Books of the Year Recommendations

15 12 2018

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From The Lonely Crowd’s trio of articles on their contributor’s books of the year, here’s my recommended reading material from 2018:

The full article can be read at:

The Lonely Crowd: Books of the Year (part 2)

Unless it really can’t be helped, I prefer to concentrate on one book at a time.  Yet, at one point this summer, I had five books open simultaneously on my bedside table.  I was fortunate to be able to interview Jonathan Edwards, Andrew McMIllan and Christopher Meredith for Lonely Crowd projects and their writing, together with poetry collections by Ocean Vuong and Bernard O’Donoghue, formed my first non-linear reading experiment. In one burst, I’d read compelling story from Meredith’s Seren collection Brief Lives and the dense, lyrical prose would make me question the seeds of bravery in an acts of cowardice; then, I’d gather up Jonathan Edwards’ second collection, Gen, and absorb myself utterly in the sustained warmth of his portraiture: Harry Houdini and Edwards’ granddad in the same scene on Newport Bridge performing different magic tricks.  There was a poem in Bernard O’Donoghue’s The Seasons of Cullen Church‘You Know the Way’ that I read habitually for a fortnight.  The narrative sprang from title into a set of directions centred on familiar global places – New York, London, Dublin – but it was the clever demotic tone – imperative, declarative and interrogative all at once – at that reassured me I could re-visit it and walk those routes ceaselessly.
Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds is the singular, most-impressive collection of verse I have read.  I could eulogise it and investigate it endlessly and would urge all poetry readers to do likewise; however, as it was published in 2016 and the internet is already rich with reviews of Vuong, I’ll state that McMillan’s Playtime is my selection as Book of 2018. Because McMillan’s verse appears so differently on the page – at times it appeared a vacuum of punctuation – the collection demanded to be approached differently from other poetry; I began to read poems aloud rather than whisper them, or internalise their sounds. Because the topics were so intimate, the themes so urgent, poems exploring homosexuality transformed in poems simply exploring sexuality; then they became like the very best poems, exploring something new. Because McMillan’s ‘I’ was vulnerable, aggressive, elusive, flawed and heroic, his first-person narrative voice could transposed into the multifarious mouths of many speakers.  And, because of all this, Playtime became not just the ideal parallel to be read alongside other books, but a method of seeing each of them anew. I think Night Sky with Exit Wounds will the book that resides on my bedside table through 2019 also, yet without Playtime, I may never have shaped the precise need for it.
Glyn Edward’s debut poetry collection will be published by The Lonely Press in early 2019.




A Feast of Words: Gwledd Conwy

29 10 2017

Just as the final workshop of the weekend grew the longest of shadows, a family crept inside the Conwy Youth Centre, at the corner of Bodlondeb Park and the Agriculture Site of this year’s Feast territory, and asked whether it was too late to write a poem.

While their parents wrapped themselves in the steam of their tall coffees, a brother and sister from Chester began searching the event programme for lines of text that could reside in a sensory poem, and rephrasing them so they were ten syllables each.

We discussed rhyme schemes and rearranged an order, argued over a title and an ending and settled on a completed poem.  The process of finding and writing and discussing and publishing took fifteen minutes.   The family helped me wash the cups I’d used over the previous days, to take down the washing line of free verse poems about pumpkins, crab fishing, small houses and sprawling castles, to return the furniture to its familiar grooves in the carpet and to switch of the lights.

Earlier in the afternoon, the Feast of Words site was hosted by the storyteller and host of Venue Cymru’s Young Storyteller of Wales 2017, Bethan Mascheranas, and by Bangor University, whose affable, academic lecturers spoke on themes of ‘identity’ and the ‘home’, and of the unique teacher, Mr Kite, who inspired a set of ubiquitous lyrics from The Beatles.

I found a window for a break and walked amongst wide crowds down the Main Street, a tide of visitors at the harbour and back through the stalls and stands in the park.

