Hi poetry fans!
We’re about a year and a half down the line from the publication of my second book, and by the time I’ve cleared my desk it’ll be two years. I haven’t performed any poetry in public since the launch party, and I’ve been generally pretty quiet poetry-wise. Doing a bit of writing and reading. One competition shortlist. One magazine publication. I recorded readings of some of the poems from Vol 2 (which you can watch here) but I’ve been too busy with other things to finish.
For the first book, I performed a kind of autopsy by way of a “Partridge-on-Partridge”-inspired video series, where I interviewed myself (in depth) about every single poem in the book. It took ages. It was a masterpiece. To my knowledge nobody has watched it all the way through.
This time around I haven’t found the time with such frivolity, and I doubt I will. Also, nobody reviewed the book this time, so there are no negative critical appraisals for me to refute. I did write a review of the book myself prior to publishing it; but it wasn’t a very good review, so I haven’t bothered publishing that either.
What I did do was write a VERY lengthy document called “Versification without occasion”, collecting together some awful (and a few okay) poems that didn’t make it in to RFAT, and documenting the lengthy process of writing and compiling RFAT.
I sold a home-printed copy of that as a Kickstarter reward while raising funds to print the book, and shifted 8/10 of them (to my surprise). I still have ONE copy of “Versification without occasion” available for purchase. If you paypal me a fiver you can have it. I want to keep the other one. Nevertheless, I promised/threatened to post some of the contents here for posterity. So I will now do that.
I won’t post the poems, because that would constitute publishing. And at least some of them don’t deserve that. Also, I’d really like a fiver. So if you DO want a bunch of not-that-good poems in addition to what is basically now a printout of this blog-post, get in touch!
Hereafter, for your distraction, will follow the introduction to that book, and the entirety of the second section, called “A brief history of ‘Rhymes for all times'”. (The deployment of the adjective “brief” in this context is sarcastic.)
In maths, at school, it’s always very important to show your “working out”. Right? Well it was when I was there. You only got half the points (or whatever they were) for giving the correct answer to a question. And no points for asking one.
I guess the purpose of this – besides aiming to raise money more easily to print the books, which, let’s face it, was the genesis – is to show the working out behind “Rhymes for all times” (RFAT). That’s not the done thing in poetry, or literature. Maybe it’s more accepted in music or fine art? Maybe not. I suspect where art’s concerned that showing one’s working out is never something the artist is supposed to choose to do. It happens to them, as some kind of obsessive measure by an enchanted – possibly bewitched – public; or at least the marketers acting as the middlemen between them. It’s somehow bound up with the notion of “genius”, which – last time I checked – I was not.
So you’ll get your sketches by Picasso or Tracey Emin raising far more than their raw materials’ worth at the auction houses. And you’ll get your new Nick Drake bootleg boxed set – in an actual box, embossed or bedecked with velevet – every couple of years. And you might even see some manner of publication for some letters from WB Yeats or Emily Dickinson, wherein they include an early draft of some (poem-)famous verse.
But theoretically, I, with about 100 units shifted to my name, shouldn’t be doing this. Which is a good reason to do it.
The first introduction I wrote was lost somewhere in the labyrinthine archives of my data stores. So then I wrote the actual book (or pamphlet, or whatever it is), reasoning that I could introduce it retrospectively – or, with hindsight.
The following is ostensibly a history of the creation of RFAT. But I can’t remember all the details about the writing of each poem because basically it’s always really dull. People writing is dull: It’s just me in my shed or me in the B&Q canteen or me sat there on my phone when I’m supposed to be stopping the children from battering each other or me on a train. There is no other circumstance. So what I mainly do in this bit is complain about my genius not being recognized, chronologically, and then try to give useful critical pointers on each of the poems in the book, chronologically, but fade in to saying which ones I like and which ones I don’t like and why.
Caring, in the community of Landskeria,
Nov, 2015 (Edited for context, July 2017)
A brief history of “Rhymes for all times”
Because this is a companion to RFAT and not a volume of autobiography, I’m not going to talk about the teachers at school who got me into writing (Mrs Copeland, primary, and Mr Gleave, secondary); and I’m not going to indulge myself by tracing my poetry “career” in detail to the pre–Has Doubts days of my Strongbow-swilling poverty-lite early Hackney residence when I couldn’t actually afford tube fare or beer, so I sat in most nights rewriting Thomas Hardy’s “Return of the Native” as a 92-poem volume called “Goodbye Misery, Hello Joy!”, set in Snowdonia and (pointlessly) featuring a giant albino pike as a superfluous central character. I don’t flatter my current output by dismissing those poems as “juvenilia”, but I can dismiss them for the purposes of this narrative on the basis that I evidently felt insufficiently convinced of their merit to publish them (when Poetry London, Poetry Wales, Faber & Faber and Salt would not) and that any connections between them and what I wrote for my Has Doubts project (which began life as a blog) was either sub- or unconscious. I forget the difference: I was shit at Psychology A-level.
Given that RFAT could easily have been my first book, instead of “Mistaken for art or rubbish” (MFAOR), the prehistory goes back to that blog and the genesis of Has Doubts as a project – as a manifesto-in-progress, which is remains, and an artistic reason for being. (You can translate that phrase into French if it makes you feel happier.)
This was the first poem published on that (now defunct) blog:
Thoughts on not making the 2009 Crashaw Prize Shortlist for the publication of debut collections of poetry from major new talents
I wake to grit on
Snowless streets and another
Shortlist less my name.
I decided this was not a Has Doubts poem at the end of the first year of work, and now it knocks about in the “Misc” folder in that part of my Dropbox. It was supposed to be a haiku. I’m not hugely interested in haiku, but I can count syllables. It was January. I was at work at Authority Communications, having left my part-time job at Playlouder the previous year, giving up the dream I never had of becoming a music journalist, having failed to convince the general populace that The Indelicates, Cadaverous Condition and Gentle Touch were the three most important musical entities around at that time – not least because the general populace had realised that music journalism was pointless because of technology, and that the specific populace who used to read it had decided Playlouder.com especially was pointless, because of its uniquely dysfunctional UX. It was basically NME.com trying to become Spotify, and stuck in the middle due to budget and time constraints. I’d enjoyed working there because it was full of clever creative people (mostly techies) and I got to sell all the CDs I hated on Amazon for a very minor supplement to my paltry income. I also got to temporarily employ some of my clever friends as freelancers, and to invent numerous alter-egos to fill the gaps where real reviewers (who weren’t me) would have been if it was a website with proper editorial capacity, rather than one with fewer readers than writers. And only about four writers.
I mention all this because it was in that semi-converted abattoir on Rhoda Street off the top of fashionable Brick Lane – working on an old iMac directly beneath a leaky roof that could only be fixed, I was informed by one of my several bosses, if they sacked me and diverted the freed-up editorial funds into structural renovation – that Has Doubts was born.
This was a couple of years before. It must have been 2008, because that’s when “Destroying the Night Sky” and “American Demo” were released. Seven and a half years ago. I was talking to the techies (mainly to Tim, who was the most talkative) about hypothetical musical projects we’d be involved in if we weren’t techies or shit music journalists, respectively. I really liked the idea of being in a doom/sludge/necrofolk group called Doubts. Or just any band called Doubts. It felt strong. I’d been listening to Iron Monkey and Changes and Spiritual Front – that sort of thing. And I was imagining a composite vibe. I was also seriously considering getting a Bogwoppit tattoo (of a Bogwoppit, which is an animal from the children’s book “Bogwoppit” by Ursula Moray Williams) and changing my name by deed poll to Bogwoppit War-Machine Termagent Wilkinson-Sword.
But I never did this. I was never going to; I had no money.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought maybe my band-name should be Bogwoppit, and my album should be called “Bogwoppit’s Doubts” or “Bogwoppit Has Doubts”. I really liked the Bogwoppit idea, and definitely didn’t want to lose it, even though I’d basically stolen it, because a Bogwoppit has serious attitude. It’s an animal that’s both fictional and critically endangered. So it felt like a good filter for where the world was at, and where I was at in it. Or not at.
And the more I thought about it, the more I was sick of writing lyrics for songs that never got recorded, or even written, because I still couldn’t be bothered to learn the guitar I’d had since university seven years previously; or even the ukulele I bought in Totnes around 2002/3. If you can’t be bothered to learn to play the ukulele in five years, it’s time to consider another artistic medium. I thought maybe I could cash-in on the blogtronica craze that had begun (and probably already ended) leading up to George Pringle’s first album. I liked George Pringle. And I thought I could probably learn to make some beats on GarageBand and then talk over them. But I didn’t have GarageBand. Not even on my outdated work Mac. And I hate my voice. Spoken word wasn’t really my thing. Nor was any of the contemporary poetry I’d been buying from Oxfam. Any of it. Seriously, it was all dreadful, obscure, unmemorable and myopic. And I bought quite a bit. Maybe that’s what happens if you buy all your contemporary poetry from a charity shop? Indeed, that definitely is what happens, inasmuch as it is what happened.
