Saturday, 12 December 2009

Huge Breakfasts of Kippers

Does the idea of spending a weekend in a great house somewhere surrounded by writers fill you with dread? How about facing up to a long lecture on the meaning of apricot sponge in the work of John Tripp at 9.00 am after a night in the bouncing bar? Maybe an open forum on the way the publishing industry works? Or a discussion on the work of one of our literary greats. Welcome to the literary conference. How they used to be. We love these things in Wales.

You sign up and spend three days in a shared room somewhere deep in the greenness. Fellow delegates, for this is what you are now, join you for huge breakfasts of kippers, muesli and fried eggs. You study your day programme. There’s a choice first off – women in the nineteenth century industrial novel or a lecture on the works of the folk poets of Gwynedd. You choose and slumber. After an hour there is gentle applause.

At coffee you fill up on biscuits and discuss with your fellow travellers the fate of short fiction in an age of television and the power of poetry on the internet. There is a bookstall run by someone you’ve seen somewhere before, you are sure, a man with a beard. He stocks books by delegates and a stack of second hand stuff you’d never look at anywhere else. With nothing else to spend your cash on you find yourself buying. Get your copies signed. Why not.

Mid afternoon there’s a literary walk through the local woodlands. Appropriate poems are recited by the walk leader. Half way along it starts softly to rain. At 6.30 there’s the keynote speech. A London novelist driven in by limo to talk about her latest book. Copies cost £25. You don’t bother. Dinner is chicken with lumpy mashed potato. There is pudding but so sticky you can’t get it out of the bowl.

In the bar later is a poems and pints session. The poems flutter and drone. Almost every delegate appears to have brought something with them. Folded sheets are produced from back pockets. Files are unbagged. Pamphlets taken from under arms. The pints make things bearable. You drink far too many.

The following morning almost half the delegates fail to get to the first lecture. There’s a summing up after coffee at 11.00 am. You spot people leaving at 10.45. It’s been a great few days. You’ve met and mingled and got a hold on how the world works. Money well spent. In your car boot are copies of signed poetry booklets you’ll never have otherwise bought. You are replete. The sun comes up. You drive to meet it.

Watch out for the Academi’s next conference. It won’t be anything like this.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 12 December, 2009

Saturday, 5 December 2009

The Long Tale

Wales did not shine at the Booker. Sarah Waters, Pembrokeshire-born but somehow still separate from the Welsh literary community, did not win. I shouted for her. The Little Stranger could have given our rocking little country another winner. I talked it up. But in the end Hilary Mantel’s slice of Tudor passion beat Waters’ mid-twentieth century ghosts.

Getting onto the Booker short list can do a wonder for your sales. Get the judges to like you and a slovenly moving slab of literary fiction can be turned into a jet hot bestseller overnight.

The same kind of thing, albeit at a slightly less frenetic level, also happens with Wales’ own competitions. We may have fewer bookshops than England but ours have loyal audiences. Step up the Wales Book of the Year long list. Twenty books, ten in Welsh and ten in English, the best of our now burgeoning output, get selected each spring. They run the rapids towards a £10,000 prize awarded in high summer. Who got there last time? Deborah Kay Davies’ brilliantly written Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful and Wiliam Owen Roberts’ all-embracing Petrograd. Half of Wales has by now consumed those two examples of engaging fiction. The Wales Book of the Year Award is a solid indicator of quality. Want to find out who and how we are as a nation and enjoy yourself in the process? Read the complete long list.

Currently a new team of judges - John Gwilym Jones, Aled Lewis Evans and Branwen Gwyn in Welsh and Ian Gregson, James Hawes and Sara Edwards in English – are reading their way through hundreds of potential contenders. We are three quarters of the way through and even allowing for the fact that Christmas output has not yet hit the stands it’s looking as if it could be a bumper year.

Might our National Poet Gillian Clarke get there with her new collection, A Recipe for Water? Could John Barnie’s well-received Tales of the Shopocracy make the ten? Or Byron Rogers’ Me, Horatio Clare’s A Single Swallow, or even Sarah Waters near Booker, The Little Stranger?
In Welsh the choice is even tighter. Dafydd Islwyn, Robat Gruffudd, Alan Llwyd, Bobi Jones, and Fflur Dafydd all have books in the field. So too do two who normally battle it out on the English side – Jon Gower and Lloyd Jones. Jones won the Award for his novel in English in 2007.

The judges will by now be facing anew (for this team have never done it before) the same problems their predecessors did. How to compare a slim vol of poems with a 300 page slab of fiction? How can a serious literary study be compared with a racy street-wise novel? Watch this space.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 5 December, 2009

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Will It Fit The Bookrack?

Publishing in Wales is nothing if not diverse. At the point where the demands of the market might have been considered uppermost – everything the same shape to fit the same shelves, the same size to fit the same racks and the same look so as not to frighten the horses – out come two new magazines that couldn’t differ more. In Bangor Sophie McKeand and Andy Garside, a pair of upstart poets and graphic designers, have set up the Absurd. What they like is the weird, the avant garde and the wonderfully creative. They organise cabarets, readings, put on bands, launch books, bring out albums and promote the kind of thing Ezra Pound would have loved, the ever turning new.

They also engage in a bit of publishing but being design adept and aware of what it can be like printing piles of things and then having them unsold under your bed they do everything online. Their ctrl+alt+del, is a free magazine that comes in the form of a pdf. You print it out, fold according to online instructions and find yourself holding what now looks like a traditional poetry mag. The content of the two recent issues is pretty wide-ranging. Richard Downing’s Jazz Haiku, Phil Maillard in the mist on a Sunday morning in Sully, a terrific piece of poetry history from Chris Torrance in which he recounts his early days at the core of the Carshalton mob and British beat generation. Ken Cockburn and Scott Thurston add a slice of twentieth century avant garde. Homan Yousofi encircles Jericho. Check for yourself at

By contrast and in Cowbridge, a place nothing like Bangor, Ric Bower and associates launch Blown, a magazine of cultural intelligence. The contrast could not be greater. This is a heavy 162 page full-plate and often full-colour glossy. It mixes a range of seemingly incompatible bedfellows – art, music, fashion, photography. Photographs play a huge part. Defining just what the mag does is intentionally difficult. A series of stunning photographs from Peter Finimore, Toril Brancher, and Richard Page are accompanied by tangential texts from Brennan Street, Catrin Dafydd and Diarmid Mac Giolla Chriost. John Beynon writes up the football casual. John Beynon snaps two likely lads at the gates to the ground and then screws his photos up and blanks out his subject’s eyes.

Elsewhere Michael Oliver deconstructs the language of council estates. Ed Pereira compares Scars with Basement Jaxx. Niall Griffiths goes to southern Ireland. Sarah Broughton interviews Sarah Waters. Ric Bower photographs the author and makes her look like a side lit elf. There’s a superb piece on the work of Diane Arbus accompanied by a raft of full plate reproductions. All this and more for £6.95. A new Wales. Get to Smiths now.

A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 28th November, 2009

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Shouting Down The Stairwell

National Poetry Day and here I am on the second floor of Cardiff’s brilliant new central library celebrating the publication of Jennie Savage’s Arcades. This Safle published compendium is a wonderful mixture of photograph, history, anecdote, map, discourse, reportage, plan and chatter (included on a CD stuck inside the back cover) and an absolute bargain at £9.95. But it isn’t poetry.

There’s certainly something odd about all of this. National Poetry Day is the time each year when verse rises to the top of people’s consciousnesses. The BBC run polls, poetry gets televised, verse is recited by news readers. All over the country poets move to the forefront. Somebody has already told me that, earlier, a shaven-headed man was seen shouting poems down the Library’s vast stair-well – Ifor Thomas as it turns out, employed for the day to encourage the versification of visiting punters. Out of the window, embedded in the paving in the front of John Lewis’s new store, are the letters of my new piece of Cardiff concrete poetry. From this vantage point you can read them in all their acrostic glory – how the town had its name spelled down the centuries – Kairdiv, Cardaiff, Caerdyff – spread out in a permutational square. It’s poetry but not there for verse’s national Day.

In the paper is a list of the top UK poets as voted on by those members of the public who could be bothered to fill in the poll. T S Eliot, an American, heads the list. Wales fares badly. Maybe I should create my own list. I put thirty names in a hat and then pull out ten: Gillian Clarke, Gwyneth Lewis, Robert Minhinnick, Ifor ap Glyn, Alan Llwyd, Twm Morys, Tony Curtis, Gwyn Thomas, Menna Elfyn, Dannie Abse.

What about a top ten outsiders? Nick Fisk, Charles Jones, Childe Roland, Chris Torrance, Lloyd Robson, Martin Daws, Ian Davidson, Idris Davies, Rhys Iorwerth, Aneirin Karadog. Or our funniest: Ifor Thomas, Mike Jenkins, Mab Jones, Peter Read, Goff Morgan, Emily Hinshelwood, Tiffany Atkinson, Jan Price, Ann Drysdale, Catrin Dafydd.

Maybe most republished would be more interesting? Dylan T. The best on harmonica? Nigel Jenkins. The most popular? Owen Sheers. If I had space I’m sure I could come up with a post-National Poetry Day list that included almost everyone. Maybe you’ve got your own favourites? Do let me know.

Meanwhile, with the great day safely behind us, we can now get back to the regular life. One where poetry rarely intrudes. Auden reckoned that poetry was the place where nothing happens. I disagree. I’m now expecting a few phone calls from those Welsh poets inadvertently excluded from my lists above. No insult intended. If you are not there then let me know and I’ll try to slot you in.

An earlier version of the posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 21st November, 2009

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Real As It Can Get

I’m in the real city again. Water south, hills north. A city of rhomboid sprawl. Where else would I be? I’m standing on the B4487 in bright early-morning sunlight. Traffic low. Birds in inner-city twitter. This was the Via Julia Maritima once, the paved Roman route west. A thousand years on it was the stage coach route to London. Full of ruts and mud. Then it was the hard-topped A48, when A roads meant something. Newport Road when I was a kid. Still is. New arrivals are walking down it now. The endless displaced. Heading up beyond Roath Court for the Refugee Council at Phoenix House. Fewer now that the recession has hit. The Polish Shop is having a hard time. The Czech version has already closed.