Unlike Saturday, when I kneeled on the floor like an anchorite assembling webs of poems all afternoon and stood only to swoon and clamour about the visits of the linguist David Crystal and poet Patience Agbabi.  A fine day.

Tomorrow, while all the detritus is being cleared from the quay, the marquees are being eased into hibernation and the offices of the Feast begin planning the 2018 event on a page of exciting, nervous blank paper, I may cross the bridge to Conwy and write up a poem I began while sitting at the dock with my wife on Saturday evening.  I hope very much to, it was a kind moment in a charmed weekend.





Recent Publications: Noble Gas Quarterly / The Lampeter Review / The Gull

4 03 2017
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Nobel Gas Quarterly is a journal that seasonally publishes art, poetry and prose online. The Spring issue, which was released last week, contains rich new work by an international menu of aspirational writers, not least Beth Gilstrap, Benjamin Winkler and Craig Burnett.

The journal can be read online, for free, at: http://noblegas.org/

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The Gull, only in its second issue, is already an acclaimed collective of Swansea genius assembled by its editor Chris Cornwell.  It is brazen in its ambition and irresistible in its apposition of artwork, poetry, playscript, interview and cartoon. The pair of photographs, by Ian Kalinowski are typical of this entirely atypical, but free, magazine.

247 other pages of original art and writing can be enjoyed at: https://thegullmagazine.wordpress.com/the-gull-issue-no-1/

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TLR, The Lampeter Review, is the prestigious journal from Lampter’s Creative Writing Centre.

The recent issue, which arrived to my house in a beautiful binding, is also available online here: http://lampeter-review.com/

On page 48 is a poem by Simon Cockle that could embody this entire magazine: it is academic, thoughtful and will insist you return to it frequently.  The editorial, by the writer and poet Kathy Miles, is worthy alone of anyone’s morning commute reading.

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Next month, poems will feature in Zelda Chappel’s pertinent collection ‘A Furious Hope’, The Cardiff Review and a review of Tony Curtis’ collected poems, The Fortunate Isles, will be published on the Wales Arts Review.





The final days: residency at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse

25 10 2016

The Boathouse crowds eddied in the bright light all week.  As the weather calmed and the sun visited more generously, tourists to Laugharne sat by the wide bay for longer and longer.  On one welcoming day, a pair of dog-walkers and their muddy corgi,  arrived when the River Taf was heavy in the estuary and left when it was barely visible; we’d spent much of the afternoon in the Thomas’ yard together.

Commonly, visitors would arrive like the garden’s resident robin, flying down in fleeting sortees and disappearing just as anonymously.  Some came in passing flocks, such as the affable murmuration from University of Wales Trinity St Davids, staying to pick at Welsh teas, to share scones, to warm their wings.  They spoke in a vibrant rabble of Mandarin, French, Canadian and the yard seemed hushed and dusky when they’d flown away.  And others were regular migrants, visiting the Writing Shed and the Boathouse on an annual, or more frequent pilgrimage.  

The writer and poet John Bilsborough came to collect some books from his residency the week before.  He showed me the stunning collection of writers’ names and messages he’d gathered in his career journal: R.S. Thomas; Victoria Wood; John Betjemen.  Another artist to visit was the seascape painter Gareth Hugh Davies, who brought his family of illustrators for lunch.  All indulged the drawing challenge with their unique styles, Gareth’s daughter indulged me with her sketchbook which was flawlessly assembled and carefully beautiful.  

While other guests were noteworthy for their energy and vigour, such as a rare pair of articulate children from Penrith who produced the most-savage of sea imagery.

And memorable for their charisma, as a poetess and her husband who drew and drew and drew and shared their literature passions as though we were long friends. 

