Sunday, 11 December 2011

Because this (mostly) sums up my feelings

So, Alice Oswald and John Kinsella have withdrawn from the T.S. Eliot prize. Oswald's statement the other day expressed her unease over the prize's new, financial sponsor: '[...] I think that poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions [...]' Like her or love her, at least she's chosen a position and stuck to it. I don't really want to go into the politics of the Eliot prize, though. I've been thinking about Oswald's statement, and I think it deserves further deliberation.

In his blog, the writer Ian Marchant talks about the end of economic growth and what it means for his mid-Waleian town, Presteigne. Marchant, whose book The Longest Crawl is one I bang on about to just about everyone (seriously, it's fantastic), is certainly not an economist, and neither am I, but what he says about moving towards a society in which we don't put financial gain as the ultimate virtue in life seems to me to be on the button, making him, in a way, a co-conspirator of Oswald. Marchant's summary, which can be found linked above, is probably the best I've read of how we ought to progress from 2012, but my fear is that most people will write him off as being a luddite.

Thinking about Marchant's views in conjunction with Oswald's withdrawl, I begin to think how I feel. Lately, I've been trying to write some political poetry, after being encouraged by Clare Pollard to write about a political issue; to act on Shelley's maxim and become 'an unaknowledged legislator of the world.' That 'unaknowledged' does sit uncomfortably for me, but the rest of the sentiment is perfect. How, then, do we legislate the world when the world seems to want different things to ourselves?

I'm certainly not a Tory, but it winds me up no end hearing endless, futile rants between and by Cameron and Milliband and their supporters. All the bullshit that festers in the news about getting the economy kickstarted and saving the Euro and all the rest of it - that means fuck all if the sole aim is to get back to 1999, to the same situation which started all this mess.

Personally, I'm with Shelley, Oswald and Marchant: I want my poetry to legislate the world and in doing so challenge the status quo, but I don't want to ram those thoughts into its face. I'd prefer for you to breathe them in; sweat them out; feel the residue of their salts on your glistening skin.

Monday, 5 December 2011

On being involved in a vibrant poetry community.

Some brief updates for anyone who’s interested (the egotistical part of me hopes that despite having no followers, I’m not the only one who will read this). For a start, Trashed Organ last Thursday was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the other performers and discovered the beautiful tuneage of Matt Stalker and Fables. The crowd, too, was exceptionally good given the Metro strikes. All round, a fantastic night and one in which I largely stuck to my ambition to read mostly new material.

Some of that new material came in the form of sections of the sequence of poems I’m writing for the Seachange initiative in South Shields. This project’s first phase began in the summer and will culminate in spring and early summer next year with a rolling series of interdisciplinary billboards containing some of my poetry at the seafront in Shields. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal much more at this stage, but suffice to say I am excited.

Other exciting projects are shaping up, too: tonight I’m going to Newcastle City Library to record for BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Workshop programme. The show won’t go out until January, so watch this space, but it should be a totally enriching (and somewhat terrifying) experience to critique poems for a radio broadcast. The group who I’m doing that with are also the same group taking part in New Writing North’s new poets’ development programme – a series of weekend workshops led by Clare Pollard. We had the third session on Saturday and despite feeling fairly under the weather, I still managed to thoroughly enjoy it. Not only is Clare a brilliant workshop leader and editor, the group itself is warm, intimate and supportive, without being too cosy, so the sessions sit well between friendly banter and useful critiques. It’s great being back in such an environment, talking about writing and generating loads of new ideas. For my part, I hope that we can continue working together; continue building on this 'scene' and continue to make Newcastle and the North East a place in which to write, read and share brilliant literature.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Alliterati Publication

Just a quick one: my poem, 'Erase' features hot-off-the(virtual)-press in the stunning new issue of Alliterati, the creative writing and arts magazine published by students at Newcastle University. The direct link to issue 5 online is here. Congratulations and thanks to the A-team; the magazine is superbly produced and a great read!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Trashed Organ ‒ 30th November

I'm reading next week on a great bill of poets and musicians at the brilliant Trashed Organ at The Bridge hotel in Newcastle. Grab a pint of real ale, plonk yourself on a chair and prepare to be entertained. I'll be doing a set comprising 75% new material, too!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Assimilate before you disseminate

[...] arriving at that crucial recognition and fostering of a new voice in poetry is something which can only be achieved in private, in isolation, though much reading, much writing and much thought. You have to read all the other poets, but then you have not only to absorb those influences but to assimilate them and eventually find yourself writing poetry which is distinctively and recognisable yours, unlike anyone else’s.
‒ Neil Astley

The above is an excerpt from an online Guardian dialogue between Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe Books, and his reader (and would-be writer) ship. The questions and Neil’s answers are insightful, lucid and, above all, loaded with the level of passion that one expects led to him being credited with giving the public ‘as wide a range as possible of contemporary poetry by all kinds of writers’.

