Remembering Tony Burns: Blues in Time

One of the ideas informing my dramatisation of the Resnick novel Darkness, Darkness for Nottingham Playhouse was that while we ourselves are alive, the dead – the dead that we know – never quite die. The plot is set in motion by the discovery of the body of a young woman who disappeared during the Miners’ Strike, some thirty years before; what the story then does is revisit the significant moments in that young woman’s – Jenny’s – life, showing them in juxtaposition to the present. To Resnick, who knew her only slightly and is now investigating the circumstances of her death, she was little more than the memory of a bright, lively and outspoken young woman, a firebrand, and during the course of the play he gets to know her more clearly, more roundly, so that, in the scene towards the end [possibly my favourite scene of all], when she visits him in his house where he is getting dressed ready to go to her funeral, it is – bar a quick and instant frisson – no real surprise. She talks to him and he answers, much as he would if she were still alive, much as we hold conversations (inside our heads, more usually, rather than out loud) with those we knew and maybe loved long after they are gone. Much as Resnick, in the play, holds sometimes grudging conversations with the strike leader whose funeral he has attended just before the action opens and who, like a somewhat guilty conscience, comes to haunt him – haunt, the word is correct here, I think – as the play progresses.

That I’ve been thinking about this at all was not sparked directly by the Playhouse/New Perspectives production of Darkness, Darkness [though it does tend to haunt me, both by what was and, perhaps even more strongly, what later might have been] but by the gift of a CD, a remastering of a session by the Gerry Mulligan/Paul Desmond, originally recorded and released in 1957 and sometimes titled simply Quartet, sometimes Blues in Time.

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Listening to it now I am back in the home of my friend Tony Burns, the back bedroom of a house in Finchley, north London, both of us in our late teens; Tony is learning the saxophone – the alto, initially – and I am, less methodically, less seriously, learning to play the drums. Desmond, who plays alto, most usually in the Dave Brubeck Quartet, is probably Tony’s favourite player at this time, though he likes Mulligan too, and, like Mulligan, will play baritone – only finally settling for tenor some good few years later.

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Tony Burns

By profession a tailor, Tony continued to play jazz semi-professionally, only stopping a relatively short time before his death in 2013. By some quirk of circumstance, I was lucky enough, using a borrowed set of drums – my daughter’s – to play with him on a number of occasions in those later years, evening sessions in a pub near the Archway, each one for me a joy. Tony had a way of making you sound better than you really were.

Here, in the final section of a longer poem from Out of Silence called Winter Notebook, are the lines I wrote shortly after Tony died …

My friend, Tony, with whom I first listened,
really listened to jazz, the two of us practising
in his parents’ bedroom, he on saxophone,
me drums, rustling brushes in four-four time
across the top of an old suitcase –
my friend Tony is in a hospice:
the volunteers at the desk welcoming and polite,
all chemo stopped, the carpet deep, the furnishings
not too bright; visiting, we keep our voices low,
talk around you, and just when we think
you’ve drifted off to sleep, you rebuke us
for some mistaken reference to a recording
you know well, Brubeck, perhaps, Mulligan or Getz;
and when Jim retells a joke you first told him
many years before – its punchline too crude
to be repeated here – how marvellous to see
you throw your head back and laugh out loud.

For now I sit alone with you and watch you sleep,
breath like brittle plastic breaking inside your chest,
and, for a moment, without feeling I have the right,
reach out and hold your hand.

One day soon I will push through the doors,
present myself at the desk, only to hear the news
we know must come. It happens, no matter
what expectations we have, fulfilled or not.
And not dramatically, like some monster
rising from the marsh to seize us, drag us down,
but deftly, quietly, like someone switching out the light.

There … you’re gone.

… but not forgotten.

