Monday, January 28, 2008

Review: Jay Bernard's your sign is cuckoo, girl

Wow. Cock-ups on the Royal Mail’s part aside, and Jay Bernard’s first pamphlet (from the peeps at Tall Lighthouse) was well worth waiting for. What I like about her poems – and what this short gathering of only fourteen demonstrates – is a young, lively and energetic voice sounding itself out, but with a musical and rhythmical conviction that demonstrates a young poet who’s well read, yet unafraid to take what she likes and make it that bit more freer, exciting and wonderfully weird. Take opener ‘Kites’:

Is it true that I was frightened of the dark?
If I sat alone and watched the shadows of the room,
it is because I stood with my ear against the wall:
the words I heard were like a corpse
beside my bed or a hole that appeared
in the centre of the moon.

That’s just the first stanza and it’s a strong, beguiling opening that unfolds into a vivid, sensual poem. Here, the ‘quiet voice’ from the poem’s narrator ‘chim[ing] through the country of […] youth’ may bear resemblance to Duffy, but ‘the man piercing his cheek’, ‘a woman with scissors […] singing bees’ and ‘sweat [like] a conglomerate of flies’ are all Bernard’s own, intensely unique images; capturing the otherworldliness of childhood interpretations and memories. ‘Eight’ is a similar exploration of childhood – that which the Surrealist André Breton once called ‘the only reality’ – where an anonymous female adult is suddenly seen by the narrator through a bathroom door, ‘watch[ing] her ease her apple weight over the side of the / bath’. The poem’s closing stanzas are particularly impressive: a subtle, beautiful and enchanting description that merges the reader’s gradual realisations with the child’s.

What else stands out? ‘Kid Moth’, which Pascale Petit originally snapped up for Poetry London magazine, is a well-executed extended metaphor, and the image of her ‘twenty feet up / high on a pole of a street lamp […] / dream[ing] that she could graze its cusp’ makes for a particularly vibrant ending, though perhaps the tendency to include images for the sake of the images themselves is something that Bernard could reign in. After all, the often brilliant musicality of her poems aside, as a poet who combines page and stage so effectively Bernard nonetheless runs certain risks: namely that while such effects may fair well in performance, they can often seem cumbersome on the page. Thankfully, this doesn’t affect the general impression of technical skill and creativity evident in most of the poems, however, and ‘The Pier’ is proof of Bernard’s being at home with tightly controlled rhythmical precision as with the imaginative and often surprising lyrical wanderings that dominate this book.

Other highlights include ‘tongues in velvet’, a rapid and engaging poem that swings between confessional tones and an exploration of the world of sex, drink and clubs, and ‘Cadence’, where the startling lines ‘Being young is an oxymoron - / our genes are old and gnarled as the moon’ demonstrates a young poet with the ability to step out of herself, to look at herself and the world with penetrative thought and a certain objectivity. As Pascale Petit states in the blurb endorsement: ‘Jay Bernard writes powerful and sensuous scenes from the metropolis […] disturbing, joyous and always surprising.’ She’s not wrong. For a young poet – for any poet – to display such a variety of technique and memorable images in only fourteen poems which, by and large, come off successfully, bodes well for Bernard’s future. I look forward to seeing how her work develops, and to a full first collection.

Jay Bernard, your sign is cuckoo, girl. tall-lighthouse, ISBN 1 904551 41 6 Order here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Verb

For those readers who haven't heard it already, there's an interesting discussion from last week's The Verb on Radio 3, dealing with the curiousness and problems that surround unfinished writing. Presented by Ian MacMillan, it includes a handful of novelists and poet Roddy Lumsden, talking about his unfinished poem, 'Sea Air', among others. Well worth listening to if you get chance - I believe the thing's available until tomorrow @ 9pm, when the next Verb's broadcast. Link's here.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Jean Sprackland's Tilt

Alongside reviews of Frances Leviston's Public Dream and Sophie Hannah's Pessimism for Beginners, my review of Jean Sprackland's Costa Award-winning third collection, Tilt, is available, in the latest issue of Tower Poetry's Poetry Matters. You can find it here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


A new draft of a poem. As ever, comments, ideas, sugggestions etc are welcome. I'll leave it up for a day or so.

Dusk's gone now...