So I submitted the poems from “Goodbye Misery…” to the aforementioned places and got the aforementioned responses. (Well, no responses at all, actually.) So I decided to do new poems on a new poetry-dedicated blog (separate from all my usual writing) and not to submit them to anything or anyone or anywhere ever, because fuck everyone else with their huge turnaround times and demands for expensive hard copy and general sense of having not updated their outlook or methods any time in the past few decades.
When I worked out what the poems were for and why I was doing them and why I should be doing them and why they were worth doing, I would publish them myself. Like a punk.
That Crashaw haiku wasn’t what I was setting out to do. That was just poetic woe channelled into some self-aware self-pity. But I didn’t yet know what I was setting out to do. I just knew that in “Goodbye Misery…”’s abject rejection – and my own niggling sense that it hadn’t lived up to my ambitions for it – I was being told that what I was doing had no home in contemporary poetry, and that (based on entry figures for the Crashaw Prize) I wasn’t even among the top ten percent of poets seeking publication from what was then one of very few publishers representing new UK poets, and therefore presumably a pretty good barometer of talent and market taste.
The years I’d spent writing those 92 poems had been a waste of my time then. This wasn’t exactly surprising news, but I knew I needed a new direction. I liked my stuff, but it wasn’t even really my stuff. It was just stuff.
The blogtronica Bogwoppit thing was never happening; I had no aptitude for even the most rudimentary musical genre yet created by middle class Home Counties kids trying to avoid office jobs. Moreover, I hated the idea of performing anything, so I couldn’t be a performance poet.
Poetry should be about love, shouldn’t it? I’d loved poetry before: de la Mere, Eliot, Yeats, Rossetti (not the man one), Plath, Hardy, Betjeman – all sorts of dead white posh people. And it’d be nice to say my stable commitment to poetry began due to an unshakable infatuation with the contemporary scene. But it didn’t. It began because I needed to do art of some kind – any kind – to prevent me from becoming sad or mad or bad; and poetry (being something I could do on the bus to work, or in my lunchbreak on my laptop) was the only truly viable option. Has Doubts was born of necessity. I had no idea where it would go. I suspected nowhere. But that would do.
2. Ancient history
I’m aware that in the first chapter of this allegedly “brief” history I proceeded to do exactly what I said I wouldn’t do in the opening paragraph. So I won’t make any promises for what I’m going to do in this bit. I’ll just hit record! (Metaphorically.)
So the blog existed. Yeah. I’d post a poem about once a week and usually nobody would notice. Sometimes I got a nice comment from a friend or a like from Martin Brady on Facebook or something. It was differing from my previous poetry project at this point mainly in that I was posting everything I was writing online. Because it felt like a declaration (of what, I didn’t really know) that way. I knew that meant I wouldn’t be able to seek publication for the poems anywhere else, or enter them into competitions. So they were mine.
I was pissing my first publishing rights up the wall of cyberspace, and it felt good. Inasmuch as anything that happens on the internet actually feels like anything.
It’s hard to recall the exact order of the poems that unfolded back then because my metadata is sketchy from file overwriting, and many of the early Has Doubts poems went straight up on the blog and didn’t end up in my Dropbox as Word documents for several years.
The hasdoubts.blogspot.co.uk URL is now a dodgy movie-streaming malware danger zone (like all my old websites) so I popped my head into the snapshots of the Wayback Machine on archive.org. But the earliest entry there, sans malware, is from May 2013 (when I was gearing up to publish MFAOR) by which point I’d already stripped the blog of its assets and consigned it to the dustbin of internet history, along with the wine-review blog and the book-review blog I set up concurrently. It just says “blog not found”.
So the best source I have for what I was making of my early Doubts is a Word file I created in January 2011 when I was living in Poole, which has a short pamphlet-length list of poems I was apparently intending to publish that year. There are numerous reasons I didn’t get around to publishing these, I expect. Not least of which is that my first child was born that summer. And we were trying to organize our wedding for the following year. And I was working full-time at Bournemouth University. And reviewing wine by nights. And we were planning to move to Wales.
But mostly, I think, I sensed somehow that I wasn’t quite ready. Self-publishing meant my rules and my editorial lead, but that didn’t have to mean publishing as soon as I hit a pre-determined word count. Still, the Word document remains, and I have garishly colour-coded the poems to show the ones that would be published in MFAOR in 2013, those that would and wouldn’t make it into RFAT in 2015, and those still in consideration for the next volume “In the men’s room” (ITMR) sometime in the future. The unmarked have largely ended up in the ignominious “Misc” folder.
What interests me about this list – other than the obvious fact that it’s a thematic minefield – is that there are as many RFAT poems on it as there are MFAOR. And I expect that had MFAOR been my second volume, at least three of those poems would have been edited out before publication. Let’s say “Doubts” (dull), “Torture porn” (hard to calculate a comfortable voice for) and “Your Nazi tattoo” (just not really the sort of poem I write for Has Doubts).
This illustrates for me just how easily some of the “Versification without occasion” poems could have ended up as part of my esoteric canon. Of course I know nobody else on the planet gives a damn about what is or isn’t an “official” Has Doubts poem. But for me and my art, working out the answer to that question in each instance is of the utmost importance; and as a publisher I must (and do) stand by my decision in each case.
Had I already been married with children in 2011, or had I not the means or circumstances for either to take place at that point, who knows what might have happened? Maybe I’d still not have published anything at all. We like to feel we’re fulfilling our artistic destiny as we plod along, but really we’re just being buffeted about by the currents that carry us toward our deaths. The art I’ve cobbled together since 2010 for the Has Doubts project likes to think it’s largely independent of my current life, and relatively little of it focuses thematically on my current life, but of course realistically it is all written in response to my circumstances as well as my history. I cannot hope to be operating above or beyond those, even for a moment.
Indeed, the first poem there, which I obviously felt was important even then, became the title poem of my first book. And it’s the only explicitly autobiographical contemporary poem on that list. (“The old house” was older; “Benito…” was less obviously concerned with self; “Doubts” was more to do with attempted mythologizing.) The draw of lyricism, romanticism, traditionalism etc. was there all the time, fighting and winning against my desire to do something “new” with poetry.
There are a few poems in the list I like, and few that I really dislike. But it wasn’t a Has Doubts volume yet. Not even close. To close this chapter, I include (in its original font) the rather petulant introduction I wrote for this shelved first volume. It doesn’t require much in the way of commentary but that it refers to the YouTube recordings I’d begun making around that time. Much of it still makes sense to me, but I’m glad I didn’t publish it (mainly because I sensibly dropped the ellipsis from the series name at some point between 2011 and 2013) and I’m glad I chose not to write an introduction to the first volume. Despite choosing to write this for the second, which is far, far more self-indulgent. At least it’s in keeping with RFAT’s artistic and thematic intent.
That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
Well, I still haven’t heard back from Faber and/or Faber, and even though I’m pretty sure self-publishing is regarded as career suicide for any poet worth his salt, the legal departments of This, That & The Other would have it that posting a poem to one’s blog is just the same anyway, so bugger it; I reluctantly claim second publishing rights to my own work and staple it together in a bundle for your near-as-damnit eternal scorn and/or pleasure. What I mean by this is that the best or at least the least-worst of the poems I wrote in 2010 – most of them on trains or in Notepad on my lunchbreak at work: all of them posted to the blog very shortly, sometimes seconds, after a spell-check – can’t afford to hang around for decades while I ingratiate myself to every Bloodaxe product on the art-house toilet circuit in the vain hope that enough people will want me to stop emailing them for long enough that I might get a slim volume out for the public (a.k.a. my family and close friends) to purchase at an exorbitant price by say, 2050. Yeah? Sod that. If it’s a message I can convey on a toilet door with a piece of burnt wood, it’s not quite cobwebs and pixie dust, is it? And if it’s already immortalised online in [whatever data’s made of] and available to consume in the Federated States of Micronesia for free then… well… there’s no less chance anyone will want to buy it. This is not an angry knee-jerk response to the lack of willingness shown by The Man to acknowledge my genius. At any rate, it’s not just that; this is a hobby taken to its natural conclusion via the medium of common sense. And if you’re underwhelmed by the product in your hands and/or can’t be bothered to read the poems out loud to yourself or your loved ones, you can always summon up my headface on YouTube and stream me. A few technical notes, then: all of these poems were written and published on my blog, …Has Doubts, during 2010 (its first year of being) and these are what I thought were the better half. Nobody will like all of them, but most people will like a few and, to be honest, they’re better than a lot of the rubbish out there: trust me. There are some notes at the end: the kind of notes I’d like from poetry books I buy, but don’t tend to be included in many – autobiographical, metatextual, incidental, &c. I put them at the end so you wouldn’t have to read them, because surely anybody who actually reads a book nowadays is bound by beginnings, middles and ends, right?
