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Poet of the Week – 4: Tom Phillips

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK – 4: TOM PHILLIPS

Tom Phillips was born and grew up in Buckinghamshire and, after studying English at Cambridge, moved to Bristol where he worked in local radio for ten years, before switching to print journalism. After nearly two decades at Venue magazine, he went back to university and studied for a PhD in creative writing at the University of Reading, before teaching the subject there and at Bath Spa. Regular journeys to SE Europe around the same time led to his establishing links with writers and artists across the region, learning Bulgarian and translating contemporary Bulgarian literature. Tom and his wife Sarra, a visual artist, moved to Sofia in September 2017.

Aside from occasional dry spells, Tom has been writing and publishing poetry since the mid-1980s, mostly in magazines, but also in anthologies, pamphlets, the online poetry/art project Colourful Star and the full-length collections Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012) and Nepoznati Prevodi / Unknown Translations (Scalino, 2016) – the latter written first in Bulgarian. His work has been translated into Bulgarian, Albanian, Romanian, Macedonian, Serbian and Italian and he has appeared at a number of international poetry festivals in SE Europe.

As well as in the two editions of Balkan Poetry Today he edited, Tom’s translations of Bulgarian poetry have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, The High Window, Raceme, Blackbox Manifold and Ah! Maria. Besides poetry, Tom has written more than twenty plays for theatre companies in Bristol and Bath, including Show of Strength, Theatre West and Ship & Castle.

Tom Phillips writes:

The poems I enjoy reading most are those that leave plenty of room for manoeuvre. Poems that are objects in the world you can look at, look into, and indeed look back out of from different angles. That doesn’t mean my own work necessarily turns out that way, but that’s the ballpark I’m aiming at.

Like most ballparks, though, it’s a fairly broad and ill-defined one. And that’s probably related to the way I work. I rarely sit down knowing what I’m going to write or write about, and it usually starts with three things arriving at roughly the same time: the observation or memory of one or two minor details; a few likely-sounding word combinations; and a vague neural itch. From there the process tends in a relatively haphazard manner until it – whatever it might turn out to be – starts acquiring a shape and form, a direction and focus, an internal emotional logic. At some point, too, I have to decide whether to commit to what’s coming into being or not: is it a poem in its own right? Is it an ur-poem or testbed for phrases and images that end up belonging elsewhere? Or is it a red herring, a complete non-starter?

Perhaps because of this, my work tends to go through quite distinct phases (although these often overlap or run in parallel). In a piece about Recreation Ground, for example, Bristol Review of Books expressed considerable surprise because, in Bristol at that time, I was mainly known for satirical performance-oriented poetry. There were similar reactions to Unknown Translations too, because writing in a second language – Bulgarian – sent my work off in a completely different direction again and that, in turn, has had an effect on the poems I’ve been writing in English since then.

If there is a common thread, though, it’s place. That’s always been a reliable theme, but moving to a different city in a different country has inevitably brought it into sharper focus. Both the pamphlets I’ve put up online since we came to Sofia – Present Continuous and Foreign in Europe – effectively continue what someone described as ‘the love song to the city’ that runs through Unknown Translations, while there’s another batch called Kvartal (Neighbourhood), a fragmentary diary that records happenings in our street and was almost entirely written on our balcony over a few weeks towards the end of last summer. Naturally, at the moment, in this current period of isolation that feels like it was written about, and in, another world.

PORTISHEAD

All through her second wedding, your sister carried white lilies.
She chose Psalm 23 and we duly mumbled
‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’,
thinking this is more like a funeral
and trying not to giggle at the serious bits.
You dug me in the ribs and said,
with more feeling than you meant,
that this is what passes for life in Portishead.

Outside – we nipped out for a fag during ‘Abide With Me’,
tip-toeing past weeping aunts and teenage sons
in suits they’d bought for work experience
(a row of bulging parcels waiting for collection) –
outside you breathed again and then you said
how glad you were you’d escaped
what passes for life in Portishead.