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Tony with, to his right, our friend Jim Galvin

 

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Jazz Matters: David Murray

It was my friend, the late David Kresh, who first attuned me to the controlled fury that is David Murray. A one person compendium of the tenor saxophone, a Murray solo can stretch from the honk and rasp of the R & B bands in which he learned his trade, to the keening stratospheric upper-register yelps of an Albert Ayler and the avant-garde, without straying far from the rich and muscular mainstem of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. In print, Murray has vouchsafed Paul Gonsalves as a major influence, and if that isn’t always tonally evident, it is present in the way he muscles rhythmically from phrase to phrase, line to line – evident also in that the length of most Murray solos seems  inspired by Gonsalves’ famous 27 chorus solo on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue in front of the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.

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I first saw David Murray play at a smallish club in Nottingham, after that in the brutal splendour of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, and then again, last week, at another small venue, the Vortex in Dalston, east London. The first of two nights and to say it was packed would have been an understatement; jazz & crime fiction aficionado, Bob Cornwell and I had snagged the last pair of seats going, close up against the stage with our backs to the window facing out onto Gillett Square – any closer and I would have on top of the drummer’s kit rather than alongside it.

Humourously bemused by the weather – it was a day of unending torrential rain and he had flown in that morning without as much as a coat – Murray was in a relaxed mood (he even sang, pleasingly, on a couple of numbers)  and played, I thought, well within himself, eschewing much of the ferocity of which he’s capable. Which is not to say that he didn’t play with great virtuosity and rhythmic brilliance.

Sharing the front line with trombonist Paul Zauner, with whom he’s played, off and on, since the 80s, Murray was backed by bassist Wolfram Derschmidt and drummer Dusan Novakov, with Carlton Holmes at the piano. It may have been a relatively new rhythm section– he had to refer to a scrap of paper before announcing their names – but they had no problems following the shifts and changes, and soloed well. Sitting as close to Novakov as I was, I was able to follow his playing closely, my admiration soured only by the regret that I’d swopped my drum kit for a pair of DJ turntables somewhere back in the 70s and never pushed my own playing beyond the merely passable when I’d had the chance. I can dream, can’t I?

Here’s something I wrote after seeing Murray on that first occasion …

Grace Notes

Let’s say it’s one of those
insubstantial inner-city days,
from the flower beds in the park
to the slim-hipped cellist
playing the inevitable Bach.

And say, strolling home, I chance to pass
this bar just hours after David Murray
has jet-lagged in from New York.
It’s light enough still for the doors
to be open out onto the street;
the sound and the small crowd
draw me inside, and there on stage
before bass and drums he stands:
back arched, chest pigeoned forward,
horn angled outwards as he rocks
lightly back from heel to toe,
toeing the line of a calypso so true,
the crowd, as one, leans back and smiles,
relaxed, not noticing those heels
have lifted with an extra bounce
and before anyone can blink
his left leg kicks out in the curve
of a high hurdler; his tenor twists
and soars and lifts us, holds us to him,
wrapped in curlicues of sound,
blessed by the effortless grace
of his playing.

from Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)

 

 

 

Robert Frank: The Americans, 2

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Robert Frank: Crosses on the site of a road accident. U.S> 91. Idaho.

Crosses on the Site of a Road Accident. U.S. 91. Idaho

It started when I told Jerry not to take the wheel. Look at you, I said; he was so close to falling-down drunk, if it hadn’t been for the way he was bouncing off the walls, he’d have been eyeballing the floor. Will you get a look at the state you’re in? Well, of course, it was the last thing I should have said. I mean, whatever else he was, sober or drunk, that Jerry always was the world’s most cussed son of a bitch. Besides, by then we’d already hit on these two girls, dark-skinned, like maybe they had some blood in them, you know what I’m saying, and the way they was swallowing down shot after shot, barely stopping to wipe their mouths across the backs of their hands – Hot! Jerry grins at me when we’re out to take a piss. Hot and not a day past fifteen. He was wrong about that. The taller one, Marcie, she was sixteen years, three months, so it turned out; Sheryl, she would have been seventeen three weeks this Labor Day. Anyway, Marcie and me climbed right in the back, Sheryl up front with Jerry, real close, one of her legs hooked over his knee. We had this pack of Coors swimming in a bucket of day-old ice down by my feet. Petey, Jerry said, swinging round his head, pop me one of those. I saw his face, just for that moment, bright in the headlights, Jerry having the time of his life, smiling his cock-eyed smile.

