmer's Bride (which I l... Read More
Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:56
Helena Nelson
And oh YES, the-boy-stood-on-the-burning-deck Felicia Hemans! I wonder what an 'abencerrage' could possibly be? It's really impres... Read More
Sunday, 15 April 2018 14:03
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THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING

AUNTMSPUD

 I've always thought poems and recipes have much in common. The list of ingredients in short lines. Lots of space on the page. The method of making, sometimes in numbered steps with energetic and commanding verbs.

Weigh, mix, stir, simmer, bake, cool, eat.

So when Alison Brackenbury suggested a collection of poems based on hand-written recipes (her grandmother's) the idea appealed immediately—but the recipes themselves, or some of them, had to go in too.

Then it got more complicated. If the book was recipes, as well as puddings, we would have to test them—otherwise some of them might work for Dorothy Eliza Barnes (Dot), but not for us, or future readers.

Alison had vivid memories of Dot's delicious cooking, which was a grand incentive. She set about trying and testing a method for some of her favourites, including 'Aunt Margaret's Pudding', an old-fashioned steamed affair. Who eats steamed pudding these days?

The answer is—Alison and her husband, and then, last December (when Alison had written down the method) me and my family too. You see, Dot's recipes (she had worked as a professional cook in the early part of the twentieth century) were just a scribbled list of ingredients. She knew how to make them—she didn't need to record that bit.


Page one: Aunt Margaret's Pudding.
Take half a pound of flour,
three ounces lard (or butter), egg,
milk, sugar, baking powder.
Spread jam in basin, summer gleam.
Poke fire! For ninety minutes, steam.

    [ From 'Start' ]

This was a whole new approach to publishing. Not just proof-reading poems but proving the puddings, cakes and scones. My favourites turned out to be Raspberry Buns and Quaker Oat Scones, which disappeared in hours—the ultimate test of a good recipe.

This was a book with wonderful ingredients: poems, recipes (Dot's version and Alison's version), photographs, memories. Knowing Alison to be also a first-rate prose writer (not all poets are), I suggested she do a brief memoir too. She came up with a fascinating narrative—a story of rare determination and creativity in tough times. 

So the book—Aunt Margaret's Pudding—is fully cooked. I gave a copy to my old friend Tony (he is not far off 90). Tony has never understood why I should want to publish poetry, and regards the genre as plainly unnecessary. But I knew for a fact that his mother made steamed puddings: he used to talk about them hungrily. Once a pudding lover, always a pudding lover.

All the same, I didn't particularly expect Tony to read the book, so was rather pleased when he phoned to say at last I had published something he had really enjoyed. 'And the bit at the end,' he said, 'the prose pages about her grandmother—well, that's more poetry than the poems.'

Hurray! The book can, as I hoped, appeal to a wider audience than the usual poetry people, though I feel sure they will like it too. It's the ingredients that really make it different—recipe, then poems, recipe, poems, recipe, poems, memoir. And it's a most moving tribute to Dot, who might otherwise be as lost as 'The Lost Farm'.

Which is not entirely lost. It's in the book.


Quaker Oat Scones
Raspberry bun and tea
Quaker Oat Scones
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RECIPES FOR POEMS AND POEMS WITH RECIPES

RASPBERRY-BUNS

There are recipes for certain kinds of poem. Villanelles, for example.

Ingredients: one rhyming couplet, each line sufficiently persuasive to bear four repetitions and bake on its own with strong flour. If you have any iambic pentameter, so much the better. Select a third line that's easy to rhyme with, since this pudding (I mean poem) only has two rhymes throughout. Pre-heat your oven to approximately 180°C.

But you don't want to make a villanelle, surely. I know they're fun to concoct, but so rarely sustaining. They remind me of Dr Johnson's unfortunate but memorable observation on women's preaching: 'like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all'.

But I digress. I am thinking really about poems with recipes rather than recipes for poems. I am working on Alison Brackenbury's forthcoming HappenStance publication, which was to have been a pamphlet and has grown into a delightful book. It is called Aunt Margaret's Pudding and contains a mixture of poems and recipes, as well as a brief account of the life of the woman who inspired them – Alison's grandmother, Dot – who worked, at one time, as a professional cook.

As a recipe lover myself, I have often been struck by the similarity, on the page, of poems and recipes. They both often resemble lists, but they're a little unpredictable. They can sprawl unexpectedly, and contain little asides that have nothing to do with the food. You can make of them what you will.

Either way, it strikes me as an excellent combination. Alison's poems are particularly good if read in combination with a cup of tea and, say, a raspberry bun. (I especially like Dot's raspberry buns and my other half, Matt, who almost never eats cake, has developed an interesting partiality for them.) So this is a little advance puff for her book, though there will be much more about it later.

I once tried to combine a recipe and a poem. That is to say I converted a recipe into what seemed to me at the time to be poetic form. I am not sure the results would have pleased the T S Eliot judges, but at least it has saved the recipe from getting lost – another use of poetry, if you like. Before it became a poem, I once lost it, and my friend Barbara, to whom I had passed it on, copied it out and gave it back to me. It is called 'Pain de Campagne' and when Barbara returned it to me, she had subtitled it 'Tired of Living in the Country'.

So whether or not it's good poem, I know it's a good recipe. It is tried and tested by more than one of us and will not let you down. Here it is:

Pain de Campagne

Day 1:
Mix these things in a roomy bowl:

8 ounces of strong white bread flour
A scant dessertspoon of table salt
8 fluid ounces of tepid water
A little dried yeast (a scant half teaspoon)

Cover with a plate and leave till next day.
At night dream richly. Record your dreams.

Day 2:
Return to the bowl.

Add 4 fluid ounces of luke-warm water
and then 4 ounces of whole-wheat flour.
As you stir the mixture, remember your dreams.
They will rise to the surface in tiny bubbles.

Cover and leave. Sleep well that night.
Record your dreams.

Day 3:

Back to the bowl.

Beat in more water—4 fluid ounces
and then add 12 ounces of strong white flour—
enough to make a workable dough.
Knead at length, remembering your dreams.
Add flour if needed. Continue to work
until the dough is beautifully smooth.

Leave to rise till doubled in size.
Sleep, if you wish, while the bread rises.

Later the same day

Punch back the dough.
Knead briefly and form a long oval.
Place on a baking tray covered in flour.
Shake more flour on top of the loaf.
Lightly cover and let it rise.

This loaf will grow.

When the size impresses you
slash the top with diagonal cuts
and bake very hot[1] for a quarter of an hour,
then somewhat cooler for twenty minutes[2].


The crust of this loaf will be domed and firm,
the crumb dreamy.
It will make great sandwiches, keep well
and prove that poetry can be useful.

[1] 230C

[2] Or perhaps a little longer, at 180° 



Recent Comments
Ama Bolton
Mmm ... yummy! Thank you. Here's my recipe in return. How to make Sloe Gin Buy a litre bottle of gin. Drink half. With friends. ... Read More
Monday, 15 January 2018 14:29
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