What struck me about the particular quote above, indeed throughout his answers, was quite how valuably Astley regards patience. I think I know what he means: a year ago I was advised to send my collection to a publisher after making some general corrections and doing a bit of trimming. I didn’t take the advice and I’m glad of that. I know the collection isn’t ready, and I know one of the reasons for that, and it’s a simple one: I can’t pin down precisely what it is I’m trying to say; I haven’t, in Astley’s terms, fully assimilated the style and technique of my contemporaries and began to produce wholly original, distinctive, Jake Campbell poetry.

One of the ways I aim to remedy that next year is by sticking to the advice above and reading more of the greats as well as those new writers whom presses such as Bloodaxe and others are putting out there now. It’s time to make a Christmas book list.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Taking Stock

November: a strange time of year, I always find. Not quite Christmas; not the height of winter (but dark and cold enough to feel like it); not quite the end of the year. But a time, nonetheless, where we – certainly I – start looking back over the past 11 months, looking forward to the next 12.

As a writer, this year has been the most successful to date. I graduated from my Creative Writing MA in Chester Cathedral in March. The Distinction, which I received in large part because of doing very well on my final Writing Project, was the icing on the cake. I felt vindicated; as if I’d made up for what I know now was a pretty shoddy undergraduate dissertation in 2009. A great day and a fantastic start to the year. Half way through my MA, I began to notice that I was starting to think of myself far more as a writer than a student. This is surely the best praise I can give the course...

Or, at least until what happened next. I am loathed to hammer home this next point for fear of inadvertently slipping into complacency or smugness. I know, in the grand-scheme of the writing, publishing and reading world, I am still only on the first rung of the ladder, but winning the Andrew Waterhouse Award from New Writing North in July certainly compounded that feeling I’d started to experience on the MA: that I’m a writer and I can make this successful as well as enjoyable. It felt fantastic to be recognised amongst some other great writers – some of whom have gone on to become good friends. The award is both a privilege and a responsibility, though, and I will endeavour to live up to some of the fantastic poets who’ve won the award in the past.

In the past few months I’ve been doing quite a bit with Red Squirrel Press and it is with great pleasure that I can confirm they’ll be putting out my debut pamphlet of poems in May next year. I intend to blog thoroughly about the pamphlet once some final details have been sealed, but for now I am still slightly buzzing that I’ll be able to have physical, published copies of a collection of some of my ‘finished’ poems to sell and promote at readings.

On a related note, one such reading in which I will be doing just that is at Zest! in Chester on May the 21st next year. Zest! has become a bit of an institution on the Cheshire literature scene and I am thrilled that I’ve been accepted as a guest reader there. The first time I read poetry in public was as a slightly over-eager 18 year old, back in March 2007, at their first event in Alexander’s Jazz bar. To return to the stage, with published poems, will be brilliant.

The writing year starts to wind down for me after the final reading I plan to do: Trashed Organ at The Bridge Hotel on November 30th, with Sean O’Brien, Degna Stone and Andrew Sclater. The event's organisers, John, Melanie and Rob, have welcomed me three times this year alongside some incredibly inspiring literary and musical talents, and I look forward to working with them more next year.

Recently I’ve started a Christmas temp job in Waterstone’s and I’ve experienced the rekindling of a desire to read about thirty different books simultaneously. I’d already been thinking about literary resolutions, but thanks to the job, I’ve now found even more things I’d like to read. I’ll blog about these bookish resolutions later, as well as some other exciting things, but for now, it’s time to start taking stock of 2011, an excellent year and hopefully one which will provide the foundations for more writing, better writing and greater success next year.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Snip, snip

I attended the Northern leg of the Poetry Book Society benefit reading in Manchester on Friday night. The reading, which follows the ‘Poetry Cuts’ benefit in London in the summer, drew together some of the North’s finest writers in a ‘one-off, another-on’ mini poetry marathon to try and save the ailing PBS, who’ve recently had their Arts Council funding withdrawn. Or, if you prefer to be more brutal, who’ve been shafted by wider, symptomatic effects: namely, the coalition government taking the scissors to just about everything prefixed by £s that contain cultural or civic importance.

But this isn’t a political blog and I’m not here to clobber Cameron or crack Clegg one. It’s interesting and rather sobering that in times of crisis we often see the best of human endeavour. Manchester’s PBS benefit was a pristine example – only when the axe is prised to fall do we see such inventiveness and inspiration. I’ve only been following the world of poetry ‘seriously’ for two years or so, but besides at well-established festivals (which I’m yet to attend), I’ve never known it feasible to be able to hop on a train to somewhere else in ‘The North’, pay only ten pounds and hear readings from 16 of the country’s most popular poets.