When they rolled the truck back over and reached inside, mine were the only arms that reached back.

from Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998)

Tom Harvey, 1906 – 1984

My dad died in Whittington Hospital thirty three years ago today; he was the same age as I am now.

 

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That’s him, third from the left, in the Auxiliary Fire Service during World War Two.

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And that’s him, off duty, holding me, outside a friend’s house in Stewkley, Bucks.

APPPLES

My father is dying.
Scent of apples from the night stand.
I reach out my hand and rest one
hard against my face; he taught me
to tell the real thing from the fake:
hold it close beside the ear and shake.
A genuine Cox, the seeds will rattle
loose inside their case.
You see. He told me
and I swallowed every word by rote.
Five cotton towns of Lancashire,
five woollen towns, four rivers
that flow into the Wash – Witham,
Welland, Nene and Great Ouse.
Once learned, never forgotten.

My father is dying.
He died nine years ago this June.
They phoned from the hospital with the news.
His face a cask once usedfor storing living things.
A cup of tea, grown cold and orange,
on the stand beside the bed.
Fingernails like horn, unclipped.
Though dead, my father is still dying.
Oh, slowly, sure and slow as the long fall of rain.
I reach out again for the apple
and bite into its flesh and hold him,
bright and sharp,
safe inside the hollow of my mouth.

from Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems, Smith/Doorstop, 2014

 

Poetry & Jazz at the Brighton Fringe

Performing with the John Lake Band at The Latest Music Bar, Manchester Street, Brighton, as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival, Thursday, 25th May.

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Here we go … © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Phil Paton on tenor sax. © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Never too late for a few last minute changes. © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Phil and I in perfect (?) harmony. © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Simon Cambers at the drums. © Liz Isles

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John Lake keeping a watchful eye on things from the piano. © Liz Isles

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Simon again – who said drummers couldn’t read music? © Liz Isles

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Grim down South! © Liz Isles

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I know it’s here somewhere! MB to the rescue. © Liz isles

I shall be reading with the John Lake Band at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London, on Friday, 24th November, and at the Underground Theatre, Eastbourne on Friday, 29th December.

Liz Isles’ website is lizislesphotography.com

Molly Boiling’s photographs can be viewed at http://whyernestine.tumblr.com

John Lake can be contacted at johnlaketrio.blogspot.co.uk

 

 

It Was 50 Years Ago …

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I’m reminded today, with much coverage in the media of this being the 50th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper, that, some good few years ago, I was in a men’s clothing shop on Bridlesmith Gate in Nottingham when one of the assistants came up to me and introduced himself as a former student of mine at Heanor-Aldercar secondary school in the 60s. “You won’t remember me,” he said. And I promptly apologised, because that was, indeed, the case.

One thing I’ll always remember about you, he said, you came into our English class one day with the record player and said, Right, you’ve got to listen to this, and played the whole of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all the way through.

It would have been around the same time that the Head of English at the school, Gordon Leake, and myself, inspired, I think, by having seen The Mersey Poets – Messrs Henri, McGough and Patten, along with Heather Holden – performing at the Co-Op Theatre,
decided to suggest to the students in our top set of 13/14 year olds that they ask their parents for the money to buy individual copies of the recently published Penguin Modern Poets 10 : The Mersey Sound for themselves. This despite being wary of possible parental complaints about some of the contents once the books were taken home, though, in the event, we need not have worried. No words of complaint were forthcoming. And when, happily, I met up with another former Heanor-Aldercar student, Mel Cox, many years later – 2014 – at a reading in Derby Waterstones, he had brought his well-thumbed copy of The Mersey Sound with him, along with a copy of Prévert’s Paroles, which I’d signed back then and given him as a prize.