Alexander Velky, 2011
3. Classical antiquity
By the end of 2011 I’d had a child and not got married and got a new job working as a copywriter at B&Q. And we moved house to somewhere else in Poole. I don’t remember writing as much poetry in the second Poole house. In the first house I’d write at the desk, staring out over Holes Bay sipping my New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc like a lord. One poem (“Poems about nothing”) paid tribute to this situation by taking it very literally and was misunderstood by one critic as a mean poem ripping the piss out of clichéd uninspired middle class poets. It was actually just straight-up autobiography.
Back in those days then, after the move, I was travelling to the next county for work, failing numerous driving tests, leaving the house at 6:30am and getting in again at about 7pm to bathe the baby, eat dinner and get to bed by 10pm at the latest. I had no time to sit at desks and pontificate; nor to film videos of myself reading poems and put them on YouTube. That brief, if fruitful, episode ended when we left the flat. And despite going to Freeway Poets in Bournemouth a couple of times, I wasn’t ready to perform any poems because I still didn’t want to; I didn’t know why I was supposed to want to.
So all my writing at this point was done in the B&Q canteen during my lunchbreak on the family iPad. I tried to rewrite “Goodbye Misery…” as a novel on the train, but ran out of steam halfway through the year and thereafter I just slept. The poems from that period were better than they had been, I think. But the majority were focused on MFAOR. I’d elected at some point – for reasons I can’t recall – to use that title poem as the basis for the first collection, and to try to select poems based on the theme of art Vs commerce. I think this decision was mainly based on the idea that “art” was a better subject for a first book. Having already written a bunch of these “art” poems, it was a simple gap-filling exercise to reach the arbitrarily self-imposed required number of poems for the volume, which was 33. A good number.
I knew I had about 20-odd poems about history as well as 20-odd poems about art; and I’d fixed on the title (also taken from a focal poem) “Rhymes for all times” at about the same time as I decided on “Mistaken for art or rubbish”. But I wasn’t yet sure where the conflict lay in the history book – what was the core question I was trying to articulate?
So RFAT became Volume 2, and “In the men’s room” (which was at that time a handful of poems loosely themed around feminism) would probably be the third. As a side note, I am more fixed on Volume 4’s fate than Volume 3’s at this point in time: nobody needs that white male feminist poetry book.
Assembling the first book was nothing but fun and wonder; even emailing people about ISBNs was a fabulous journey of discovery. I knew the poems were decent on the whole, though I could tell the collection had its flaws. A few poems were only very loosely connected to the central theme. A few were noticeably not as good as some of the newer ones I’d cooked up in the B&Q canteen. But I felt it started well and ended well, and the design job my brother Zef did for a very reasonable price was just lovely. I had planned to design it myself (see opposite image, which was one of two I made – for volumes 1 & 2 – specifically, that for RFAT).
But I soon decided that just in case it ever ended up in a library or a bookshop or something, it needed to look professional. One of the major reasons for not courting small poetry publishers was that they largely produce cheap-looking volumes with horrible bright white pages. Even sans-serif body text in some cases. Ghastly.
The first poem somebody else published of mine (“The mirror ball”, the one that came 2nd in the Fish prize) had its title rendered in your actual Comic Sans.
Thanks, folks. Thanks a lot.
Cover art for Has Doubts Volume Two, circa February 2012
Finally gearing up for MFAOR’s publication was a longer process than I’d expected. I’d thought I might get it done by late 2012 (after the wedding, and after we moved house to Pembrokeshire) but I kept writing new poems that I felt ought to go into it, and tinkering with the order of the poems, and going back and forth with Editor Dave and Proofreader Adam.
I removed “Wisdom” from the book at the last minute and replaced it with “Economics”, which had been in the Volume Two folder for a while. I knew the title poem and the poem “Alchemy” were central to what I wanted MFAOR to be about. But in the end it opened with one of the newest poems “Please don’t fund my art”. I’m still very happy with that poem, and “The box”, which became the only poem from the volume to have any kind of vaguely professional approval when a shed-performance of it was shortlisted in a digital slam by StAnza. But apart from those two poems, I knew there was a lot in there that the professional contemporary poetry scene would strongly disapprove of, should it (or rather, any representatives from it) ever clap eyes on the book. I sort of knew it’d confirm some of their existing opinions, which I had read on their boring blogs, about the pitfalls of self-published volumes: too loose, not contemporary enough, too much rhyme, too little space and too many stanzas.
These were my suspicions anyway. But it was how I wanted it to be. Or near enough.
After funding the printing and the ISBN procurement with a successful Kickstarter campaign – relying heavily on the generosity of friends and family, perhaps unsurprisingly – I published the book as Doubtist Books in June 2013, around the time of my 30th birthday. I didn’t organize a launch, and I don’t especially regret that. There was quite enough to be getting on with.
I did try to get it out there for review and into bookshops, but I had little idea what I was doing. Four copies to date remain in the hands of two bookshop-owners in West Wales, but I doubt they’ve seen a shelf, let alone been sold. V helped with that, but we both found the people far too difficult to be worth dealing with on the scale we were operating. I had about 140 books left of the 200 after initial sales and mail-outs to journalists and a couple of select writers, artists and musicians. Later that year a review surfaced on a scrappy-looking but interesting blog called Sidekick Books or something like that. Unfortunately the poet who reviewed my book didn’t like it at all. He even disliked the two poems I was pretty sure were good. The first was unfavourably compared to someone called Sam Riviere, whose debut F&F book “81 Austerities” I’ve since bought, read, and tried to enjoy, but found a bit gimmicky and heartless. The second apparently had “iambic infelicities” and “awkward enjambments”. I had been blissfully unaware on both points, and remain so.
The stand-out phrase (which remains my go-to poetry tagline thus far) was “disappointingly traditional and pedestrian”. The reviewer also referred to the contents as “performance poetry”, which was news to me, as – although I had begun memorizing the poems for YouTube recitals in my shed – I had yet to perform them (or any other poems) to any audience. Unless you count that time I read a poem at my brother’s wedding. Which I didn’t. And don’t.
The rather damp reception was enough to convince me that my recent decision to get some poems “out there” before my next book was the right one.
I’d initially wanted to publish everything myself on the blog, but the audience had begun small and remained so. The theoretical infinity beyond the empty comments section was outdone even by the stuffy academic poetry periodicals I didn’t (and didn’t want to) buy. So I didn’t really know where to send the poems. I’d yet to find a poetry magazine I really liked, so I decided to start entering competitions again, with some of the poems intended for publication in RFAT.
I wasn’t going to think seriously about publishing the next volume, I decided, until I’d finished recording all of the videos for the poems from MFAOR, finished painting the portrait of the inside of my shed (which was bound up with said recording) and got at least one (preferably three) poems from RFAT shortlisted in major poetry competitions – by which I meant poetry competitions with at least a four-figure prize fund. There didn’t seem much point entering those with prizes in the hundreds, as there are literally hundreds of the bloody things to enter, and there’s at least one per month with a big prize.
2014 saw the 100 or so remaining copies of MFAOR gathering dust on my shelf. A handful of friends and family had said nice things about it. Then Bill Drummond sent me an email acknowledging receipt of a copy, and thanked me. He even said he enjoyed it! That somehow made the whole thing seem worthwhile.
Then in spring I got another review – this time in a Welsh periodical. I’d been holding out for something positive here; they’d mentioned on their website forthcoming reviews from two “promising Welsh poetry debuts”. Unfortunately when my copy of the magazine arrived, the review was even more negative than the blog one, and much less quotable. The space constraints of the small Welsh periodical combined with the offence the author had taken at my press release left little room for mention of the poems, and only “Doubts” (certainly one of the worse poems in the book) got much close attention. I was deflated, but then it had been an aggressive press release. It was a calculated risk; I knew there was a perpetual hand-wringing narrative in poetry writing about the schism between “stage” and “page” poetry, so I elected to position my own work as some kind of unifying middle-ground, offering the best of both disciplines. Only I didn’t really put it like that. It was closer to “all the poetry is shit, except mine.”
