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WHY WRITE POETRY REVIEWS?

LONG-PI_20221102-184434_1 Pamphlets in waiting

And come to that, why read them? If I pick up a magazine that mixes poems and reviews, will I turn avidly to the reviews? Nope. Unless – just possibly – I know there's something controversial in one of them. I will start by reading the poems: first the poets I know, then the ones I don't. I may get to the reviews later. Maybe.

There's only one type of review people turn to immediately with an adrenalin spurt — yes, it's the one that features their own poems. In fact, it may be the only thing they read in the magazine.

Poets generally like to get reviews of their books, though they don't always like the reviews they get. They're far less keen on the writing side, that is to say writing reviews of other poets' books. A few, however, do take on the review task regularly, uncomplainingly and reliably. They are usually – but not invariably – unpaid. Reviewers are the Cinderellas of poetry. There are no national prizes or shortlists for them (fortunately). Occasionally, of course, a review does draw considerable attention by upsetting people, generally unintentionally.

Since 2005, I've been running Sphinx Review: an online publication offering short written responses to poetry pamphlets. I have a co-editor (Charlotte Gann) and a team of 14 – 25 reviewers. Each time a set of reviews is ready, an email newsletter goes out. We have just over 400 subscribers; the 'open' rate is about 33% and the click rate 45%. People may also arrive at individual reviews through FaceBook, Twitter, email and word of mouth. Some of them are widely read. Some are copied onto other websites. Some are hardly read at all. But since they're online, they're there for as long as the site lasts. They help make a poet googlable.

Running Sphinx Review costs masses of time and a growing sum of money. I've been doing it since 2005, with unpaid helpers. It's getting more difficult to afford, in every sense. Next year, when I'm seventy, I will stop. My bones are creaking.

But why start it in the first place? I thought it was important. I still do. I'm a publisher. I put out books and pamphlets and I want them to be noticed. I want there to be a conversation. And I believe in putting your money, as they say, where your mouth is.

The Sphinx approach to reviewing has always been unconventional, and bound by certain principles. We review nearly all the pamphlets that come in, not just the classy ones. We run more than one review for a pamphlet, provided we have more than one copy. When we have new reviewers, we work with them to build confidence and sharpen style. Our reviews are short – hopefully too short to be boring. Our editors (Charlotte Gann and myself) are dedicated and painstaking.

I believe it's good for poets to write reviews. It makes them better readers; it makes them think things through. It makes them look closely, makes them re-read, check references and examine their own prejudices. It teaches them poetry tricks they can use themselves and poetry faults they can avoid. Writing good, accessible reviews is an art worth working at.

Ah but I find it easier to say why poets should write reviews than why they should read them. I'd like to think people might read interesting and original reviews for pleasure. But do they?

This forthcoming Saturday 5 November, I am taking part in a poetry panel as part of the Push the Boat Out festival in Edinburgh, a live event. We will be wrangling over the ins and outs of reviewing. And the very next day, on Sunday 6th, HappenStance poet D A Prince will be on a panel in Poetry in Aldeburgh doing something similar, a live event with a live-streamed option. If you can get to either, please do come along, bringing your ideas and opinions with you. Or post them below. Do you read reviews of poetry books and pamphlets? And if so, why?

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RUNCIBLE SPOONS & OTHER CUTTING EDGE ISSUES

SPOON

 In December 2012 I blogged about the spoon poems in Richie McCaffery's Spinning Plates. Lovely work. Richie is a collector of old things, notably spoons and books. I've been a bit of a collector of both too. In the end I had to stop. I developed ambitions to possess cutlery far beyond my means.

Writing that blog back in 2012, I also popped in a poem by Hilary Menos. And now things have come full circle, because it happens to be in a whole pamphlet: Fear of Forks.

So it seems cutlery poems appeal to me a lot. You don't get many of them on Ebay, and Hilary has written more than any other poet I know. They needed collecting, and cherishing.

It strikes me that quite a number of poets may be inspired by cutlery. Michael Laskey and D A Prince have unforgettable poems featuring a particular kitchen knife. Maybe more of you have cutlery poems somewhere in your store? Tableware is so familiar, and still valuable. Something useful that's also beautiful. Or something beautiful because it's useful.

I have a little silver fork that was given to me as a baby, a christening present. It has a space where my initials should have gone but they never did. My sister had one too. Where did hers go? Who will want mine when I'm gone?

We have a launch event coming up shortly, where I'm going to discuss The Friday Poem ezine with Hilary and her husband Andy. We'll also speak about cutlery and, of course, cutlery poems. Cutting edge poetry.

