Friday, July 11, 2014

For Real (Smith|Doorstop, 2014)

'No. The catch was what you could never
let go. It's what you carried, and still do.'
                                   from 'The Catch'

Technically adroit, Ben Wilkinson’s poems are also willing to wear their heart on their sleeve. Lyrical and sometimes wistful, the best poems have a spoken contemporary quality. There is a great deal of promise in this striking collection.  

For Real, published by Smith|Doorstop, £5.

Buy For Real by secure PayPal / debit card payment for £6 (UK p&p) or £8 (overseas p&p).

Ben Wilkinson is one to watch. A fine poet with a deft ear and a nice sense of how the external world presses on the inner one.
–  Nick Laird

Filmic, phantasmagoric, super-realist – in For Real, Ben Wilkinson shoots the rapids of the emerging twenty-first century’s infra- and extraordinary, in a stylish, poised lyric voice that looks built to last.
–  Paul Farley

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: Fiona Benson's Bright Travellers

Never mind movements, schools and styles: fundamentally, there are two types of poet – those who see spirits, and those who just drink them. As Sean O'Brien noted when reviewing her Faber New Poets pamphlet in these pages in 2009, Fiona Benson is a sober, contemplative sort. But as her first full collection Bright Travellers reveals, she is as much drawn to the metaphysical as to the mystical, treating the poem as a kind of secular prayer.

The opener, "Caveat", may be a terse appraisal of the cactus, its "moist heart" and "store of water / held beneath its spines" a working model of life's resilience in the face of inevitable hurt. But, elsewhere, a poem such as "Lares" is a full-blown hymn to the "small ghost" of a bird, conjuring this "noosed spirit of the eaves" as gatekeeper of a hidden world beyond our everyday outlook. Benson often draws on personal experience in her writing – wading "thigh-deep in pollen" with her husband in summer's "glaze of heat"; the love for her baby daughter that will "ride on" – but she rarely trades in simple anecdotes. Instead, her poems make a bid for what Michael Donaghy called the "alchemical payoff", mixing solemn scrutiny, intoxicating lyricism and a dark imagination in pursuit of the strangeness beneath the habitual.

One stylistic habit is her musing on a pivotal subject – a pine cone, say, or a "feral" rose – in the hope that, like a horse's skull placed in the corner of a room by guitarists, it might offer wider resonance through the poem's music. That rose, for instance, becomes no less than "its own lantern / hung above the garden", "ventricles and channels / charged with light, // its scarlet bell streaming, / as if it were Christ's sacred heart / radiating flames". As a concentrated, image-driven expression, this feels Romantic in origin, but in both theme and style it more clearly recalls Sylvia Plath, who emerges as a guiding hand in the dark. Comparisons between Plath and modern-day female poets are frequently dubious, of course – the work of lazy critics – but where Benson is concerned, the affinity is plain to see. Her obsession with animals, the wild and corporeal, with ghosts and with history's chasms; the handling of painful human emotion through naturalistic conceit; the searing imagery and singularly heightened register: all bear the hallmark of that most nihilistic and paradoxically tender of poets. When she muses on the vulnerability of a pine cone's needles, blown on the wind, it is hard to hear anyone else in the lines "one day / my daughter also / will travel far from here".

To dismiss Benson as a fine imitator and acolyte of Plath, however, would be to give her poetry short shrift. For one thing, there is a tranquil, Zen-like quality to some of her writing, measured lines and diction unspooling with an ease removed from the edgy, angular style employed elsewhere, acknowledging "our place // beneath this infinite sky / in a wind that knows we are mortal, porous, / a beautiful trick of the light".