But who – if they were really, truly honest with themselves – doesn’t think that? If all the poetry was great, I wouldn’t need to write any. Of course I’ve since discovered some living, breathing contemporary poets that I do like. But it took a fair bit of time for that to happen, and at the time I wrote and published the first book, there were precious few I was really enthusiastic about. Basically just Simon Armitage and Luke Wright. (Neither of whom acknowledged the books I sent.)
I resisted the temptation to review the reviews and inform nobody in particular why they were wrong and I was in fact great, for nobody but me was very likely to have read either review in full, and nobody reads my blog anymore because nobody reads anything except Buzzfeed anymore anyway. I was sad, but happy to have tried and failed, having spent so many years not even trying. I felt MFAOR had been a valiant failure. It seemed fitting, given the spirit of the thing. Had I written a nicer press release, I’d probably not have got any reviews at all. Had I written a better book, no more people would have bought it. And I’d still have had to ingratiate myself for many years to get it published elsewhere. I was still glad I’d published. And I was okay with being damned.
4. The middle ages
Perhaps if the reception had been better for MFAOR then I’d have published RFAT much quicker. There were about enough poems by 2014. And I hadn’t planned for these volumes to be long-fermented things, arriving after extended periods of self-reflection and email arguments with editors, honed and painstakingly tweaked over weeks spent in literary “retreats” in the wilds of Scotland. (Only Scotland because I’m already living in Wales.)
I wanted the Has Doubts poems to retain some of their immediacy and some of the transparency and clout of decent “stage” poetry, but to be… you know: worth re-reading. I knew this wasn’t always the case with the poems in the first book. The majority probably succeeded on the first count, but few would really intrigue sufficiently to prompt anybody to pick the book up again. At least that was my worry.
But how do you know what’s actually good? I know what I like. I knew what I liked, rather – increasingly. I’d begun buying many more poetry books than I ever had before. I was now mainly reading poetry. Old or new, I didn’t really care. I also borrowed almost all of the poetry books from Haverfordwest library (it’s not a huge section) over the course of the year, while taking my kids in on fortnightly trips.
I wrote steadily, but never as often as I’d have liked, and entered a lot of competitions. By the end of 2014 I’d had three poems shortlisted. None of them made me any money, but each provided a certain reassurance that something I was writing was either comprehensible or interesting to someone. Not what I’d set out to do at all, but after the dreadful reviews I think I needed a bit of a confidence-massage. Doing the maths might well indicate some inevitability to the success of at least some of the poems I sent in. Even if my style is, as I knew from the increased breadth of my reading, not in step with much of the modern world.
I won’t go into detail about what succeeded in the competitions in this section, because that’s part of the next section. But I should point out that of the five or six blogs, zines and quarterlies that I contacted with poems, none of them had anything positive to say. Or anything at all beyond a template rejection (five months later in one case). This wasn’t surprising – I know some very good poets who are frequently rejected; and some wonderful poets who have won numerous competitions and have yet to convince anybody to publish their pamphlet. If anything, becoming better acquainted with the accepted process for “becoming a poet” and reading numerous blog-posts about how you need to “pay your dues” by submitting to endless periodicals in this way before being so presumptuous as to dare approach an actual publisher – all of this just reinforced my original position: that publishing my poems myself was, regardless of how unhappy Word might be about reflexive pronoun use, both the right and the sensible thing to do. This was still the plan anyway; but I wanted the free advertising for my next volume, so I thought I’d test the water. The water was cold, and full of sharks; I’ve yet to find a poetry mag that isn’t either really shoddily manufactured or just plain dull. They’re usually both. If I ever find one that’s neither, and submit something to it and it gets rejected, I’ll probably pretend it never happened. I reckon I can do that.
Actually, I did enjoy the couple of issues of Dark Mountain I bought last year, and would have been pleased to have something in there because it looks so lovely, and is actually trying to do something – even if I’m not sure I’m 100% on board with what that is. But the poetry section is by far its weakest aspect, for me – it’s all sparse, emotional, and whimsical. I strongly suspected their poetry editor would find little to enjoy in my work – which was, alas, the case when I sent a few works-in-progress from Volumes 2 and 3.
Submitting to magazines and blogs that take ages to get back is a weird thing to want to do. All poets (with the possible exception of those who value performance above publishing) apparently do this in order to become successful. Perhaps in some cases it’s because they genuinely love the publications. Although I find that hard to believe. There are so many of them and almost none foster any kind of unique identity as far as I can tell. Nobody can possibly love more than a couple. The whole practice gives you the sensation of trying to befriend all the kids in your home town, even though the majority of them are awful and all you really want is a couple of good friends.
I suppose rejection doesn’t necessarily equip you for rational reflection. I remember being turned down for a job at Tesco when I was about 16 and deciding not to shop there ever again. I kept that up for a good couple of years. I’d probably invent a reason to love almost any publication that had accepted my work; just as I love all (well, two of the three) competitions I’ve had some level of success in. Live Canon is great because the style of poetry they choose (or Glyn Maxwell chooses, I suppose) leans more (but not entirely) toward both the performance-ready and the traditional (yes, canonical) forms and styles I love. And Poetic Republic is great because every entrant is a judge, and it democratizes the process in a way that puts pretty much every other poetry competition to shame. Not least because you actually get to read other entrants’ work and send and receive feedback on poems. Having poems shortlisted by Glyn twice (in 2013 and 2014) was very encouraging – just the sort of minor establishment-approval I’d have sneered at aspiring to, before actually enjoying it. But Poetic Republic is the one competition I’d recommend to everyone who writes (poetry or short stories). It’s just a far, far more beneficial way of engaging with an art-form and its practitioners.
I’ve probably spent over £250 entering competitions in the past couple of years, and in spite of the minor successes I’ve enjoyed, I’ve got back nothing but a couple of books. I’m under no illusion that I’m “winning”, and the whole exercise is essentially a racket – a peculiarly unexciting form of gambling that props up various arts establishments of varying degrees of legitimacy. Many of them siphon Arts Council funding to pay their prize funds (and their judges, and their sifting judges). It’s like an anti-Lottery, feeding off (often) closeted neurotic artists to better line the pockets and massage the egos of the lucky few who have risen from the exact same mire to a position of relative popularity – usually by virtue of little more than chance; being at the right place at the right time; shaking the right hands; having the right vibe for some community project or another. I presume the working class ones actually have to become popular with an audience before being magically accepted into poetry’s inner circle as though the transition was always inevitable based solely on their skills, and the circle’s skills-recognition skills.
But ego is as ego does. If I hadn’t this ego I wouldn’t feel the need to publish, let alone “compete” or – far, far more shameful – “submit”. I’d just read and write.
Before I begin on the next section, which is much more of a “companion” to RFAT than the rest of this history is or is supposed to be, I’ll just detail where I’d got to by January of this year; which is when I would have published – or at least got the ball rolling – if I hadn’t again been having doubts (lol!?!?) about the point of the whole thing.
I was responding partly to prodding by V and partly to my own suspicion that there had to be some sort of concerted attempt to make this book better than the first. That meant not relying entirely on videos for promotion; and certainly not videos that were all performed in my shed – though I suspected some would be, and during the course of writing this history, those suspicions have been vindicated.
So this meant dragging myself to a few open mic nights (none of which are as local as I’d like, because Haverfordwest is a cultural blackspot at the time of writing) and arranging some kind of book launch. But the chicken–eggness of the thing flummoxed me for months. How could I think about organising a book launch until there was a book to launch? How could I produce the book if I hadn’t organised a launch to mark its birth?
It was one of those small non-issues that have managed to engulf me, historically, for anything up to a decade at a time. I am still congratulating myself that I managed to slowly, gradually and clumsily overcome this particular conundrum in just ten months.
So, the book there would have been had I published in late 2014 or early 2015: would it have been different?
Well, yes. For a start, it would have contained many of the poems featured in this companion piece. And even two others which are so far removed from the alleged purpose of the collection that I’m not even including them here. They’re of a pretty low standard anyway; as bad as anything above and worse than most.
RFAT began, back then, with “My diaries” – one of the lesser poems in the book. Editor Dave rightly pointed out that this felt like a wet rocket, following on as it did from the powerful opening quotations. I had thought it’d be clever to begin with a poem about erasing historical records, where I ended the last volume with a poem about erasing artistic creations.
But sacrificing that pretty unimportant trick allowed me to reorder the collection in a way that makes it stand (and no doubt fall) on its own merits. Doing so reinvigorated the book for me.
About ten poems left the collection, and about ten new ones must therefore logically have been written and included, though I can’t for the life of me think that I’ve written that many new poems about history in the past year.