Do register and come if you can. I promise an interesting discussion. That's 6.30 pm (London time) Tuesday 20th September in the year the Queen died: 2022.

Here's the link for registration (you have to register in order to come): https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_fl3x2aIXTn-yrjmllb3wPw

And do post any spoon (or cutlery) poem below, if you have a short-ish one you're prepared to share. 


The fork without my initials, and some shortbread I made last night.
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GINA WILSON, POET

GINA-WILSON

Gina Wilson died last month, June 23. She was perhaps best known as a children's author or (to her clients and friends) as a psychotherapist. HappenStance brought out her first pamphlet of poems for adults in 2010. It was called Scissors, Paper, Stone. I'm going to sound feeble and ineffectual but still I'll say it. I knew her illness was life-threatening. I knew she would probably die of it eventually. But I feel lost for words.

I'd always assumed she would go on to produce a full collection of poems, maybe two. She had a second pamphlet from Mariscat in 2017 – a real beaut – and she was always working on a poem. She'd send me one or two now and again: always short, but intense. She was a slow poet (my favourite kind). A poem might rumble on for years while she thought it through, whatever it was. Sometimes her results were stunning. Fabulous syntax. Take the title poem of her 2017 Mariscat pamphlet It Was and It Wasn't. Just ten lines long – but by gum, it stays with you:

TREASURE

Squirrels spend a lot of time
digging up and reburying their store,
checking it's still there, taking a bite.
My mother used to be the same
with dates and nuts at Christmas.
Never an unopened box of anything
by the Day itself. Funny how people
can't quite bury a treasure. My brother
dug up our dead rabbit by torchlight
to see if it was safe. It was and it wasn't.

Gina had first started sending adult poems to magazines in the mid 1990s, won the Frogmore Poetry Prize in 1997. She was already a successful children's writer. She had several teenage novels (remember Cora Ravenwing?) and one book of poems for kids.

She grew more confident with an adult readership, and wrote more simply. Clean lines. Short sentences. 

She was a member of writing groups. She liked going to the workshops run by Peter and Ann Sansom in particular. 

I kept one of her poems in two versions; she'd sent them to me years apart. The first version had three possible titles and 112 words. The second had one title and 60 words. The first has a simile ('She looks like the stone goblin'). The second version moves simile into metaphor ('She's a stone / gnome').

She resisted epiphanies (although I should say, bearing in mind her mischievous sense of humour, that one of my favourite poems is dated 'Epiphany, 2015'). Often she's so plain, so deliberately distanced from metaphor, that a naturally occurring experience suddenly seems to be one of the metaphors life itself has offered. It's as though each detail has symbolic meaning if only we could see it.

Sometimes, the book jackets of celebrated poets refer to the author as 'an important poet'. Gina was never dubbed 'an important poet', never even tried to be an important poet. But the pain of this new absence reminds me that she was important to me. And so were her poems.

Poets do leave bits of themselves in what they write, and if the poems are alive, so is a bit of them. 

With her daughter's permission, I'll quote one of Gina's last pieces. She's still right here in the hospital waiting room, consciously unimportant and waiting to be weighed. Isn't this a metaphor?


IMPORTANT PEOPLE
Pandemic, 2020

I'm reading the book my daughter gave me last Christmas,
A History of the World in 21 Women. She likes facts,
something to believe in, and I'm trying to believe in a world
made up of Joan of Arc, Frida Kahlo, Banazir Bhutto …
their wonders reeled off on ten pages each.

Around me, the hospital waiting room is dotted
with very ill people. They whisper in pairs, or sit separated
by six feet, some reading like me or pretending to,
watching the clock go round. Nameless nurses, in blue,
walk through and back and through again.
Once in a while they call someone to stand on the scales.

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ON LOSING A FRIEND

Full colour photo of a pile of books by or edited by Warren Hope, a set of spines.

 Once it would be a letter that failed to get an answer, or a Christmas card that didn't arrive. These days, it's an email that isn't answered. And a follow-up email that goes nowhere.

If the person's on FaceBook, you check to see if there's anything there about an illness, a problem, a death. If they're not, you wait a little. Maybe you google the name, just in case there's a headline somewhere. You ransack your brain to think who else you know who also knows your non-answering friend.

It was the Scottish (but living in Ireland) poet and novelist David Cameron who was able to confirm for me that Warren Hope had left the building. By which I mean, of course, he was gone forever (I'm resisting that nasty adjective 'dead'). Warren was a poet, and he was the biographer of Norman Cameron (not related to David). He was also a close friend of the late Robert Nye, who first introduced me to him.