We always wondered why in Cardiff there was so much new housing. Apartments rising like wheat right across the boom city. Concrete mixers. Deliveries of brick. Tower cranes like locusts. Men in hard hats in every bar. What drew them to the capital? What were we doing that made them come? Nothing, it turns out. Investors are blind. Invest where walls rise and your money will climb in step. No need to sell what you’ve built. Let the vacant towers glitter. Let their apartments stand empty, value accumulating as prices soar. Manage a let if a visitor asks. Sell one to an executive needing a town centre toehold. Rooms with a water view for singles. Wasp territory. Audi in the undercroft. Wine in the rack. Families not needed. No toy cupboards. No gardens. No schools.

Now that boom has bust these investments stand barren. For Sale. To Let. Those not yet completed stay so. Across the city are half-finished metal frames, surrounded by fencing, waiting for the interest rates to rise once again. Build has stopped. Apart from the mega projects like St David’s 2, the new Ninian Park and the scatter of enterprise across the sports village on the Ferry Road. On the hoarding at the north end of St David’s 2 are graffitied the words More Yuppie Flats Please. Word on the street is that the blocks inside will stand largely empty. Shells. Unfixed, unfinished walls. A city waiting for the bankers to take control once more.

There have been many visions for this place in which Cardiffians live. Plans for the port to take ocean liners. For the rich to sail for America from Tiger Bay rather than Southampton. Passengers would arrive by Great Western. There would have been grand hotels, piers and custom sheds and deep-water berths, but the Severn’s giant tidefall defeated them all. Now the city has changed again. Enormously. You can see what I’ve made of it in Real Cardiff – The Changing City, out from Seren on the 26th November, 2009.

Visit the web site: or

view the photostream:

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 14th November, 2009

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Real Cardiff Trilogy

All three of the Real Cardiff volumes in one shrinkwrap - newly updated and reprinted - and for this offer signed too. £25 a shot rather than the usual £30. The perfect Christmas present.

Order from your bookseller, direct from Seren or turn up at the launch to get yours in person. Thursday 26th November, 2009 at the Parc Thistle Hotel, Park Place, Cardiff - 6.30 pm - all welcome. Peter Finch will be in conversation with the Wales Millennium Centre architect Jonathan Adams. Wine and talk.

Real Cardiff Three - view the photostream at

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Red and Then Red Again

Left-wing values cling to the young like a second skin - power to the people, equality for all. Almost every young writer I’ve ever met in thirty years amid the smoky workshops and pub back-rooms of the country has wanted somehow to bring the government down. Writers change the world. The world is powered by men with money. That’s got to be sorted. The writers turn out their poems and their novels. Better red than dead. They sing their socialist songs. Working Class Hero, Midnight Special, Ghost of Tom Joad, Maggie’s Farm. We Shall Overcome.

There’s a great list of these activists. Jack Kerouac, Kingsley Amis, Arthur Koestler, David Mamet, PJ O'Rourke, Nick Cohen. And they all shifted right as age came upon them. Fighting the system is an exciting, adrenalin-driven activity - getting yourself locked to railings, carried away from sit-ins, graffiti the sides of buildings, putting metal glue into the locks of the Welsh Office, pouring blood red dye into the fountains of Trafalgar Square. Easy when you are twenty. Harder to stay with once you’ve retired.

But Mike Jenkins, stalwart of the Welsh working-class left and a hero in his own right is still as true to his chosen position (Socialist republican) as he was when he started. Merthyr’s Red Poets Society is his stronghold. His magazine of the same name has now reached fifteen numbers. This is a journal of radical poetry from Wales and the world. System breaking stuff from the revolutionary road. It is financially supported by the Welsh Books Council, an agent of the state. The ambiguity of this situation is worn with a sort of wonky pride.

“How do poets respond to the total moral and ideological bankruptcy of most politicians who let the financial sector operate unfettered…” Jenkins asks. “With invective and satire” he then replies. Jenkins believes that poetry can still change our consciousness.

The magazine ripples with outraged protest. Poetry against war, tourism, fascism, the dollar, unemployment, government failure, nuclear power, Israel, the downturn, the banks, Gordon Brown, mammon, and then war and the bomb again. Nothing changes in the world as it rolls on, except maybe the names at the top and the order in which our difficulties come.

Phil Knight tracks the red streak he’s found in the work of Dylan Thomas, Dylan “the romantic socialist” willing to join in with anyone who believed in “the right of all men to share, equally and impartially”. There’s poetry from the late and much-missed Terry Hetherington along with an appreciation of his work from Alan Perry. Among the larger roll call sit Herbert Williams, John Evans, David Lloyd, Phil Carradice, Alun Rees, Mab Jones, John Gimblett and Robert Nisbet, all still sailing across the clear red water. Copies are available at £4. Check

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 7th November, 2009

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Real Cardiff Three

Real Cardiff Three, originally uploaded by Pedr Finch.

Coming soon. The launch is on November 26th. Real Cardiff #3 - The Changing City. Seren Books.

What is the difference between a bookseller and a publisher anyway

The novelist Claire Peate moved to Wales from London a few years ago determined to make her mark as a writer. Wales, land of song, a paradise of bards and great authors. A place full of literary welcome, the home of Dylan Thomas, Kate Roberts and Alexander Cordell. Finding out which doors to knock on shouldn’t be that difficult. But it was.

How do you prepare your manuscript? Where should you send it? What is the difference between a bookseller and a publisher? What do agents do? Have we got any in Wales? What does copyright mean? Do you have to do anything to register it? Where can you get fair and informed advice on the work you are producing? How do you win prizes? Who fixes readings? How do you get to work in school? How do you meet other writers? Are there any places offering financial support, information support, hand holding or any other kind of practical help?

Although plenty of advice was available out there nobody had ever bothered to join the dots. Now, after two years of development and the employment of poet and editor Kathryn Gray to do the research and the writing Academi are providing the solution.

A comprhensive guide to How-To-Be-A-Writer has just been launched. The guide is freely accessible from the Academi’s site at Here you can read about what it’s actually like being a writer (difficult but rewarding), ways to get started, how much you might earn, how to get into broadcasting, the difficulties of copyright, who the publishers are, how to apply for financial help (a well read section, that one), how to prepare your book, how to get criticism, how to win prizes. There’s more too. In fact you could spend your whole life here rather than actually writing. My advice is to scribble first and second and only then start to worry about what to do next.

The Guide makes some pretty solid suggestions. The section on self-publishing and networking explains how pushy you’ll need to be. No more retiring to the garret. There’s information on getting connected digitally and the benefits that will bring. There’s also an excellent piece on how it is possible to make a living as a writer just. This goes into detail about how much non-writing you’ll actually have to do.

Claire Peate has had to manage without all this advice. And she’s done well - three novels to date, published by Honno. The Floristry Commission, Big Cats and Kitten Heels and the new one, Headhunters, which mixes archaeology, the church and man chasing in a heady brew. Is Wales a good place to make it as an author? Claire seems to think so.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 31 October, 2009

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Awash - It's All The Future Holds

Here we are in the twenty-first century, awash with opportunity. It’s never been easier for writers to get their stuff out there before the reading public. The great state-sponsored literary journals sail on. Poetry Wales, The New Welsh Review, and Planet arrive regularly on the bookstalls in full-colour, page fat glory. Their upstart rivals, the small mags, produced by enthusiasts, outsiders, wannabes, revolutionaries, and the desperate appear in coffee shops, arts centres and pub back room readings. On the internet web mags are legion. Geographical boundaries no longer exist – the world has become one vast open house for new writing.

Competitions, where the wheat gets sorted from the chaff, or at least it once did, are now so many that almost everyone gets prizes. Poems flicker through the air as text messages. A new school of extremely short novels has been founded by those who use Twitter. On YouTube almost everyone can be found reading something in grainy colour to hand-held video camera. In quick succession I’ve just watched (and heard) R S Thomas reading A Welsh Landscape, Ted Hughes reading from Crow, Sheenagh Pugh, Simon Armitage, Tony Curtis (all three of them, the film star, the Irish poetaster and the genuine Welsh original), Ifor Thomas and Lloyd Robson. This last clip actually featured Lloyd and Lil Wayne rapping about hot stuff which might mean my search hasn’t quite come up with the right guy. But you get the idea..

The problem for the reader in the face of this literary onslaught is deciding what’s worth bothering with and what’s not. Certainly not everything can be worth spending time on. In this welter of words sprawling around in public quality control has certainly slipped. Where once punctuation would be confirmed by a sub-editor and content cut and queried by a concerned publisher today it all gets slapped up. Write it, publish it. Allen Ginsberg once declared that first thoughts were best thoughts. And sometimes they are too. But they were better when they came from Ginsberg himself. Not everyone has an equal talent.

What we really need is a period of restraint. But egos being what they are I doubt that will ever happen. How would it be if writers began to put some of their works in the drawer for a while? Leave them a little to fester. Revisit a few months later and check if they still read as well as you imagined they did at the time of their creation.

Publishers could also help. They could perhaps produce just a few fewer titles annually and spend the money instead on internal quality control. Re-introduce copy editors. Check spellings, grammar and punctuation. Use the metaphoric blue pencil to cut more regularly. It’s a dream. But the world’s turning too fast now. It’ll never happen.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Choosing will be the end of us all

Have you noticed the lists of new titles on the media’s book pages getting longer? Mrs Thatcher once declared that the British public should have choice. And choice we today certainly have. Thirty flavours of ice cream rather than two. Dozens of versions of each new car. Five hundred and forty-two TV channels and new novels by the absolute shed load.

In Wales this revolution in print is on the verge of drowning us. Gone are the days when getting into print really meant something and the imprimatur of publishers shone in the philistine wilderness. Today publishers outnumber pubs and certainly are more numerous than plumbers and milkmen.