And when you kissed me in the graveyard
with its blots of dead confetti like giant flakes of dandruff,
I was thinking: Yes, thank God, thank God,
if it hadn’t been for this town’s deep chill,
its icy politeness and evening classes,
its Sunday lunch drinks and over-cooked roasts,
the dismal rain on the Lake Grounds of a Saturday night,
if it hadn’t been for the gossip which spread
like a bushfire when you dyed your hair red
and started hanging out with unsuitable types
who played in punk bands like Chaos UK
or limped along the high street on farting Lambrettas –
if it hadn’t been for this town’s desire
to disapprove of all it didn’t understand,

you’d never have run for Cornwall and the sea,
you’d never have run for a place of your own
and you’d never have run into me.
In the doorway of the church, I almost smiled and I almost said:
there are so many reasons I’m grateful
for what passes for life in Portishead.

[from Recreation Ground]

IN PASSING

The first sight of dry patchwork rolling out beneath us
or unfamiliar words murmured at zinc bar counters;
peeling skin on my back like an unfolding map
or yellow acres of sunflowers facing up to the sky;

sporadic glimpses of a slow-moving river
through slits set into the curves of a staircase;
terracotta pigeons on terracotta tiles
or icons glinting through incense and gloom;

a late tram rattling through lamplit suburbs
or an early plane flying over low city rooftops;
those spiralling conversations lasting all night
or the plangent musk of newly poured wine;

the passing last whistle of a passing last train –
those days we needed nobody’s leave to remain.

31 Jan 2020

[Uncollected]

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Poet of the Week – 3: Claire Dyer

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK – 3: CLAIRE DYER

Claire Dyer’s grandmother wanted her to be a BBC newsreader when she grew up. Clearly this did not come to pass. Born in Guildford, Claire has lived in Bedfordshire, Birmingham, South Wales and Berkshire (not necessarily in that order), has a BA in English & History from the University of Birmingham, an MA in Victorian Literature & Culture from the University of Reading and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Her poetry collections, Eleven Rooms (2013) and Interference Effects (2016) appeared from Two Rivers Press, and she has another, Yield, forthcoming in February 2021. Quercus and The Dome Press have published her novels. She is represented by Broo Doherty at DHH Literary Agency.

Having formerly been the Clerk of the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants in the City of London, and worked for an HR research forum in Mayfair, she now teaches creative writing at Bracknell & Wokingham College, runs Fresh Eyes – an editorial and critiquing service – and curates Poets’ Café, Reading’s longest-running poetry platform on behalf of The Poetry Society’s Reading Stanza. She is also a regular Radio Reads contributor on BBC Radio Berkshire.

She has been chairman of Reading Writers and is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, The Poetry Society, The Poetry Book Society, The Society of Women Writers and Journalists and The Society of Authors. Her website is www.clairedyer.com

Claire Dyer writes:

“Being a poet and novelist, I am often asked which I prefer, writing poetry or prose. My answer is always the same: I enjoy them both equally because, to me, they are two sides of the same coin. Both involve scene setting, characterisation, storytelling, word choice; both condense the human condition in an attempt to capture and explain it.

Obviously there is more scope in a novel to tease out the themes that preoccupy me, whilst in poetry the key is to distil these themes and let the specific speak for the universal. In both disciplines, however, the need to engage the reader is a driving force. I therefore put the reader in the centre of my line of sight in my novels and when compiling my poetry collections in the hope of providing them with a narrative experience.

Eleven Rooms, my first collection with Two Rivers Press was published in 2013 and was the summation of ten years of writing poetry, in which I hope I found a voice and a way into the subject that intrigued me at the time, namely the delicate balance between permanence and impermanence. The poems in this book therefore concern themselves with those things we believe can be permanent: love, life, buildings, the memories of experiences lived or imagined but which are, by their very nature, transient.

My second collection, Interference Effects, published by Two Rivers Press in 2016, takes these preoccupations one step further and, whilst dealing with many of the same themes, concentrates on how, by looking at lived or imagined experience through a variety of lenses, their meanings and significances alter. Much of the book was written during my MA at Royal Holloway under the tutelage of Andrew Motion and Jo Shapcott, and my studies into the poet who dominated my time there, Elizabeth Bishop. In Bishop’s precise bravura, her attention to ‘no detail too small’ (‘Sandpiper’) and her technical astuteness, I found a route into corralling my own work. My admiration for her instilled a new discipline in me when approaching the topics that continued to absorb me. The title is taken from the effect of light on a butterfly’s wing, some of the poems reference the Morpho butterfly, which fascinated Bishop, and all the poems contain a reference to the colour blue in some oblique, or not so oblique, way.