None of that would likely happen today, I suspect, at least not in the same way – aside, of course, from teachers begging money to buy books. Plenty of that still around.

Poetry : Outstanding Books

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For its current issue, The North asked thirty poets to nominate the poetry book that has meant most to them in the past 30 years, with the opportunity to nominate an anthology and a pamphlet should they wish. For me, it was always going to be a toss up between Lee Harwood and Robert Hass and, in the end, it was Hass’s Human Wishes that won out.

Published in 1989, and so just inside the 1986 cut-off point, while being a favourite, it isn’t, in all honesty, my actual favourite of Hass’s work, which is the earlier book, Praise, but that was first published in 1979.

Praise contains what I think are probably among the best of Hass’s shorter poems – “Heroic Simile”, which begins with a reference to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; “Meditation at Lagunitas”, which begins “All the new thinking is about loss/In this it resembles all the old thinking”; and the wonderfully titled, “Picking Blackberries With a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan”. It also includes what is still my favourite of the longer poems – a form which by the time of Human Wishes had become more complex and assured – “Not Going to New York: A Letter”, which begins …

Dear Dan –
This is a letter of apology, unrhymed.
Rhyme belongs to the dazzling couplets of arrival.
Survival is the art around here. It rhymes by accident
with the rhythm of days which arrive like crows in a field
of stubble corn in upstate New York in February.
In upstate New York in February thaws hardened the heart
against the wish for spring.

The pamphlet I chose was Lee Harwood’s The Books, a tiny 8 page booklet published by Longbarrow Press, which comes in an envelope also containing an equally small CD of Lee reading, that was recorded in Brighton in April, 2011.

Not the beginning this time, but the ending …

She climbed down from the tree a queen.
As we all do, and then set out
across golden stubble to the river.

I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.

I didn’t choose a favourite anthology, because, if I were to stick reasonably close to the truth, my favourites, in so far as The North is concerned, were published too soon.

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Penguin Modern Poets 10: Adrian Henry, Roger McGogh & Brian Patten. 1967
Penguin Modern Poets 19: John Ashbery, Lee Harwood & Tom Raworth. 1971
The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revisited. 1982

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Amongst the other poets choosing their favourites of the past 30 years in The North are Mimi Khalvati, Ian McMillan, Helen Mort, Sean O’Brien and Matthew Sweeney. Amongst the authors chosen, Thom Gunn, Sharon Olds, Seamus Heaney, Moniza Alvi and Phiullip Levine.

To find out more about The North and/or to order a copy of the current issue, go to the Poetry Business web site.

Totally Wired for Sound

Thursday of last week saw the first of what is, for me, a surprisingly long list of readings, mostly of poetry with, here and there, a modicum of prose levered in. Totally Wired is a monthly series that takes place in the Wired Café Bar in the centre of Nottingham, and organised by the poet, Becky Cullen, along with two lecturers from Nottingham Trent University – Rory Waterman and Andrew Taylor – both poets themselves. It’s no surprise perhaps that the majority of the audience are on the young side [let’s face it, anyone south side of fifty or so registers as young to me these days] or that a good number – the majority? – are students from NTU. What is a surprise is how many people are there, extra chairs having to be hauled up from the back of beyond, so that by the time Andrew has gone round collecting the names of those poets who want to read from the floor and the event is due to begin there’s a real sense of being squeezed up close to one’s neighbour and sharing their air – in my case, that of my  daughter Molly Ernestine, who’s come along for moral support and is prepared to step into the breach should I falter.