A sequence of poems on parenthood and the pain and grief of miscarriage demonstrate Benson's ability to handle emotionally difficult and evidently personal subject matter with poise, grit and feeling. Here, avowedly maternal poems such as "Childbed" and "Cradle Cap" are full of praise and wonder for the newborn, but in its clinical yet candid tones, "Breastfeeding" is the most powerful piece. "Lost / to the manifold / stations of milk, / the breast siphoned off // then filling", the poet tells of how "you get down on your knees / at the foot of the change-mat", to clean off the "yellow curd / of the baby's shit". "It was always like this", the poem declaims, "a long line of women / sitting and kneeling, / out of their skins / with love and exhaustion." When Benson crafts her poems out of blood and muscle, memory and music, they stay with you. The pared-back tercets of "Sheep" develop a haunting parallel, in which the creature is seen "bedded in mud and afterbirth, / her three dead lambs // knotted in a plastic bag". "I can't not watch", implores the speaker, before telling of her own hurt and anguish, "afraid to look down / for what I might see". It is a brave and determined poem, one that bites and stings as the best poems can, and sometimes must.

"Love-Letter to Vincent", though, is the book's most sustained achievement. In these dramatic monologues Benson ventriloquises the prostitute-lover of the tortured Van Gogh, taking the titles of his canvases as a stepping-off point and framing device to paint portraits as intelligent and touching as they are visceral and grim. Though occasionally overblown – Benson has a tendency to reach for the intensifying adverb when a quieter, less cluttered phrasing would serve better – there is a good deal to admire: the smart riposte to masculine ignorance of female suffering that is "Still Life with Red Herrings"; the sun-lit sanctuary of "Yellow Room at Arles", where art becomes a means of preserving the past as a talisman against the future; love pitched against life's vicissitudes in "Self-portrait with a Bandaged Ear". "Here, whatever sorrow waits for us, is hope", ventures one poem, while another, written in the blaze of those famous sunflowers, declares: "Most of us are not this brave / our whole damn lives; / teach me to admit / a touch more light". Bright Travellers is a book of poems that balances its florid excesses with toughness, perspicacity and, above all, heart.

first published in The Guardian

Saturday, July 05, 2014

"For you, the catch wasn't something caught..." - 'The Catch', The Saturday Poem in the Guardian

More than a little chuffed to announce that The Saturday Poem in today's Guardian is 'The Catch', from my new prize-winning pamphlet of poems, For Real.

You can read it here.

For Real is available to buy through this website, the Poetry Business shop, the Guardian bookshop, or Amazon.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

For Real wins Northern Promise Poetry Award

BW, collecting the award from poetry judge Jean Sprackland. (photo credit: Simon Veit-Wilson)

Delighted to announce that my new pamphlet of poems, For Real, has picked up the Northern Promise Award from New Writing North, as part of the 2014 Northern Writers' Awards.

The prize is a cash fund to buy time to develop my work, writing new poems that will make up my first full-length collection of poetry.

A brilliant ceremony, and an honour to be in the company of many talented new poets and prose writers alike.

Check out the press release here for more info.

The 2014 Northern Writers' Awards poetry winners. (photo credit: Simon Veit-Wilson)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Videos: 'The River Don' and 'The Door'

Below are a couple of videos from the London launch of For Real (smith|doorstop Books, 2014), at the Three Stags pub in Lambeth.

                                                     'Instead, the house
sat safe and sound - floors dry, photo frames still,
something else edging closer, the way water will.'


'What was it that brought us out that day
from pints and talk, our corner snug,
down streets still slick with rain?'

Republic of Yorkshire: a review of For Real

"The epigram from Shadowlands (‘Why love if losing hurts so much?’) and the overtly love-themed poems (‘The Beach’, ‘Rooms’, and ‘Bearing’) aside, it is the direct mode of address, to a ‘you’, that's insistently sought throughout Wilkinson’s work that convinces me ... 'Rooms' represents the B-side of a set of voices that are the traction and torque behind such enviable poems as ‘The Catch’. In that poem, which functions as the hook for the book, direct address accelerates the reader through the full-rhymes of a sonnet without you even realising it’s a bloody sonnet at all ... Wilkinson clearly loves to play too, and he's particularly good at the dead-pan, the I'm-writing-a-poem-but-I'm-not-look. It is his dedication to the in-fiction world of poetry, his playing along, that ensures no book of his will disappoint in terms of its reread value."