I knew Warren Hope as a friend for well over two decades. I knew his health was at risk. I knew the heart of this good-hearted man was a problem. I had emailed to ask him something. The question will never be answered, could never have been answered. I wrote some days after he had taken his last breath. My message disappeared into the ether, a perpetual question mark.

For a good while, I had—without realising it—come to rely on Warren's wisdom, his kindness, his insights into (and knowledge of) English poetry. Although American, and living near Philadelphia, he was published both as a poet and a critic/biographer by Jim Hodgson of Greenwich Exchange. He and Hodgson were long-term friends—part of a network of connections stretching back through Martin Seymour-Smith, Robert Nye, C. H. Sisson, James Reeves, Norman Cameron, Robert Graves—stretching back, stretching back….

Warren's own poetic work is not extensive, a handful of slim publications. His mode is characteristically quiet. If you read him aloud, you note the careful pacing, the gentle melodic variation. The poems seem to be about not much, and yet…

Druthers

When you ask me about my travel plans
I tell you that, if I could have my druthers,
I'd fly by British Air to London's Heathrow,
Then take the special train to Paddington
And go by rail from there to Penzance, Cornwall.

After a single night spent at the Abbey
for luck, perhaps, or else for old times' sake,
I'd fly by chopper to the Scilly Isles,
There to admire for, say, eternity,
The way rock in old age resists the sea.


When a writer friend dies, I collect all the books and papers I have of theirs and pile them up, flick through them, touch them. They're magical relics. They call the person into the room. Warren's here right now in his Student Guide to Seamus Heaney. He's busily considering the 'conflict between the Heaney of uncertainty and the Heaney with authority'. Warren liked poems 'that grew from an inner necessity'. He found them in Heaney's sonnet sequence Clearances: 'Heaney has never again written anything to compare with these rapidly composed sonnets.' He wasn't afraid to speak straight, even about the good and (popularly regarded as) great. (He wouldn't have used the word 'great'.)

He wrote confidently about poetry—fearlessly—and he wrote well. I find myself smiling at his Student Guide to Philip Larkin when he remarks, 'There is a good deal of talk among critics about a poet's need to 'find his own voice' as if it were something that existed but had temporarily been mislaid.' And I recall that comment about the poet's 'inner necessity' when he says of Larkin: 'The dignified, useful, but painful silence of his last years is the real evidence of his integrity as a poet.'

Earlier this year, my friend had completed a revised edition of his biography of Norman Cameron. As a biographer, Hope fully deserves the term 'definitive': it is a fine volume, an essential reference book, and a pleasure to read. His subject, Norman Cameron, also believed poems should only be written when driven by inner necessity. Warren was the perfect biographer for him. So much so, that the biographer's comment on Cameron's oeuvre could apply to his own: 'His work will perhaps become better known when we realise the question to be asked of a poem is not how big it is, but whether it is alive.' Hope follows this by quoting Cameron's wonderful poem The Compassionate Fool.

But Warren's poems are also very different from Cameron's. Often, they're like a man musing softly. A conversation overheard, easy to miss. He loves an iambic pentameter line, and it loves him. I'll close with a poem from Adam's Thoughts in Winter (Greenwich Exchange, 2002).

The Master's Routine

You know the story anyway. Can see
It all. The long and empty platform where
The stationmaster in a peaked red cap
Rehearses how he would rush out to greet
The august persons he might someday welcome.
He paces briskly down the platform's length,
Comes to attention, clicks his heels and bows.
A village girl, hiding and watching, laughs.
Arrival of the Emperor himself
Could never please him half so much as does
The sound of laughter that girl daily makes.


Both poems quoted here can be found in Selected and New Poems, Warren Hope, Greenwich Exchange, 2020 

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THE WHEEDLE CRAZE

This is a screenshot of a Wordle result, with three words, first PIXEL, then EXPAT, then EPOXY

Q: When does a Wordle not make a Wheedle?

A: When you fail to solve the Wordle. This happens to some of the best people. I know because I've been one.

This blog entry is a spin off from the Wheedle challenge, which in turn is a spin off from Wordle, the online word game. Click on the link above and you'll see how to play it.

In Wordle much depends on the first and second guess. These early words rule out key letters, or rule them in. Sometimes, by a stroke of luck the first word puts two letters in the correct places.

It's more difficult if the winning word uses a letter more than once. Also if it starts with a vowel.

But now a new issue has developed for some. If thinking of writing a Wheedle, it may affect the words you choose for Wordle. Aaaaargh! 