As a young writer who’s just getting involved in the world of poetry, I found the evening bizarrely anachronistic. I just couldn’t get the nagging thought out of my head that perhaps more could have been done. I don’t just mean by the PBS, but by the poets themselves, as well as other, similar organisations. Why not a North Eastern PBS benefit, for example? Pleasant as the evening was, I’m sure many others, with many other readers, could have been organised in lecture theatres up and down the land. Am I being naive and blasé about this? Perhaps. But why was there not a Newcastle benefit; a Liverpool whip-round; a Leeds fund-raiser? Some might say that they did as much as they could, that (re)joining the PBS and attending the event is making good from a dismal situation, but I disagree. I’ll confess that attending the Manchester benefit was a ‘two birds, one stone’ situation for me: I hopped on another train after the gig and spent the rest of the weekend with my girlfriend. Many from Newcastle and other parts of ‘The North’ (and what about the rest of the UK?), will have been unable to attend simply because of geography. Okay, I’m sure people will have donated online, but that’s missing my point: where are these special poetry readings the rest of the time; the ones that save the cash under the mattress for uncertain days?

I don’t know. I probably am too misguided about how these organisations work. I’m not stupid, though and I remain an optimist: they could certainly continue on far less or no funding – they’d have to ditch the pitch-perfect microphones and the glitzy music halls, and I’m sure a few of the nation’s finest would have to have their aptitude measured more in bums on seats than zeros on cheques – but the PBS could survive and thrive. I’m biased, of course. I hope it does survive; which writer doesn’t want to be (re)commended by a prestigious book club? But it’s true – the PBS probably won’t survive merely on its ardent followers digging deep. Organisations like this are vital – and I should make this clear here if nowhere else in this blog, I fully support their work – but their survival, and that of similar establishments, will be decided by their ability and willingness to evolve and make concessions.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

I can use links

I’ve been fairly busy recently absorbing some of the Durham Book Festival’s events. A reading by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, who co-wrote the book Edgelands: Journeys Into England’s True Wilderness, was fascinating, as was Hannah Jane Walker’s This is Just to Say, a cross-discipline, participatory show on the theme of apology. I’m reviewing TIJTS for Newcastle Centre For The Literary Arts’s online magazine, Friction – watch this space.

On a personal level, I eventually sent out a batch of poems. I’d previously taken rejections from several magazines somewhat to heart and decided to hang fire and do some serious editing before re-submitting. So, after some useful feedback in an informal workshop with Christy Ducker, I’ve sent the poems back out into the wilderness. I’ve also submitted my entry for the Eric Gregory Awards; never before have I checked a letter so attentively before handing it over to the Post Office.

I’m reading again in South Shields next week. Red Squirrel Press are posthumously publishing a new James Kirkup collection so I have the somewhat nerve-wracking honour of reading some of the late James Kirkup’s new-old poems. I’ve also got the date for the publication of my pamphlet, but I’m going to save all of that information for a later post. In the meantime, I’m off to the Lake District!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Expiry Dates

Can poetry expire? One would like to think that this is a ridiculous, unnecessary question ‒ after all, we still read, study and enjoy the likes of Blake, Shakespeare and Larkin ‒ but these three writers have become so much a part of the pantheon of literary culture that I think the question is indicative of (my own) much deeper wonderings on the idea of a project passing its expiry date and, importantly, what might happen after that.

Certainly the concerns of each of the three writers I’ve mentioned were wildly different and it is foolhardy to try and write in a manner similar to one or more of them; the inspiration and drive which fuelled their poetry came from very different times and places to my own. But I wonder, does this urge, this guttural desire to write poetry necessarily have a limited lifespan; can we rekindle our passions a year or more down the line and shape them into crafted verse, or do we need to draw on that energy and get the bulk of it down as quickly as possible before doing the leg-work on refining that raw energy into well-honed verse?

Or is the distance an absolute necessity? I mean, in taking those innate enthusiasms and allowing them to grow into the body of poems, should we embrace the fact that in undergoing that process, those initial emotions are channelled into useful, readable, memorable directions and are likely to develop and mature?

I don’t know. I’d like to think Blake could only have written Songs... at the particular time in his life (as well as within the wider socio-political climate), and I would be willing to bet that all of the ‘great poets’ didn’t set a time-scale or impose any cut off points on their ‘greatest works’, but I’ve been wondering about my own collection in this regard. It was a year ago, more or less, that I submitted it as my MA dissertation. A year has passed and the manuscript has changed. Not radically, but it has definitely evolved. I can only surmise that this is a good thing and I’ve clearly kept on developing as a writer and critic, but I have this nagging feeling that if I don’t get it ‘finished’ by point X (probably within 2 years), I will somehow never be able to encapsulate the energies which are currently driving me.

I realise, of course, that this is probably a very natural thing to worry over, and I am not in any rush to be a ‘proper published poet’, with a book and all the rest of it, but I sense a window being imposed on this project soon and if I don’t pull my finger out, the collection might end up peering out from behind the blinds.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Red Squirrel Press week - reading at South Shields Central Library, this Thursday

As part of National Poetry Day this coming Thursday, I'm doing a little reading with Red Squirrel Press poets Alistair Robinson and Tom Kelly. It's at South Shields Central Library at 7pm. Please come along!

Monday, 26 September 2011


...And I find myself off the poetry trail, enthralled in making very preliminary research enquiries for my novel.

The idea's been in my head for at least 3 years. It's only in the last few months that I've started thinking more seriously about the themes and primary research that will have to be done (a lot of reading, basically), but I'm now convinced - or as far as I will be at 2.00 am - that I can and need to write this story...