No doubt the writing of the next section will shed some light on that matter.
5. Modern times
Taking a break from the chronology, largely because I can’t recall the exact times and circumstances all of the poems were written, I’m going to historicize them in the order they occur in the book.
- Doubt having
Ostensibly a piece of piffling doggerel, I’ve long suspected this poem of being very important. Putting it at the front of the collection followed a revelation after a bottle of Cono Sur Pinot Noir one night while my wife was presumably working in London. I wrote it (sometime between 2010 and 2011) in the days of the old blog, and it feels like the most reflective poem of all those early ones. It looks in at the art and the creation far more than out at any one obvious subject. But it was written at the same time as others more explicitly connected to this emerging theme. Now it serves for me as a perfect central metaphor for the RFAT theme of “history Vs truth”. Better yet is that I managed to project the meanings from each of its 16 lines onto the 32 chosen poems (16 pairs grouped into “couplets”) and their meanings now reflect back onto it. Observe:
Also an old poem. This was always the second poem in RFAT, even though the first changed a few times. It’s quite a stream-of-consciousness thing, despite the neat form it came out in. This form was later exactly replicated for “Beware enlightenment”, but this one is better. It juxtaposes the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which is a nice child–adult, recent–ancient paradox. It also features my pet preoccupations with chemical Vs physical reactions as catch-all metaphors for stuff, and my endless inability to fathom why we’re supposed to smile for photographs. Grayson Perry helpfully suggested – only partly joking – that you could tell if a photograph was art or not by whether the people in it were smiling. One of the excuses for my choice of artwork for RFAT. What’s the metaphor for? Everything. But what’s the metaphor? Ageing. Historicization. The passage of time and our feeble attempts to fight it.
A recent poem and a very recent addition to the book. It was part of my National Anthems Project blog, and like all poems featured on that blog it takes as its subject an area of land, the people who inhabit it, and the national myths that they use to convince themselves that the connection between these two is anything but an insignificant result of a series of great cosmic accidents. What appeals to me about the notion of a micronation is that it can indeed act as “a metaphor for everything”. Or at least as a metaphor for a macronation (i.e. a country). Therefore in my decision to declare independence from the UK to (attempt to) promote a poetry book I realized I would also have to be doing it for a real reason too. Which is why it’s a republic. It’s also a sonnet. (The poem, not the micronation.)
- What really happened
Quite a new poem and really the better-fitting cousin to “What nobody understands”. No poem does – or could – more explicitly articulate the theme that is supposed to bind all these together. It lists some piffling human concerns, at least some of which will be represented by Google’s auto-complete function if you begin writing those words into its search-box. For instance, I got:
what really happened to the dinosaurs
what really happened to madeleine mccann
what really happened on the moon
History is a parasitic host. It claims to represent all that has been; to be what has brought us into existence. But all it really does is feed off us and now. The phrase (“parasitic host”) jarred at first, because I felt it might be thought to mean humanity itself – or the Earth (Gaia?) or water – or whatever it is that causes life to be a different thing to other matter (if indeed it is different). But once I’d decided that “Doubt having” was a poem about history, and that it would be the first poem in RFAT, I could, and it seems did, write this poem.
- Irregular sonnets for Rockall
Trawling Wikipedia in search of areas of unclaimed land is fun, although it doesn’t take long. (Bir Tawil, Marie Byrd Land and those bits on the Serbo-Croat border: all claimed as micronations by people who don’t live there.) Rockall fascinates me similarly because as a “rock” – admittedly not the only “rock”, but quite a well-known instance of a “rock” – it had no perceived value to humanity as “land” until people thought of things like fishing rights and deep-sea oil-drilling. For so long it existed independent from human things like “history”. Not even Vikings could live on it. Not eve Inuits. But suddenly it entered our narrative in a way that it probably never thought it would. Or would have thought it would. If it wasn’t a rock. This poem nearly didn’t make it in, but I value it as an early precursor to the National Anthems sonnets – and with the reference to the shipping forecast it serves a similar function to that which “Poems about nothing” served in the last book. Which is to say it simultaneously accurately depicts the poet’s circumstances of creative inspiration while also mocking them. But this one does it more seriously.
- New Roman times
I’m surprised this made it in. I can’t decide whether it’s a genuine expression of that same apocalyptic feeling – that everything is coming to a head – that’s preoccupied epic poets and soothsayers alike since people started doing such things, or a knowing dismissal of it. That probably means that either it isn’t a very good poem or I’m not a very good poet. I’ll say I can walk around with an “An End Is Nigh” sandwich board draped over my shoulders quite comfortably while mocking those doing the same for different reasons and with definite articles. I think this was written (around 2012, shortly after my 29th birthday) in response to my repeatedly trying and failing to maintain a serious interest in world events as though my life or history itself was some kind of great narrative I was in some way implicated in and could influence. The Billy Joel reference is deliberate. The Camper Van Beethoven reference (in the title) is not. I just independently thought of the same pun, but possibly not for the same reasons. It’s a poem (if it’s a poem) strongly bound by identity: by my place in history, which is to say, modernity’s place in history, the West’s place in modernity, Europe’s place in the West, Britain’s place in Europe, history’s place in today’s Britain, etc. The Victorian definition of “expectations” centred around one’s “future legacy”; thus we are bound by our history and doomed to repeat its mistakes. If history teaches us anything, it’s that history teaches us nothing. Possibly Hegel. Probably paraphrased.
- Where is the heart of Europe?
“Expectation management”, for those fortunate enough not to know, is business jargon for shitting on someone’s chips. Especially prevalent in places of work where people don’t like actually doing anything ever, such as a certain university I once worked at where I was tasked with helping them get a new website. I was having my expectations managed from day one: my expectations that any of the staff wanted a new website; that they’d be interested in helping me get them one; that anyone who worked in the marketing department ever did anything except arrange meetings; that anyone who worked in their PR department knew what any words in the English language actually meant; and finally, that there was any budget left in the website fund to extend my six month contract any further than it already had been extended. I was but one cog of many in that bad machine, and their website’s still shit. This poem is about Europe.
- Sonnets from the corners of the map
This began life as two poems. Two sonnets, believe it or not. I’ve cleverly destroyed the original Word files, but I know the sheep poem came first (around 2011, I think) and was written in response to a “found image” on Wikipedia (described in the lines about the surviving taxidermized sheep). It wasn’t much of a poem on its own, and neither was “The Berm”, a failed anti-Ozymandias sonnet I wrote out of a genuine sense of despair for the displaced Sahrawi people of Morocco-occupied Western Sahara. (Not the sort of reason I usually write a poem.) Then a few years later (2014, I think) for some reason I had the notion to write a poem about Europe’s “last dictator” Alexander Lukashenko, moustached First Dude of Belarus. He tickles me because of all the macho, bigoted, self-serving, inept autocrats out there, he’s at once the butchest and the campest. And once when I worked in a call-centre for 8 months trying to harvest contact details for an events-marketing company I called a chemical company in Belarus and some guy (apparently completely alone in a large building due to some kind of national holiday) answered, saying: “For start, is great pleasure for me talking with you today, for I am also Alexander!” He went on to give me as many names, phone numbers and email addresses as I wanted. And I like to think he was Alexander Lukashenko, even though he obviously wasn’t. And perhaps more importantly I’d just read the chapter about Belarus in Norman Davies’s “Vanished Kingdoms” (the best non-fiction book I’ve read) and I wanted to do something poetic in response. Because how else are you supposed to respond to centuries of abject misery that you can’t do anything about? So I wrote that, and managed to get a joke about my own name in: Alexander Velky means Alexander The Great in most, if not all, Slavic languages. It occurred to me that if I put this with the other two sonnets, they might fit together somehow in my next book. But I wanted a fourth, because then they could form the corners of a slightly skewed map of Europe; or at least the cultural consciousness of Europe as it was in my own head: the Faeroese Island with the ancient sheep whose genes bore witness (as no history book could) to the very first farmers who landed on those hostile shores, millennia ago, and their ingenious, devious meddling with nature; then the 2,700km-long landscar down the former Spanish Sahara that separates Spain’s exiled Moors and their Western-friendly monarchy from the Arabized Berber natives who were left in a dusty power vacuum when Europe (specifically Spain) fled its colonies in the 20th century; and the beleaguered battleground buffer-zone Slavic state that makes Poland look like an enduring and impregnable fortress-kingdom of unbendable borders – Russia’s threadbare doormat. With these in place I needed something in the Southeast. Greece or Byzantium seemed the obvious answer, but I wanted it contemporary, and didn’t want to even risk drawing parallels with Yeats or Byron, so I went for the Georgian-breakaway de-facto (Russian-sponsored) state Abkhazia. The final piece of the jigsaw (a rubbish jigsaw, because it only has four bits) was “Caucasian fables” and this basically stitches together a couple of myths in a similar way to how “Ages” does, but with particular reference to trying to indicate how Greek mythology (whence “Europa and the Bull”, whence Europe, whence “Greco-Roman intellect” and possibly wrestling) all came from the Caucasus. On their own, none of these sonnets probably cut much cress – sheep: touristic; Berm: preachy; Belarus: punctuationally problematic; Caucasian: bitty – but together I really like them/it. This was shortlisted in the 2014 Live Canon prize, and I went to the award ceremony in Greenwich and saw two actors perform it wonderfully (reading alternate sonnets). Glyn Maxwell singled it out as one of his four favourites (of 20-odd) that year. It didn’t win though. Inua Ellams’s poem about killing lizards in Nigeria won. And then got commended in the Forward Prize and republished in Salt’s Best British Poetry 2015. Salt in my wounds again! Never mind. Not bitter. Never bitter. Could’ve done with £1000 though – to print RFAT for one thing. (Thank goodness for Kickstarter.)
