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Category Archives: poetry

Review: Holding Your Hand Through Hard Times: a collection by Firm Of Poets

56 pages


ISBN 978 0 9930192 0 3

Published by Ossett Observer Presents, 2014

This chapbook features poems by Ralph Dartford, Matthew Headley Stoppard, Geneviève L. Walsh, John Darwin, and Matt Abbott.  I know all these people.  I have been given very generous lifts in the car belonging to Ralph and his wife, Jacqui.  I have interviewed Matthew Headley Stoppard on my radio programme, and shared a stage with him during the promotion of the Grist poetry anthology.  I have headlined and done open mic at Spoken Weird, run by Geneviève Walsh.  I have read a poem at Write Out Loud in Sale, run by John Darwin (where Ralph and Matthew also performed) and I have heard Matt Abbott perform many times, in Wakefield and Sheffield.

The first thing that strikes you about this book is the production quality.  As a manufactured object, it is a thing of craft, beauty, and durability.  It is held together with red stitching which reminded me of the seams on a pair of stockings.  The cover design is distinctive but minimal.  There is an endpaper made of textured black paper which looks almost as if it has been retrieved from a bonfire without being broken.  The text uses two colours, black and red, which appealed to my anarcho-syndicalist background, and two fonts (the maximum number permissible in a single document which doesn’t contain equations or scientific notation).  The poems are divided by author, and appear in the order I listed the names previously.

If you happen to live near Wakefield, the nicest way to obtain this book is to visit Rickaro Books in Horbury, where it is currently in stock (http://www.rickarobooks.co.uk/).  (While you are there, you might also like to have a look at a copy of ‘Escape Kit’.)

Ralph Dartford’s work is free verse, mostly with short lines, and uses rhyme, rhythm, and stanzas, but not in a regular form.  His subjects are marginal lives, relationships, and the passing of time – all good stuff.  His last poem is political and is that rarest of objects: a political poem that sounds as if it was written by a grown-up and which actually works.  Ralph achieves this by observing one of the simplest rules, which is to write from the personal, the detailed, and the practical, rather than the impersonal, the abstract, and the hypothetical.

Matthew Headley Stoppard uses longer lines which are harder to enunciate than Ralph’s.  His subject matter defies categorisation, but the poems all have a clear narrative voice.  The vocabulary contains a lot of words, and goes near to the point of becoming poetic, e.g. with ‘ellipsis’ and ‘dovetailed’, but the language feels free and experimental rather than pretentious or over-written.  I am fascinated to see how MHS’s already mature-sounding style will develop as he approaches the age of thirty.

Geneviève’s first poem has the same narrative mode as some of the passages in ‘The Damned United’, by David Peace – the ones in which the voice of Brian Clough is narrating.  In other words, there is an unreliable, first person narrator, who addresses himself (herself, in Geneviève’s case) in the second person.  The effect in both places is to make the narrator sound unhinged.  Her poems use a lot of figurative comparisons, but still manage to sound contemporary.

John Darwin’s two main themes are a sense of place, and mortality, sometimes with both in the same poem.  One of the poems is set in Turkey, but for a reason related to the subject, not for the sake of sounding exotic.  John uses rhyme and rhythm, in a manner which is more regular than most of the other work, but he doesn’t use standard forms.  As I implied earlier, all these poems are written for performance, by seasoned performers.  Matt and Geneviève are loud performers.  Ralph, MHS, and John are clear but quiet performers.

Matt Abott’s poems are about a sense of place, romantic longing, and a review he once received via a posting on the Channel 4 website.  ‘This One’s For Tim’ is the only poem in the book which is about writing poetry.  It is also the most regular in form (five quartets, each with a rhyme scheme AABB).  ‘Drunken Culinary Kingdom’ is about one of The Forbidden Subjects For Contemporary Poetry – going for a drunken night out.  It is also regular in form, apart from a variant middle stanza.  Matt does this kind of thing much better than most of his contemporaries, but I think it reads less well on the page than some of his other work.