Watch this crazy, crazy space.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Flat out

I feel like I've left this blog in the boot lately. I do have my reasons. I'm sure no one minds.

I'm doing some comissioned work at the minute (details soon) which is very exciting and has forced me to write in new, productive ways.

The deadline for the Eric Gregory Awards is coming up soon. So I'm polishing the manuscript and getting it to the society of authors before the end of October.

I haven't submitted to any jornals in a while, so that's on the ever-expanding to-do list as well. I'm starting to appreciate all of the anecdotal advice I've ever read or been told about getting a book of poetry into print: you have to jump through hoops and spend a long time submitting to magazines, accepting rejections, re-re-re-fining your work, proving you have the willingness to build and improve upon a book-length manuscript towards publication. Developments in my proffessional life (on the back of the Northern Writers' Award) have definitely solidified my view that I am, principally, a writer, but the lack of publications is, I suppose, bizzarely contadictory to that. Still, I must remember that the journey is usually more exciting than the destination.

More clarity and less self-indulgent moaning soon, aye?

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Post-Arvon: brain full to bursting

Arvon, then: Jesus. I’d heard it being described as an intense experience before I left, but it was only immediately after leaving on the Saturday morning, standing at Craven Arms station, hangover the size of Shropshire, that I felt the full weight of that intensity.

This was poetry Big Brother: sixteen people – sixteen poets and all the baggage that implies – turning up to an isolated house, sharing cooking and cleaning duties, occasionally reporting alone to the diary room to confess their poor use of line breaks and rant about the evasive poetic muse.

And drinking lots of wine. Which inevitably exacerbated the animalistic development of inter-relationships and snide remarks. By Friday morning I was so Big-Brothered, a walk to the heady heights of Clun (a town which is really a village which is really two pubs, a Costcutter, a river and a butchers) was a welcome change.

I’m not complaining (about Clun, or the course for that matter). I got to be edited by Christopher Reid; I got to have Clare Pollard tell me precisely why one poem I’ve struggled with for nearly two years isn’t working; I got to meet a bunch of interesting people and talk about Bloodaxe, caesura and inter-domain metaphor in ways that didn’t involve them hastily making for the door.

In short, it was a bloody interesting and immensely useful week.

But now, if I hear the term scansion or the name Don Patterson one more time, I will be the one leaving the room. I also need to avoid wine till the Great North Run has passed. Damn poets, topping up my head with great ideas, my glass with sweet, sweet alcohol.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Walking (parts of) The Tyne

On Friday I joined Port of Tyne writer-in-residence, Michael Chaplin, for day seven of his walk along the tidal reach of the river Tyne. I’d previously joined him on day two, walking from St. Paul’s church in Jarrow to the A&P marine engineering facility at Hebburn. Michael is writing a book based on a walk of both sides of the tidal reach of the Tyne, taking, what he calls ‘the river’s pulse’. It’s a fascinating idea and one that links directly into my book so I’ve been thrilled to take part in some small sections with him.

The stretch from Newburn/Lemington to Newcastle Quayside, following as close to the river as possible, was particularly interesting from the point of view of someone who lives on the south side of the Tyne, near its mouth. Being this far up, I got to experience the bigger picture; the river as one massive entity, of which South Shields is merely a small part.

Similarly, taking part in an immensely fun river cruise yesterday, as well as getting the train over to Wylam to have a pint in The Boathouse, I experienced Andrew Motion’s cleansing of the eyeballs before beginning to look at a familiar place. Book-wise, I’m not sure how much of the western Newcastle sections will make it in, but it has made me reconsider the walking element, or its importance, at least. I think I filled four pages of my notebook during the days’ walking: if I actually get out and do the full walk for my book, I know I’ll end up adding quite a bit more. So with that in mind, watch this space for news of more poetic walks and hopefully, eventually, a book...

Monday, 18 July 2011

The craziness begins...

This rather spooky looking house is where I'll be spending a week in August reading, writing and, well, working on my own writing! The Hurst is Arvon's Shropshire centre and I've been selected to take part in an advanced poetry course there. I am, it is safe to say, nervously looking forward to it. Looks like the type of place where ghosts of poems past lurk in the shadows (presumably ready for workshopping?)

I've only heard great things about Arvon courses, so foreboding looking buildings aside, it should be a very productive week!

Saturday, 16 July 2011


On Tuesday evening I was given the Andrew Waterhouse award from New Writing North as part of this year’s Northern Writers’ Awards. I’m chuffed and more than a little overwhelmed by it all. I won’t give a full caption of all of the winners above, but it’s fair to say that I feel honoured to be recognised amongst some amazing writing talent!

I now have to take this seriously; with many things in the pipeline and thanks to what I can perhaps best describe as validation, I feel galvanised to get on with the book and start calling myself a writer. The whole thing is a bit of a whirlwind so I will blog more thoroughly later, but I feel suitably justified in directing you to some head-exapnding linkage.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Ditto below...

Rejection part two: a batch of my poems have been deemed ‘not suitable for’ the literary journal, Orbis.