This is self-consciously performancey, but I don’t know if I can perform it. Ghosts and machines, minds and bodies; if Descartes can distinguish consciousness from the brain then I think we can happily distinguish history from truth. Of course, I don’t know much about philosophy (or history, or biology, or geography, or cartography, or anthropology, or microbiology, or macrobiology, or etymology, or entomology, or astrology, or spectrology, or palaeontology…) but the phrase “ghost in the machine” never made much sense to me. Now I think that might be because people have used it synonymously with “gremlins in the works”. The phrases share a mid-twentieth-century origin as far as I can tell, but have very different meanings. In light of this, the phrase “machine in the ghost” works equally well for history (as in “the facts (hidden) behind the story”) as it does for humanity’s progress generally, as in “the terrible notion that your soul is not a unique and distinct thing; or that – worse still – you cannot scientifically define it because it does not exist as separate from the functions dictated by your anatomy”. Borders is a thick poem; an unengaging riddle with no possible answer. Few will reread it. Most will skim it.
- How days break
This poetry couplet (by which I mean this poem and the next) was perhaps the easiest to couple; the “cause and effect” phrase suggested by this line in “Doubt having” is pretty much contained within the first word “causality”, and nothing in the following poem isn’t suggested by this poem. I have often been accused of doing too much telling and not enough showing. I like to feel this poem shows you a history book, then hits you over the head with it. It was one of three I showed to Glyn Maxwell on my poetry self-help course, and he suggested I lose the last line, so, hey, Glyn! People have been telling me all my life to lose the last line – and I never, ever do! Suckerrrrrr!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! No but seriously, there’s a double-meaning in the word “break” here. See if you can find it. Lol.
- Nice big war
I love this poem and I won’t hear a word against it. I wrote it at the same time I was listening to that covers album with the PJ Harvey version of “Ballad of the soldier’s wife” on it, and it borrows some of that vibe, I think, unintentionally – even though you couldn’t sing these words over it. People don’t like this sort of thing, I think. But I’m in the fortunate position of not having to care what people like. It’s not about any single historical thing. It’s supposed to be adaptable, sort of like the Antenationale.
Do I dare to eat a peach? Not really. I don’t even like them especially. It really takes tasting peach flavouring in things that aren’t peach to properly put you off peach. I don’t think the fruit of the (Biblical) knowledge tree was a peach, which is good because I’m picturing a silky seed for it here. Like an apple seed. This poem’s okay. It’s like several poems that weren’t kept in, but it lends itself to an interesting visual presentation, because of the alternating style of the stanzas, so I thought it was worth including. Plus it dances around the notions set out in “What really happened”. I like the idea of questioning the notion of “proof”, given how much (almost all, let’s face it) of what we base our decisions on is from – at the very least – second-hand sources. Perhaps I’d better have written a poem called “Trust”, but I wrote this. And dedicated it to the dead Norwegian singer St Thomas not because it’s relevant to him or his works, but because of doubt, and love.
- In the Fabergé museum in Baden-Baden
It’s brave to believe, isn’t it? It must be, because I’ve never really, truly been able to believe in anything. And I don’t feel brave. Although I do feel smug. Faith, the opposite of doubt, is described in terms of “leaping”; thus doubt must be cowering, or teetering. This poem is autobiographical, though presumably that’s obvious, and you’ve got two version of it – which shows the sheer lack of conviction I’m capable of. One of the saddest things I’ve ever heard (though by no means among the most surprising) was that the Bolsheviks sold the Fabergé eggs they found in the palaces they ransacked, rather than destroying them or dismantling them and repurposing their composite parts for more practical applications. I read the first draft of this poem to my wife some time after we returned from our holiday, and she said: “That’s not really what happened, is it? Sybil was playing games on my iPhone on a chair in the corner.” So the edit that made it into RFAT was, among other things, my attempt to make history that little bit truer. I also managed to shoehorn some satire in by the addition of the “Angry Birds” game, in which – for those of you who are not aware – a load of fat greedy pigs steal eggs and a load of, yes, that’s right, angry birds have to reclaim them. So I guess the fat greedy pigs are the oil billionaires and the British royal family and anyone else who owns scattered Fabergé eggs. But who are the birds?
- Rhymes for all times
The last poem to be written for the book. The title came from the poem that actually appears last. I wrote this in a sort of lackadaisical pique, apparently exactly one year before the publication date of the book. That’s a nice little bit of cosmic metadata right there. The poem (two sonnets) is quite unpoetic, like lots of these poems, but I rather like it. But perhaps it’s mean-spirited and cynical. It is, I am, usually thought to be both. But at least I cared enough to write a sad poem about it.
- Painted horses
Perhaps this is the poem that shouldn’t be in here. I wanted to write it but couldn’t write it any better. And it’s a shame that this is not the best it could be. It’s dedicated to my paternal grandfather, but I doubt very much whether he’d have wanted it written, so that’s perhaps inappropriate. “When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old / He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold”; this is the only hymn I remember in its entirety from my youth and I still sing it to my children before bed most nights – even the word “God”, which some modern folkies gloss over with “love”, as though the two were synonymous(!) My poems are more influenced by the lyrics of old folk songs than by contemporary poetry. Maybe that’s for worse than for better – because who reads the lyrics of folk songs? Nevertheless, that’s how it is.
My grandfather was Polish, and though he was the first of my four grandparents to die, and I never knew him, there’s this weird patrilineal, patricentric element to my sense of self and personal history that was probably exacerbated by a sense of (admittedly very minor) otherness that came with growing up among three male siblings, Anglo-Welsh in North Wales, with a Polish surname. Who ever writes a history for anyone but themselves? Realistically it has little to do with the Griffiths Report or the policy of domiciled care for the physically and mentally disabled that was begun in the year of my birth (“caring in the community”). But, y’know: metaphors. It’s about individuals and their roles, however small, in history. Finally, “illusive” is not meant to be “elusive”, in case you were wondering. But I do hope you weren’t. If you were, pay more attention.
- Beware enlightenment
I don’t know if this reads like a pro-religion poem but it wasn’t necessarily supposed to. I’m well aware the whole “Doubtist” thing could easily be construed as a wanky reactionary atheist tag; again, not supposed to be. My podcast spin-off “Doubtcast” shares a name with an atheist podcast that seems (by the short duration I could bear listening to it) to be a backslapping party of absolute certainty and conviction. This poem doesn’t know what it is, or wants to be, or is saying. It is only certain about doubt. Doubt thyself. Doubt that thou doubtest thyself. Doubt all. Doubt that thou doubtest all. Etc. (Aleister Crowley, paraphrased, and not read prior to writing the poem, for the record.)
- John Simpson’s Burka
From my website: “In late September 2001 the War on Terror began. BBC news correspondent John Simpson became the first journalist to report from the war-zone by donning a burka and being smuggled in to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan along with a similarly disguised cameraman.” This is a hymn. I don’t know what type of hymn. I toyed with dubbing it an “agnostic hymn for the War on Terror generation”, but regardless of how rubbish that sounds, it doesn’t really need defining any more than anything else here. For the purposes of its inclusion in RFAT, it’s a poem because it’s sold as poetry. It was shortlisted in the Live Canon thing the year before “Sonnets…” to my unending bemusement. Looking back I’ve no idea what I was thinking even entering it, but there we are. Just goes to show: you never know what’s on the other end of a cable. Alas I never saw it performed (so I don’t know if it was read or sung) because Fury was busy being born that week. Worth missing that which was missed, for that. This is my Bitter Lake. She is my sweet pickle. Well, one of them.