If these two books act as markers on my poetic journey, my third collection, Yield, due for publication in 2021 represents a much more personal odyssey. Compiled over the five year period during which my younger child has been transitioning from boy to girl, the poems in this book tell the story from a mother’s viewpoint. Predicated by the three definitions of the word, yield: to give forth by a natural process; to give up, as in defeat, surrender or submit, and to supply or produce something positive, the poems are mostly (I hope) a letter of love to my child as well as a manifesto for inclusivity and personal determination. The poetry I enjoy most is generous, open hearted and well crafted. I hope the poems in my three books go some way to living up to this.”

THE MEMORY CAKE

When I was seven my mother baked a memory cake.
First into the bowl was the ribbed white blanket from her hospital bed.
Next, her final journey home.
Then she blended my forget-me-not dress and its smocking and pockets
with the snip-snackle-crack of the windbreak that day on the sands,
and how she said Here comes the cavalry at the end of films,
and I’d see horses tossing their heads, desert dust rising in clouds.
Next she added story times, the ice-cream van’s jingle-twang,
sunshine that fell slow on my back
the morning we got up early to check if the fledglings had flown.
I watched her beat the mix, fold in her smile,
her hands moving all the while like mine and, when it was done
she left it to cool on the counter top, said Make sure you eat it slowly,
crumb by crumb as, outside the window, some rain began to fall.

[from Interference Effects, 2016]

CALL AND RESPONSE

Then there was the time
when the grief was tremendous

and she stopped in a Devon lane,
left the car and stood instead

at a gate looking out onto the glittering
fields – the late summer fields –

at the inexplicable ruins
of farms – ancient walls beginning

and ending without reason –
some distant sheep,

and listened to nothing more than
the pulse in her ears,

the rolling wind, a kestrel’s call,
its mate’s answering cry.

[from Yield, forthcoming]

 

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Poet of the Week – 2: James Peake

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK – 2: JAMES PEAKE

James Peake lives in London with his wife and son. He has worked in trade publishing for several years, predominantly for the large conglomerates, but also for leading independents and literary agencies. He’s been a reader and editor for small literary magazines in the UK and US, and his own poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. His first collection, Reaction Time of Glass, was published in 2019. Several poems, including work from his next collection, can be read on Wild Court.

James Peake writes:

“Like many people who live in cities, I have a love-hate relationship with the one I know best, London. The things you condemn one day – the scale, noise, anonymity – can be the same things you relish the next.

London is a presiding presence in my first collection, Reaction Time of Glass. I’ve been asked a few times about the title and what it means. Easier perhaps to say a little of how it suggested itself. I’d been writing poems for many years before Peter Robinson, the poetry editor at Two Rivers Press, did me the kindness of suggesting that it was probably high time to put a collection together. He’d rightly understood, I think, that if someone didn’t put a flame under me I’d fall victim to the cult of endless revision (remember the description of a busy day attributed to Oscar Wilde: the morning spent putting a comma in, the afternoon spent taking it out).

One of the advantages of leaving first publication as long as I did is that you have a lot of material to choose from. I saw that certain poems in that heap had a natural kinship that, for example, poems written in quick succession might not. They shared an atmosphere and now they make up the core of the book. Additional poems were then written to reprise certain images and ideas so that the collection is, in several places, in a kind of dialogue with itself. But again and again it was images of glass that predominated: an open sash letting in rain overnight, a stranger being watched far below in an otherwise empty street, narrow realities as they unfurled across a computer screen or windscreen, fish in the luminescent darkness of an aquarium. Glass permits – and mediates – all these moments of attention, and given how invaluable it has been for scientific progress (it’s inert, plentiful, entirely clear) ours has even been described informally as ‘The Glass Age’. It can be tinted or painted, sculpted or even sounded, but more often it’s used in such a way that we’re supposed to forget it’s there.

One of the last poems in the collection, ‘The Club’, features a mirrored wall, the sort put up in dingy clubs to fend off claustrophobia in drunken patrons, and into which someone probably walks nightly. In this poem a reflection moves more slowly than the dancer who engenders it. This sort of perceptual lag is of course hallucinatory, typical of the effect it may be of certain recreational drugs or familiar to us as a horror movie trope, itself an imaginative reminder that our senses are being expertly tricked whenever we watch film or TV, or even when we use our phone to record something and ask it to do our remembering for us.