But all is not quite as it may seem. Some publishers turn out to be one man bands, some are amateur shambles, a few are charlatans, and a small number hang on as the traditional culture-supporting article. But many, the majority even, are the outcome of an exponential rise in the availability of print-on-demand. Log onto the website, upload your novel (or memoir, or set of poems or cookbook), add a cover, press the button. Key in your credit card details and a couple of dozen decently printed and well-bound copies will arrive at your house by mail. You are a published author and for not much more outlay that carpeting and decorating a room either. You can do this as an individual or use the technology to set yourself up as a new independent publisher. Small runs of things that interest you are now perfectly economical to do. You’ll have a hard time getting them into bookstores but, hey, this is the digital age. Sell by internet. Everyone else does. Use Facebook and Twitter to publicise what you are doing and then fulfil the orders via Amazon. And if you’d prefer to have your hand held more closely then quite a number of one-time traditional printers are offering similar services over the counter.

Wuggles Publishing in Clydach has used the technology to bring out Chris Thomas’s perfectly respectable More Tales of Pelican Square. This is an amusing, well written helping of nostalgia and non pc whimsy from the housing estates of the Swansea valley. Richard F Jones’s Dancing With The Devil is the story of a financial consultant and womaniser busy evading tax on Majorca. His publishing operation is called Authorhouse. Paul D E Mitchell’s Lever – the Second Book Of The Path Transcendent series (“contains strong language, graphic violence and adult themes” runs the warning on the back cover) is set in Pontybrenin where mining has been replaced by the Church of the All-Seeing Eye. That comes directly from the author in Cardiff. Jean Gill’s memoir, How Blue is My Valley (Lulu), compares Provence with Wales with entertaining results.

An earlier version of this post appeared at The Insider in the Western Mail of 17th October, 2009

Take your pick. The choice is yours.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Keeping Posterity Under Control

Bill Gates suggested once that in the future everything we do will be recorded. Every movement we make, every sentence we write, every word we say. Posterity will be huge. Not that it is all that small today. How much of the Welsh past have we managed to keep?

There are just about any number of recordings of great sporting moments , naturally. There are also reels of royal visit. The Prince and the Queen at Cardiff, Caernarfon, Newport, Aberystwyth, Caerphilly, Harlech, Conwy, the seafront at Barry. Anywhere where there’s a castle. Shots of royal arrivals, flags waving, bouquets being presented. The sun shining. We are also okay for historic film of the Gorsedd standing in fields and for recordings of speeches made by Welsh politicians. Usually when they have things to say – which is most times – or when they die. Nye Bevan in full socialist flight. Lloyd George in his horse drawn casket leaving Tŷ Newydd.

What we have missed out on is literature. Dylan Thomas may well be available in quantity courtesy of the BBC but for most other writers there’s not that much. To be fair technology managed to catch R S Thomas before he went. Sain have issued a three CD set of the poet reading selections from his best. Gillian Clarke, the current National Poet, is well represented in Andrew Motion’s Poetry Archive. And if you are really keen then you should be able to track down videos of interviews with some of the Anglo-Welsh greats (the Glyns, and Gwyns, the Joneses, Thomases and Williams) made in a fit of forward looking by the University of Glamorgan.

But most of the past seems to have just faded from the record. Did anyone record the chest beating encounter between Ned Thomas, Sorley Maclean and R S on stage in Cardiff? Or Ted Hughes live at the Sherman? What about Eugene Ionesco at the Reardon Smith or Margaret Drabble being mobbed at the old Oriel? Harri Webb, John Tripp and Rhydwen Williams debating the use of Welsh as a vehicle for literature. Bob Cobbing in sonic splendour at the Young Farmers Club in Aberaeron. Most of those things have simply been lost. They exist now only in dimming memory.

But the future is bright. Contemporary publishers are keen to exploit our twenty-fist century desire to record absolutely everything. Planet’s brand new web site starts well with the inclusion of a downloadable Raymond Williams lecture. Seren have begun a series of You Tube vids. And at the Academi it is a target to embellish every entry on the Writers of Wales web pages with either a sound or vision sample. Speak softly and away from microphones. If you don’t then, chances are, you’ll be there for posterity.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 10th October, 2009

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Not Plastered Ever

One of the great myths surrounding the late gnarled bard John Tripp is that he drank to excess. No, maybe I should rephrase that. One of the great myths is that he was usually drunk when he did readings. Hardly ever, in my memory. Afterwards, when stray poets, raconteurs and other Tripp aficionados settled for conversation in the back room of the Conway or in the bar of Cardiff docklands’ Big Windsor almost certainly. But never on stage. Tripp understood well that place in which a performer needs to be in order to give a decent performance. Not stone cold, scientifically clean and Baptist sober for sure. But not plastered either.

JT could walk on stage and engage his audience just by looking at them and shuffling his papers. If he happened to have papers at the time, that is. He knew how to mix his programme – something serious next to something racy, a profound slice of Welsh political positioning followed by a touch of nostalgia, a slice of kitchen sink before a devastating funny. Stand still, he told me once. Don’t wander all over the stage. You might fall off. Know what you are going to do before you do it. Check your texts. Look into their eyes.

The eyes bit is quite important. Politicians are experts at this. Check them out. Very few stare at their papers when they deliver their speeches. Instead they engage directly with their audience. Stare straight at them. What the speechmakers are actually doing is fixing their eyes in a sort of roving pattern across the back wall of the hall. Audience members all imagine that they are being spoken to directly. Dark glasses are a complete no no, no matter how pop-star they may make you feel. Tripp wore the same clothes he had happened to put on when he got up that day, as a rule. But wear your suede jacket, Finch, he’d advise me, it gives you style.

What JT had managed to do was to combine literary ability with delivery. People listening to his readings were, dare I use the word, entertained. The biennial Academi-run competition in his name looks for the same qualities. The 2009 John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry runs this October. There will be heats in Llanhilleth, Pontardawe, The Gate in Cardiff, and Venue Cymru in Llandudno. The final is at the Wharf in Cardiff Bay on Thursday November, 19th.

It costs £6 to enter and forms are available by ringing the Academi on 02920472266 or from the website at If you get through your heat and into the final expect some entertaining competition. First prize is £500. Runners-up were once given packets of tea and bananas but I’m not sure yet about 2009. Watch this space.

An earlier version of this post appeared in the Western Mail of Saturday 26th September, 2009 as The Insider

Friday, 25 September 2009

Sound Advice

It’s always good to ask the public what it wants. People like to be involved, to make their voices heard, to have an input. The problem for those putting the questions is that once they’ve been asked answers generally start to arrive. And something then has to be done. Read them, compile them, make projections, file them. When the Arts Council of England surveyed the public, hunting for data on reading habits, they learned that poetry fans preferred to read verse in single slices. On posters, in magazines, on flyers. Slim volumes (which is what most poetry comes in), apparently, were too dense. Long live the back of the matchbox.

In the past I’ve surveyed literary event attendees asking them what kind of thing would they like to see more of in the future. Novelists talking, perhaps? Children’s authors in discussion? Interviews with playwrights? Sound poetry? It was that last one that struck a chord. I meant the poetry of sounds – the sort of the thing the Dadaists became famous for and which the late Bob Cobbing had taken to new heights at Cardiff’s Reardon Smith and in the Young Farmer’s Club at Felinfach. That choice scored well. I put on Henri Chopin and Lars Gunnar Bodin. Sold three tickets. My questionnaire fillers had thought I meant poetry written to sound, quality principles. Of sonic stuff they’ve barely heard.

I should have known. In the latest issue of Planet magazine in an excellent article on the much underrated French Canadian Welsh poet, Childe Roland from Llangollen, Nigel Jenkins recounts the tale of the only poetry reading on record to have ended with an audience brawl. This reading was given by me in Neath at the height of the experimental poetry boom several years back. I’d been invited to give an explanatory demonstration of concrete poetry to a group of, as Jenkins puts it, “budding writers”. Half way through a recitation of one of my more abstract noise pieces one of the lads began to complain. “This is meaningless,” he said. “No it’s not,” retorted his companion. Brilliant, I thought. Support at last. But the complainer wasn’t having any of it. “Shut up,” he shouted, belting his companion across the head with his folder. His companion replied with a right hook. The two fell wrestling onto the floor and attempts were made to separate them by fellow audience members who themselves got then embroiled. Thus, says Jenkins “ended abruptly what must have been one of the most memorable performances of Finch’s career.”

The remainder of this new issue of Planet is rather less avant garde but still worth reading. Jen Wilson looking for Bessie Smith. Ned Thomas and Dai Smith on Raymond Williams. Craig Owen Jones on the Wicipedia. T H Parry-Williams in new translation. £5.75 at Smiths.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 19th September, 2009

Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Real Job

What do you do? I’m a writer. Yes, I know, but what’s your real job? How do you keep up with the mortgage? Writers have always existed in this hinterland where doing what they do in exchange for money is regarded by many as some sort of perversion of the art. Writers need, always, to be something else. Teachers, lorry drivers, cleaners, professors of medicine, members of parliament, bankers, accountants. T S Eliot - wasn’t he some sort of bank clerk? And D H Lawrence, in real life was he not a gamekeeper?

I suppose the Dylan Thomas myth of a life spent bumming drinks and borrowing never to repay has a lot to do with public perception of the art of letters. Poetry, obviously, has to be done for the love. Attaching money to it would sully the form. And novels? Well, you get paid if it’s a best seller, J K Rowling and all that. But if it’s just a new tale published by Seren then you won’t expect much, if anything, will you?

This is the big Welsh problem. We do it all for glory, many of us, for applause and fame and some petty cash to pay the petrol. Only rarely do we do it to pay our grocery bills. We’re a land of amateurs accepting bales of binder twine and frozen chickens instead of cheques. Can you do a reading for us? How much? Couple of pints and a free meal. Fine. All this needs to change.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but the scene sometimes feels like this. At Academi we run a Writers on Tour scheme which financially aids organisers who want to invite writers to read to their groups. The Welsh Books Council gives money to publishers to help them fund royalty payments. The BBC always pay when they use your stuff, so long as you remember to ask. But the levels are so low.