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The first four readers do two poems each, good poems read well, and, after an introduction from Andrew, I’m on. One of the most difficult things for me, when working out which pieces to read, is what to begin with. It doesn’t want to be too long, too obscure, too – for God’s sake – too dull. I used to make a habit of kicking off with “What Do You Say?”, a sort of riddle of a poem, to which the answer is the saxophone player Roland Kirk – which is fine when I’m doing a poetry and jazz gig with the band, but less successful otherwise – most people tend to scratch their heads in mild bemusement and I can’t say I blame them.
So, emboldened by the fact that not long since I was in Nottingham to take part in a Frank O’Hara tribute at the Five Leaves Bookshop, and surmising there may be more than one or two O’Hara fans in the audience, I opt for “Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara)”, which is exactly that and turns out to have been a reasonable choice.

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After a pause in which I take the risky step of asking people not to applaud after every poem (as if!) on the grounds that I could probably fit in another poem in the time lost, I make my way through the remainder of my twenty minute set. You can see, feel, the audience listening, responding in what I think of as the right way – a couple of laughs in the right places – and I can relax and enjoy what I’d doing.

At the interval, Molly hustles and sells the relatively few books we’ve brought with us; I chat to friends, drink another (seriously good) flat white, and wait for the second part of the evening and half a dozen more readers – a good number reading for the first time – and it’s a real pleasure to hear so many good new poems – some humorous, some heartfelt, some both.

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I say my goodbyes, shake hands, and Molly and I set out for the station and the London train, the sounds of poetry and the strong sense of having had a better than good time reverberating around us.

For those who like to keep abreast of those things, this is what I read …

“Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara)”
“Apples”
“Slow”

“Apparently”
“Winter Notebook” [Also with quite a few changes]
“Chet Baker”
“The U. S. Botanical Gardens, Washington D.C.”
“Curve”

… Nothing too unusual, save for “Slow”, a poem I dedicated to Lee Harwood and Paul Evans, and which I thought to read after receiving a positive comment about it from John Kieffer on this blog, and the little poem set in the Botanical Gardens in Washington D.C. – as I said, the last thing you might expect coming out of. D.C during the week of Trump’s inauguration is a love poem.

The U.S Botanical Gardens, Washington D.C.

The floor is azure blue tile
slick with the residue of that morning’s watering,
green hose slack within the leaves.
We used to come here, safe, and sit
not touching, humidity high in the nineties
and helicopters hovering, a block beyond the Hill.
In the display of medicinal herbs, I break
small leaves into my hand:
yarrow, for internal bleeding; foxglove
for the muscles of the heart.

When we meet again a year or more from now, by chance –
the departure lounge at Heathrow, hurrying
along the platform at Gare du Nord,
and your eyes as, uncertain
whether to offer your cheek for a kiss,
you hold out, instead, your hand,
I will slip into it these remedies I have long carried:
the knowledge that, nurtured, passion flowers
in the darkest places.

The keen-eyed will note that’s been trimmed and altered a little since it was published in Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998)

The next poetry reading I have coming up is at Words & Jazz, Downstairs at the Vortex, in Dalston, East London, on Thursday 23rd March, after which I’m back in Nottingham on Wednesday, 12th April for an evening of Poetry & Jazz at Bromley House Library, with Ian Hill (saxophones) and Geoff Pearson (double bass). Then, on Friday 28th April, I’m at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden [or, just possibly, at Bar 48, Brixton, please check] for Fourth Friday, where I’m hoping to be reading alongside Debris Stevenson, with two sets from singer-songwriter, Liz Simcock.

On Tuesday, 23rd May, along with Leah Fritz, Danielle Hope and others, I shall be reading at Primrose Hill Library, North London, in a benefit for the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead, and on Thursday of the same week, the 25th, I’m reading with the John Lake Band as part of the Brighton Festival Fringe.

Oh, and I might sneak a few poems into my session at Almondbury Library, Huddersfield on Thursday, 9th February, when I’m talking about my 40-odd years as a writer.

 

 

 

Coming Events …

Happy New Year!

An appropriate time, I hope, to let you know some of the events I shall be taking part in during 2017.