Okay, I’ll admit it upfront: I’d never read a copy of Orbis before I submitted to it two months ago. The ‘Poets’ (read: professionals) will tell you that this is a silly practice, and I suppose when I detach myself from my initial disappointment and think a bit more logically, it probably is.

We all know there are many styles of poetry; for each one, there is probably a magazine or publishing company which champions its bizarre forms and metres. There is, invariably, a house preference for each magazine, in itself made up of that magazine’s editor(s) and their own literary likes and dislikes. It’s all routine stuff, this, I’m not making claims to discovering anything particularly insightful about the submissions/editorial process other than the age old one – that it’s a pain in the arse.

One thing I can tell you, though, is that editorial feedback (promised by writers more au fait with the magazine, as well as its own correspondence) on my work was non-existent. This is not a retrospective dig at the editor; I co-edited a literary magazine through two issues and we would never have dreamed of giving people suggestions, I’m just stating that in my case, the poems arrived back as I sent them, buried under reams of promotional material and affiliated prizes and courses. Make no mistake about it, the world of poetry involves photocopiers up and down the land churning out fuck loads of A5 sheets advertising this competition or that course, most of which, I’m now certain, ends up in the bin.

What about the poems, though? I hear you, I’ll try and be rational about it. They weren’t great. One of them has been doing the rounds since at least my second year as an undergrad (getting on for four years now) and I would guess it’s been rejected, in one guise or another, by at least three journals. My last post would dictate I might deem it fair to give it one last airing, so I don’t think I’ll totally write it off till then. The others were new-ish; one of them I’d struggled with since writing it for early MA coursework – I suspect it might become one of those poems that I have to accept as being defective, unusable, binnable. Of the remaining two, one is definitely rather twee, though I can perhaps cannibalise a few decent lines. The last one, the newest, suffers from the classic great start, week end, so I might tinker around and see what I can do to smooth that out.

My overall point? I have several: rejections from magazines and journals still feels like a personal insult, even though it isn’t. The process of submitting to journals, assuming one is kosher and doesn’t send simultaneously, is a lengthy one with few incentives to carry on: my current publication/rejection ratio, submitting to journals, online and printed, is about 4:9, with one outfit never getting back to me. A mathematician would probably deem that to be pretty good going, but I still feel a bit miffed, having done well on a postgraduate Creative Writing course to be being flunked by the bigger journals. I suppose this is inevitable, mind, and can only be overcome by not pondering on it too much; by not blogging in a strop about it and getting on with editing and writing new stuff.

I will, of course, be submitting to at least two new magazines by the end of the month...I’m a sucker for punishement.

Thursday, 30 June 2011


Had a very useful letter of rejection from Poetry London today. Those who routinely submit to poetry journals will be familiar with the dreaded printed slip. I'm taking it as a positive thing, then, that this slip (which, coincidentally, did have printed on it 'apologies that we are unable to offer personal responses') did indeed have a personal message from the editor, making a brief suggestion as to how I might overcome one of the poems weaknesses. Given the stature of PL, I take some consolation from a personal response because the editors must receive hundreds, if not thousands of submissions for each issue and mine got a constructive response. So, I'll edit the poems and I'll send them out again.

I remember two pieces of anecdotal evidence to do with dealing with submissions, both those that succeed and, more often, those that don't, from Gill McEvoy and Rebecca Goss: the former told an audience at an open-floor that you just keep checking the door mat; keep sending the work out there and the latter, Goss, told our Creative Writing seminar that it took about ten years of submitting and resubmitting to countless journals before she'd gotten the deal for her first collection. I think her general rule was that if a poem came back a fourth time, she knew there definitely was something wrong with it. Given that this is the first time this batch of four poems have been rejected, though, I think I'll stick at them, with only the slight tinkering that I've just been kindly suggested.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Automatic Transmission ('cause I'm in a state of literary grogginess)

I’ve stalled. No, it seems worse: I’ve done the Capital W writer’s equivalent of not realising the car was running on fumes, only for it to die suddenly, forcing me to pull into a bus lane to await a sympathetic father with a jerry can and some words of advice.

Or, in more plain terms, I’ve reached that point where I’m not writing. I would say that to compensate, I’m reading loads, but beyond enjoying the new issue of The Rialto and David Tait’s pamphlet, Love’s Loose Ends, I’m not reading anything.

Obviously this is natural and will invariably sort itself out.

That’s what I hope. It’s been a year since seminars for my Creative Writing Masters finished. It’s tough to remain critical when so few situations arise in which to do so. I did actually lie before, though: I have written three new poems this month. Two of them were genuine newies, the other was an old one which I’ve cannibalised (heavily edited, butchered parts from other poems and grafted them into this one, generally made better by removal of confounding metaphors such as this, etc.) I’ll debut them at Trashed Organ in July, an event which always inspires so much that I sit on the Metro home, half-cut, scribbling ardently into my journal.