In his recently published and pretty hilarious autobiography Me: The Authorised Biography, Byron Rogers explains how he used to be paid as Prince Charles’s speech writers. He got £65 for an average speech, and then £125 if the thing was for a significant gathering. That pay scale was put in place by a civil servant. If it had been left to HRH then the implication is that money would not have changed hands at all. Words are so easy and belong to all of us. What else can they be but free.

The counter to all that is that if you pay peanuts then you get monkeys. Wales should do better. We have the talent. If we pay our writers properly then they might stay here.

How much do you get paid for doing this column? Well, enough.

An earlier version of this posting appeared at The Insider in the Western Mail of 12th September, 2009

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Talentedly Challenged

Wales - land of the level playing field. That’s what people want. But in a country that consists mainly of hills, crags and mountains these things seem so hard to provide. What I’m actually talking about is publishing. It amazes me but there are still plenty out there who imagine the whole thing to be an enormous fix.

The great Welsh conspiracy theory, which has been around for longer than I have, still has a long way to run. This theory says, depending on where you stand, that Dafydd Elis Thomas is a CIA plant, that Cardiff is run by Roman Abramovich and that the Masons are in charge of Snowdonia National Park. Why else such beautiful curtains in the new café? It also says that publishing in Wales is in the hands of a self-perpetuating cabal of men who only ever let their friends into the inner circle. This explains, apparently, why Robert Minhinnick and Gillian Clarke always seem to get their work into the spotlight while Wyn Islwyn Davies and Laurence Eau de Cologne Jones never get past the editor’s doormat. The fact that Minhinnick and Clarke are actually good writers is ignored.

Conspiracy theories run deep. The most civilised and considerate of our authors can be seen as part of some pre-ordained plan to keep the wannabes out. Dannie Abse wins Book of the Year because he’s a mate of Nigel Jenkins. Tony Curtis gets a special issue devoted to his work because he secretly owns the publisher. Gwyneth Lewis headlines the festival on the grounds that as well as the organiser she too is a member of the order of the water buffalo. I’ve made those things up but that doesn’t stop some out there believing.

For the talentedly challenged (as well as, come to think of it, the actually talented) competitions provide a way out. Once your entry is in there no one knows who you are. You and Roger McGough and Stephen King all have your work in the same bag. Being judged on its quality alone. Your name has no bearing. It’s a beguiling thought.

Loads of organisations have now latched onto this desire on the part of the unpublished to get on board as soon as possible. There are competitions for novels, pamphlets, essays, single poems and fifty-word short stories. Dark Tales Monthly offers £100 for the best piece of goth short fiction. The Harry Bowling Prize offers £1000 for the best new adult novel (send chapter one and a synopsis). The Troubadour Poetry Competition has Maura Dooley awarding £1000 to the best poem entered. No length restriction. Brevity offers £50 for the best flash fiction submission. What’s flash fiction? Short. Fuller details of these and other competitions can be found at

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of September 5th, 2009

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Still Shocking

Writers are very keen to make it new. It comes with the territory. Since the world never stays the same for more than five minutes neither should writing. New ideas, new forms, new styles. This is the life blood of the word. Readers, however, are far less keen. They like what they know. Novels with plots and conventional dialogue. Things with beginnings, middles and ends. With maybe a bit of excitement en route. They want to read novels that engage them in much the same way that well fitting shoes do. The whole of writing boiled down to five classic plots. Rise to fame, fall from grace, win love, lose it and death. Almost everything in literature can be fitted into one of those. The author of that writers’ standby, One Hundred and One Useful Plots, is exaggerating.

But newness is what writers crave, or they say they do. The relentless pursuit of the cutting edge. The late novelist B S Johnson had a book which came in a box. The chapters were not numbered and could be shuffled so that the story’s outcome was always unexpected. Novelists from the French Oulipo group created works that, for example, consisted entirely of words which did not contain the letter ‘e’ or were constructed of text found on railway stations. There have also been many attempts to create extremely short novels. Microfiction. Tales that are only two or three sentences long. Perfect for today. In fact at Twitter fiction where text has to be within 140 characters is on the rise. Here’s a typical example: “Now, piggybacking on solar emissions, my uploaded consciousness will carry his Gospel to the stars. It’s true: Jesus wants me for a sunbeam.”

In the days when answerphones were machines that contained twin cassette decks, one for outgoing messages and the other for incoming I pushed the envelope a bit. I wrote a novel that consisted of chapters that when spoken would fit onto the 30 seconds of the outgoing tape. I created new episodes weekly. My phone line was jammed with fans ringing in to hear the next episode.

Parthian’s new anthology, appropriately titled Nu – Fiction & Stuff is a 2009 example of where the new generation is heading. It’s edited by Tomos Owen from the Rhondda and contains not a single example of formal experiment or postmodernist challenge. No short stories written in text message nor impenetrable swamps of vocabulary dancing before your eyes. Instead there are straight ahead and, from a plot point of view, often refreshing new takes on old life. Susie Wild drunk while swimming. Bethan Michael rerunning Shameless in Blaenau. Alys Conran working out if Alex is gay or not. Nu costs a mere £6.99. Give the new a chance. Try now.

An earlier version of this post appeared in The Western Mail on 22 August, 2009 as The Insider

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Vino Callapso

What might there be between poetry and painting? In the brave days of the sixties counter culture this place was called the intermedia. Some people imagined that in the future all art forms would merge into a homogenous and culturally satisfying mass. Wall to wall painting. Poetry in everything. Didn’t happen. But there were a few around who wanted to explore.

Meic Stephens, the then pretty traditional editor of Poetry Wales, produced a version of Eugene Gomringer’s famous concrete poem, Silencio. In the original there’s a block of print made from the word for silence with a gap of real silence in the centre. Meic’s version substituted the Welsh equivalent.

Reaction was pedictable. Streams of jokes about poems and building sites and outrage from those who considered anything not in the styles of the long past as rubbish.

Concrete poetry was supposed to save the literary world. But naturally it didn’t. After a few flashes it found itself in the early eighties up a side alley with nowhere further to travel.

In the years since virtually no one in Wales has picked up the baton. There were loads of early Finch visual things but not a lot after the start of the ninties. Cardiff’s Lloyd Robson has, in some of his wilder moments, used mangled typefaces to good effect. And the tri-lingual bard of the north, Peter Meilleur (otherwise known as Childe Roland), continues to produce visual work with words that often defies description.

But that planned common ground for poet and painter just faded. It’s a pity.

In London recently at the ICA’s Poor Old Tired Horse concrete poetry exhibition you could see where some of this might have taken us. Lots of stuff from the Scots, whose climate clearly encourages innovation – Ian Hamilton Finlay’s waves and boats. Lillian Lijn’s machines that made poetry spin. The late Dom Sylvester Houédard’ s meditative typewriter creations. Carl Andre’s words set out like piles of bricks. David Hockney. Robert Smithson. Nothing in the slightest bit Welsh.

Although to be fair they did invite me up to give a sound poetry reading. Took me right back to where it all began. Puzzlement, passion, precision and sore throats.

On the train back I got talking to a completely plastered bloke who’d just flown in from a holiday in Malaga. “Poetry’s brilliant”, he said, after I’d told him where I’d been and what I’d been doing. “But I never listen to it myself”. Then he got off in a drunken rush at Reading leaving his passport, tickets and wallet on the seat. The woman next to me handed the stuff in to the guard. “I wouldn’t try to contact him yet,” she advised, “he’s had too much vino collapso”. Poetry again. It’s in everything.

An earlier version of this posting appeared in the Western Mail on 22 August, 2009 as The Insider

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Roaring Down The Motorway

Setting off on a career as a writer without checking how things work is a little like driving a car without reading the handbook. You’ve got the talent and the push. It’s in you and it has to come out. You are into fifth gear before you know it and roaring down the Motorway with a grin on your chops. But if you’d bothered to read up before you flew then you’d be able to set cruise control and adjust the air con. You’d know how to change the music from the steering column. Would know where the heated rear window button was, and, come to that, might have checked your tyre pressures and understood that this has a diesel engine which didn’t run on unleaded, the stuff with which you were now about to fill up.

One of the last things many new writers buy is the annual Writer’s Handbook from Macmillan. At £14.99 a go you can see why. Yet this yellow doorstop compendium of advice and addresses makes pretty essential reading. If you expect to go anywhere other than the end of the street with your stuff then you really should consult it.

The new 2010 edition has just appeared and covers everything from UK and USA publisher listings to prizes, details of literary societies, listings of agents, regional newspapers, TV producers and information on those swirling pools of misinformation, electronic publishing and the future of the book.

Chris Hamilton-Emery, the man behind Salt publishing, contributes a tight and accurate survey of the poetry scene. General editor Barry Turner visits international book fairs – “A word of advice to any author who is thinking of attending a book fair. Don’t.” Nick Hodder covers comedy. Ian Spring explains tax and accounting.

There is also a timely piece on how not to write a novel. “The myth of the lonely, misunderstood writer against the world, destined eventually to emerge triumphant, endures partly by virtue of the occasional exceptions that prove the rule.” The reality is that most failing writers will continue to fail. The big lottery of metropolitan success and bestsellerdom sits out there like gold at the end of the rainbow. You turn up at the corner shop each week and buy more tickets. But you never win. “As a writer you only have one job: to make the reader turn the page.” And to that I’d add that first of all you have to make them pick up the book.