Monday, January 14, 2008

Glyn Maxwell

Glyn Maxwell seems an interesting and extremely varied writer of poems, and a poet I intend to read more of in the coming months, having only come across bits of his collaborations with Armitage way back in Moon Country, written when the New Gen promo packed the two off to Iceland together. But he's come to my attention recently in spotting this wonderful and inventive poem in The Guardian Review just after xmas; an impressive long poem which is by turns exhilarating and humorous, but also wonderfully rhymed and metrically well executed. But then with the following review quotes spanning his decade-and-some writing career so far, I feel like I must've been missing out on something good:

No-one treats English quite like the clapped-out motor Maxwell clearly thinks it is. He kicks it, he re-vamps it, he customizes it. He leads you up syntactic blind alleys and gets you doing semantic U-turns that leave the hair bristling - Adam Thorpe, Observer

Glyn Maxwell covers a greater distance in a single line than most people do in a poem - Joseph Brodsky

His range is vast, his energy unlimited, his temperement restless and risk-taking... Maxwell looks well on his way to becoming the complete modern English poet - Poetry Review

Beautiful and moving and authentic poetry can be written today, and we know this not least because Glyn Maxwell is writing it’– The New Republic

Before I invest in any collections, then, I'd be interested to know if any readers of Maxwell have any favourites, or any particular opinions of his work?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Edmund Hilary and Mount Everest

Mountaineering (and more generally exploring) is something that interests me, albeit from a distance, so when I recently found out that the great New Zealand mountaineer and explorer Edmund Hilary, one of the first men to climb to the summit of Everest, had passed away, I had the idea to write a narrative poem (something I rarely do) imagining, alongside a bit of research into the facts of the expedition, his climb to the great mountain's summit. The fruits of this exercise are below. As ever, comments and suggestions are welcome. I might leave this poem up permanently.


i.m. Edmund Hillary
(mountaineer and explorer, 1919 – 2008)

[removed by author]

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Published Reviews and Critical Works

I regularly review as a critic for The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement, and occasionally for magazines including The Poetry Review.

Below is a list of my reviews of new poetry collections and novels that have been published to date or are forthcoming.

Guardian profile (details of all poetry reviews published in Guardian Review)

'Dream Testicles and Memphis Guilt', review of Mark Strand's Almost Invisible and Don Share's Union, Poetry Review Vol. 104 No. 1 (forthcoming)

Review of Nick Laird's Go Giants, The Edinburgh Review (forthcoming)

'A case of After', review of Glyn Maxwell's Pluto, Times Literary Supplement, 13 December 2013

'Love of disorder', review of David Herd's All Just, Times Literary Supplement, 15 March 2013

'At least to resist', review of James Lasdun's Water Sessions, Times Literary Supplement, No 5723, 7 December 2012

Review of Andrew Jamison's Happy Hour, Times Literary Supplement, No 5719, 9 November 2012

Review of Phil Brown's Il Avilit, Times Literary Supplement, No 5711, 14 September 2012

'Mean streets and wetland choirs', review of Dan Burt's We Look Like This, Times Literary Supplement, No 5706, 10 August 2012

'Paths Of Resistance', review of John Kinsella's Armour and Timothy Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation, Poetry Review, Vol. 102 No. 1, March 2012

Review of Jacob Sam-La Rose's Breaking Silence, Times Literary Supplement, No 5695, 25 May 2012

Review of Will Eaves's Sound Houses, Times Literary Supplement, No 5680, 10 February 2012

Review of D. Nurkse's Voices Over Water, Times Literary Supplement, No 5664, 21 October 2011

Review of Paul Henry's The Brittle Sea: New and Selected Poems, Joel Lane's The Autumn Myth, and David Morley's Enchantment, Times Literary Supplement, No 5651, 22 July 2011

Review of Alan Gillis's Here Comes the Night and Jane Duran's Graceline, Times Literary Supplement, No 5638, 22 April 2011

Review of Sam Willetts's New Light for the Old Dark and John Whale's Waterloo Teeth, Times Literary Supplement, No 5630, 25 February 2011

Review of Adam O'Riordan's In the Flesh, Times Literary Supplement, No 5617, 26 November 2010

Review of Katharine Towers' The Floating Man, Guardian, 11 September 2010

'Dozens of Dennises', review of Simon Armitage's Seeing Stars, Times Literary Supplement, No 5613, 29 October 2010

'Reflection in earnest', review of Robin Robertson's The Wrecking Light, Times Literary Supplement, No 5603/04, 20 & 27 August 2010

Review of Glyn Maxwell’s Hide Now, Stand, Vol 9 (4), August 2010

'A Wide Compass', review of Jeremy Reed's West End Survival Kit, Michael Schmidt's Collected Poems, Jenny Joseph's Nothing like Love, Carolyn Jess-Cooke's Inroads, and Sheenagh Pugh's Later Selected Poems, Poetry Review, Vol. 100 No. 2, July 2010

