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Touchstones: Alison Prince

IMG_2459 From left to right: Helena Nelson, Hamish Whyte, Alison Prince, at the launch of 'Waking At Five Happens Again' in 2016

On Saturday 12 October, the poet Alison Prince breathed her last. Born in 1931, she'd had a long life, as these things go, though her last few years were complicated by illness, including major heart surgery. She is survived by four children, six grandchildren, three great-great grandchildren, and two cats. 

To everyone who knew Alison in her last decades, she was a starburst of creativity. She could turn her hand to almost anything: she could paint, she could draw, she could write, she played clarinet (jazz in a local group), she sang, she sustained friendships, helped and encouraged other writers, especially poets. She lived on the Scottish west coast island of Arran, which she loved. The vigour of her cheerfulness and determination was second to none.

Alison had always loved and written poetry (Mariscat Press brought out The Whifflet Train, a delightful pamphlet collection in 2003) but it wasn't what she was best known for. She was a prolific children's author, a life-long professional writer. The Sherwood Hero (1995) was joint winner (with Philip Pullman) of the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. Oranges and Murder was the Scottish Arts Council Children's Book of the Year in 2002. She wrote for adults too: biographies of Kenneth Grahame and Hans Christian Andersen. And cult lovers of the Trumpton series will already know who wrote the scripts.

But I knew her as a poet. In 2016 I joined with Hamish Whyte of Mariscat Press to publish a full collection of Alison's poems.

Waking at Five Happens Again was stylishly printed by Glasgow Print and Design Centre, beautifully typeset by Gerry Cambridge.

This lovely book gathered together a rich harvest of late poems. Been 2014 and 2016 Alison had been writing poetry profusely. She was acutely aware of her own mortality: it was as if it had sharpened her appetite for language. In the year before Waking At Five, I would open letters and emails from her and out the poems would tumble, so fast I could hardly keep up with responses. Many featured death in one sense or another, sometimes as the 'seductive musician', sometimes as a croupier, or 'the vast unknown'. Every scrap was characterised by wit, resourcefulness, lightness of touch, and a precise lyric ear.

Certain poems are touchstones. Here is one of them. It is the last piece in Waking At Five Happens Again, by the poet, Alison Prince.

Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae

It's very old, this singing
with no conductor and no instrument,
sometimes monastic, sometimes a madrigal
for joy or lament. Weep, O Mine Eyes,
the rising thirds a creeping grief.

If not running well, do it again.
It's the trying hard, the coming right,
that brings us to this table with its water jug,
to listen and to sing. 



Two of Alison's paintings
Recent Comments
Guest — Mary Thomson
Thank you Nell, a beautifully expressed tribute to a remarkable woman and artist.
Friday, 18 October 2019 19:49
Guest — Freda Edis (Cook)
A lovely tribute, Nell. It captures Alison's creativity beautifully. She will always be to me, rhough, my art teacher, as well as... Read More
Friday, 18 October 2019 20:52
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Smiles, Forests, Damsels, Knitting and Water

IMG_2580 Two new HappenStance pamphlets

We launch two new pamphlets this coming Saturday (October 5th) at the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell. They are Katharine Towers' The Violin Forestand Smile Variations by Martha Kapos.

So that's five pamphlets in all this year from HappenStance, fewer than usual — yes this is true. But each is packed with rarities.

When I think of any one of them, visual images flood my mind. In The Violin Forest, there's that lovely violin on the jacket, shaded with leafy branches. And inside the poems, there's an abandoned harmonium in a Sussex wood, and a dead fox, 'laid out on the road like a fox diagram'. Some bluebells have 'finished talking' and lain down 'under the tall beeches', and an old man (a luthier, no less) 'comes / to the forest walking and tapping in winter'. To read the poems is to enter a thinking space, green and leafy. You read, and re-read. When you come out, you have that Rip-Van-Winkle feeling. How long have you been gone?

And Smile Variations — here the jacket image evokes music too. There's a stave, and odd note-like symbols, and a treble clef, all moving in a circle, dynamic and strange. Inside the poems, there's fluidity and strangeness too, even where the situation is (almost) familiar. For example, a child listening to parents talking hears their voices as 'the muffled stuff of breath, a broken river'. Soon a smile 'has escaped over high walls'. Later that smile has 'snapped shut'. Perspectives are 'perilous', 'dwindling between hills'. I'm reminded of Alice in Wonderland where the reader identifies with a child's perspective, learning to make sense — a new sense, but never a non-sense: 'Sentences open in the morning / with nothing to hold them up.'