Are there too many writers out there? Maybe. But the activity can generate desirable feelings of self-worth and, for many, do something to fix and explain why it is that we are what we are. Literature can be life enhancing. Buy the Handbook. Let’s have more.
A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 15th August, 2009

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Wanting To Be Famous Again

How famous is Cardiff? We like to think the world now knows just who we are. Capital of Wales, Millennium Stadium, Singer of the World, and an iconic poem across the front of the WMC. That’s quite a fair step on from Clark’s pies and coal in the streets. But you try it in California or Texas or even, for that matter, some parts of Europe. Cardiff? Never heard of that place. There’s still a way to go.

In Swansea, which ought to have an even larger problem given that they are half the capital’s size and merely the country’s second city things are managed with less desperation. Wales’ tallest building is already in place and the Dylan Thomas Prize, £40K for the best book in English by someone under 30, brings the world to their doors. Around the world Dylan’s name still works.

But back in the Capital all is not lost. The annual Academi Cardiff International Poetry Competition, £5000 for a single poem of less than 40 lines has just been awarded. Aboard one of the glass-topped Bay cruisers, laden this time with orange juice, poets and glasses of wine, Jane Routh walked away with the big cheque. National Poet Gillian Clarke presided, told us of her childhood sneaking down the Ely subway and walking along the Castle’s animal wall. Read us poems about Obama and the Stadium. Pulled Cardiff and verse closely together.

The Cardiff International Poetry Competition, backed by the Council is in its twenty-fifth year now. As a money prize it ranks around third in the UK and attracts a huge entry from all over the world. Bards on Honolulu and Cape Town send in their stuff. So, too, do poets from Ponty and Ely and Roath. The big selling point with such contests is that nobody’s name is revealed until the judging is done. Work gets read for its quality rather than by whom it might have be written. It’s an appealing prospect, especially to those who are convinced that publishing is entirely run as a conspiracy by a self-selecting elite. Poetry Competitions are equitable, straightforward, fair.

The 2010 competition is to be judged by the new editor of Poetry Wales, Zoë Skoulding and the woman who was running right behind Carol Ann Duffy in the race for the Poet Laureate, Jackie Kay. Entering costs £6 a poem with entry forms available from the Academi. Check online at or send an sae to P.O. Box 438, Cardiff CF10 5YA, Closing date is 29th January, 2010 which gives loads of time but early entries have an excellent chance.
Tips on winning? Read as much poetry as you can. Read the work of the judges. Send your best. Try sending in more than one example. Hope.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 8th August, 2009.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Wales and Its National Poet

How much of a mark do National Poets make? Wales’s first, Gwyneth Lewis, has a poem right across the front of the Wales Millennium Centre. Gwyn Thomas, the ebullient second, has words in the stones on the top of Snowdon. The seemingly unstoppable Gillian Clarke, the current National bard, has her work in the landscape at Barry and soon at Ebbw Vale and in the mouths and minds of nearly every Welsh school child. National Poets celebrate, concentrate, and elevate. They take poetry where it should go, out there to the people. They are ambassadors as much as they are creators. In their hands poetry becomes something we all own.

There may, however, be probles up ahead. In England, where the Poet Laureate was once a job for life and in its present incarnation still lasts for ten years, they have a population approaching 60 million and a pool of poetic talent as large as France. Once you’ve done your stint you get knighted. Arise Sir Gwyn. But in Wales that’s a fantasy – we have no civic honours of our own. Yet.

The real difficulty is our level of turnover. We are using up poets at the rate of one every eighteen months. It’s even faster with the National Children’s Poet, Bardd Plant, where the post-holders change on an annual basis. Our population is a mere three and a half million. Now I know we are a pretty talented people and have poetic ability well above the world average. But if we carry on as we are we are still going to run out fairly soon.

Currently the National Poet has world-wide recognition. Due in part to Gillian’s charisma, energy, talent and ability to put herself about the international stage the world knows of Wales. That’s a harder thing to do when you change language. Would the role of National Poet be less visible if its highspots came from the Welsh tradition? In the sequence we are following the next National Bard will be one who writes first in the older tongue. Will it matter that such a poet will be unknown outside our borders? Can the Wales of today really sustain a National Poet who works in one language only? On the other hand should not the National Poet be competent in both? And how many of those are there about? Even the late R S Thomas, language campaigner from the front lines, only ever delivered his verse in Saesneg.

There are arguments here for picking a winner and then extending the period of service. How different might things be if Gwyn Thomas, Gillian Clarke or Gwyneth Lewis had been appointed for five years, for ten or even for life? If you have a view please let me know.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 1st August, 2009

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Creased By Fug

Somewhere in the world of writing there’s an academic study of the connection between writers and drink. Something which explains how great works rise from the sprawl of beer mats, the fog of talk and the slumping numbness of mind that alcohol induces. Why is it that the greatest minds of our generation can be those creased by fug and flattened by hangover? The poets whose verse only trips, sparks and rattles when powered by Brains or allowed to marinade in a sea of red wine.

The Dylan Thomas legend is something that follows Welsh writers everywhere. Sets us up in the minds of outsiders as alcoholic mumblers and Rabelaisian verse weavers content only to stumble from bar to boozer flashing the tropes and images of our musical poetry as we go. The problem with this myth, naturally, is that, for many, it’s actually the truth. Writers do spend time in bars, many of them, most of them even. A number have beaten the same path as Dylan. Loosing their manuscripts down the back of hotels’ plush upholstery, insulting barmaids in back bars and being forever long on hope and short on cash.

It’s almost always men too. Welsh writing is rich with male heroes who are golden at six but incoherent by ten. Some of the most respected among us have done their time sprawled in doorways and lying down quietly on front lawns. Are our women writers in this league just yet? Not quite, but coming soon.

Could this be a Welsh thing? Hugh MacDiarmid, the great Scots poet, reckoned that his drinkers (and he was referring here to the morose boozers of Glasgow) preferred “the hard-bitten, the recalcitrant, the sarcastic, the saturnine, the cross-grained and the cankered” to the sort of confiding, intimate, ingratiating, hail-fellow-well-met drinkers found in the rest of the British Isles. By the rest of the British Isles he meant, I guess, the English. Although there is certainly an element of secret-society, intimate wahoo about the drinkers of Gwynedd and a quantity of all right skip have one with me about some of those found in Cardiff.

Welsh writers also love drink related causes. There is huge support for the establishment of a pub in the grounds of St Fagans. Someone has come up with a name – Tafarn yr Iorwerth Peate. But it isn’t there yet. The Save the Vulcan campaign, to keep the Victorian south of Cardiff Prison in shape for the twentieth first century is led by authors. John Williams, Charlotte Greig, Ifor Thomas, Des Barry, Sean Burke and others have consumed beer in quantity in pursuit of that cause (and have got a result too - which is a really unexpected bonus - The Vulcan goes on - for now).

And when there are campaigns to put poems in public places where do these new verses end up? On the back of beer mats. Where else?

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 25th July, 2009

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Be-Bop Is Back

Did the Beat Generation ever reach Wales? Can anyone now remember what that generation even was? Jack Kerouac holding his thumb out and hitchhiking right across America. Allen Ginsberg riding boxcars boxcars boxcars. Gregory Corso drinking wine into the night, reciting his verse at the sky. Burroughs slicing his novels into the shape of the future. The whole lot a free wheeling, free loving, free speaking charge straight at conservative authority. The paintings on the walls were great swirls of colour, Pollock, de Kooning, the abstract expressionists. On the player were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie blowing be-bop like there was no tomorrow. Up ahead was nirvana and a new way of living in the world.

An American dream, naturally. But one which seemed to work, for a while. Best that ever happened here was the single copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl that I found, unaccountably, on the shelves of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge’s Bookshop in Cardiff’s Friary. That, perhaps, and the old lags blowing trumpets and smoking things they shouldn’t in the back bar of the Moulders Arms.

Somehow the idea of taking off with nothing in mind other than the journey didn’t catch on in Wales. Hitch hard westwards and you got to Tenby by dinner time. Sit down and eat chips with the retired and the families on holiday. Not the same as three long days on the road to get to Denver where jazz and shimmering poetry awaited you.

To be Beat you had to wear a black polo neck and grow your hair. Made you look like a rebel even if you actually weren’t one. There were loads of those in Wales. Welsh literature was barely dented by the movement. The nearest we got was John Tripp’s famous appearance at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre wearing cord trousers and no tie. The retired ladies in the front row tutted. Couldn’t he turn himself out a little better?

That was all so far back that almost all movement participants have now died. But the spirit hangs on. Dwang, Michael Curran’s hardback hand-bound magazine of Beat fellow travellers, has just appeared from the Tangerine Press. This is writing reaching its public like it used to. With style and class and, in Dwang’s case, a genuine modicum of excitement. If you are an aficionado you’ll recognise some of the names (and be surprised by others). Edward Lucie-Smith, Dan Fante, Wes Magee, William Wantling, chronicler of factory life Fred Voss, A D Winas, Charles Plymell, the amazing guitar-wielding Billy Childish, grand old man of British Beatdom Jim Burns, Doug Blazek. The hunt for freedom is still there in the writing. Check for details of where to get your copy.

A version of this posting originally appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 18th July, 2009

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Are Thespians The Best Reciters?

Stand still for long enough and the whole world comes round again. Spelling Bees were back last year. Competitive remembering of the right letters for accommodation and encyclopaedia. Prizes if you could do antidisestablishmentarianism without drawing breath. This year it’s poetry recitation. Bright young faces on the podium wandering lonely as a cloud and without a piece of script or an autocue anywhere to be seen.

Is this the right way to enjoy poetry? Does remembering the stuff by rote enhance the art form, lift the spirit and excite the mind? Possibly. Verse, we need to remind ourselves, predates print, predates mass ability to read and possible even predates writing itself. A poetry that rhymed and scanned, that had rhythm, that beat like the blood beats, was easy to remember. Great tales of the tribe’s history, of victorious battles and the doings of the gods were cast as epic verse. That way no one forgot.

But that’s hardly something we need to bother with today. This is a world of constant data flood. But well recited, well written poetry does sound good. Hearing it sing in the air is one of life’s great experiences. Trouble is there are a lot of mumblers out there.