The collection is fairly well-balanced (in the artistic rather than the mental health sense).  It contains a lot of craft, some guile, a mixture of emotions, and it will try to hit you over the head with a tyre-iron in places.  If you are interested in poetry which is urban, contemporary and unpretentious (like mine is) then buy it.  If you have any affection for books as manufactured objects, then buy it whatever your opinion of poetry is.

Doncaster Mapfest and Wakefield Litfest

I am doing a spoken word performance as part of Mapfest 2014 in Doncaster. This is from 4:00 – 4:30pm on Friday 29 August at the Marketplace Ale House and Deli (21 Market Place, DN1 1ND). This will feature poetry and short pieces of comedy.

On Saturday 30 August, I am appearing at a reading at Wakefield Library, which starts at 2pm (Wakefield One, Burton Street, WF1 2DD). This is the launch of a new poetry pamphlet containing the winning entries from the 2014 Red Shed Open Poetry Competition, in which I won the Wakefield Post Code Prize. Copies of the pamphlet will be on sale.

On Wednesday 24 September, I am appearing at Wakefield Writers’ Fair, at the Orangery, near Westgate station. All being well, I should have copies of ‘Escape Kit’ for sale. The doors open at 5:00pm, and the writers’ short presentations about their work begin at 6:30pm. There is usually a licensed bar at events at the Orangery.

I am at the Orangery again at 7:30pm on Tuesday 30 September at the Poetry Wrap Party, which closes the festival. Details and ticket information here: http://www.wakefieldlitfest.org.uk/events/109-poetry-wrap-party

Walking The Line

Walking The Line

The cost is measured out in human lives:

the people, mostly men, who get sent down

for burglary, assault, or carrying knives,

their faces inked to resemble a sad clown.

I’m a liberal, and this fact makes my heart bleed:

some, when they are released, still cannot read.


We carried Simon Armitage’s sock

for forty-seven miles around the Dales.

We clambered over dry-stone walls and rocks.

Each night, we read our poems, drank real ales.

I wondered if this venture was worthwhile,

how much The Sock would do in ‘pounds per mile’.


I still have yet to meet this national treasure,

except, of course, on BBC Radio 4.

Few people prefer poetry to ‘Jezza’,

but Simon’s fame still travels more and more.

How much down its elasticated throat

could some brown, woollen item blackmail/coax?


My home town prison is a ‘Category A’.

A man in there lives in a Perspex box.

I struggled to see how we’d make this pay

even with Simon Armitage’s sock.

In Marsden, Hebden Bridge, in Bingley, Ilkley

we hoped the contributions would flow free.


Apart from a success at Hebden library,

the other readings were a crock of shit.

The Reader Organisation was conciliatory,

and I suppose that we all felt we’d done our bit.

Michael Stewart said that, after all four rounds,

we had collected just eighty-four pounds.


They say that it costs less to go to Eton

than to put some twat in prison for a year,

and socialists and liberals might feel beaten

by ‘under-class’ and ‘immigrant’ right-wing fear.

Incarceration, at the least, should lead

to books, so we can teach them how to read.

Ilkley Literature Festival 2013: Walking the Line and other events

Michael Stewart, Julia Deakin, Gaia Holmes and I will be walking 46 miles along the Stanza Stones route, from 17 to 20 October 2013. This event has a received funding from the Arts Council and is called Walking the Line.

The first leg is from Marsden to Hebden Bridge, and then to Bingley, and then to Ilkley. There will be evening poetry performances in, respectively, Marsden, Hebden Bridge, Saltaire, and Ilkley. Times and venues of these will be announced shortly.

Everybody is welcome to walk with us, and ask us questions about poetry. Some of our fellow Grist poets will be joining us.

I am appearing solo at the Ilkley Festival at 9pm on Monday 14 October 2013, at Ilkley Playhouse. You don’t need a ticket for this event: you can just turn up, and admission is free. The event is entitled Throwing Mother In The Skip.

I am also appearing at Words on Tap at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds on 26 July 2013.

