“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

“Multifaceted, mega-fabricated, louche architecture.” Magma

“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

Revision Diary #1: ‘Seasonal Cartoon’

‘Seasonal Cartoon’ is a draft poem I wrote, I think, about two years ago, originally with linebreaks. These were removed in order to make it a narrow, column-like paragraph, a shape it now seems to have lost through being copied between various documents. The title has also been revised a few times. Here’s the version that’s sat untouched in a Googledoc for months:

Scrooge is at the strip club, clutching the brim of his top hat, each bent finger the leg of an albino crab. He is half-buried in his scarf and winter coat, both of which are blotched here and there with candle wax, snow and ink. The stage is a bleak, flat nest, feathered with lightly crumpled notes and, where Scrooge sits, a single dull farthing. Most of the other patrons are bankers with girlfriends. The song is ‘Money For Nothing’. The dancer’s name is Tuti. She was born in Singapore. She has just whipped off her bikini top and to Scrooge’s horror, in place of her knockers are two matching apparitions of Jacob Marley’s face.

Now, obviously the whole poem turns on one very creaky, obnoxiously signposted pun. In my defence, this was intentional; the piece is intended for a sequence of poems pretending to be something other than poems, in this case a tacky cartoon on the front of a Christmas card. Hence also the ho-hum title. I don’t want these imitations to be remotely tricky to guess, and in the context of the sequence, the pun could be forgiven.

However, nothing really excuses:

(a) The Dire Straits reference. The thematic link is obvious, but it’s not doing anything else.

(b) The weak attempt to humanise the stripper. I suppose I must have been conscious of how the strip club is often deployed as the setting, with the strippers as furniture. But Tuti? From Singapore? It’s nothing more than a facile gesture.

© The time it takes for a poem with a very simple, blunt punchline to blunder apologetically through lots of so-so description. If we’re really seeking to imitate a Christmas card here, the effect of the joke should be as close to immediate as possible. Obviously I wanted to get another, smaller gag in there – the idea of the dedicated miser tossing the stripper a mere farthing. I also like the description of his fingers, which is at least wintry. But ideally, this poem should aim to be as short and spare and bleak as possible.

It also needs a new title. The rules of the sequence forbid me from straying beyond the bounds of a precise description of the thing being imitated, but hopefully I can do better.

Here’s what I’ve come up for the revised version:

Season’s Greetings

Scrooge in the strip club,
his pale, crab-leg fingers
clutching his top hat brim.
On the stage before him,
a single dull farthing

and the stripper, stripping,
with Marley’s face gurning
from both bouncing tits.

I expected this to take me a stupidly long time, but I managed it in about 10 minutes. Must be because it’s 4.15 am in the morning and there’s a thunderstorm outside. Anyway, the revised version is much improved. The title now, as well as being a little snappier, performs the double function of making plain the imitation while also commenting ironically on the situation described. The poem itself retains the narrow, card-like shape I aimed for by turning it into a prose-poem, but uses functional line breaks that facilitate easy reading.

Why did we ever need all that stuff about hats and scarves and bankers? Everyone knows what Scrooge is supposed to look like. Everyone knows what kind of people are supposed to go to strip clubs. Ditching the reference to ‘Scrooge’s horror’ was an easy choice as well. The image of his white knuckles ‘clutching’ intimates that he’s spooked. ‘Two matching apparitions’ – also redundant. We know what Marley is, and we can know that breasts come in pairs.

Removing the word ‘knockers’ also leaves readers just a very small amount of work to do, and that might be the single most decisive change here, the thing that changes this piece from a prosaic description with a joke at the end to what is, to my mind, a decent, dark poem. Why ‘tits’? Because ‘breasts’ seems coy and over-mannered.

And no characterisation for the stripper? No, sorry. The central conceit of the poem hangs itself on the squalor of rich men ogling nameless girls and there’s no sense in trying to take the edge off it. This would not do at all as an excuse for routine shallow depictions of women, but I think it’s permissible in the case of one as brief as this.

The Mimic Octopus


The Mimic Octopus is a new anthology of the imitative and derivative from 13 Pages, edited by Richard Osmond and Will Harris, with illustrations by Aisha Farr.

It includes a poem by Anthony Adler which mimics the form and content of my ‘Near Extremes’ poems from School of Forgery, as well as a contribution of my own, ‘The Submission of Alan’. While most of the imitations and pastiches in the anthology are respectful, affectionate, even admiring, ‘The Submission of Alan’ is from a sequence of poems I’m writing which use the imitative mode as a form of criticism (or ‘imitation as impertinence’, as I put it when reading at the launch last night). The target of the criticism is the predilection establishment-sanctioned male poets have for writing sleazy poems about women, particularly when these are dressed up as some else, like, say, revelations about the nature of beauty.

This particular poem is a travesty or burlesque of a section of ‘Missing’ by Alan Jenkins, in which he pictures a former lover planning to betray him while she bathes. It’s from Harm, which won the 1994 Forward Poetry Prize, and which I picked up cheaply in Scarthins, Cromford. Jenkins came to my attention because he was one of the more prominent figures on the board of the Poetry Society a couple of years ago, when they managed to oust (and later, under pressure, reinstate) their director and expend worrying amounts of public money hiring a well-known law firm to spin the story in the press so that it became about two warring women who had to be separated, rather than reconfiguring the Poetry Society to serve some alternative purpose.