On Thursday, 19th January, I shall be Guest Reader at Totally Wired, a monthly Poetry Reading Series held at Wired Café Bar, 42 Pelham Street, Nottingham NG1 2EG . Admission is free, it kicks off at 6.00pm and goes on till around 8.00pm. Guest readers from the floor welcome.

On Thursday, 9th February I shall be in Huddersfield, taking part in the Celebrating Kirklees Libraries section of the Huddersfield Literarature Festival. As well as reading, I shall be talking about my time as a professional writer and small press publisher.
This takes place as Almondbury Library, Stocks Walk, Huddersfield HD5 8XB and begins at 7.30pm. Tickets at £2 are available from the library or Kirklees Box Offices: 01484 223200; http://www.kirklees.gov.uk/townhalls

On Wednesday, 12th April, Bromley House Library hosts Blue Murder: Poetry, Jazz & the Crime Connection, at which I shall be reading in collaboration with Ian Hill (saxophones) and Geoff Pearson (double bass) from the band, Blue Territory and talking about those connections. Bromley House Library is on Angel Row, Nottingham NG1 6HL, The evening runs from 6.30pm – 8.30pm and for tickets you should contact http://www.bromleyhouse.org – 0115 9473134

On Tuesday, 23rd May, Leah Fritz is organising a Benefit Poetry Reading for the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead. I shall be reading with Leah Fritz and others and there will be music – jazz, no doubt – from John Lake at the piano. The venue is the Primrose Hill Community Centre, Fitzroy Road, London NW1 and it begins at 7.00pm.

Just two days later, Thursday, 25th May, John Lake is the prime mover behind a Brighton Fringe Festival event, Poetry & Jazz Layer Cake, in which his band will provide the music both fore and aft while I’m the nicely maturing jam in the middle. This all takes place at The Latest Music Bar, 14-17 Manchester Street, Brighton BN2 1TF, from 8.00 – 10.45pm. Tickets & Enquiries: bookings@thelatest.co.uk  – 01273 687171.

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With the John Lake Band at a previous Brighton event

Finally, to let you know that the Inspector Chen series on BBC Radio 4 recommences at 14.30 on Saturday, 28th January with my dramatisation of Qiu Xiaolong’s “A Case of Two Cities”. Featuring Jamie Zubairi as the good inspector, this will be followed by two further adventures, “Red Mandarin Dress” and “The Mao Case”, both dramatised by Joy Wilkinson. As usual, all three will available to listen to for 28 days or so on the BBC Radio iPlayer.

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Jamie Zubairi as Inspectord Chen & Louise Mai Newberry as An

 

Poetry 2016

For memorial reasons, I’ve read, to myself and, occasionally, aloud to assembled others, a lot of Frank O’Hara this year. I read quite a lot of O’Hara most years. And I’ve read a little Robert Hass more days than not.

This list recognises the other poetry collections I’ve read and enjoyed most in the past twelve months.

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  • Rachael Allen : Faber New Poets 9 (2014)
  • Edwina Attlee : The Cream (Clinic, 2016)
  • Sam Buchan-Watts : Faber New Poets 15 (2016)
  • Matthew Caley : Rake (Bloodaxe, 2016)
  • Maura Dooley : The Silvering (Bloodaxe, 2016)
  • Janet Fisher : Life and Other Terms (Shoestring, 2015)
  • Marilyn Hacker : A Stranger’s Mirror (Norton, 2015)
  • Lee Harwood : The Books (Longbarrow Press, 2011)
  • Ian McMillan : Jazz Peas (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)
  • Helen Mort : No Map Could Show Them (Chatto, 2016)
  • Peter Sansom : Careful What You Wish For (Carcanet, 2015)
  • Judi Sutherland & Jim Burns : Dark Matter (The Black Light Engine Room Press, 2016)
  • Barry Wallenstein : Drastic Dislocations (New York Quarterly Boks, 2012)
  • Matthew Welton : The Number Poems (Carcanet, 2016)
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Lee Harwood: 1939 – 2015