This is another one of those blogs which resembles the chaotic structure of my head. Sorry. I’m currently waiting on return correspondence from four non-specific writing organisations; a time of limbo which is bad enough when only waiting on one reply, which is now four times more limbo-ish and, inevitably, a large part of the reason I feel unable to move forward in my writing. God, this is cryptic isn’t it?
There will be news shortly, people. (Wherein ‘people’ denotes my future self, laughing at this for the sake of posterity in approximately one month.)

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

*Cryptic Review Alert*

In The Canal, Lee Rourke’s curiously haunting novel, we follow the ‘events’ of an unnamed male protagonist as he ‘falls in love’ with an unnamed female ‘sociopath’. I have put those terms in quotes because, frankly, this is not a book where a lot happens; this is not the type of love story we’re exposed to in popular culture; these aren’t the types of characters who one ends up having an absolute loving or loathing for – our views on them fluctuate, and by the end of the novel, we don’t know what’s right or wrong, or whether, more importantly, one side of right isn’t just the underbelly of another side of wrong, and vice versa.

I don’t want to go into detail about the plot, nor do I wish to thoroughly analyse what might be best described as controversial ideas. I don’t think it matters whether we empathise with a man who has quit his job to more fervently pursue the interests of a woman who fantasises about suicide-bombers. Nor do I wish to be as bold as to say that a man who spends more time watching Jumbo Jets circle Heathrow airport is infinitely more interesting than the office drones across the water to him. But that’s what this book is about: I’ve told you bits about it, I’ve imparted some subjective opinions. Now I think you should go and read it, as if society told you it’s what’s expected, as if following online recommendations – as I did – is the best way to expand your cultural horizons.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Writing Round the Toon

Last night I went to the Launch of Write Around The Toon, an ongoing, participatory event dubbed ‘a self-guided creative-writing tour of Newcastle-Gateshead, resulting from a series of short writing-residencies in cultural venues across the region.’

Bizarrely, the event slipped under my radar somewhat and I only decided to go at the last minute thanks to heavy promotion on Facebook. I’m glad I did. The premise, as surmised above, is a simple one, but its intentions, I hope, will be more far-reaching.

(Pretty much) everyone (in the North East) will be familiar with several of the venues ‒ from the Sage to the Baltic and the Life Science Centre and Hancock, these are venues that are now utterly synonymous with the cultural and architectural fabric of the region. This being the case, one might question why writing residencies in them were necessary. Well, I think what W.A.T.T has shown is that while we know these places exist, we don’t often spend a great deal of time in them; don’t bother questioning their history and indeed their worth within a culture of cutbacks and belt-tightening. Some of the lesser-known venues, such as Seven Stories and Bessie Surtee’s House, will have invariably been thrilled to have publicity. I’d be willing to bet that over half the people living in Tyne and Wear are not aware that we have an amazing, interactive centre for children’s literature (Seven Stories) just a mile out of Newcastle City Centre, for instance.

Not that publicity is what this event was solely about. Art is often contextual. Consider Alison Summers’s inventive story about a seamstress in the Theatre Royal who fell in love with a visiting actor. When we go to see a show at places like this, our experience is almost always transitory; the production or event has been packaged into a three hour drug, the effects of which temporarily remove us from our daily lives. Who hasn’t left a play or a film and spent the first few minutes back on the streets feeling slightly awkward, like reality hasn’t quite came back into focus?

This, I believe, is where the residencies and the work produced by them come to life. They bridge that gap between our conscious decision to pay money to be entertained by crafted artworks in what are themselves meticulously crafted and engineered spaces, in order that we might briefly consider our own place and power within a terribly confusing world, and our suspicion that the rest of the time, these places are just eating up public money. It’s a peep behind the curtain, a lifting of the bonnet on our cultural spaces so that we might spy inside and think, ‘ah, so it is a bit more complex.’

As a writer, it was interesting to read some of the participants’ blogs and subsequent pieces of creative writing. Kachi A Ozumba noted the difficulty of having to re-see the spaces in which one has become accustomed to, quoting Andrew Motion: ‘if you are going to write about what’s familiar to you, I think really you need to take your eyes out and give them a good wash and put them back in again before you start, so that you’re always seeing the familiar as a strange thing.’ Kachi, deliberating a starting point for his residency in the City Library, goes on to note that ‘the writing exercise had to be one that was sociable.’ There’s the buzz-word, sociable. What these residencies have shown is that writing, indeed Art, is at its most engaging when it requires people to talk, makes them notice these institutions which have been plonked on their doorstep by abstract forces from an Elitist Arts Order. People often tell me that The Sage is full of pompous bollocks. Yes, some of the art in there has certainly been controversial, difficult, strange, but for all of its presuppositions, it ‒ and venues like it ‒ are crucial in maintaining that dialogue, that conversation which says this is our city, let us always question it, challenge it, be tuned in to the minute frequencies of its development.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Still Life

My poem, 'My Granddad Buries King at Souter Lighthouse' features in the 2010 Cheshire Prize anthology, Still Life.

I was unable to make the launch event last week, which is a shame because the anthology contains some fabulous poets, many of whom I know very well. Still, my contributor's copy arrived yesterday, and a fine little book it is.