‘Grist’ poets at ‘Wicked Words’, 7 Arts Centre, Leeds: 2 May 2012

Michael Stewart’s blog:


The organisation of the event, managed by Brendan, was efficient and professional.  Brendan made a wise choice by delegating the introductions for the ‘Grist’ poets to Michael Stewart.  

The one thing that Brendan exhibited which I would suggest that he might re-consider for future events was the tone of his banter during the rest of the evening, which was skewed to much, in my opinion, towards whimsy.  Poetry is supposed to be enjoyable, and can be at times funny, sexual, or vulgar, but it is much better if you act as if you are taking it seriously.   That need not get in the way of the enjoyment: just the opposite, in fact, because poetry is most enjoyable when the poems are allowed to speak for themselves. 

There is little I can add to the criticism that Michael Stewart has already made of the contributors to the read-round.  I would say that the first thing that the person responsible (presumably Brendan) should do is to introduce some kind of selection procedure other than picking names from a hat.  The rejoinder to that might be that it would cut down the number of people who want to read.  As long as it leaves somebody, and as long as it drives up the quality of the readings, then so be it.  What we experienced last night was a poetry economy in which anybody could draw a squiggle on a piece of paper and call it a five pound note.  

The whimsical note I mentioned earlier was carried into nearly every performer who appeared during the read-round.  I don’t understand why the emotional range covered was so apparently narrow and impoverished.  The whimsical party may be gaining some encouragement from the tittering which came from the audience.  I would suggest that this was motivated mostly by alcohol (which is fine) and embarrassment (which is not fine).  

I took 8 pages of notes (in my small notebook) during the read-round.  One of the things I do to sublimate stress is to write furiously.  I was somewhat inebriated at the time, but that made what I was writing more honest.  Here are some extracts from what I wrote. 

Guy in graph paper shirt, reading from a suspiciously fat book that looks like one of those vanity publications that a huge number of contributors have to pay to appear in.  Not a good sign.  Agh!  His intonation is wrong: too prosaic.   

This one contains the line “Go through the failover plan for when the new servers arrive.”  Am I back at work now?   

This is excruciating.  This is torture.  Aaaaaaaagh!  What have I done to deserve this?  Do anything.  Go up through the ceiling.  Descend through the floor.  But stop.  Please please please please please stop stop stop stop stop.  I’m dying.  I’m dying.  I’m dying.   

My name is Harry Palmer.

My name is Harry Palmer.

My name is Harry Palmer.

My name is Harry Palmer.

My name is Harry Palmer. 

Michael hit the nail on the head when he mentioned inappropriate rhyme.  I wrote this phrase four times among the notes. 

Somebody did a poem about the shipping forecast, which is quite a well-worked subject by now, and this was a poor example.  For some reason, the author had not quoted any of the language from the litany of the shipping forecast itself, which seemed an artificial and unnecessary handicap that the piece failed to recover from. 

The best effort during the read-round was the result of an exercise in thinking of 10 words about something unattractive or repellent and then using them to write about something beautiful.  I caught five of the key words: oppression, water-boarding, slavery, welts and rope.  This was the best evidence of craft during the read-round.  I did not catch the writer’s name, but he should be encouraged. 

None of the contributors to the read-round were women.  

The high point of the evening for me was that Julia Deakin produced the actual volume which was the inspiration for her poem, Possession: a copy of 20th Century Women’s Poetry by Faber & Faber.  I asked her if I could hold it while she was reading, to which she kindly agreed.  I gripped it fiercely when she spoke the line, Well it’s mine now, Elizabeth Scally or Scully.   This is one of my favourite lines from the whole anthology.

Freedom of movement

This is a poem that came to me when I was reflecting on ‘Upstairs’. I am indebted to my fellow writer, Alison McCormack, for having provided the prompt, “I’ve got Tolstoy in a toboggan”.

