Monday, 2 February 2015

The anti-hermit

I've spent a good few months whittling at my novels lately, in dark and lonely rooms. But here comes poetry to the rescue, pulling me out of the pits and into the public during February and March.

I'll be giving a few readings, so come join us for gin and verse...and more gin.

Until Only The Mountain Remains: Part 2
February 6th, Talbot Rice Gallery (Edinburgh) from 7pm (I think)
Following the success of a series of academic discussions, Part 2 consists of readings of creative works inspired by the art work of Christopher Orr. I'll be reading a short story about taxidermy. Other readers include Jane S. F. Angel, Beth Cochrane, J. C. Robertson, Daniel Shand, Joan Lennon, Petra Reid, Alexandra Gushurst-Moore, Nancy Somerville, Brian Bourner, Marianne MacRae, Carol Farrelly, Jane McKie, Simon Marshall, LesleyMay Miller, Aileen Robinson, Allyson Stack, Marjorie Lotfi Gill, Dilys Rose, Esteban Moreaux and David Simpson.

Caboodle Launch
February 19th, Fat Cat (Sheffield) from 7pm
A six-poet, six-pamphlet collection called Caboodle (from Prole Books) takes its first steps into the world. Come listen to some poems, featuring Karina Vidler, Angela Croft, Kate Garrett and me. There's also (all going well) going to be a Caboodle-themed gin for folks to try.

Blind Poetics
March 9th, Blind Poet (Edinburgh) from 8pm (I think)
A regular round-up of poetry in Edinburgh. Join us at The Blind Poet to hear poetry spewing from various mouths. Open mic to follow 'headliners', hosted by Alec Beattie and/or Roddie Shippin.

Rally & Broad at the Dunbar Science Festival
March 13th, Dunmuir Hotel (Dunbar) from 8:30pm
The talent duo, Rachel McCrum and Jenny Lindsay, bring their ratpack of artists along, including singer - songwriter Kirsty Law; science writer and performer Emily Dodd, and the surreal musical
stylings of Zara Gladman (Dr) & the Wee Terrors. I shall be reading a bit of sci-fi poetry with these good people!

Russell Jones

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Write Now!

A short and salty post: are you a writer in Edinburgh (or near by and willing to travel in)? If so check out the art work of Christopher Orr.

The Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh is looking for writers who wish to respond to Orr's paintings. For more information drop me a quick email at Now, away with you, orr else!

Russell Jones

Friday, 24 October 2014

Two Plugs are Better than One!

Right, you lily livered scallywags, what have you asked Santa Claus for? Go on, tell me, I won't let him in on the secret that you've been incredibly naughty. And at your age!

Well there's no chance you're getting those things, not now. Instead you ought to buy these two books. Several copies of each, some for yourself, some for your loved ones, some for your enemies. They feature a hoard of fine poems from upstanding people unlike yourself.

Be the First to Like This: New Scottish Poetry
Vagabond Press
Edited by Colin Waters
This collection is awash with fine poems from almost 40 of Scotland's versifiers. It includes work from Claire Askew, Colin McGuire, Michael Pederson, Aiko Harman, William Letford...the list goes on. 3 poems per poet, giving a nice feel for what they're all about. I've also a few ditties in there.

Double Bill
Red Squirrel Press
Edited by Andy Jackson
This collection takes inspiration from popular culture such as music, TV and the BIG screen. It makes strange links between its sources, comparing Judge Judy with Judge Dredd, among others. MANY poems and poets including Ryan Van Winkle, JL Williams, Sally Evans, Andy Jackson, WN Herbert, Chrissy Williams...the list never ends.

Buy them NOW. Or I'm telling Santa and he won't be happy. Ho. Ho. Ho.

Russell Jones

Monday, 13 October 2014

Poet Profile: Paul Farley

Paul Farley

The background.
Paul Farley grew up in Liverpool and studied painting in Chelsea. He’s won (or been shortlisted) for a sack full of prizes including the TS Eliot award. As well as publishing poetry on the page he’s been a big name on the radio waves, broadcasting poetry and drama. Check out a fuller list here. 

Why this poet?
Paul was my poetry tutor back in the days when I was a teeny weeny undergrad at Lancaster University. At the time I don’t think I realised just how great a poet he was. We’d go to the pub, he’d recite dirty limericks and tell us horrifying and hilarious stories. His poetry has an awesome musical quality to it which comes through on the page, but hearing it is even better. His book titles remind me of Stereophonics songs for some reason, which is no bad thing: “The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You” and “Tramp in Flames” for example. His poetic voice is unique and full of charisma, and his poems expertly capture a sense of time and place, tackling difficult issues with a combination of subtlety and flamboyance.