Then there’s the matter of the author. Are they the best reciters of their own stuff? Many listeners attend poetry readings not just for the poetry but also to see the poet and to hear how they think it should sound. To hear what they have to say by way of introduction and contextualisation. To get a handle on what the poem is about. That’s rarely available when poetry is recited by actors.

There has been a rise recently in thespians appearing on TV and on public platforms reciting selections from the greats. Some do it well. It’s also the only way most of us are going to get to hear Milton, Donne, Wordsworth and Hughes, given that these great guys are all dead.

Yet the practice remains a problem for the living. Contemporary poets get half their income from live readings. Public capacity for poetry is limited. Poets need to grab what they can get. Should otherwise workless actors be moving in on their territory? How would it be if poets started going up for parts in plays and putting themselves forward for voice-overs in adverts? Remember, said Mr Bookseller to Mr Tesco. I sell novels you do cans of beans. Stick to what you are best at. And we all know how well that worked out.

The late Ray Smith used to recite Harri Webb’s stuff on television. So did Harri, on occasion. But Ray always got paid more. There’s a lesson here somewhere but I’m not sure what it is.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 11th July, 2009

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Don't Put Bricks Through The Library Window

I checked the periodical racks at the local mini market this morning. Huge stack of pamphlets about the last days of Ninian Park. Boxing Monthly. Fighters On Top. Rock Star. Rap Star. Porn Star. Construction News. The Puzzler. Yours. Ok. Heat. Nuts. Lots of things full of pictures. Nothing at all to actually read.

There was a dream, once, that the literate world would enlarge and we’d be engulfed by great works and our lives would change. Might that still happen? At the brand new Roath Library someone has already put the door in with a brick. Attendance is up at Central but that’s mostly from punters going in there to check their emails. Magazine circulation figures wobble and sink. Why would they do anything else? Could it be that we no longer want to read new work this way?

I stood in the rain, once, for six hours outside the old Cardiff Library trying to sell poetry magazines. Shifted two. Had 10p given to me by an old lady who thought I was a deserving cause. Then a desperate wearing a stained mack came up and told me to sod off as this was his pitch. Literature was clearly for the specialist.

But then when you read a magazine like the new New Welsh Review you wonder why? Here’s Kathryn Gray, the hip new editor, giving us all something that’s genuinely exciting to engage with. Writing that matters, with a new direction and seemingly boundless energy again.

Inside is Kitty Sewell on the rise of crime writing. Rachel Trezise giving us street-wise band-chasing fiction full of wide boys and amphetamine cool. Thoroughly enjoyable poetry from Joe Dunthorne, Damian Walford Davies (a man these days who just can’t stop), Anne Stevenson and Meirion Jordan. Tim Lebbon reprising that master of Welsh dark fiction, Arthur Machen. Richard Gwyn rattling the bars in Sicily. There are also decent reviews and an excellent piece on Wales’s late master photographer, Philip Jones Griffiths.

This is issue number eighty-four, which ought to make the Review venerable. But it doesn’t read like that. £5.99 a copy. But buy it cheaper by post.

Agenda, the English Agenda that is, an erudite and pretty old fashionedly solid journal of letters, has come out with a bumper Welsh issue. The last time this happened its editorial reports, was fifty issues ago. The English take on Wales is broader than might have been expected but with quirky appendages, particularly in the reviewing. But is does give a good intro to how poetry is, here, in 2009. Inside everyone from Robert Minhinnick to Byron Beynon have their say. There’s probably no hope of getting this one in the local shop, either. Try instead.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 4th July, 2009

Monday, 29 June 2009

Restacking The Chairs Makes You Strong

I’ve just restacked the chairs and put them away. It seems as if I’ve been doing this all my life. Arrange the event, put the chairs out, fifty of them for a turn out of twenty. And then when it’s done put them all away again. The audiences don’t help. They arrive late. They scrape the things as they sit. Move them about. Make a big noise hunting in their bags just as the speaker begins. Their phones go off after ten minutes and they can’t find them. The theme from Eastenders done by Nokia slowly crescendos as the unfortunate hauls out cardigans, pencil cases, library books and newspapers in a desperate attempt to grasp the slippery beast and turn it off.

No one ever sits at the front. Always the back. And from there they inevitably can’t hear. Speak up please. A late arrival bangs in with a dog on a lead. It barks. Everyone turns to look but no one says a thing.

We had a literary bus trip once, to London, to hear Ted Hughes at the Poetry Society. Eternity ago. On the coach everyone tried to sit by themselves filling the seats next to them with bags and coats and papers. Didn’t work, of course.

While we were there we lost two on the Underground who had missed Earl’s Court on the District and then took great pleasure, maps in hand, in travelling right round London until the station came up again. The Underground map, as Mike Parker points out in his new book, Map Addict, resembles an electric circuit diagram. All straight lines with no real relationship with geography at all.

The map was created by Harry Beck a man who, according to Parker, filled his life with obsessive and reactionary views as he aged. This doesn’t stop his tube plan becoming a design gem. Many have tried to improve on it and, for that matter, to make art from it. Best known is Simon Patterson who replaced the station names with those of artists, writers and composers and reissued the whole things as The Great Bear. Buy prints of it at the Tate.

Somewhat less known is the now completely banned geek who created a version of the map with the station names rendered into anagrams. Crux for Disco (Oxford Circus), Written Mess (Westminster), Swearword & Ethanol (Harrow & Wealdstone), Shown Kitten (Kentish Town), Burst Racoon (Barons Court) This Hungry & Boiling (Highbury & Islington) and Queer Spank (Queens Park). Transport for London immediately had the thing banned and wiped from cyberspace. But Mike says it’s still there if you search hard. Mike Parker’s Map Addict, informative and hilarious in equal measure and written on an Academi bursary, is published by Collins.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 27th June, 2009.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

How Changing Your Name May Make Things Better

Changing your name ought to be simple enough. If your surname happens to be Bottom or Willie or some other potentially embarrassing body part the chances are that you are either pronouncing it in a way that is nothing like it’s written - Bowtham or While-ay maybe. Or you will have changed it years ago. Usually straightforward but not always. Eileen de Bont, a receptionist, fell foul of the Passport Office who refused to accept her legally changed by deed poll new name of Pudsey Bear. The rumoured John Jones of Abersoch who allegedly changed his to John Rocket Brother Big Bollock Splash in Cardigan Bay in celebration of his interest in both missiles and disarmament had no such trouble. He never went abroad.

If you want to go double-barrelled then that’s easier. The Smithson-Cumberledges and the Moledigger-Johnsons are on the increase. The Welsh tradition of the Vaughan Joneses and the Walford Davieses are there to fall back on. Triple barrel names also look like they might be in for a return. Although not, apparently, in Germany. There they’ve been declared illegal on the grounds that they might confuse. Germany, of course, is the country which once gave us the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas, a name abandoned at the time of the Great War in favour of the much more friendly sounding Windsor.

Name change among companies and their products is just as prevalent. And often just as difficult. Hands up those who have any idea who Consignia were going to be? That was the nice new brand name for the Post Office that most people thought sounded more like a Roman General or an ointment for piles. Snickered recently? They used to be known as Marathon Bars – a name dropped because it turned out to mean something rude in the local language of an emerging far eastern market. How about Aviva, Aveva, Avuncular, Celsa, Crispo and Corus? One of those might be the new name for the Norwich Union. Or I might be making them up. You choose.

Square – the music, poetry and new fiction magazine edited by energetic Nick Fisk and full of bright underdogs and exciting new voices - has discovered that too many other things are either already square or moving in that direction and has changed its name to Cool.

The new issue, still disarmingly square shaped, comes with a free sew-on lemon patch. Ideal for making literary headway, I thought. Content is an entertaining mix of music journalism and accessible verse. Chris White and Dylan Moore on the Stone Roses, Barrie Llewellyn on tattoos, Nick Fisk on artist John Squire.

Way back there was a plan to rename the WMC “Awen” – the Welsh word for “Muse”. But then someone discovered that in English it also meant a facial lump. A wen. Plan swiftly dropped.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 20th June, 2009.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

How Tea Can Improve Your Writing

I’m drinking tea. Around me is a disparate crowd of writers, artists, students, accountants, gardeners and housepersons. We are listening to a performance of Tracing Flight, the output of a local writers group presented by actors from the College of Music and Drama. The small crowd applaud enthusiastically. This is at the brand new Waterloo Gardens Teahouse, a stylish outpost of calm in Cardiff east. Next door is a hairdressers, the other side a sub-Post Office. Opposite are the gardens, home of dog walkers, smokers, sitters, kids on tricycles, old ladies with bags, men reading newspapers, and the occasional disaffected youth. South Wales suburbia. You can put on literature and get it to work where you like, it seems.

In the days of Ray Handy and Harri Webb poetry became synonymous with pints. You heard it chanted in pubs, between beers, surrounded by cigarette smoke and veneration. Today in Cardiff there are regular performances at Chapter Arts Centre and at the WMC. In Swansea they tend to happen at the purpose-built Dylan Thomas Centre – a home for literature in Wales’s second city. Bookshop, theatre, cafe, a regular literary programme put on in a set of dedicated performance spaces.

The Dylan Thomas Centre is a legacy of the 1995 UK Year of Literature, a status Swansea won against absolutely no competition at all from any other Welsh conurbation. The position was offered to Cardiff but the capital turned up its philistine nose. Dylan won again and with surprisingly successful and long-lived results.

Can we really put lit on anywhere? One-time media darling, Fiona Pitt-Kethley, editor of the much sought after Literary Companion to Sex, read her stuff to rush hour crowds arriving at Waterloo Station in London. Her publisher sold copies of her book hand to hand from a crate. They got rid of hundreds.

I’ve seen Peter Stead talking about his books in a cinema with a giant back-drop projection of his face in close-up on the screen behind. The Academi mounted a poetry stomp in the centre of Caernarfon Castle where the Investiture plaque had been swathed in bubble-wrap to protect it against anarchists. There have been literary performances in the lounges of cross channel ferries and standing on the decks of light ships and Campbell steamers. In poetry anything is possible.