The rest of the review can be read here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"Don't let it tie you down to the house..." - Kim Moore's Sunday Poem Choice

Kim Moore has shared a poem of mine on her writing blog as the Sunday Poem. 

The poem, 'Hound', which addresses the black dog of depression with - I hope - conviction and defiance, is included in my new pamphlet, For Real.

You can read it here, and order the pamphlet from this website, at the link on the right.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

'The Next Big Thing'

About a year ago, Emily Berry kindly invited me to take part in 'The Next Big Thing', a series of interview-type things about new writing projects. You can find out more about her book of poems, Dear Boy, published by Faber and winner of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, here.

Back in 2013 I didn't have much to crow about, but since then I was lucky enough to win the Poetry Business Competition, judged by Carol Ann Duffy, for my second pamphlet of poems, For Real, which is due out this Saturday (31 May 2014). So I guess now that I do, a reprise of sorts is in order. Here's the lowdown.

What is the working title of your book?

My second pamphlet of poems, out this month, will be called For Real.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

It’s a short book of poems, so there isn’t the one idea as such. A lot of the poems riff on personal experience – relationship break-ups, travel, clinical depression, falling in love, and a lifelong passion for Liverpool Football Club – but these are often glimpsed through the kaleidoscope of dreams and the imagination. I was after emotional truth in these poems, not documentary truth. Truths I hope anyone can recognise, rather than the illusion of a reliable account. I suppose I’m really interested in different ways of seeing. Paul Farley saw fit to describe these poems as moving between the ‘filmic, phantasmagorical and super-realist’. I’ll go with that.

What genre does your book fall under?


Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

A fair few of these poems verge on something like Hitchcockian nightmare, but I’d rather not choose Cary Grant – or Anthony Perkins for obvious reasons! One of the book’s epigraphs does come from Shadowlands, though, a biographical film about C. S. Lewis and his life-changing love for the American poet Joy Davidman, in which the former is played by Anthony Hopkins. It’s a movie that gives a fictive but deeply moving version of a real-life story, and one that’s close to my heart. So he might be the right man for the job. Plus, Debra Winger is brilliant as Davidman – powerful, witty, and as emotionally intelligent as she is intellectually smart.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Happiness sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It has just been published by Smith|Doorstop Books.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The earliest poems in the book were written around six years ago, the most recent about three months ago.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

In terms of poetry, I’d say among others that Louis MacNeice, William Matthews, Michael Donaghy, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson and Glyn Maxwell have all found their way, in varying degrees, into my writing. But I’m not sure a writer’s ever in the best position to work out how visible or significant their influences are. Outside of the genre, in recent years I’ve found the prose of David Foster Wallace, James Lasdun’s short fiction, and Andre Agassi’s candid autobiography Open have all stayed with me.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Sheffield pubs; journeys in torrential rain; football; power-cuts; fishing; the Peak District; the animal ‘Other’; life, love and all that jazz.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s cover is in the red of Liverpool FC’s home strip and a central poem, ‘This is Anfield’, takes as its starting point my memories of the first game I saw as a young lad. What d’ya mean, you couldn’t care less about football? Okay, there’s a poem that debunks a myth about chameleons and their colour-changing habits. Oh, and a couple of translations after Paul Verlaine and Eugenio Montale, if that’s your thing.

Buy For Real by secure PayPal / debit card payment for £6 (UK p&p) or £8 (overseas p&p).

The writers below are working on (or have just published) some pretty spectacular things that you’ll be able to read about soon:

A J Ashworth
Niall Campbell
Holly Hopkins
Noel Williams

Message for tagged authors: Rules of ‘The Next Big Thing’
***Use this format for your post
***Answer the ten questions about your current work in progress
***Tag four other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.