A poem extract
(from “Tramp in Flames”, in the collection “Tramp in Flames” Picador, 2006)

Some similes act like heat shields for re-entry
to reality: a tramp in flames on the floor.
We can say Flame on! to invoke the Human Torch
From the Fantastic Four. We can switch to art

my uncle said the burning bodies rose
like Draculas from their boxes.
                                                But his layers
burn brightly and the salts locked in his hems
give off the colours of a Roman candle


in the middle of the city he was born in,
and the bin bags melt and fuse him to the pavement
and a pool forms like the way he wet himself
sat on the school floor forty years before,
and then the hand goes up. The hand goes up.

A reading
That same old issue, of course – this is just an extract, albeit about half the poem.

Farley is a master of “turning the line”, which is to say that the lines shift meaning depending on how you read them. Any line in his poems stands well on its own, but then look what happens when you read the line before it, or the one after: it changes subtly but significantly. Let’s look at an example...

Some similes act like heat shields for re-entry
to reality: a tramp in flames on the floor.
We can say Flame on! to invoke the Human Torch

Taken on its own “to reality: a tramp in flames on the floor.” hits hard. The narrator instructs us of the reality of a man burning in the streets. It’s almost dismissive; this person is “a tramp”, somehow not a human or fully formed character. We learn nothing of him until the end, only his title of “tramp”.

Now attach the first line to it ("Some similes act like heat shields for re-entry to reality: a tramp in flames on the floor.") Suddenly we’re in a kind of literary outer space in which similes protect us from the reality of a burning man. It’s completely true, think about how we talk about death. We rarely say, “I’m sorry x person is dead.” We say “he’s passed on”, “he’s no longer with us”. It’s a simile for death but we use it to soften the blow, as a heat shield against the fire of reality, which is too hot to handle.

And then join the last line to the second (to reality: a tramp in flames on the floor. We can say Flame on! to invoke the Human Torch). It’s a cruel joke, isn’t it? The narrator suddenly moves away from reality, perhaps because they can’t take the image, and they turn it into a bit of a joke by comparing the man to the Human Torch from Marvel comic books.

What is it saying then? We placate ourselves and ignore the cruel reality of what is happening. Later the poem refers to “the city he was born in” and the tramp’s life at school when he’s (we assume) asking for help: “and then the hand goes up. The hand goes up.” Even here, Farley’s challenging how we read the line. “The hand goes up” in class to ask for help, and he stresses it again (The hand goes up.) to show the LACK of help. Is this poem really about someone burning? Well, it could have happened or simply be imagined. But it seems to be suggesting that we, as individuals and a society, find reasons to ignore social inequalities and those who need help, not only when they’re adults but also throughout their lives. Choosing ignorance is what causes the problem, the burning.

This is only my take on the poem, of course, but I strongly encourage anyone to take a look at this poem for themselves. “Turning the line” (I’ve just made that up by the way, I’m sure it has a proper name) is something Farley is a master of, but his poems have such a powerful voice that frequently capture time and location so brilliantly. Reading him is a masterclass in impactful and thoughtful verse.

Go read...

The Ice Age (Picador, 2002).
Tramp in Flames (Picador, 2006).
The Dark Film (Picador, 2012). - this one was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize
Listen to Farley’s poem, “Treacle”, here.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A filthy sonnet

There ain't much poetry on this poetry blog, so here's a sonnet from my upcoming collection "Our Terraced Hum" (part of a 5 poet anthology called "Caboodle", from Prole Books, 2014). This poem will also feature in my first full collection, "The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping" (Freight Books, 2015). 

Get messy.

Basement Beneath the Corner Shop

He’s made himself the castle of his dreams:
the landfill lord, a tin can Midas
moated by nine months of debris. He beams
in the grit of his homemade fortress
because nothing outside can finger through
the pizza-box walls cracked by arrow loops,
his cardboard curtain. The hullaballoo 
of reality is cut by his coup 
d'├ętat, cartons stacked, wrappers tacked, intact
in the order of chaos. Passersby
gleer in, hands fanned over their eyes, retract,
shake their faces at the teem of house flies.
They mark him the idol of their own disgust
when in public but, privately, they lust.

Russell Jones

Poet Profiles 2: Jo Shapcott

Jo Shapcott

The background.
Jo Shapcott is from London but studied in Dublin. She teaches Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. Her poetry has won some big awards including the Costa Prize and the Forward Prize.  Aside from poetry she has also studied science with the Open University. Her collection “Of Mutability” (2011) explores her experiences of having breast cancer.

Why this poet?
She’s one that sticks in my head, like a piece of tasty gristle between my gnashers. If nothing else, her turns of phrase can make me tingle and gurn. Her first collection, for example, she titled: “Electroplating the Baby”. Frankly I don’t think you can beat that. Her poetry is diverse too, from knitting to pissing, cancer to chemistry. She’s interested in everyday life but her poems also talk about bigger issues such as gender and identity.