 

After work one day, I visited Newport and read at The Lonely Crowd launch evening.  Heavy roadworks choked the journey there, and the M4 on the drive home felt as long as a continent.  Though the few hours spent in the Murenger were more stimulating and satisfying that I could have gleefully anticipated.  Hosted by John Lavin, readings from Tony Curtis, Carla Manfredino, Alix Nathan, John Freeman, Craig Austin, Rebecca Lawn formed a collage illustrating just how intriguing the literature scene is in South Wales currently.  Chris Cornwell read his ‘Last Night Down Whetstone Road’ in a voice glossy with Dylan’s aesthetic verve for phonetics, Gary Raymond read a story about immigration and fear and stereotype, and veiled pertinent satire around wonderful, characters such as the tale’s ubiquitous Ellis.       

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Ordinarily, on a Friday afternoon, I’d be stood in Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn’s assembly hall, watching certificates be awarded to inspired learners.  On this occasion, they were watching the boathouse and writing shed through my eyes.  Or, more precisely, through a FaceTime connection.  The Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Raynor, was in attendance at the school, together with a local MP, and they observed the whole school attempt a modern twist on a Dylan Thomas poem:  ‘Have you Ever Seen Half Term

On the weekend, my wife arrived with my son and we took the work from the week along Dylan’s route about Sir John’s Hill.  While retreading ‘The Birthday Walk’, she helped me film a video compilation of illustrations, my son made atmospheric leaf rustling effects and lingered precariously on steep images.

On one afternoon, when Dylan’s door was leaned shut, two ladies from the boathouse improvised a reading from my poem ‘Caitlin’, in response to Dylan’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ and I filmed it to store for when my debut collection, ‘Conversations’, is published next year.  Or for when Judith or Elen achieve fame in their respective fields of ceramics and translation.  Back at ‘The Pelican’, housing and feeding me until I began to bloat and sprout tight curls of hair, I was given lessons on sculpture and whisky by the artist David Gunther.

And yesterday, I drove my family home.  Home.  Up the serpentine Aberystywth Road.  My son was poorly as we passed Dolgellau, poorly as we approached Machynlleth, as though he was already enduring withdrawal symptoms from his brief time in Laugharne.  Reflecting back today, I too feel a stab homesick for a place that had become so welcoming to me.  

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Residency at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, Laugharne

19 10 2016

Day One, Two and Three

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Arriving at the house each morning has been scintillating.

Because of the Boathouse’s autumnal, late-breakfast starts, I have been allowed and extra hour to walk Sir John’s Hill before doors officially open, and have been refreshed and challenged by the unique way of starting a day.  So, on the broad hill opposite Dylan Thomas’ riverside home, instead of the morning commute and the breakfast routine, I have been counting wrens, identifying distant mountains, trying not to appear alarmed at advancing dairy cows.  In place of registering a class of effervescing pupils, I have had an entire bay of calm space to indulge in.

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Every day has had involved meeting with visitors to the Boathouse and encouraging them to share in Dylan Thomas’ imagery, particularly in regard to ‘Poem in October’ and ‘Vision and Prayer’.  And each day will remain memorable for intriguing exchanges or unique encounters: the passing visit to the house by Wales’ Young Person’s Laureate, Sophie Mckeand, and by the Irish author, Andrew Phillip Smith; a visit from Noel James, the ubiquitous driver of the touring ‘writing shed’ around Britain during the Dylan Thomas 100 celebrations; having Scottish poetry recited effortlessly by a lady from Shetland while her son and I watched in amazement, meeting the kindest of folk and shared in their kindest of tales, their poetry recommendations, their thoughts on Dylan.

The most common sensation I’ve experienced though is a blend of euphoria and sadness, for most people who have shared their ideas with me have continued to comment, ‘I haven’t spoken about books in a long time,’ while others have modestly footnoted that their artistic achievements took place, ‘a long, long time ago’.  That a simple sketch, such as this one,  can be the first drawing a qualified illustrator has completed in over a decade, is giving the collective poem a value I had not anticipated.