Review of Sian Hughes's The Missing, Times Literary Supplement, No 5590, 21 May 2010

Review of Tony Williams's The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street, Times Literary Supplement, No 5584, 9 April 2010

Review of Imtiaz Dharker's Leaving Fingerprints, Jane Ormerod's Recreational Vehicles on Fire, and Sally Festing's Salaams, Magma, Issue 46, March 2010

Review of Lorraine Mariner's Furniture and Carrie Etter's The Tethers, Times Literary Supplement, No 5575, 5 February 2010

Review of Hilary Menos's Berg, New Welsh Review, No 87, Spring 2010

Review of Ros Barber's Material, PN Review 191, Vol. 36 No. 3, January-February 2010

Reviews of Mark Waldron's The Brand New Dark and John F. Deane's A Little Book of Hours, Times Literary Supplement, No 5568/69, 18 & 25 December 2009

Review of Alison Brackenbury's Singing in the Dark, Claire Crowther's The Clockwork Gift, and Matthew Welton's 'We needed coffee but...', Magma, Issue 45, November 2009

Reviews of Emma Jones's The Striped World and Kevin Hart's Young Rain, Times Literary Supplement, No 5559, 16 October 2009

Review of Jacob Polley's Talk of the Town, Times Literary Supplement, No 5541, 12 June 2009

Review of Mark Doty's Theories and Apparitions, John Agard's Clever Backbone, and Rob A Mackenzie's The Opposite of Cabbage, Magma, Issue 44, June 2009

Review of Colette Bryce’s Self-Portrait in the Dark, Stand, Vol 9 (1), June 2009

‘Glistening as it vanishes’, review of Maura Dooley’s Life Under Water, Times Literary Supplement, No 5529, 20 March 2009

‘A Desire to Share’, review of Christopher Middleton’s Collected Poems, Poetry Review, Vol. 98 No. 4, December 2008

‘New Trainers’, review of Moniza Alvi’s Split World: Poems 1990-2005 and Europa, Times Literary Supplement, No.5505, 3 October 2008

‘In Brief’ review of Stephanie Norgate’s Hidden River, Times Literary Supplement, No.5504, 26 September 2008

Review of Paul Abbott’s Flood, Tower Poetry, June 2008

Review of Jean Sprackland’s Tilt, Tower Poetry, January 2008

Review of Nick Laird's On Purpose, The Stinging Fly, Issue 8 Vol. 2, Winter 2007/08

Review of Tim Turnbull's Stranded in Sub-Atomica (Eyewear)

Review of Jacob Polley's Little Gods (The Poem)

Also forthcoming is the following in-depth critical-biographical essay:

“Nick Laird.” - a critical biographical essay. British Writers, Supplement XVII. Ed. Jay Parini. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson-Gale. Due December 2010.

I also write critical perspectives of poets for the British Council's Contemporary Writers website database. Below is a list of authors whose critical perspectives I have completed to date, with appropriate links.

John Agard

Simon Armitage

David Constantine
Julia Copus

Robert Crawford

Leontia Flynn

Jen Hadfield

Michael Hofmann

Mick Imlah

Nick Laird

Patrick McGuinness

Daljit Nagra

Don Paterson

Tom Paulin

Maurice Riordan

Carol Rumens

Penelope Shuttle

Zoe Skoulding

Greta Stoddart

Hugo Williams

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch

Forthcoming Readings

Leicester Shindig!: Nine Arches and Crystal Clear Creators present Ben Wilkinson and others (tbc) - Monday 17th November, 7.30pm start @ The Western, 70 Western Road, Leicester LE3 0GA
Sheffield Off the Shelf Festival presents: Next Generation Poets with Rebecca Goss and Mark Waldron, and special guests Ian Duhig and Ben Wilkinson - Wednesday 29th October, 7.30pm-9.30pm @ The Studio, University of Sheffield Students' Union
The Poetry Book Society is delighted to be able to bring the Next Generation Poets 2014 to an event near you over the coming months. Events will feature readings from two poets on the list as well as local up-and-coming poets and special guests from the previous generations.