- My diaries
This was going to start the collection, but I’m really glad it didn’t. The obvious message is ill-suited to the loose(ish), rhymeless form. It feels like being tickled with a hammer, or hammered with a tickle. Whatever a tickle is in noun form. I do not regret throwing away my diaries. Or unpublishing my blogs. In fact, I don’t regret anything I’ve divested myself of over the years. Only what I have lost through carelessness. Or kept. Non-practical possessions are frequently considered important by their possessors due to their role in kindling memory, and hinting at history. But how useful is it really to remember all these things? To be always dredging the past? Nothing ever sunk me into melancholy so much as reading my diaries, regardless of how happy or sad I was at the time of writing them. Because “following a trail of stale breadcrumbs to its source…” So all you get is deathfeel and deathdread and deathface and it’s like looking at yourself through one of those super-close-up mirrors, which nobody ever needs to do, and nobody should do.
I don’t remember why I wrote this, but it was one of the later ones. It’s essentially supposed to be examining the baton-passing-on feeling you get when you first have kids; you look at your parents in a different way as well as your own reflection. Before, unless you had a particularly eventful childhood, everything is just taken for granted. In case you haven’t noticed (and many might not, because it’s not a hugely inviting poem) it’s a double acrostic that bookends itself with the first and last lines of a famous Philip Larkin poem that addresses the same subject head on. This accounts for the breathless and bizarre (even “awkward”) enjambments – especially toward the end – but I quite like the cumulative effect of this. It makes me feel like I’m getting older as I read it – stumbling up or down stairs. I really like it actually, but it’ll probably go down as one of those poems that struggles to communicate with anyone else – largely (perhaps) because it switches who it’s addressed to after the second stanza, without making it explicit, and retaining the second person “you”.
I have a number of other poems on this subject in different modes, intended for different books. The ones that spring to mind are “Spokes” and “My bonnie bog oak”, both of which I love and neither of which seem to work for anyone else. Sigh. I’ll get there in the end. By which I mean, I’ll die.
- Failed states
Inspired by the annual Fund for Peace index which has since been renamed “Fragile States”, because failure has become a way of existing for some of the poor countries on the bottom end of it, but they spitefully refuse to enact FFP’s predictions and actually fail with any finality. Given that I’d already decided to use a quote from Canadian progressive thrash band Propagandhi to co-introduce the collection, I was pretty miffed when their new album turned out to have the same name as one of the poems I’d just written for my book, which I knew wouldn’t be out for a couple of years. This is that poem. Possibly the worst poem in the book? Definitely a poem few will want to re-read. I still enjoy what it does with sounds, and stand by its surface (or solar) meaning. There’s not much going on underneath, but I save that for the other poems. Well, some of them.
This poem would work best as the lyrics to a 50-second grindcore song. But such songs are rarely so formulaic; they’re incredibly complex in structure, usually, and utterly belie their “it’s just noise, anyone could do that” vibe. If I could do proper death- or black-metal vocals I’d record an acapella version of it like that. There’s something to strive for.
Anyone could do this. But I actually did it.
- The Antenationale
Despite that this is presented as a song, I have no notion of a melody for it. And obviously it’s not really a translation of anything because I’m not that kind of poet. (Not the kind with any significant language skills.) The title is a play on the Internationale, in sympathy with unrecognized countries and stateless nations – all of them, even those I’d ideologically have no support for. It feels like an important poem for me in fulfilling the brief I set myself. The very long second section is an earnest (but obviously doomed-to-failure) attempt to make a comprehensive list of every current active cause of that kind. With one or two wildcards, if not quite red herrings. I do hope you read it all in its entirety. Within all this posturing is a genuine question, and – although I hope it’s obvious enough – its thrust is to doubt that what is, is what is right; or even that what is, is what is (or even was) always going to be. You can probably see by this poem, if not by all of the others, why I don’t have a whole lot of luck when submitting to poetry magazines. Doesn’t fit in your box, mate? Get a bigger box. I’m thinking outside the box. I’m the fucking box factory.
- A voice from a bin
“Great Anarch and Monarch of not” is a line from “Lucifer over London” by Current 93, and “Finding your voice in a bin” is the first line from a song by Naevus. So I guess this says something about the influences that went into this period of writing, about three or four years ago. I nearly didn’t put this in because I thought it was too close to the Naevus song, but listening back to said song (which I read as a poem before actually hearing it) I’d obviously just remembered the first bit and then gone off with a droning rhythm on what I thought was a different route. I’ve since found out this is a well-trod poetic path (hence the dedication: “after …”, but at the time of doing, it felt kind of out-of-order. The poem itself is a bit like a this-volume version of “Alchemy”. Very similar. Maybe not as good, but I quite like the way the rhythm completely falls apart at two key points. That was deliberate, but I’ve never read this because I don’t know how to read it as deliberate. I always imagine the poem spoken quickly with some discordant Russian-style plucked string instrument played behind. At those points I suppose it would have to break a string or two.
- Kuzka’s mother
This is the best poem in the book. It kind of kills me a bit that it’s not better, because I think the book is good; I like the book. But not all of the book is the best the book could be at being the book.
This is the best poem anyway; but maybe not the best at being the book, because really it’s just straight historical fiction. Tsar Bomba, Kuzka’s Mother. Nikita Khrushchev was reported to have threatened to “show [the USA] Kuzka’s mother”, and – as used here – the phrase was also a nickname for the biggest atomic bomb ever detonated. The nickname “Papa” suggests Stalin, but when I wrote it I didn’t know that; it just sounded like the sort of nickname a Russian might have for the dude in charge. And I like that it doesn’t matter which one was in charge, for the purposes of this poem.
For the avoidance of doubt, this isn’t a poem about Russia or Russians. I guess it’s about a universal truth that runs through history like a popular Brightonian confectionary-based simile; that special demagogue/serf relationship.
This was shortlisted in the Poetic Republic prize and published in their ebook “Warming Bees” with a load of other poems – all by people I’d never heard of, and some of which were really stunning. I was pleased so many people seemed to get it. Maybe that’s my greatest poetic accomplishment. And even though it’s really tiny, maybe that would be enough if I got run down by a combine harvester tomorrow.
- “Let them have, and eat…”
I wrote this on the train to London when I was heading to my dad’s to work at an agency as a freelance social media twat for a popular hot chocolate brand for a month. I knew I was in danger of not seeing my wife and child at all for weeks, if not for a whole month. Glyn Maxwell looked at this for me as part of that Live Canon course. He compared it (or the tone at least) to Auden; a comparison that was applied by someone else to “Kuzka’s mother”. I really don’t know any Auden apart from the famous ones, but it’s theoretically one of my most treasured compliments, and much nicer than “disappointingly traditional” or “he probably thinks this is funny”. I even removed a few (equally treasured) archaisms on GM’s suggestion because I was feeling befuddled. Kind of wish I hadn’t. Those bits read like potholes now. I don’t see the problem with archaisms in poetry. Just like I don’t see the problem with people baking with spelt flour, or printing vinyl to play pop music, or putting thatched roofs on houses in English country villages. You know? It’s a way of doing things, done for a reason. Part of the medium. Get over it.
- Begging letters
This is the oldest poem in the book in that it’s a rewrite of a “song” I wrote (the quotation marks indicate that this song was entirely limited in its arrangement to the lyrics and a vague notion of a melody in my head). I probably wrote it in about 1999. The poems from that era went the same way as the diaries. I (re-)wrote this because my brother Adam asked me to write a Christmas poem for his website. He was on that whole content marketing thing way, way, way before it had a name. So I wrote this and he posted my dodgy video of it there in 2011ish (I think I list it in the acknowledgements section of RFAT). I don’t really write like this now. It was a phase I was going through. Trying to be something I’m not. Trying to be more poetic and performancey, but just being longer. It’s like “Torture porn” – from the previous book I mean. Not like the cinematic genre. It’s only in here because there’s nothing else (in here) like it, and I wanted a Christmas poem. Because I had a Christmas poem last time. So now I guess I always have to have a Christmas poem.