But it’s also true that dedicated spaces are best. Such centres exist in Dublin, in London and in Edinburgh. But not in Cardiff. For the capital we add literature on, squeeze it between plays at the Sherman, perform it in the foyer of the Millennium Centre, listen to it at the Norwegian Church. Maybe users should start agitating. When they move the Vulcan to St Fagans, if they do, how about building a Literature Centre on the vacant site?

A stop press here: Vulcan saved for three more years. New lease signed by Liz the Landlady. A victory which for a while looked as if it just wouldn't come.

A version of the above appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 13th June, 2009.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Drinking with Ifor Bach

If you need to find something out chances are you’ll check with Google. Who exactly was Ifor Bach, for example. Has to be someone who did more than drink near Cardiff Castle. The Wikipedia tells us in about eight seconds that Ifor Bach scaled the walls of the Norman Stronghold at Cardiff in an act of glorious rebellion. But for info in greater depth a better place to look would be the recently published Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales. Here you’ll find accuracy, context and cross reference in reliable style. The Encyclopaedia has been a godsend to anyone with a concern for Wales. In the making ten years (when in hope and excitement the editors originally thought three would do it) but as comprehensive and readable as they come.

There are two editions, one in Welsh and one in English, compiled by a team of four editors and several hundred individual contributors. Entries in all fields of human knowledge and experience were commissioned, checked, cross-check, translated, amended and updated. John Davies, the eminence gris at the head smoothed the waters. Peredur Lynch, Nigel Jenkins and Menna Baines paddled furiously below. The books, published by UWP are certainly worth the wait. In their fine black covers they glow on the shelves. Every home should have one was the promotional slogan. To judge by sales so far almost every one has.

But the problem with works like this, glorying in their comprehensiveness, is that they can date. People die, things happen, the world moves. Anything printed can only ever be a snapshot of how it was and how it might have been thought of at a point in time.

Leaving aside the small number of inevitable infelicities reported to the publishers by keen members of the public - “The photograph you have on page 84 of the train leaving the station at Blaenau Ffestiniog is actually a photograph of the train arriving at Blaenau Ffestiniog” – some things will have to be updated.

In an age of digital everything from shopping to sleeping just how should this be done? Already Academi are in negotiation to trial a selection of the content on line. Faster access to greater depth when you Google. But the text, as it is, remains.

It has been suggested that the publishers might look at a sort of Wikipediaisation of the project. Put it on line, 1200 pages, more than 5000 entries, and then allow the public access to add and amend as they choose. An Encyclopaedia of the moment. Someone gets elected in a by-election and, instantly, details are added. A desirable possibility. But it would also be possible to add bogus facts and shift the weight of the scholarship. So Ifor Bach invented Brains, did he? What do others think?

A version of this blog appeared in the Western Mail on saturday 6th June as The Insider

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Standing Right Next To Dylan Thomas

In the Irish author Flann O’Brien’s classic piece of invention, The Third Policeman, (certainly one of my top hundred books) one of the coppers becomes so obsessed by his bicycle that he begins to merge with it. As he sits on the saddle cycle becomes policeman and policeman becomes bicycle. The world changes by osmosis. Some writers view place with similar regard. Walk the rail tracks of Raymond Williams and you’ll access his thought processes. Visit the village of Gillian Clarke and you’ll understand her poetry. Stand where Dylan Thomas did and some of his power may seep into your soul.

This is psychogeography mixed with the sanctity of place. The poet Chris Torrance believed that a ley line ran right through his Pontneddfechan cottage and from it he could somehow channel verse. In the 80s the native American author, Thomas Rain Crowe, somehow got permission to stay at the Laugharne Boathouse for three whole months. The book he wrote there was a US bestseller. The spirit of Dylan infected every syllable. Didn’t do too well here, however.

There is an undeniable fascination with the tracking of places and paths important to the great and the good who have gone before. Seeing the world they saw increases our understanding of what they did. Standing at their desks or in their houses allows us to locate their works.

Visitors come from thousands of miles to visit Shakespeare’s Stratford, Thomas Hardy’s Dorset or Shaw’s Dublin. And those places have certainly capitalised on their associations. Shakespeare baseball hats, Thomas Hardy tracksuits and Oscar Wilde chewing gum sell by the shed load. This is something that Wales has yet to really wake up to. I did hear a rumour that someone was trying to sell Dylan Thomas trousers but found few takers.

This summer Academi are running coach tours which will take travellers into the heartlands of a range of our greatest literary creators. Days out for litterateurs. Anyone can join. We’ve already been to Pembroke in search of Waldo. In June John Pikoulis leads a trip to Talybont-on-Usk following the trails of the poet and historian Roland Mathias. In the same month Archdruid Dic Jones and National Poet Gillian Clarke will show visitors Ceredigion’s Talgarreg and Pisgah. In September there’s a trip to the red valley homelands of Cwmardy’ s author Lewis Jones. And in October there’s a Welsh-medium tour from Aberystwyth in search of Wales’ greatest Bard, Dafydd ap Gwilym.

The tours start from Cardiff, Aberystwyth and Carmarthen and cost £37 to join. Travellers will get talks, walks, readings, visits to significant hills, buildings, desks, windows, trees, streams and fields. Included in the price are lunch, tea, cakes, and numerous coffee stops. Call 02920472266 for a descriptive brochure or check the web site at

A version of this posting appeared in the Western Mail as The Insider on Saturday 30th May, 2009

Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Threat of Nintendo Gaming

For a time now the novel in English has been on the rise in Wales. Despite the ever-present threat from Nintendo gaming, talk shows, reality TV, vertical drinkeries and mobile internet fiction appears to be holding its own. The output from Welsh publishers has climbed steadily. New writers appear with the frequency of speed cameras and reinvigorated older ones pour the stuff out just to keep ahead. The short story, thought of by many as a relic from the pulp fiction past, has enjoyed a total rebirth. Entries to the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition these days exceed all predictions. Collections of stories dot bookshop racks. And rather than simply staring into space people have been actually seen reading them - in doctor’s waiting rooms and on trains. I spotted one man recently reading while cycling. I kid you not.

On the long list for the Wales Book of the Year are two fiction collections. Deborah Kay Davies’ pretty unsettling Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful and Gee Williams’ Blood Etc. There are also two novels – Joe Dunthorne’ s Submarine and Stephen May’s TAG. New authors all and making waves. Against them stand Dai Smith with his brilliant Raymond Williams biography, A Warrior’s Tale. How on earth will the judges make a choice among such disparate stuff?

They’ve also got the poetry complication to manage. Verse has rarely ever featured in the Awards. Too difficult. Too short. Too irrelevant. Can’t be compared to fiction. But things change. Poetry is again on the rise. Five whole titles have appeared on the long list. John Barnie, one of the Award’s three judges characterised the year as a vintage one for verse. Never has Wales produced so much consistently good stuff. Not in several decades.

Matthew Francis, Robert Minhinnick, Sheenagh Pugh, Zoë Skoulding and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch are all now shifting their slim vols by the shed load and sitting in the garrets with baits in their breaths. Might poetry get onto the short list of three? That will be announced at the Hay Literature festival on the 25th of May. Could verse even take the £10,000 prize? That distant possibility now looks considerably probable. Do I actually know anything? Has someone spoken to me, quietly into my ear? Not yet. I’m just giving you a balanced and informed view. Poetry is certainly in the best place it has been for years.

If you’d like to check for yourselves ask for Not In These Shoes, Long-Haul Travellers, King Driftwood, Mandeville and Remains of a Future City at your local bookshop. There’s poetry here from the survivors of both sides of the ancient warring divide. And excellent it is too. Check as soon as possible.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 23rd May, 2009

Saturday, 16 May 2009


So it never actually did turn out to be the new rock and roll. That was merely a marketing ploy from the nineties. Poetry more popular now than soccer. That was the headline on a piece I read at the turn of the millennium. That didn’t seem to be true either, given the recent crowds at Ninian Park. But, and not wishing to be compared to a government finance minister, I have seen signs of new green shoots out there.

We have a new Poet Laureate and one who turns out to be best mates with our own National Poet, Gillian Clarke. Carol Ann Duffy, the radical choice and famous loose cannon is now actually the woman at poetry’s top. She’s no stranger to Wales, either, having toured here many times down the decades. And what’s more important, people actually enjoy what she does.

At the Hay Festival research showed that audiences like to hear writers talk to each other and reveal secrets about their private life. The work itself comes a poor second. I’m paraphrasing, naturally, but this doesn’t sound good for verse. Live poetry is an art form which scores by having itself read out loud, performed, recited, said.

Not that this hasn’t stopped Peter Florence including a whole raft of great versifiers in this year’s scintillating show. Among them are Imtiaz Dharker, Richard Marggraff Turley, Damian Walford Davies, Kevin Crossley-Holland, the woman tipped for the chair of poetry at Oxford, Ruth Padel, the nearly Laureates Roger McGough and Simon Armitage, Lavinia Greenlaw, James Fenton, Maurice Riordan and Carol Ann herself.

Back in the town, Lyndon Davies and John Goodby’s Hay Poetry fringe runs at Salem Chapel. This alternative jamboree majors on the sort of poetry that normally attracts men in great coats and women in cheesecloth dresses. However this year it could be that the alternative has come of age. The programme sets out Wales’s alternative stall in some style. John Goodby’s performance troop, Boiled String, the dynamic duo of Wendy Mulford and John James, Chris Torrance, David Greenslade. The inimitable Chris Ozzard. Even the Insider, Peter Finch. A complete roster of outsiders - one-time, actual and real. The only significant Welsh name missing is Llangollen’s tri-lingual Childe Roland.

The Jamboree has two lectures – Alice Entwhistle on women and Matthew Jarvis on recovering the history of other Welsh poetries. It’s a history worth recovering, too. During the Welsh avant garde’s formative years – pretty much everything between 1966 to 2000 - the Welsh literary establishment engaged in what can only be described as an act of determined denial. Few magazine appearances, not anthologised, missing from the criticism. It’s great to see the work now celebrated. The Jamboree runs 28th to 30th May.