Word Life presents: Picture the Poet with Helen Mort, Steve Scott, Gevi Carver, Ben Wilkinson and others - Friday 17th October, 7.30pm start @ Graves Gallery, Surrey Street, Sheffield S1 1XZ

Stafford Arts Festival: Poetry at St Chad's - Saturday 6th September, 9.30-15.30 (specific times and reading slots tbc) @ St Chad's Church, Greengate Street, Stafford, ST16 2HP

Poetry by Heart: Ben Wilkinson and others (tbc) - Wednesday 30th July, 7 for 7.30pm start @ The HEART Centre Cafe, Headingley, Leeds LS6.
After reading with David Tait and others last year, I'm returning to Poetry by Heart for the Leeds launch of my new prize-winning pamphlet, For Real. 
The Buxton Fringe Festival: Ben Wilkinson and Liz Hall - Thursday 24th July, 7pm @ The Buckingham Hotel, Buxton
Part of the Words Wizards Free Fringe - more details here.

Soon Every House Will Have One and For Real: London Launch - Friday 20th June, 7pm @ The Three Stags pub, Kennington, London (nearest tube North Lambeth)

The Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition Winners with James Caruth, Rebecca Farmer, Holly Hopkins and Ben Wilkinson - Saturday 31st May, 2.30pm @ Jerwood Centre, The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, Cumbria & Tuesday 10th June, 7pm @ Bank Street Arts, Sheffield S1.
Now in its 28th year, the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition has been the starting point for some of the major voices in contemporary poetry. Come and join us to launch the pamphlets from this year’s crop of winners. Two opportunities to hear readings from James Caruth, Rebecca Farmer, Holly Hopkins and Ben Wilkinson, as part of The Wordsworth Trust's reading series and Sheffield's Midsummer Festival respectively.

Poets in a Bookshop: Blackwell's presents Niall Campbell, Kris Anderson and Ben Wilkinson - Wednesday 14th May 2014, 6.30pm - 8.30pm @ Blackwell University Bookshop (Mappin St, Sheffield S1, off West Street)
Free entry / refreshments, with poets' books on sale including Niall Campbell's debut collection Moontide (Bloodaxe Books), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Spire Writes presents: John McCullough and Ben Wilkinson - Wednesday 2nd April 2014, 7.30pm-10pm @ The White Swan, Chesterfield (opposite the Crooked Spire)

Off The Shelf Festival of Words: 21 Poets for Sheffield - online, anywhere, anytime (click the link)

The Digital Poetry Slam is a project commissioned by Off The Shelf Festival Of Words, run by Sheffield based literature organisation Word Life and local filmmaker Nathan Gibson. 21 poets have been filmed in 21 different locations across Sheffield, all venues Off The Shelf use as part of their festival to celebrate their 21st anniversary. Featured are a whole range of different poets, from university lecturers, established names, students and performance poets, to give a snapshot of Sheffield's literature scene.


Festival of Mind, University of Sheffield: Old Northern Voices - Monday 24th September 2012, 6.30pm - 7.45pm
Featuring Simon Armitage as the Gawain poet, Neil Roberts as D.H. Lawrence, River Wolton as Emily Bronte, Adam Piette as W.H. Auden, Nell Farrell as Stevie Smith, and Ben Wilkinson as Philip Larkin.

Sheffield Poetry Festival: Monk, Mort, Wilkinson and Robinson - Saturday 2nd April 2011, 5pm - 7pm
Poets Geraldine Monk, Helen Mort, Ben Wilkinson, and Peter Robinson read as part of the first Sheffield Poetry Festival. @ Bank Street Arts, 32-40 Bank Street, Sheffield S1 2DS. Click on the above link for further details.

Unquiet Desperation Spoken Word Evening
- Wednesday 23rd June 2010, evening
Readings from several poets, further details to be confirmed. @ The Red Deer (off Mappin St on Pitt St, Sheffield S1)

Young Writers Showcase - Saturday 19th June 2010, 7.30pm-11pm (Hallam Union, Paternoster Row, Sheffield S1 - £3 entry)
Featuring some of the best up and coming writers from across the UK, alongside some local talent with quality music to boot where everyone’s welcome, not just the young 'uns. With tickets at only £3 available on the door and directly from here;
Music from The Alpha Manoeuvre; Words from Byron Vincent, Helen Mort, Jay Bernard, Ben Wilkinson, Sarah Thomasin + others


Poetry book launch and readings - Thursday 29th October 2009, 8pm
celebrate the launch of Tony Williams’ poetry collection ‘The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street’, with readings by Tony Williams, Ben Wilkinson and Anthony Rowland (@ the Showroom Cinema/Cafe, Sheffield S1)

