Thursday, March 24, 2011

George Shaw at the Baltic

Spent an hour at the Baltic in Gateshead looking in wonder at George Shaw's fabulous exhibition 'The Sly and Unseen Day'. Can't recommend it enough - paintings in Humbrol enamel of landscapes and buildings around the housing estate where Shaw grew up. Shaw talks very engagingly and intelligently about the exhibition here. It's on till mid-May - go and see it if you can.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

NAWE interview

Jordan Philips interviewed me for the NAWE Young Writers' Hub - we talked about creative writing courses, publication, and writing about place. Have a look at their other interviews too...

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Step and touch, step and touch

Ooh! Very pleased to point you towards Danse Macabre du Jour, where my preposterous piece of Mitteleuropean Edwardupwardism*, 'The Beginning of the End', is ce plat du jour, or whatever the phrase is. It's good to be eaten in the house of oddity.

* I know, I know.

Monday, March 07, 2011


It’s time there was a specific word for people singing the praises of The Dark Horse, which happens in spate roughly twice a year when a new issue comes out. It bills itself as the ‘Scottish American poetry magazine’ – the cover of the latest issue, number 26, contains a quotations from Dana Gioia calling it ‘Scotland’s finest international literary journal’ – but I prefer to think of it as simply one of the most elegantly readable English-language poetry magazines full stop. (It’s also one of the most beautiful – the same cover is perhaps the best yet, a block of typographical joy on a cream background.)

The Dark Horse is noticeable for the space given over to reviews and essays. It feels like an arena for intelligent, detailed literary discussion. For example, in this issue there’s a 20-page essay on Canadian poetry by Sean Haldane; a transcription of Dennis O’Driscoll’s StAnza conversation about Scots poetry with Seamus Heaney (and a reprint of Edwin Muir’s 1923 essay on Scottish ballads); two pieces on Edwin Morgan; and pieces on Larkin and Monica Jones, and Sarah Orne Jewett and Edwin Arlington Robinson. (Maybe Gerry Cambridge, the editor, was looking for Edwin-texts this issue...)

As for the poetry, no Edwins that I can see, just a typically interesting bunch of generally lucid and attractive pieces – so far I’ve been struck by those by Alasdair Gray, Matthew Sweeney and (unrhymed) Wendy Cope. I’m looking forward to the rest.

Website here (it doesn’t yet feature issue 26 as the current issue).

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Anna Woodford's Birdhouse

I quickly devoured Anna Woodford's debut Birdhouse (yes, I know it's another Salt book, but that's not my fault). It has a wonderful lucidity - it's 'accessible' in that much-talk-about but rarely achieved way, by appealing both to poetry types (well, me) and, as far as I can guess, to people who don't often read poetry. A fluent, direct, engaging book.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

O'Brien on Fisher

I'm delighted to feature a review by Sean O'Brien of last year's two books on and by Roy Fisher.

Roy Fisher: Standard Midland (Bloodaxe, £7.95)

An Unofficial Roy Fisher, edited by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books, 12.95)

In ‘Inner Voice’, Roy Fisher records his widower’s habit of talking himself through mundane tasks: ‘The monologue’s so stupid / I do it in farting Mockney / or worse, mincing Estuarian: none of it worth /the touch of my own Standard Midland.’ Standard Midland and An Unofficial Roy Fisher mark the 80th birthday of one of the best and most original English poets now at work. Roy Fisher has always been fruitfully ‘unofficial’, at best uninterested in the alleged metropolis, writing as a modernist in frequently anti-modernist times while winning readers of all shades of opinion. As well as a fascinating selection of uncollected work, An Unofficial Roy Fisher includes poems, essays and informal writings in tribute to Fisher by numerous poets and critics, many of whom would agree on little else. In this sense Fisher fulfils Wordsworth’s requirement that the poet create that taste by which he (or she) is understood.

Fisher is England’s major poet of the city, the city in question being his native Birmingham, from which he accessed literature, art and jazz (his other job is as a pianist). There was a popular 1960s TV private detective series set in Birmingham, starring Alfred Burke, called Public Eye, and this is the function Fisher fulfils in his poems: enquiring in order to see what is actually there. City (1961) was psychogeography before the practice had that stupid name. As another poem says, ‘Birmingham’s what I think with’, while Standard Midland describes the speech of Midlanders, dwellers in an England-within-England.

Retiring from university teaching, Fisher moved to the Peak District, where he applies the same methods of enquiry to a different landscape: hills, ridges, farmland and old industrial sites. In the hamlet of Brough-on-Noe in the High Peak, he celebrates a secret plenitude: ‘What’s good / is the way there seem to be / more waters than there are, poured / out of the rows of hills / to the valley bottom. There seem / to be more side lanes and alleys than there ever were’ and concludes ‘There’s / no single place to be / at Brough’. As he states in a poem on one of Ivon Hitchens’s pool paintings, where the perspective is felt to move under the gaze, the here and now may offer ‘more than one life’.

Fisher has always been distrustful of metaphysical and moral ambition, at any rate in his own work, but his eye produces startling juxtapositions which provoke those very temptations in the reader. In one sense, ‘On Spare Land’ is about somewhere nothing is happening: ‘Commons without commoners / the Unadopted. A footpath worn / from corner to corner. Wormwood.// And how at the edge the hoardings / paralyse words high up / in the common air.’ In another, though never stating as much, it continues the history of the Enclosures by which land, ‘the common treasury’ sung by the Diggers, becomes property.

It seems to be the inbetweentimes of things that most stimulate Fisher. His work is often quite depopulated. Its settings – streets, buildings, neglected districts, places lodged between other places – open themselves to the imagination that happens, not quite accidentally, along for a look. The effect of such an intense regard for the material particulars of time and place might be described as an uncanny ordinariness. It is interesting to imagine how, in some unlikely earthly paradise, television property programmes would be replaced by the study of location for its own sake and ours. Fisher’s prose poem ‘Stops and Stations’ would make an excellent introduction: ‘High over the little town and the railway in its cement cutting, a vacant institution among trees. Has been a small hospital, will be again: a certain swank in the panelling. Goes every so often into commerce until commerce fails every time. Night thins out and the dark can drain away out of the corridors. And mostly it does.’

Sean O'Brien