I remember entering the Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2007. Every year, the category of literature revolves between poetry, short stories and children's writing. Back in 2007, with the inflated ego that I expect can only arise from feeling enthused about having just started writing 'uber-contemporary poems': ones which don't rhyme; use swear words liberally; aren't about flowers and unrequited love; etcetera, etcetera, I entered the prize. Suffice to say, I didn't make the anthology.

Still, if my Granddad (coincidentally, the subject of the poem which did get in this year) was to be believed when I was typing the 2007 manuscript, it was the unrestrained use of the word 'fuck', and that alone which would invariably fail me. He was probably half right, and so it fills me with a sense of pride which I can only describe as being like a shot of Ouso: I know it's bad, but I have to swallow it anyway now it's here. That I got a poem into the anthology isn't solely because of its clean language, of course - I'd like to believe that since 2007, having seen a number of the writers who feature in the anthology year after year, read their poetry several times, and of course having completed my degree, my own writing has been charged; if the poetry community is a magnet, I feel like I've picked up some positive vibes (or verbs?) along the way just by being in the presence of 'established' writers. But now I'm mixing ouso and magnets into a metaphor which probably resembles something from my 2007 effort. Let's just say my writing has improved.

Mind, I shouldn't be the judge of that.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Surreal Shields

In Shields Sketches, his collaborative book with artist George McVay, James Kirkup notes the following: ‘[South Shields is] a town I have always considered the most surrealistic in Britain.’

On Tuesday evening I went to the second Annual James Kirkup Memorial Poetry Competition presentation ceremony and read poetry for the first time in my hometown. The prize, established two years ago to celebrate the life and work of the Shields-born writer, aims to champion new, forgotten and indeed established writers by publishing a pamphlet by the winner and a prize winners’ anthology for 20 odd runners up.

It was with some delight, then, that I read the email several weeks ago from Red Squirrel Press, the organisers of the event, informing me that I’d been selected as a runner up. In fact, when one of the judges, Kathleen Kenny, later informed the crowd that she’d been delivered a box of over 800 entries and told to get to work, I felt suitably humbled to’ve done so well.

Spirited performances by the three judges, Kathleen Kenny, Ian McMillan and Andrew McMillan, lent a well-judged amount of humour to this evening of tribute. The anthologised poets who’d made it across to the library for the event read their own poem and one by an absentee. The range of poems was fascinating ‒ proving Ian McMillan’s assertion that what these poems had in common was their ability to hold their own as fully-realised visions; to say to the audience, ‘I am worthy of winning this prize’.

For my part, my poem ‘Sunderland Stadium of Light, December 1999’ was selected for publication. A poem about urinary shyness is always going to be embarrassing to read in front of one’s family, particularly when much of the subject matter of said poem involves one’s father, but I gallantly strode into what a commentator later described as ‘something universal, that everyone can understand.’ I suppose if you can’t face reading these sorts of poems, you probably shouldn’t be writing them down in the first place.

The night was concluded in the self-proclaimed best pub within walking distance of the library: The Maltings. Much discussion was had with the Scots who’d travelled down, centring around Kirkup’s aforementioned claim, that South Shields is the type of place that feels, as one woman perfectly surmised, incomplete. We discussed everything from the price of the public toilets (free), to the ‘vanishing’ of old Marsden Village during the 60s. It’s always refreshing to hear people talk about your home town when it’s their first visit. New eyes see things differently; they do that elemental literary thing: they defamiliarise.

Interestingly, lots of the poems I heard were about place. From Kenny’s exploration of her dual lineage ‒ Newcastle and Ireland ‒ to McMillan’s remembrances of Barnsley as a lad, and of course the backing track of Kirkup himself, whose collection Marsden Bay was published by Red Squirrel, there was a presiding feeling that this type of poetry is important. I felt gratified, I suppose, reading a poem from my work-in-progress book which is all about Tyne and Wear, to be discussing critically the weirdness of this town that I inhabit, that will always inhabit me. I know I’m writing in a rich and deep literary tradition, and I’m aware that I have to bring that tradition on; put my own spin on it. Kirkup seemed to return to it in his latter years, let’s see if I can do him justice with this, my foray into Surreal Shields.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Archive for Change

On Saturday I went to the Archive for Change exhibitions in the West End of Newcastle. I have no connection to Scotswood, Benwell or Elswick, the suburbs that the pieces focused on, so perhaps in some ways I got more out of the events by knowing so little.
What struck me about getting the minibus 2 miles or so west out of Newcastle centre was how very, very different the area was. When one arrives into Newcastle City Centre from the south, particularly on the train, one is instantly struck by the Quayside. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration; its sheen, its captivating architecture, its very boldness, all, I think, make you feel that you’re in a thoroughly modern city; a city, if I might, which came to epitomise Blair’s vision, circa the early 2000s, of England in the new millennium (more about that in a later blog).