There are many aesthetic influences on the book – Fellini gets a look in, Cy Twombly also – and inevitably I have countless poetic debts. But I can’t miss the opportunity to recommend the shorter poems of a writer whose work I actually don’t know as well as I should even now, but whose clarity and confidence in the little I do influenced the style of the book at the earliest stage, the lifelong New Yorker and so-called ‘Objectivist’, Charles Reznikoff: ‘Along the flat roofs beneath our window in the morning sunshine, / I read the signature of last night’s rain’.

When I first read this many years ago (it’s from his book, Jerusalem the Golden) I immediately tried to write a poem like it. My subject was the deep rainwater and discarded shoes on top of a bus stop, conspicuous to those on the upper deck of the 27 but unknowable to those clustered there on the pavement. The poem was dreadful – nothing of Reznikoff’s judicious eye or lightness – but it helped me begin to get my own eye in, and eventually to arrive at what I hope is the clarity and perspectival play which characterize the poems in Reaction Time of Glass.”

BURIN FOR AN OPEN HAND

Stretch of adland emptiness
and westward from the flyover

buildings begin to shrink, wet
as the teeth in any jawbone.

I overtake my own sideways glimpse,
a lag of the senses

so that yards from where a terrace ends
I see the unchanged mural there darken,

its atmosphere of negative,
of cancellation, spreading like a film

across glass, metal or acetate,
as if to hide colour from a burin

till it scratches down, digs or nicks
the randomised palette beneath

and let stream the glow and afterglow
of a high street, the red, blue, green and yellow

of airless retail, Trade Marks and brands,
a jumble presenting as designed whole,

the last basis for things appearing as they do
on the change-down descent to street level,

level of the human, a sudden pedestrian
within arm’s reach of the passenger seat

and who glides as though drawn by thread,
one I recognise, have held myself

inside a labyrinth with no secret,
heightened friends at every exit,

eyes-within-eyes
or an ideogram for a face,

if only I could draw or paint!
As I vanish back up into third,

cross an out-of-hours bus lane,
I remember or have somewhere just seen

a man in a branded cap (Just Do It!),
the dry plastic hand in his lap

holding to the shape of likelihood.

[from Reaction Time of Glass]

TEMPLE MEADS

Intending to rise as prince of the lonely dabblers
in lipstick and electronics, I plucked a musty kerchief
to become famous with, would bring down into music
those indignities I endured daily until they shrank,
a sea-change my acclaimed late albums would confirm.
I almost began … waterfront never meant to be lived in,
Bristol’s welcoming curvature, promise of departure,
that fulcrum in particular, where you can toe the feeling
of being deserving, having earned uncontaminated time,
the inside of which is dream without waste, turning up
selfhood against westerly, become the owner of knowledge
never looked for, achieving neutrality, a commute most
acutely felt after core hours on a Friday, push through,
tilt like the eye of an attendant gull, then bundling down
from derelict sorting office to high-numbered platform.

[Uncollected]

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Poet of the Week – 1: Kate Behrens

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK 1: KATE BEHRENS

Kate Behrens is the daughter of two painters, and a single twin. She saw herself as a painter initially, in part because poetry was her twin’s territory. Her father had several well-known poet friends, and visitors to the house included Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Hugo Williams and Dom Moraes. A long time after Kate’s twin took her own life, in 1985, she began writing poetry and, under the persuasion of a poet-friend, sent a new poem off to that year’s Mslexia competition, where it was a runner-up. This was in 2010, and it marked the beginning of her life as a published poet.

Kate is a regular reader in open-mic events at Poets’ Café in Reading, where she came to the attention of John Froy, then the poetry editor for Two Rivers Press. Her most recent collection is Penumbra, published by Two Rivers Press in January 2019. It follows on from her first collection, The Beholder (2012), and Man with Bombe Alaska (2016). Other poems have appeared in Mslexia, Blackbox Manifold, Stand, The High Window, Reading Universityʼs Creative Arts Anthologies, Poetry Salzburg Review, Wild Court, Noon, The Arts of Peace (Two Rivers Press) and as Oxford Brookesʼ Poem of the Week. More poems are forthcoming in Stand and Axon: Creative Explorations.

Kate Behrens writes:

“An artist friend recently asked, ʽIʼm interested in why you risk being obscure in your poems.ʼ My first thought was thanks for your interest! Then: I am not either deliberately obscure or taking unusual risk. Itʼs a daring question − one I wouldnʼt mind asking certain lyric poets myself, if only because it might reveal some intimate details about their practice.