And Rachel Piercey's pamphlet, Disappointing Alice, has Alice stuck in the desert, begging her friends to come and save her. But they won't — 'the topsoil of their affection was thinning'. What's going on? There's a medieval damsel on the jacket, with a magnificent pointy headdress, but the narrator of 'Love' has 'one hand upon the latch' and 'one hand upon the axe'. There are heroines here, certainly, but being Eve, or Cinderella or Amelia Earhart — what does it mean? Who can damsels trust to save them when the damsels may be scamming? A teenager plays Miranda in a school production of The Tempest but she alters the end of the play completely. Forget Naples. Here Miranda stands in the sand waving off 'the boat of lordly men' before going back to the island with Ariel and Caliban to 'start again'.

Then Claire Crowther's Knithoard — this is different from all the others. Of course, it comes out of knitting, that traditional women's craft, that safe woolly pursuit. But this sequence of poems calls risk, fear and fragility into its meditative frame. Loosely based on the French medieval fatras form, it comprises a series of eleven-line poems, each with an introductory couplet. You could read the entire work as being about art. Or life. Or love. Into this, the lovely language of knitting is bound. A 'notion', for example, means (there is a helpful Glossary) 'any item of knitting equipment'. In 'Tension' the speaker says 'I am instructed over and over: / Change your yarn, / use bigger notions'. 'The readiness is all', as Hamlet said, and here that preparedness is in the final section: 'I will finish abandoned garments, cast off all / those vests sleeping in bags and drawers, / all the unfinished [ ... ]'.

The last shall be first and the first shall be last. The first pamphlet to appear this year was Lydia Kennaway's A History of Walkingwhich has now walked its way into many homes. There are two footprints on the cover, each with lines from poems written into them. And the poems are all about walking, and much more. There's Buzz Aldrin bouncing across the surface of the moon; there's Little Red Riding Hood, and Goldilocks; there's a baby taking her first steps; there's an old woman who has walked, and fallen, and will never get up. There's rage and mischief, and politics and desperation, and energy and fun. And there's 'Walking for Water', the image of which stays with me perhaps most clearly of all, because of what it is not:

Walking for water is not
to see an unmissable sight.
It is not on anybody's bucket list.

It is the flight of a migrating bird,
a cruel calculation of distance, fuel
and energy burned.

[Go here to hear Lydia reading this poem precisely as it should be heard.]


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Are Your Modifiers Dangling?

IMG_2013

My reading window last month brought more poems than ever before. So 159 poets sent work. I can't read and respond to more than 1000 poems a month and stay sane, so I was at my limit.

But the challenge remains interesting, not least in the way trends change noticeably from one window to the next. So here are some trends I observed during the window. I've mentioned many of them before, but not all.

(I am aware I have a number of bees in my bonnet. It's inescapable. You get over-sensitized to things.)

  1. There were an unprecedented number of poems formatted in double spacing (often because Microsoft Word may double-space each time you hit the 'return' or 'enter' key). I strongly suspect some people think this is what 'poem' text is suppose to look like.
  2. I have seen the most ever poems with zero punctuation, though the poet may make an exception in the case of a dash, a question mark or an ellipsis. So actually there is punctuation but no commas or full stops.
  3. Punctuation-less poems in stanza form but with a capital letter at the start of the first word of each stanza. Gaps may be used to suggest pauses.
  4. 'So' or 'such' used as intensifiers.
  5. Poems that switch verb tense somewhere in the middle. Most poems these days are in the present tense. We have forgotten that this is a fashion. Once they were mostly in the past tense.
  6. Insertion of the phrase 'I think of', sneaking in even more often than 'I remember'.
  7. Prose poems formatted in very wide blocks, long LONG lines.
  8. Line breaks allowed to substitute for commas.
  9. Punny titles.
  10. 'As' used too often (my most unfavourite word, because of its grisly sound and the fact it can mean three things)
  11. Lists of nouns, but no 'and' before the last one.
  12. Metaphors that create an unfortunate mental image if you take them literally.
  13. Some poets have favourite shapes, so each poem looks rather like the one before (even though it may be about something completely different) eg long and thin, or short and fat.
  14. Enjambing every stanza.
  15. Whilst, amidst (but not amongst).
  16. Not heft this time, and only one shards, but quite a bit of musk and citalopram.
  17. Pantoums (loads): it's the new villanelle.
  18. 'After' poems (I need to blog about this separately because there is no consistency in what people mean by 'after' and it really does get confusing).
  19. The single sentence poem that gets its syntactical knickers in a twist in the middle.
  20. Long sentences with difficult syntax, often with the key verb and subject delayed and maybe three or four line breaks to negotiate before things start to make sense.
  21. That thing called a 'dangling modifier' is an arch culprit in poems. If your modifiers are dangling, I'd say you have a problem.
  22. Anaphora poems, by which I mean poems that start each stanza or each line with the same word or phrase (the 'Because' poem is a familiar example). This can be powerful. This can be powerful, of course. This can be powerful in the right poem. But you can have too much of a powerful thing.
  23. Sentences starting with a verb but subject implied: I am seeing this more and more. She goes to the cupboard. Takes out a cup. Thinks of a bad sonnet. (Is this actually a variation on 'leaning verbs'?)
  24. The ampersand is back, judicious use in some poems, rather than a consistent stylistic feature.
  25. Poems that can only work inside the space of an A4 page.
  26. The single most common problem: unintended obscurity. The poem is behaving as though it's obvious what's going on but the reader is mystified. This is quite different from deliberate obscurity, which can be compelling.