Travel 2, 3 or more miles either way down the Tyne, though, and things can polarise rather quickly. Just east of Gateshead lies the boundary division for the borough of South Tyneside. Riverside, the first place you will get to ‒ and remember, this is no more than 3 or 4 miles walk from cultural monuments like The Sage and The Baltic ‒ is Hebburn. It would be wrong of me to claim significant knowledge about Hebburn, too, but passing through it as I do quite often while at work, it is evident that the redevelopment of what I’ll call the centre of the Tyne, might as well never have happened here. In Hebburn, one could easily be convinced into thinking it was still the 1980s.

The same is also true, I’d say, of the areas I visited in the West End. The area’s problems, so I surmised from the videos, stem, at least in part, from a number of factors, but one of the major ones seems to be poorly-planned ‘regeneration’. Houses have been bulldozed, new ones built, only to meet the same fate mere decades later. Swathes of grass lie between ghost streets; literally roads where curbs stop at what once were people’s front doors.

Many of the locals’ stories were very touching: one family explained how the council had essentially put a compulsory purchasing order on their home, effectively overnight. When they asked their councillor what was going on, they refused to give clear details, stating blithely that their ‘plot of land’ was scheduled for development. This was, if I’m not mistaken, part of the council’s ‘Going for Growth’ campaign of the early 2000s. One is shocked, frankly, by this dehumanisation of land and space; this commoditisation of people’s homes, bundling them into figures, processing them through some mighty ‘growth’ calculator, pressing ‘go’, then realising, ten years down the line, that the numbers don’t match.

The response to all of this, at least in part, was the Archive for Change project. The amazing thing about these films was their sense of participation throughout. The filmmakers have clearly endeavoured to allow the local residents to take part in and shape the films as they saw fit. That the films were screened within the local community, my favourite location being the for-the-community-by-the-community Scotswood Diner, is testament to the overriding aim of the scheme: to re-democratise a sense of belonging. In many cases where people were displaced in Benwell and Scotswood, the council came across as a malignant, omnipotent and bluntly abstract force. Where the locals have strove to resist, the Diner again being a good example, shows that redevelopment cannot, indeed must not, be solely a top-down transition.

Before Saturday I knew, still do know very little, about this part of Newcastle, so it’s inevitably precarious writing about things like this; I fear that by trying to be objective, I may actually come off sounding like the councillors who so blatantly disregarded the human impact of their redevelopment plans. But I probably am always going to be objective; as I say, I have no emotional connection to the area. Thus, for me, the events were at once insightful, powerful and inspirational. Being in Scotswood at 11am on a Saturday morning, looking down to the Tyne, to Vickers, and above, Team Valley, with the Angel pinned on the distant hills of Gateshead, I felt like I sometimes do in Hebburn or Jarrow: that there are a lot of fantastic people here trying their best to get on with their lives, trying to construct meaning amidst what can, at their worst, be the self-serving, egotistical forces of developers and councillors.

My overall impression, then? These captivating, thought-provoking, smartly unsentimental films show that one of the best facets of any Art is its ability to galvanise people. Here in the West End, where some people were ashamed about telling others where they lived for stigmas of crime and violence, people are using the powerful medium of film and photography to reclaim their collective sense of identity, to put a meaningful narrative stamp on their lives. I sincerely hope that the council will look at this project and take heed so that future developments are based around a participatory system, driven by input from all sectors of the community.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011


Last Thursday I performed at the impeccable Take Ten at The Cumberland Arms. This was my first ‘gig’ since Shelter From the Storm (Trashed Organ) at The Bridge Hotel in January.
A literary friend (there’s a poncey term if ever I heard one) came over after my set and told me it’d been a while since she’d seen me read. It was true, I told her: I’d been having a bit of poetic down-time.

I read seven poems which formed, I hope, the freshest set I’ve done in Newcastle since I first started reading at home nearly a year ago. It’s good to have a break. When I first gigged back in the North East last May ‒ coincidentally at Ten by Ten, Jeff Price’s equally wonderful, preceding event ‒ I was bringing to the audience an unmarked poetic delivery. Make no mistake about it, in May 2010, my poems were fresher than Tyne water salmon.

‘Continual’ (I use the term loosely, as a poetic aspiration to the devotion of gut-busting folk-punk singer, Frank Turner) gigging from late July into December, though, left me feeling like…well, as if the audience had heard the one about the dog and my Granddad more times than was funny. They had. It was good doing ‘the circuit’: Pink Lane, Jibba Jabba, Ten by Ten, Poetry Jam, First We Take Manhattan, A Night of Poetry, Trashed Organ, my own Cellar Door, Free as a Bard, The Polite Room, many of these twice, but I started to empathise with the post-tour blues that can ail and even destroy a band after pedalling a new album.

So it was with a renewed sense of vigour that I returned to The Cumberland. I don’t wish to heavily critique my own set, but I am aware that I may be becoming a thematic poet; may be easily pigeonholed as the bloke who writes fairly oblique elegies about industrial demise, or if he’s not doing that, is looking wilfully into his family history. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that, but the gap in performances clearly made me see my poems from a new angle, from the spectator’s side of things. I’m going to muse on this more, but I think it can only point one way: write more, write about more.


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