Attempting an answer to someone who wasn’t a poet was useful. I have edited that written response, but it went something like this: I can only really answer the question by describing how the poem guides me, rather than vice-versa. Words and/or images have usually arisen from a kind of small electrical charge, produced by a collision between inner and outer worlds, and meaning, ʽpay attention here, there is something happening that requires the maximum sensual receptivityʼ (poets become alert to false stimuli which can be quite barren and lead them astray).

That ʽchargeʼ might reveal the raw material, then elicit specific poetic devices that accumulate until first words and images have a sound-environment they can breathe in and a readable context from which to communicate. The first mysterious alert (rarer than I would like) often triggers a precise metaphor for some barely conscious but potent preoccupation or idea that needs expression, not unlike dream communications which can happen in simultaneous sensory ways. But at first the practice can feel like fitting bits into a complex design without being 100% sure of the purpose until the end-goal is suddenly illuminated: when in this mode, it is as if the poem knows the poet better than the other way round. Usually a last refining expands the final meaning(s) (ʽmeaningʼ in its broadest sense). Sometimes the inspiration is simpler, a surge of feeling aroused by some event.

My poems feel best to me when some elements can flicker between interpretations, which seems most true to life, although writing them is not an arbitrary search (when they work, everything is contained in that first stimulus). Finally I ask myself, is this poem one that others could relate to, even if they don’t altogether ʽunderstandʼ it? As well as experience, that can involve a degree of trust, both in the poem and in it finding the right reader. It must be just intelligible enough: to rob it of a certain kind of complexity can rob it of potential reach, but it must not be impenetrable to every kind of intelligence either. The degree of obscurity or transparency is intrinsic to each poem, not an objective. Much of the time I am honing it down.

Despite the subjectivity described here, the poem must not be solipsistic; that judgment can be a subtle one and is unavoidably subjective. Semantic ambiguity helps for this reason, but it needs to be an accurate ambiguity. And the poem must create an unequivocal realm: the reader can enter it or stay outside it, but I must be sure of it. That is an almost physical sensation, a feeling of rightness.”

THE SPONSORED RIDE

Where our footpath kinks,
this logjam. Hijacked breaths
articulate steam ghosts…
clattering anxiety.

Strings are pulled.
They canʼt fall apart, must shorten.

Grey lips flinch, furl
up messages. Theyʼre safest
silencing stabs of discomfort.

We lean back, into brambles.
Threaded flesh sparks as it passes,
naked as newly peeled chestnut.

Then theyʼre distanced, cut-outs.
Uccello colours crown the escarpment ‒
reds, white, brown,
the black trees over disquieted fields.

[From Penumbra]

ON ISOLATION

Creativity feeds in shadow,
inattention.

Below the plumbline
of a thinking mind.

So you feel down for it.
Loneliness is all you find.

It climbs into your lap,
breathes out anomalies:

a chimera with humid bumpy skin.
This creature weighs a ton.

Creativityʼs weightless.
Its cradle is sure feeling

rocked by currents through negative spaces.

[Uncollected]

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Steven Matthews in conversation with Naomi Wolf

This is a fascinating and wide ranging conversation between Steven Matthews and Naomi Wolf, about the importance of poetry in these times of climate crisis.

The meeting with Naomi Wolf came about in the wake of a previous recorded talk Steven had with her a few years ago, which had received interest in the US. The opportunity this time derived from recent poems that he has been working on, subsequent to the work that went into the On Magnetism book published by Two Rivers Press in 2017. These new poems arise partly from a residency in 2016 at Oxford Natural History Museum, but also from more recent commissions.

The theme, therefore, was the Environmental Emergency, but more particularly the role that poetry might play in raising awareness of the situation, the loss of species, and the climatic alterations we are all suffering. The interview involves readings from recent work about that loss, its consequences – but also a discussion of the traditional roles that poetry has taken from Classical times in response to natural disaster. In the course of talk about a new translation of passages from Ovid by Steven Matthews, for instance, there is consideration of the ways that human transgression resulted in environmental cataclysm in the Metamorphoses. Poetry is both reporting on events, and forewarning about their consequences. Towards the end of the discussion in the interview, there is broader consideration of the origins of Steven’s poetry, of technique (in fact a running theme throughout), and of the urgency for poetry to be heard amidst the cacophonies of modern life.