If any of the points above are obscure, it was unintentional. Sometimes you just can't see how difficult you're being.


Recent Comments
Guest — Jinny Fisher
I love your trend round-ups, Nell; SUCH a lot to watch out for! One thing: prose poems surely don't have lines. The printed 'line... Read More
Sunday, 11 August 2019 12:40
Guest — grahaeme barrasford young
Wouldn't surprise me in the least.
Sunday, 11 August 2019 12:53
Helena Nelson
Dear Jinny -- no they do have lines. All text does. And sometimes even the end words are deliberate, not chance, though not for mo... Read More
Sunday, 11 August 2019 13:23
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THE WINDOW IS CLOSING

WINDOW2

This has been a hugely busy window month: I have received the most poems ever.

I think I've been useful to some poets, annoying to others. I really hope I haven't upset anybody. I have seen some excellent writing, some I was baffled by, and a great many pantoums. Pantoums are the new villanelle. (Josephine Corcoran, is this your fault?)

And where has all the punctuation gone? (Andrew McMillan, is this your fault?)

But the window is closing.

If you were sending poems by post, they needed to be on their way by today (Friday 26th) because Sunday is the last day, so they need to arrive Saturday.

If you are sending poems electronically (see new option on submissions page), you've got till Sunday night. But bear in mind that the recipient (me) is knackered.

WrapperRhymes have also been arriving, which is great. But the poets are not very good at reading the rules. Do take a look at the original Tumblr site to get the idea. 

Poetry is often strengthened by specific constraints. In this case the constraints are formal (it must rhyme) and physical (you have to write on the back of some wrapping, probably a biscuit or chocolate wrapper or similar, and this means you haven't much space and you may need a special pen). We have had rebel entries on boxes of tissues, paracetamol, toothpaste etc. So rebelling is possible, but do it deliberately!

Enough already. I still have poems to read. But my hand is on the latch.

I will be at the pamphlet fair at the Scottish Poetry Library tomorrow afternoon, 12-4.00 pm, 27 July, with Pimms. So if you're near enough, do come along.


Recent Comments
Josephine Corcoran Horsfall
Brilliantly helpful to me, thank you for robust and often surprising feedback. Never annoying! I am cross about the pantoums. I... Read More
Friday, 26 July 2019 14:45
Helena Nelson
Josephine don't worry -- I was teasing you. And everybody needs to know how to tackle a pantoum sooner or later, so it's good for ... Read More
Friday, 26 July 2019 17:25
Guest — Heather Trickey
Dear Helena, Every edit an ‘oh yes!’. And general advice on ‘how to be less baffling’ - so helpful. Thank you, thank you. H
Friday, 26 July 2019 22:53
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INTERNATIONAL WRAPPER-RHYME CHALLENGE (#HapWrap)

OATBARS

Poets and rhymers of the world, welcome to the International WrapperRhyme Challenge!

Our aim is to extend the reach of this enjoyable artform, culminating in a major exhibition/installation at StAnza, Scotland's Poetry Festival, in 2020.

(If you can't be bothered to read the rationale and the tips on best pens for the job — currently Artline Garden Marker — just go straight to the entry form).

Red Squirrel Press has just published some of my own WrapperRhymes. (I'm offering a unique, hand-written WrapperRhyme inside Branded sold via this website and — for those of you in or near Glasgow — there's a WrapperRhyme launch event at the CCA on the 18th of this month).

But the WrapperRhyme challenge is really not about me.

As a poetry editor/publisher, I want to encourage people to rhyme, and rhyme well. It saddens me that rhyming is generally 'out' these days, despite the persuasive words of ace-rhymer A. E. Stallings, and the bizarre popularity of the villanelle. You may even have read that English is 'rhyme-poor', compared to French and Italian. Bollocks! All you need is practice and determination.

So what is a WrapperRhyme? Nick Asbury, together with Glasgow's independent design studio Effektive, coined the term in 2011, after seeing an example by Ted Hughes written on the paper wrapping of a Tunnock's Caramel Wafer. This inspired a WrapperRhyme Tumblr site, to which poets were invited to contribute: https://wrapperrhymes-blog.tumblr.com

Alas, that wonderful WrapperRhyme site is no longer accepting contributions. But I am.

I want to attract WrapperRhymes (your very best, please) on food/beverage product wrappers from all over the world. These will be used to create an exhibition/installation at StAnza, Scotland's International Poetry Festival, in March 2020.