The rediscovered experiences are paired with utterly fresh ones: yesterday, I read aloud some poetry in Dutch, was asked to ‘be quiet’ while the documentary on Dylan played, was beaten at ‘paper, scissors, stone’ by a four year old (who may have actually been three), stroked a dozen dogs and, finally, did not see the estuary mist up on sudden and heavy rain.

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I even managed to scribble to quick poem, based on a wonderful line Joyce fed to me earlier in the week, and that I had almost forgotten:

‘The weather arrives on the tide, leaves on the tide’

The weather arrives with the tide,

Leaving a grey-windowed sky,

Stilling the house in Sunday parlour silence.

So families wring their wet afternoon

Strung out like a dripping queue

Of clothes, heavy on a washing line,

Blown about the autumnal house:

The apple-red mantelpiece,

red-currant skirting, alder-red cushion,

and Dylan’s windy voice gusts upstairs,

ruddy-cheeked visions and prayers.

The weather leaves with the tide,

And leaves the bay shining,

Glowing, as thick and full,

As a charged glass of red wine.

Each Boathouse day, I have been made to feel entirely welcome by the staff: Toby answers my questions without showing frustration, and gives me enough of his knowledge so that I may, in turn, appear knowledgeable while misinforming visitors; Joyce and Lindsay introduced me to the local gull population, Paul showed me pictures of his stunning portraits, Carol her poetry, Judith her sculpture.  They are blessed with enough craft to inhabit a gallery, but instead have been modestly introducing me as the ‘resident artist’ – mostly before I’m asked for coffee and cake from an arriving tour party.

(Thanks warmly to Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn in Colwyn Bay for allowing me the time to be away, and to Nic and Arthur who are doing the same.)





The shout

20 10 2015

Birthplace (Glyn Maxwell)

She traced her forefinger beneath each line,
as slowly and deliberately as one learning to read,
stroking the skin of the page
so the words stood up like tiny hairs.

‘The task,’ I said, ‘is to make it louder
by hiding some of the poem in the dark.’
But she stared down at the marker pen
as though it was a bullet or a spent shell,
its damage pre-empted, permanent

and, instead, closed her eyes.  In her dark,
she shadowed out the sounds of classroom chairs
being clunk-stacked on the tables, the goodbye bell,
the ‘don’t run down the corridors.’
The poem and the pen and girl were gone
when I returned to the room after bus duty.

‘This poem is about silence, not shouting,’
she tells me the next morning, while the class,
cold and uncaring, slip from their slick coats
into echoing conversations.

Her markings have devoured the poem
so the silhouette that remains is skeletal;
bones she has spat are now shards,
the remaining ribs sharp and dangerous.
All the flat noise has been carved from the paper

and when I rub my finger over the scars made
by her scalpel, to gauge the gulleys there,
the wet marker pricks my fingerprint with ink,
and the sentiment sinks into me anew.





Dylan Thomas’ writing shed

18 08 2014

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Dylan Thomas’ writing shed snuggled into place on Conwy’s quayside, it looked like it had grown on the wharf naturally. The Liverpool Arms, pouring into the view from his open curtained windows, seemed as though it was musty with tales of Thomas’ games of cats and dogs, of Caitlin, of Vernon Watkins, bruised bottles, and of words worming.

I settled into the wicker chair and tried to write nine poems. In twelve minutes. The queue for the ‘Sunday takeaway’ hadn’t abated and the clothes line, full of thematic requests varying from Whales to Wales, had begun to sag slightly. I wrote, trying not to move anything on the desk, trying to move myself from any tourists’ photograph, trying to look a little at Thomas’ gallery of faces, his lists of assonance, trying, trying.

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And when I had conquered the orders and the glutinous diners were licking the bones of my briefest verse, I hastened off to read a selection of nature poems in the Guild Hall. Between Wales’ Children’s Laureate, Martin Daws, and its Poet Laureate, Gillian Clarke, my poems felt rushed and riddled and the hour was longer than it seemed. But the room was full and the audience was kind enough to smile when they were supposed to, frown when I prompted to. And all the books I took were gone when I left.