Retrospective: Medieval Welsh Translations on BODY


I’d like to write something every now and then about poems I’ve had published in the past, since at the time I hardly said anything, and because most of the online and offline publications that have posted or printed something of mine are well worth further exploration. BODY, for instance, is a seriously international publication that’s free to read and puts up performance texts and videos alongside work from poets across the world. It’s got a slick website too.

The pieces they published are only a half or a third mine, since they’re translations – in this case, of work by medieval Welsh poets Dafydd Ap Gwilym and Gwerful Mechain (the links here are to the poems). I’m (still) frustratedly monolingual, despite efforts in recent years to upgrade, so my approach to ‘translating’ poetry is this: I run the originals through Google Translate, in whole and in part, and marvel for a while over the weirdness produced. I read other translations, as many as I can obtain, and try to map parts of them to the raw automated translation. I read and reread the original texts, often aloud to myself, to try to get a measure of the rhythms and sounds employed. I read around the poem, if there’s any commentary on it, or interesting biographical information that surrounds it. Then I take my best shot, I suppose in much the same way someone might attempt a portrait from a series of colourful descriptions.

I don’t actually think dead-on accuracy matters that much. Translations of poetry are always necessarily defective as pure translations, so their purpose must be to create something new – albeit related. It’s more worthwhile to think of them as collaborations of a sort, or ‘reimaginings’, to borrow the cinematic term. It turns out, for instance, nearly everyone else has a preferred translator of Celan which differs from mine – I like the Ian Fairley versions to the point where I can hardly be bothered with the rest. It might be that’s because I like reading Fairley as much as (or more than) I like reading Celan.

As for these Medieval Welsh poets – well, I happened on them because I’ve been on the look-out for obscene poetry from the past and from other cultures for some time. They’re hardly obscure poets, and the poems I’ve chosen are among their most famous, but the existing translations I found are all somewhat grim and ponderous in the face of what seems (to me) to be their obvious exuberance and comic energy, so my versions attempt to bring that out, at the cost of metrical fidelity. And though the authors are separated by more than a century (Ap Gwilym was around in the 1500s, Mechain in the late 1600s), these pieces seem to go together as a pair.

I also wrote a short essay for BODY about a poem by Rimbaud in which he remarks on a barmaid’s ‘enormous tits’, which seems not entirely unrelated.

Pull Out All The Stops


**Update** Link to the poem read out on Radio 3

I’m peripherally involved in the South Bank Centre’s Pull Out All The Stops organ festival/extravaganza. I’ve written one poem which is currently on display in the Clore Ballroom as part of a free exhibition that runs until 13th April. It’s loaded into a typewriter! I’ll also be reading this poem on BBC Radio 3 tomorrow as part of In Tune, live from the Southbank Centre itself. The show starts at 4.30, and I’ll be on sometime around 5.30.

The piece is called ’Warning Notice in the Key of Bm’, although I was thinking more of the chord of Bm when I wrote it – lots of ‘b’, ’d’ and ‘F/sh’ sounds. In fact, each stanza starts with the syllable ‘be’, just to hammer the point home. It’s written in fairly strict terza rima, but with the same two slant rhymes looped round and round. The subject matter is, loosely, Ralph Downes and his approach to designing the Royal Festival Hall organ; or the genius as monster. Downes was an individual with his own radical ideas about organ-building, which were inevitably met by fierce opposition from traditionalists. If that all sounds very quaint and parochial, it at least makes for a neat metaphor for the inevitable conflict between new ideas and old habits – “Beware the man with music in his head …”

I’ll also be performing at Pipes V Mics, a free event at the RFH this Sunday, alongside organists and beatboxers. I’ve been writing a collaborative piece with Abigail Parry called ‘Obliteration Fugue’. It really is a fugue! We’ve written it in four overlapping registers, from the refined soprano to the bass/base, and it’s essentially a creative deconstruction/destruction of the monstrous organ itself, which will be lurking in the background while we’re on stage.

The Harlequin, Issue 4


Five poems of mine are published online in the latest issue of The Harlequin. Here’s the optional commentary track:

Ash is the third of four ‘between-element’ poems to be published. The first two were Dust in The New Statesman and Steam in The White Review. Ash is the element between fire and air, and like the others, she’s personified as a vagabond-girl. The form in all these poems is based around a final consonant sound that repeats at the end of every line, and a set of four penultimate consonant sounds arranged in a pattern. The title/name also repeats at the start of each stanza, and the whole sequence even fits into a bigger over-arcing sequence! This is because they’re all written by a persona of mine who is obsessed with organisation and patterning.

‘Nothing, that is, but the mind of man’ is the first in a sequence of insomnia poems that take place throughout the course of a single night. This one focuses on the initial moments after lights-out. ‘The band really cut loose for this one’ and ‘Not to be loose or hump-shunted’ are the last two poems in the same sequence, when it gets to morning and begins to get light again. The titles are supposed to evoke the kind of fragmentary, drifting thoughts that present themselves momentarily while you’re lying awake trying to think of nothing.

Defeat is the sort of self-indulgent poem I let myself write occasionally if I feel like I’ve paid my dues in technically adventurous, concept-focussed work. There’s nothing tricksy here – it’s about defeat, and frustration, and the feeling that you can never work hard enough, do enough, learn enough, armour yourself enough to not be broken down again at a moment’s notice.