A poem extract
(from “Of Mutability” – read the full poem here)

Too many of the best cells in my body
are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw
in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four
and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small
among the numbers. Razor small.


Look up to catch eclipses, gold leaf, comets,
angels, chandeliers, out of the corner of your eye,
join them if you like, learn astrophysics, or
learn folksong, human sacrifice, mortality

A reading

I hate having to paste bits of poems, it really ruins the overall impact. However, we’ll have to cope.

What I love about this poem is how personal it is, and yet it blasts outwards to take in the ‘grand scheme of things’.  Shapcott’s choice of words in the first stanza is brutal: “itching”, “jagged”, “raw” and these words would feel tired if it weren’t for the fact that she’s not talking about flesh as we might expect it, she’s talking about her “best cells”. Of course the fact that these are the “best” ones means that what’s unmentioned (the “worse cells”) is all the more potent. She’s breaking apart. We’re next to her, listening to her talk about her body’s rebellion, and we know this could happen to us too.

And then BOOM, here come the comets and angels. We’re told we can join them, we can learn “astrophysics or folksong”. Is this hope? It’s those things we imagine, those things we don’t quite know, “in the corner of your eye” that open up opportunities. That dissolving body becomes secondary to the possibilities of the mind, but it was the learning of her mortality, and our own, that brings about such vast change and inspiration. It’s as though she’s saying 'once you let go, you’re free to be something else.' She’s prodded life in the eye and she seems to come out victorious, or at least transformed.

I think this poem teaches us something: every experience, even very challenging, even life threatening, can change the way we think about the world and our place in it.

Go read...

Of Mutability (winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award)

Her Book: Poems 1988-1998.

Electroplating the Baby (winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for best first collection) - I think you have to get this second hand now, or read parts of it in her collected poems

Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (edited with Matthew Sweeny, a very fine anthology of poems for all sorts of reasons, a great addition to a book shelf).  

Russell Jones

Monday, 1 September 2014

Poet Profiles, 1: Edwin Morgan

In a bid to share my poetry preferences and spread the good word about some fine poets, living and dead, I have decided to publish a fortnightly Poet Profile.

Have a gander...

 Edwin Morgan

The background.
For anyone who knows me, this guy’s the obvious choice to begin my poet profiles (my PhD was on his sci-fi poetry). Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) was the Scots Makar until his death in 2010. He grew up in Glasgow, serving abroad in WW2, returning to teach at Glasgow University. For all the ins, outs and sideways of his life I’d recommend picking up “Beyond The Last Dragon:A Life of Edwin Morgan” by his great friend and biographer, James McGonigal.

Why this poet?
Morgan has to be one of the most exciting poets I’ve ever read. His poetry is diverse, funny and profound. He’s written poems about the Loch Ness Monster, Computer Christmas cards, space aliens, love, loss and liberty. He’s written sonnets, sound poems, colour poems, sci-fi poems, dialogue poems, concrete poems, one word poems, emergent poems... I could go on. In short: check him out.

A poem extract.
(from “The Loch Ness Monster’s Song" - LISTEN HERE)

Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl –
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?

A reading.
First, I have to express how much fun this poem is to read aloud. You’d be missing out (and partly missing the point) if you just read it in your head. Having taught this at secondary schools and universities, I know how much of a kick people get out of hearing it spoken with gusto. Give it a try, go on, now!

This is a sound poem, but the shape also adds to possible interpretations we might make. At first the poem looks like nonsense, but there are hints of intelligence in there. The monster asks questions, seeming to call out dinosaur-esque names: “Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?”

Now Morgan has discussed what’s “happening” in the poem, but to some degree that is irrelevant. The poem encourages you to make up your own stories, to build a narrative from mere sound. Take that idea  a step further and it starts to question the nature of language: isn’t the way we engage with the world also linguistically bound? And isn’t language simply an assortment of noises?

What’s the point then? Communication. Something ethereal is communicated through listening to the poem, whether it’s merely humour or something deeper. But the listener also begins to try to translate the poem. “What is the monster saying? What’s happening?” They become an active participant, decrypting the song and taking from it what they will. This was a major drive of Morgan’s work: communication is key, we need to work hard at understanding each other.

This is a great example, I think, of how a poem can work without the meaning of the words being the most important thing on the page. It shows us how poetry can be effective and affective without “understanding” ever being a part of the equation.

Go read...
Morgan has published SO many poems in books, magazines and so on. If you’re new to his work I highly recommend his Collected Poems, which gives a good sample of a wide range of his stuff. You can also listen to a few of his poems on the Poetry Archive. If he grabs your fancy, visit the Scottish PoetryLibrary in Edinburgh, the home of The Edwin Morgan Archive.