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The day before, a string of wonderful writers collected words from Conwy’s web of walls and we amassed poems from the produce. Hinton’s bookshop provided their cloister for the task, their kettle for the process.

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In the evening David Crystal enchanted an audience on the ‘100 words that made English’ and spoke of the reasons why ‘roe deer’ was a crucial to the language as ‘thingy’ and ‘dooberry’ and ‘Twittersphere’.

The highlight? A Spanish couple who arrived to Dylan’s shed and, instead of taking a poem, took away a request for one. I gave them the catalyst ‘charity’ and they gave me back ‘A Toast for Glyn’. Inside the poem were the lines, ‘now, he’s the host of Thomas’ ghost’ and, for that sentiment alone, thank you.





Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, North Tawton

21 07 2014

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We scoured the map for North Tawton and saw it pulse almost in the centre of the county; it was, fortuitously, only miles away from the cottage we were renting.  It took minutes to find the village, moments to find the blue plaque commemorating Ted Hughes’ life there.  The landlord of a pub, rolling barrels into a thirsty cellar, reluctantly pointed the way, behind the churchyard’s arrowhead spire, to the house.  We brushed our hands against the fingernail-thin gravestones on the channelled track and found a view over a lush land lake of a garden.  

Hughes’ wife Carol, the daughter of Jack Orchard, who later ran Moortown Farm (subject of the poet’s collection ‘Moortown Diary’) near Winkleigh, still lives in the home but the site is better known as the home he shared with both Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill.  From a horse chestnut tree that leaned from the garden to the graveyard, I unhinged a conker; it looked too juvenile to contain anything inside the fruit. 

I saw
The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her, and I knew it.

Ted Hughes, Dreamers, Birthday Letters

 

Fumy, spirituous mists inhabit this place

Separated from my house by a row of headstones.

I simply cannot see where there is to get to. Sylvia Plath, The Moon and the Yew Tree

 





The Girl with a Ponytail (Picasso, 1954)

27 03 2013

(published in Cheval 4)

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Subtle, for him. Understated. Flattering even.

That first painting was angled with beauty enough

to lure me. Postman blue, pond green. Shy lips

and one eye, wide enough for two.

 

He sketched me furiously in June. Always

demanding my hair tumbled. Winding my fringe

between oily fingertips, breathing wine,

gesturing bottle after glass.

 

Every portrait a picture of a sculpture,

a Greek bust in Gallic July dress.

 

The signature brought the world to Vallauris

and each time I smiled at the cameras,

dimpled when he shared the lens. He painted

in the evening only now. His colours

darkened and he insisted my collar

inched lower to reveal secrets I would not tell.

 

In the last nights he sat me on his knees

I confessed he had become my second father.

He was sullen in August and relinquished

with the final composition, without goodbye.

 

The final painting revealed only my naivete: 

my ponytail a noose for an old man to risk

his reputation, my breasts a rectangle of

rheumatic grey. My webbed ringlets, a duplicitous stare

and my fingers knotted in his frustration.





Reasons I won’t ask him

27 12 2012

He’ll tell me the foundations aren’t level
while scratching at the corner of his eyebrows
until I sulk off.

I’ll hand him tea in soily cup
as he pegs out right angles in string
and asks me to fetch the post mix
from the boot.

‘It’s an easy mistake Son,’ he’ll say
sketching on to the plans where the door
should’ve gone. Then he’ll build
a shed from the panels I ignored
in the alleyway since spring.

He’ll need someone to foot the ladders
he brought and I should pin the felt down
in the corners he can’t stretch to anymore.

Mum might bring the baby out to play
on the balding grass, joke about men at work
and we may all pretend that’s the truth.

After the brushes are cleaned
he’ll pour the tea away,
wash the mugs.