- Tragedy branding
This is my “post-9/11” poem. Hahahahahahahahhahahahaha. I’m laughing at that within the quotations, not other people’s deaths, BTW. But it’s not really; it’s my Prague poem. Prague remains a focal, formative place and time in my mind. I only lived there for six months, and all I did was drink beer, smoke weed, and shirk. I wrote about three poems. But it was the time I decided I wanted to write poems regularly; that that would be part of what I was. And it allowed me to forever mention to people that I lived in Prague. So even though I was doing nothing with my life while I lived there, it’s more interesting than me saying “Hey, I lived in London”, even though I did nothing there for years. What’s the point though? It’s partly personal; about the disconnect between what I aim to imply when I provide people with personal histories from my life and the reality of that weird, sad, contemplative, difficult period. And partly general; about the disconnect between what was happening in the grand narrative of the western world via the news – the history of the day so far – and how far the mundane reality differed from the on-brand message. I only had the title, but I knew even if the poem was not great, the title is so good it would project depth onto the rest of the words. I sure hope it worked. Just in case it didn’t, I arranged the two large stanzas into the shape of twin towers!
I ummed and ahhed about putting this in. It’s more about how history is made than about how history foils truth. But it seemed to me to fit well with “Borders” and “Roads” and the other single-word-title poems in RFAT. This is enough like me for the unlike-me structure not to bother me. It goes on too long and fails to maintain poesy. It repeats itself. It runs away with word-association and sound-association to the detriment of its poeticness. But I like that like I don’t like living in cities.
- Escape to the country
I wanted to write a villanelle because I’d just realised what those Wendy Cope, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath poems I liked had in common (thanks Live Canon), and – what can I say? – I like “forms”. This is what came out, for whatever reason. And my brother Marek helped me make it less shit via Gmail chat because he was bored that day, apparently. I really like it. For me it speaks to the angst that haunts the middle classes right now – or anyone not too poor to consider moving house – where there’s this preoccupation with environmentalism doing battle with almost every fundamental foundation stone of their stinking modern lives. I should be a vegan. It’s the obvious moral position. But I’m not a moral person; I can maintain no practical application based on belief. So this poem is self-consciously mythic and dumb – head above clouds stuff. The ending threat can be either Russia or the Sun (the actual one, not the newspaper) depending on your preference. Or Jeremy Corbyn I guess, depending on whether he still exists by the time you read this, and despite that he didn’t when I wrote it. (Well… you know what I mean.) It’s sort of a sister poem to “Landskeria”, and that’s why I gave it that daft title, after the BBC property show me and V used to watch in Poole, before we did it.
(It’s occurred to me in coming back to edit this chapter that that last line could be misconstrued, so for the avoidance of doubt, by “it” I mean “escaped to the country” and that is not a euphemism either so thank you and get out of my parentheses.)
- The old house
This could just as easily have been in VWO (that cast-offs bit at the beginning of this book). It’s not a great poem really. Like a few of the personal ones, it equates (perhaps confuses) history with memory. History is only the recorded; memory is not deemed a trustworthy source on its own. Not at least until it has become a recorded interview, a restored photograph or at the very least, a poem. For the purposes of this poem, which recounts a visit to a place I used to live, the house itself (and the surrounding landscape) is supposed to be both history and historian. Echoing all that has come before. I don’t think it works, but I’m sentimentally attached, so I couldn’t judge it harshly enough to chuck it. (How’s that for editing?)
- Advertising space
My last-minute bid for gravitas. For a few years I’d been planning to write a poem called “Advertising space” after hearing the title of the Robbie Williams song. I thought I liked the song too but it turned out I was thinking of one of the others. The RW song is about Elvis; it’s okay. Pretty good really, I reckon – but horrible production. Anyway, I thought my poem would be about advertising. About working in advertising, which I do and have done on-and-off ever since I worked, really; but particularly since becoming a freelance copywriter and community-manger in order to facilitate moving to rural Wales and leaving my job at B&Q. When the poem “emerged” so to speak, it was in response to the annual conservative (small c) agreementfest that is the Remembrance celebrations. I embraced the challenge of trying to rail against this spectacle, which for me has little to do with respecting the dead – once the politicians have fought for elbow-room at the cenotaph, the royals have been photographed with their unlikely array of medals, the supermarkets have landed partnership deals with the military charities, and the poppy has ceased to hold any power as a symbol in the more visible echelons of public life except by its absence… Well, I won’t explain the poem, because hopefully it speaks for itself. It’s four and a half poems, so it really ought to. The first is an unpolished preamble, appropriating words from German folk songs and Harry Patch’s autobiography (which I have not read), and stirring them up with other associated popular (and unpopular) culture. The subtitle of this section refers to no specific product; just the patriotic tat that surrounds any and all state-sanctioned events – trading only in symbols and standing up to no intellectual scrutiny whatsoever. “Blood Swept Lands …” was the name of the unanimously celebrated clay poppy art installation at the Tower. (State funded art is propaganda; I don’t care to see its roots.) The “one man” was Nigel Farridge, but he went unnamed because he could have been anyone (and will be again). The line “Death in June…” is an obscure joke, which is both daft and unfunny. The post-industrial nazi-symbol-appropriating folk group Death in June – an interesting bunch worth far more than the origin of their skull motifs – are often told that their band name is a reference to the “night of the long knives” by well-meaning imbecilic anti-fascists. Apparently it was a misheard utterance by a bandmate that main-man Douglas P settled on as a workable name. The successful historical conflation by successive British governments of WW2 – the just war – with WW1– really a war the UK had no place in – means that to question any aspect of the related commemorative industry (which marks not just those, but every military operation since) soon subjects one to accusations of treachery, Nazism, lunacy, granddad-hating, etc. Especially if the medium for that question is art, oddly. The second poem is a series of haikus loosely themed around Yalta, also incorporating references to the Russian revolution, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the Norman Conquest, etc. Part three is a flawed attempt to channel Sylvia Plath and Wendy Cope concurrently; I imagine it read by two voices, alternately – ideally Ms. Plath’s bored ghost, and then for the longer stanzas by Adam Curtis (ideally after a couple of Red Bulls). The eponymous (yeah? we all happy with that word? we all read a few music websites? good…) section is a line-by-line rewrite of the Robbie Williams song, such that if you ever wanted to sing it at karaoke, but for the subject matter to be switched from “Robbie Williams’s infatuation with Elvis Presley” to “Alexander Velky’s annoyance for the cultural drift toward advertorial approval for any and all military actions conducted by the British state, saving the (most recent) Iraq War which serves as some kind of irritating foil by disapproval with which you can justify pretty much anything else that’s ever been done for the benefit of rich Brits and their rich pals in Monaco, Jersey, Liechtenstein, etc.” The last bit is just the first bit again. For EMPHASIS. “The past dies in a crime” is a song by Dies Natalis. No idea what it’s about, but for me it’s about the writing of history books, which is usually (unless it’s done by Norman Davies, for example) just like advertising – but far, far, far, far worse.
When I was working at B&Q… I mentioned I used to write poems about art in the canteen. Well I also wrote this in my head (partly out loud, when there was no one else near enough to have me sectioned) during the three-mile walk to the train station one afternoon. I was thinking about publishing (MFAOR), and audience, and ego, and fame, and – which is usually my response to such thoughts – I could find no logical recourse to the questions that raised themselves but to quietly detest myself. Hence “density” is meant to sound as stupid as it does hard. For a long time I thought the sentence “the worth that this earth might make from the dearth of the matter it hasn’t yet rent from me” made no sense. So I wasn’t going to publish the poem. But on closer examination I’ve decided Earth (either as a physical mass or as a guiding concept) can in fact make something from a dearth of matter, because I am part of the Earth, and I acting as an agent on its behalf (if not necessarily at its behest) am likelier to “make” something of myself (not least children, but it could be any of many things) from that which has been taken away – or in the process of losing matter – rather than from that which remains, which is basically, inasmuch as it is “me”, doing little but decaying – or delaying decay. I didn’t know what I meant when I wrote it, but I do now. I only address this because I can imagine it being a sticking point for many. Consider yourself lubricated. For me, this is a happy poem.
At this stage the poems’ parallels with their half-lines from the guiding poem “Doubt having” become pleasingly self-explanatory and no shoe-horning is required. This poem is straight autobiography and has been dealt with earlier in this collection where its original draft was included. It’s worth including I think, because that stack of bank transactions itself – a source produced by an impartial entity as a direct consequence of real actions and events – is history. Everything else is editorial. It’s well worth remembering that.
- A rhyme for all time
One of the earliest poems to be written for the book (around 2009/10-ish). For some reason I’ve always liked it, never tinkered with it, never made any attempt to improve it – which probably wouldn’t be difficult. The book is really named after this poem, not the earlier couplet of sonnets, but it doesn’t really matter. Editor Dave suggested moving it to earlier in the collection, but I felt that writing “Rhymes…” was a concession. I always wanted this poem to have the last word.
6. Postmodern times
Yeah, I toyed with writing a load of stuff here, but you know what they say: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery.
Probably a couple of bad reviews.
Maybe some pulping.