Opus and WordLife present the ‘Best of Shef’ - Saturday 17th October 2009, 8pm
Showcasing the best poets writing in Sheffield today; River Wolton (Derbyshire Poet Laureate), Helen Mort (Eric Gregory Award, Manchester Young Writer Award) Matt Clegg (Eric Gregory Award) Matt Black (Arts Council Writers Award) Ben Wilkinson (Tall-Lighthouse) and James Lock (Now Then Magazine) with a live performance from blues guitarist Andrew Duxfield.
@ Cafe Euro (off London Road on John Street, Sheffield S2)

Coffee-House Poetry at the Troubadour - Monday 21st September 2009, 8pm
pick of the crop with emma jones, greta stoddart, mike bartholomew-biggs, olivia cole, martha kapos, ben wilkinson, emily berry and siân hughes with music from singer/guitarist henry fajemirokun (the Troubadour can be found @ Old Brompton Road, London SW5)

Tall Reflections
- Tuesday September 15th 2009, 7.30pm
continuing the tall-lighthouse cambridge series, alan buckley & ben wilkinson
@ Visual Arts Centre, Christ's College, Cambridge

The Sparks (Tall-Lighthouse, November 2008)

The Sparks, Tall-Lighthouse, £4. ISBN 978-1-904551-56-0



In The Sparks, Ben Wilkinson meets a dark world with a light touch. These are poems of the city in the night and a young man's place at its heart. Even when the poems move out from an urban focus, it is to a rural world of missing walkers and lurking cars, a shifting pitch-black beach or a black-misted sea where trawlers roll like beasts. But the dark is lit by sparks of electricity, glowing cigarettes and a strange sun recalled from childhood. These are neat and clever poems.

Poems from this publication previously appeared in Blackbox Manifold, Magma, Other Poetry, Poetry London, Poetry Review, The Frogmore Papers, The London Magazine, and the Times Literary Supplement.

The Sparks is poetry responsive to the elemental layers that underscore the material sheen of our early twenty-first century. It is the work of a poet steeped in the masters, but not cowed by them. Its lines are stylish, fluent, its images incandescent. There is both achievement and promise here: achievement borne of a craft thoroughly learned; the promise that what Ben Wilkinson produces as he begins the difficult business of unlearning is worth the wait.
- Conor O'Callaghan

These are the words of a writer sure of his craft [...] Armitage may be standing pretty close to his elbow, and Eliot has whispered a line or two, but you feel this poet has taken what he wants from these. Now he's preparing to go beyond them, into his own territory. Wilkinson has the strength to dare, and if we feel some of these stretches are a little precocious, they're worth it for the jolts and surprises and shifts that force a reader to go back and re-read.
- Noel Williams, review in Now Then magazine

What strikes me most about Wilkinson's poems is their discursiveness, their willingness to extrapolate from the phenomena they record towards moral and philosophical conclusions. Such a method reminds me of the Romantics, and particularly of Wordsworth; but here Nature is replaced by the complicated, unsatisfactory, urban contemporary landscape.
- Tony Williams

The poems [in The Sparks] have a story-telling impulse which is revolutionized by a refreshing range of subject matter: [...] there are reflections on Tesla’s coil, on trawler fishing, on being drunk and alone on Sheffield streets, on surrealism, on Blake’s angels, on moles as Lazarus, the coincidence of the crash of the money markets and a flash of lightning forking out of the sky. [...] A brave, colourful, finely crafted series of poems.
- Adam Piette, Blackbox Manifold

As a pamphlet the length of this collection is just right. Poetry works in short bursts, especially here where Wilkinson threads his theme of light and darkness, of weather and the sparks that catch us off guard; epitomised through lighters sparking cigarettes and childhood awe at the world with dancing rain and laughing moons. But along these metaphorical guides in the dark, a tender softer side bursts through with gorgeous well-strung imagery. […] The Sparks is full of profound moments told in effortless clarity […] each poem is rich with unusual turns of phrase and glimmering original images bringing the elemental forces down onto the pub, the bedroom, and the many walks in-between.
- John Challis, Hand + Star

The Swan

Just as Blake engraved his poems backwards,
out of necessity but also open-mindedness,

each illuminated word gleaming in relief
against its brightly burning backdrop,

something clicked into place
as we watched it hurtling upwards:

the desperate, beating wingspan
testament to what should or could or can

be achieved when all’s open, flung wide,
neck craned out and eyes on the prize

as, thrashing itself from the lake’s surface,
its flight was a realised extravagance –

as Blake, man of genius and boy of visions,
saw angels line the trees, beyond reach of metaphors.

Available to buy @ tall-lighthouse press's website, here, from Sheffield Hallam University Blackwell's bookshop, or directly from me - just drop me an email if you're interested (listed on my profile page).