Is this just silliness? Emphatically not. Like any other bit of lightness, it can be done badly, or well. My own attempts vary, but I'm smug about the best of them.

There's an educative benefit too. WrapperRhyming makes you really look at packaging. Lists of ingredients provide fascination/horror/inspiration. You compare different brand designs. You pick up on rhythmic/alliterative marketing text.Before you know it, you find yourself researching the history of chocolate bar wrapping.

And you begin to notice what can be written on, and what can't. Potato snack packets are almost impossible. The flimsy plastic surrounding most chocolate bars is daunting. In Ted Hughes's day most food wrapping had a paper component. Now it's not so simple.

Any committed WrapperRhymer requires a suitable writing implement. I turned to Cultpens, who meet and exceed the promise of their strapline —'the widest range of pens on the planet'. So far, the only pen I have found which will write on almost anything is an Artline Garden Marker (a snip at £2.03). But you could choose to write on the packaging of Toblerone, or Terry's Chocolate Orange. Cardboard — easypeasy.

To date, I have WrapperRhymed on the paper sleeves of tins of tomatoes, baked beans, the labels of jars of beetroot and chutney, the cardboard wrapping of 'readymeals', butter paper, stock cube wrappers, frozen pea packets, and instant pastry. I have read the marketing text on each with minute interest and occasional horror.

Entries to the WrapperRhyme challenge are warmly welcomed from all ages, locations, and languages (but if not English, please provide a translation). They must be accompanied by an entry form (so that you give permission for your rhyme to be used in the exhibition) and of course they have to comply with the rules. The closing date is 25.12.2019.

If you need more information, send an email (but read the entry form and rules first). No limit to number of submissions.

Please share this opportunity and any of your WrapperRhyme creations as widely as you possibly can (#HapWrap). 

For International WrapperRhyme Entry form, click here.

Recent Comments
Guest — Hazel Macmillan
Oh! my oatie bars, my pocket meal. Saviour of the starved and wanderers in the wilderness.
Sunday, 09 June 2019 19:35
Guest — MARJORIE NEILSON
Oh dear what can the matter be On line iit says no longer than sixtee words but little leaflet with Branded pamphlet said to me th... Read More
Saturday, 29 June 2019 12:42
Guest — MARJORIE NEILSON
Oh dear what can the matter be On-line info says sixtee words, but leaflet with book says seventee So please kind Helene, tell me ... Read More
Saturday, 29 June 2019 12:50
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Twelve Reasons Why Poets Should Write Reviews

Okay: here goes.

  1. Poetry is a communication — a message in a bottle. A review is a reply.
  2. There is no shortage of poets. But good poetry readers are rare. Reviewing helps you read well.
  3. Reviewing is educative. You look up the references, you look up the poet, you pay attention. You learn things you never knew you didn't know.
  4. Reviewing poetry gives craft insight: you see new tricks to try, and also some to avoid.
  5. Most poets like to have work reviewed. If you give reviews, you get reviews (not always in equal proportion).
  6. Poets need to write well in prose too. Reviewing (with an editor and some constraints) strengthens prose style and confidence.
  7. Poetry books are costly, especially if you read widely. But review copies are usually complimentary.
  8. Reviews are an art form. Writing them is creative. 
  9. Reviewing strengthens your profile as a writer and extends your network.
  10. People sometimes think reviews are about criticism or praise. Not necessarily. They are (or can be) about expressing interest and encouragement.
  11. Reviewing is a way of paying respect to the community you're part of, putting your money where your mouth is.
  12. A book and its reviews are a conversation anyone can join, provided they use words carefully. Join the conversation!


Please take a look at sphinxreview.co.uk with its ongoing resource of OPOI reviews, and, if you can bear a few more emails in your inbox, subscribe to the list. 

This will mean you get notifications about new material on the site, mainly new OPOI reviews. Such emails tend to come in little flurries when groups of reviews are posted. If it drives you nuts, you can unsubscribe at any time.

OPOIs are short reviews of poetry pamphlets which focus on only one point of interest (OPOI) in not more than 350 words.

Far more poets would like their pamphlets to be OPOI-ed than would like to write the OPOIs. Forty-three poetry pamphlets have been received for review this year so far, and only three new reviewers have offered their services. More are needed. Over 60 pamphlets are waiting hopefully.

Some poets don't have the confidence to write reviews. They are nervous of this role, which they see as authoritative and judgmental. OPOI reviews are neither. They are edited before they go public. They are a good thing to do, and if you are reviewing for the first time, the ideal place to start.




Recent comment in this post
Guest — Jeremy
Thank you for this. My reason 13 would be an addendum to your reason 3 (and 6?). I usually don't know what I think about something... Read More
Wednesday, 22 May 2019 18:43
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