Freedom of movement

I’ve got Hardy in a handcart
I’ve got Bennett in a bin-bag
I’ve got Trollope in a trolley
I’ve got Kipling in a kit-bag
I’ve got Pushkin on a push-cycle
I’ve got Forster in a 4×4
I’ve got Solzhenitsyn in a solar-powered experimental vehicle
I’ve got Zola in a Zephyr
I’ve got Empson in an E-type
I’ve got Waugh in a wire basket
I’ve got Amis in an Amish horse-drawn buggy
I’ve got Yeats in a yacht
J’ai Voltaire dans une voiture d’occasion
I’ve got Dostoyevsky in a dune buggy
I’ve got Rabelais in a Reliant Robin
I’ve got Orwell in an Oldsmobile
I’ve got Chandler in a Chrysler
I’ve got Milton on a milk-float
I’ve got Levi in a limousine
I’ve got Updike in a U-boat
I’ve got Joyce in a jalopy
I’ve got Ginsberg in a General Purpose Vehicle
I’ve got Nesbo in a Nissan
I’ve got Ishiguro in an Isuzu

An adopted surrealist poem: ‘Upstairs’

After the ‘Grist’ reading in Otley on 3 April, there was the usual “read-round”, which had a contribution from just about every person present (about 15 or so).

One was from a grizzled-looking man in his 50s, dressed somewhat in the style of a biker, with a grey moustache.  He read the following verse, after which I shook him by the hand.  His fingers felt like iron rods. 

I asked him for a copy of the poem, which he had in front of him in a narrow-ruled A4 looseleaf pad.  I was trying to give him my email address, when he unceremoniously tore the two sheets of the poem off the pad and handed them to me. 

It didn’t have a title, and so I have entitled it, “Upstairs”.  What follows is a literal transcription of how the author, whose name I still don’t know, wrote it.



When you’re out in the fog
and you meet some-one
it could be Werner Herzog,

it could be Werner Herzog
out in the fog
walking his dog.
Or Lord Lucan

Lord Lucan
out in the park
looking for fun
while it’s foggy
after dark.

If you’re out in the park
looking for fun
while it’s foggy
after dark
and you meet a man
with a funny shaped head
it’s probably not Lord Lucan.

It’s probably not Lord Lucan
if he says ‘ello ‘ello ‘ello
What’s going on?
Probably not Lord Lucan
if he comes at you
waving a truncheon –
his head a funny shape
because it has a helmet on,
it’s probably not Lord Lucan.

It’s probably not Lord Lucan…
…probably…It’s probably…
a policeman!  Better run.
Run run run run run

out the park
in the fog
after dark
past the man
with a dog
run run
run for home
Don’t tell Mum.

“Where’ve you been, son?”
– Nowhere!
“What’ve you been doing, son?”
– Nuthin!
Mum likes to chat.
– Don’t listen!

She says
“Well I’ve had a very interesting day.
You’ll never guess
who I met
on the bus –
front seat
Salvador Dali
and sitting in his lap
a haddock named Timothy.”

‘Grist’ poetry events in April and May 2012

On Tuesday 3 April at 8pm, some of the ‘Grist’ poets, including me, will be reciting at Kork’s wine bar in Otley (LS21 1AD).

On Sunday 15 April, the ‘Grist’ poets are taking over the ‘Themes for Dreamers’ programme on Radio Phoenix (www.phoenixfm.co.uk) from 4 to 6 pm.  There are rumours that extracts from this programme will be available on CD afterwards. 

On Saturday 21 April between 1 and 2pm, we will be at Huddersfield Central Library in support of World Book Day.

On the evening of Wednesday 2 May, we will be at an event called Wicked Words in Leeds.  Details to be confirmed.

7 May: The Puzzle, Sowerby Bridge. 

‘Grist’ launch video: A Complicated Way of Being Ignored


Michael Stewart apologises for the somewhat rough and ready quality of this video, but I think he has done remarkably well under the circumstances.

There will be more readings by the Grist poets in the next few weeks.  Details to follow.

WT-G is mentioned in Yorkshire Post review

Ian McMillan, the well-known Yorkshire poet and frontman of The Ian McMillan Orchestra (@ianmcmillanorch) has written a review of ‘A Complicated Way of Being Ignored’ in the culture section of today’s Yorkshire Post.


Of the 36 contributors to the anthology, only two are mentioned by name, Geraldine Clarkson, and me.