A version of this piece appeared in the Western Mail on saturday 16th May, 2009.

Saturday, 9 May 2009


Twentieth century America has been defined by its photographers. The masters have crossed and re-crossed the continent and recorded all they saw. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange made black and white images of rural hardship. Ansel Adams shot the American west. Weegee captured the naked city. Garry Winogrand photographed women on the streets of New York. Their pictures have become iconic, reproduced on hoardings, in Sunday supplements and in volumes with the photographer’s name on the front. Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Ansel Adams: Yosemite. Weegee’s Naked City. And with its introduction from the King of the Beats, Jack Kerouac, Robert Frank: The Americans. American Americans, a whole culture followed that.

The publishing industry was not slow to capitalise. The books came out in heavy hardback, often costing enough to keep the rural poor in food for a week. They sold in quantity to the emerging middle classes. No coffee table was complete without one.

In Wales, however, we see ourselves through different eyes. We are defined instead not by grand landscape but by our TV presenters, our rugby stars and sometimes by our poets. No surprise, then, that the photographer here is a rarer beast. In recent years, though, the digital revolution has started to hit home and the streets have been replete with snappers attempting to catch everything from the surging of our football crowds to the ubiquitous Welsh street preacher.

I’d like to report that our publishers have been quick to react, but they haven’t. It is only comparatively recently that the Welsh equivalent of the US coffee table doorstop has begun to appear. Parthian’s Coalfaces, for example, is a lovely full-colour compilation from the work of Tina Carr and Annemarie Schöne. These two documentary makers have recorded the townships of the Afan Valley as those lost places dealt with the end of coal. From the same publisher comes Shimon Attie’s The Attraction of Onlookers, a full plate colour study of the inhabitants of Aberfan. Black backdrops, hard poses and Welsh to the core.

Seren have gone to the top with Magnum Photographer David Hurn’s Living in Wales - duotone shots of Welsh greats – Bryn Terfel, Colin Jackson, Peter Hain. They have also published Anthony Stokes masterwork, The Valleys, a quirky, multi-coloured take on disparate and often workless communities. Iain Sinclair takes on the Kerouac role and provides the introduction.

Seren also publish the Real series. Books on conurbations by writers more used to the pen than the camera. Mario Basini, Nigel Jenkins, Niall Griffiths, Grahame Davies, Ann Drysdale and, soon, Jon Gower, have all snapped as well as typed. Check out their edgy and often unconventional results. Try Real Merthyr as an entrée. Move on to Real Wrexham and Real Swansea after that.

A version of this post appeared at The Insider in the Western Mail of 9th May, 2009

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Not On the Sat Nav Yet

GPS usually means something to do with phones and sat navs but in poet Ric Hool’s case it stands for Global Poetry Systems. Ric is from Abergavenny and is author of the excellent Voice from a Correspondent. He has recently been appointed to make a Welsh contribution to the new Southbank Centre plan to map the UK’s poetry world. When the irrepressible Lemn Sissay, the Centre’s poet in residence, decided to collect all the poetry available in the complex he discovered much more than a shelf of books. Lemn found text engraved in memorial signs, on stage in the words accompanied by great classical music, rhymes in the memories of visitors, poems from the greats in celebration of concerts they had attended, stuff on posters and graffitied on the walls. It struck him that verse actually penetrated much deeper into our psyches than we realised. It was all around us. Security guards wrote it in the depth of night. Parents sung it to their children. Students used it to change the world. He decided to do some mapping. He found poetry in quantity. The results were enormously encouraging.

The project has now been rolled out as a pilot right across the UK. A dozen poets and activists from Belfast to Birmingham will be devoting a week soon to collecting the poetry where they live. They’ll be scooping up everything from gravestone memorials to part-recollections of W H Auden and William Shakespeare, from poetry on the shelves in newsagents to brand new pieces made specifically for their locations.

Ric will be working his patch with diligence. He doesn’t have long. The results will be compiled into a Southbank Centre managed web site and, if things go well and funds from the Cultural Olympiad arrive as they should, there’ll be an exhibition right across the ground floor of Queen Elizabeth Hall. Cases of text. Works from the great and the good and the trying hard. Interactive posters. Giant maps that play verse recordings when you stand on them. Photographs of poetry in the landscape. Engravings. Poems knitted into bed quilts. Memories of books. Actual books. Words on the sails of yachts. Poems in newspapers. Verse workshopped by local school children, recalled by immigrants, written in paint and chalk across the city’s back lanes and city halls.

The precise extent of the geographic area Ric will be covering is yet to be agreed. Too large and poetry will get lost, too small and there won’t be enough. Expect it to be Abergavenny and environs. The town and the hills. The bookshops and the schools. The south-east Wales GPS project is a co-operation between Academi and the Southbank Centre. Dave Woolley will be running another will run from the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea.

A version of this blog appeared in The Western Mail on Saturday 2nd May, 2009 as The Insider

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Never Quit Your Versey Ways

Long ago Karl Marx predicted that capitalism would regularly swing from boom to bust. What he didn’t also tell us was that verse would do this too. As long as I’ve been watching public interest in poetry has gone in cycles. Everyone loves it, sales increase. No one can be bothered with its versey ways. Poets give up.

Right now we seem to be entering another era of boom. Interest is up, poetry books are appearing in the market place in shoals, and Wales is banging the winners out one after another. The Poetry Book Society in London runs a sort of club for aficionados. You sign up, pay your annual entrance money and then receive a choice vol each quarter. You also get a magazine of poetry news and samples plus the chance to buy from a selection of the recently top rated at discounted prices. No need to move from the armchair or the attic.

The Society has traditionally avoided Welsh content, preferring the wider reaches of mainstream contemporary English literature enlivened by Scottish intervention and the occasional American guest. For Spring 2009, however, they’ve made Seren’s Ruth Bidgood a firm Recommendation. Her excellent new collection, Time Being, is trumpeted as the answer to a young writers dominated poetry world. Ruth Bidgood is the antidote to youth’s arrogant surety of its own worth, runs the blurb. A statement that might cause a cheer in some quarters. Bidgood is praised for her quiet passion for nature and her understanding of history. How the past influences the present. Of this many newer writers haven’t a clue.

Elsewhere in Wales other excellent books are arriving on the shelves. Don’t miss Richard Marggraf Turley’s impressive Wan-Hu’s Flying Chair published by that champion of innovative verse, Salt. “Since you ask how it begins, it begins with elasticity”. Marggraf-Turley’s poetry bends and stretches. “When it works you almost don’t need walls.” I’d go along with that.

Back at Seren, Damian Walford Davies has just published his Suit of Lights. These are intelligent and engaging poems. Verse with content that stretches the ways to write. History evident again, near the surface. Poems about people, place and maps. “I look for the right place to break a plane and make my lines a habitable space.” We need more like this.

The Seren and Salt books can be found in decent bookshops, and in Wales we still have a few. You’ll find Ruth Bidgood there, too. The PBS is at 2 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RA. Join if you want to keep up. In addition to Bidgood their current recommendations include J O Morgan, Robert Render and the truly awesome Sharon Olds. Top choice is, however, Alice Oswald’s book about nature made with artist Jessica Greenman – Weeds and Wild Flowers.

This is a version of The Insider which appeared in the Western Mail on 25th April, 2009

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Still Booming After All These Years?

Is the boom still on? Things might be slowing down out there in the wider world but among the publishers of Wales things appear to be as vibrant as ever. Wales’ Book of the Year has just considered its largest ever raft of eligible titles. 2008 was a bumper time for Welsh creatives. The publishing revolution of the past decade has hit us full on. Award judges working in English have considered 200 new works. Their predecessors five years ago considered less than half that number. And all this without resorting to eBooks and other downloadable inventions. West Wales publisher Y Lolfa have just announced the launch of a series available from their website and other presses are expected to follow suit. Will we all be greener than green and live without paper at all in 2010? Will books cease to be and novels start to exist only as digital words in their air? We shall see.

For now, however, books remain resolutely hard copy. The annual Wales Book of the Year Award offers £10,000 twice – once to the best book written in English and again for the best in Welsh. Competition is fierce. The shoal of possibles is cut down to a long list of ten during April. Judges Mike Parker, John Barnie, and Tiffany Atkinson working on the English list and Luned Emyr, Gwyn Thomas and Derec Llwyd Morgan in Welsh will reveal their selections on Wednesday 22nd April, 6 pm, at The Management Centre in Bangor. If you’d like to find out who is on the list tickets are free. Call 02920472266 for yours.

Who could be in the running? The year was an exceptional one for poetry so expect some bards. Gillian Clarke, Robert Minhinnick, Sheenagh Pugh, Mererid Hopwood, or Iwan Llwyd maybe. Newcomer Meirion Jordan or old red Mike Jenkins perhaps. Or even Patrick Jones’ eminently controversial Darkness is Where the Stars Are.

Among the fictioneers we’ve had some of the best reads for decades – Fflur Dafydd’s brilliant Twenty Thousand Saints. Lloyd Robson’s half-autobiographical, half-creative travelogue Oh Dad! Meic Stephens’ young generation masterpiece Yeah, Dai Dando. Or even one of the funniest man in Wales, James Hawes’, three books out last year, two on Kafka and one not.

Failing those then it’s bound to be Joe Dunthorne’ s startling debut, Submarine, Gee Williams’ Blood Etc, or even Dai Smith’s Raymond Williams blockbuster, A Warrior’s Tale. The Welsh world is spoiled for choice.

Getting onto the long list ensures exposure and a few shop windows full of your stuff but no cash. That only starts arriving if you make the short list. Three titles in each language will be revealed at the Hay Festival at the end of May. Have the judges actually decided who these lucky authors are yet? They’re not saying.

This post adapted from The Insider in the Western Mail