Today, for example, I longed to enter 'TRYST' for my Wordle first guess, but this would have used up two Ts at the start without eliminating any vowels. Much more sensible to go for TEACH or TEARS. (Mind you, TEARS is not bad for the first line of a Wheedle.)

Thus the writing of Wheedles affects Wordle choices.

Thus the writing of poems affects your attitude to words in other places throughout your whole life.

Thus a person can develop an obsession.

Should you, by any chance, have no idea what I'm talking about, it's the Wheedle challenge, set up by Eddie Gibbons and myself, with over twenty-five participating poets. Eddie came up with the idea first. I admit I egged him on.

The results (see Wheedle pages) have been fascinating. The final word is the same for every person, and yet the ways of getting there are so many and various! I really hadn't anticipated that 'epoxy' could be rhymed so variously. Constraints breed ingenuity.

No more commmunications about Wheedles, I promise. It's not for everybody.

But for those who like to play at tricks with poetic forms, the game continues on FaceBook and Twitter where you can post your daily results using the hashtag #wheedlexxx (where xxx is the number of the Wordle solved). Best not to post until the day after the relevant Wordle (avoid putting spoilers out there).

And for inveterate addicts, Eddie has suggested sharing your Super Wheedle at the end of each Wordle week…. 

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The Art of the Epigraph, or What Are Poets Really After?

PHOTO2-2022-02-14-23-11-22

I often confuse 'epigraph' and 'epigram'. These two Greek words seem uncomfortably similar to me.          

There's good reason for this: Merriam Webster reveals that 'epigramma' actually derives from the Greek 'epigraphein', meaning 'to write on'. The Roman poet Martial was famed for his 'epigrammata' (epigrams, not epigraphs): witty, terse little poems.

But forget epigrams. I intend to write about the epigraph, by which I mean the little bit of text, often in italics, that sits snugly between the title of a poem and its first line. This is described by MW as 'a quotation set at the beginning of a literary work […] to suggest its theme', which is at best only a partial description of the thing I have in mind.

Has anyone ever been publicly praised for their epigraphs, I wonder? Because currently poets do seem to like them. They're especially fond of prefacing their creations with that troubling wee beast, the 'after' statement. I'm not sure when this started: I've just flicked through The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse and I can't see any 'after' poems. They all seem to be befores.

Nonetheless, it's not unusual these days to find you're reading something 'After Wendy Cope' or 'After W H Auden'. If there's no mention of a specific poem, we nervously take the 'afters' to be a general allusion to style. Nervously because maybe there's a resemblance between the poem we're about to read and another we ought to know. A resemblance self-evident to everybody except us.

Still, the 'after' statement may be there as a point of honour. Perhaps the poet was inspired by somebody else's poem and wants to acknowledge that fact, whether or not the new poem resembles its 'before' source. (It occurs to me that poets grew keener to acknowledge such influences after poetry plagiarism became a hot topic.)

There are certain risks, though. An 'after' epigraph can make the poet look pompous. I would suggest 'After Seamus Heaney' and 'After William Shakespeare' are best avoided. The same applies to 'For Seamus Heaney' or 'For Philip Larkin'. Besides, writing a poem 'for' a dead poet (as opposed to a living friend) tends to work against the hope that it might have been written for the common reader.

If there is an art involved in the epigraph, shouldn't it be to give the reader a skilful tip-off, something that will make the poem better understood, or more accessible? There might be a painting, for example, that the reader needs to see in order to make sense of the imagery. In today's digital world, the epigraph can be helpfully hyperlinked to a relevant image, recording or film. Or there might be an essential place setting, a location, that the reader needs to know. In such cases, the epigraph is perfectly justified.

When it comes to an 'I. M.' statement, the decision is also straightforward. If a poem's written with a particular person in mind, someone who has perhaps died recently, it can be most helpful, and in some cases essential, to know the piece is 'in memoriam'.

There are even epigraphs consisting simply of a date. An obvious example is 9/11/2001: a historic allusion easily recognised by most adults. Such detail could be vital to making sense of what follows.

And that's the key. If unsure whether to include an epigraph or not, ask yourself whether it offers information the reader can't do without. Are you sure it isn't already in the title? Or the poem itself? You are sure. OK. Then let it stay.

But if the detail is enriching rather than essential, a useful alternative to consider may be a note. For the reader, notes are nicely optional, and can be placed in an obvious position at the foot of the poem-page, or more subtly at the back of the book.

Of course, in certain circumstances you could have an epigram as your epigraph. An epigram might have inspired the whole poem: 'I can resist everything except temptation' (Oscar Wilde). But that would be really confusing. 

Photo credit: Martin Lloyd
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