Getting to Grips with “Aslant”

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

I’ve written before on this blog about Aslant, the small but beautifully formed collection of my poems and Molly Boiling’s photographs published by Shoestring Press earlier in the year, but the arrival of an interesting, quite detailed review by Thomas Ovans in the online magazine London Grip gives me the opportunity to do so again.

This is how it begins …

As I begin to write this review it strikes me that one’s reading of a book can initially be influenced by what one had previously been reading. I came to this collection having just enjoyed another book that  robustly and self-confidently expressed irreverent and sceptical attitudes that I broadly agreed with. Aslant, by contrast, is a much more provisional, reflective and tender work and represented a refreshing change of tone that I hadn’t known I was more than ready for.

Aslant places John Harvey’s poems alongside evocative photographs by Molly Boiling which provide sharp-edged images of steps, shadows, girders and corners of high buildings. These pictures often suggest entrances and exits or incidental glimpses alongside the telling of a story. Hence they combine well with Harvey’s poems which usually have a strong narrative and reminiscent thread.

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling

“A sense of mortality seems to hover over much of this collection,” Ovans writes; “a recurring sense of wistful consolation after loss.”

Of the pieces in the central section which take jazz and jazz musicians as their subject – Lester Young, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk – Ovans writes, “This is wonderfully evocative writing which, I would maintain, conveys something authentic even to a reader who is not a jazz aficionado.”

And he concludes his review thus …

… this is no ordinary book: the well-chosen images and the way they complement some consistently satisfying high-quality poems make it, in my view, well worth a tenner of anybody’s money.

You can read Thomas Ovan’s review in full here …

And if you don’t already have a copy and feel like following this advice and splashing out said tenner, Aslant can be ordered directly from contacts@centralbooks.com.    or  from any bookstore – including those worthy souls at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop – bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk. You can even buy it on Amazon.

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Photo : Molly E. Boiling
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“Aslant”

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This beautiful little book – and believe me, it is beautiful – published by John Lucas’ Shoestring Press, makes its first appearance this week, with a launch evening at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop to set it on its way. That’s this Thursday, 25th April at 7.00pm. Molly Boiling’s photographs will be projected [she also designed the cover] and I’ll read some of the poems. Another Shoestring poet, Stuart Henson, will be reading too. Come along if you’re around. [People have been known to come as far as Derby or Kirkby-in-Ashfield.] Details …

If not, and you’re closer to London, on the following evening, Friday 26th, I shall be reading at The Poetry  Café in Covent Garden as part of Hylda Sim’s long-running Fourth Friday series of poetry & music evenings. Tony Roberts will also be reading and there will be music from very fine singer/songwriter. Liz Simcock. Details here …

If you can’t get along to either of those events, copies are available, price £10.00, from Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham – 0115 8373097 – bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk or from Central Books – 0208 525 8800 – contacts@centralbooks.com or can be ordered from your local bookstore.

To give you a small idea of what your money will get you, here’s one of the poems and an extract from another, with one of Molly’s photographs to finish things off.

HONEYMOON

The swimsuit he’d been wearing earlier,
my father, a single strap draped,
Johnny Weissmuller style, over one shoulder,
set aside now in favour of pale slacks,
white shirt, collar splayed open
across the lapels of his blazer;
sitting a little self-consciously
alongside my mother, smart
in her polka-dot dress, white shoes;
the two of them staring back at the camera,
that picture the beach photographer
will display proudly later in his window.

The first time he’d set eyes on my mother,
she’d been standing close against the piano,
perfectly still, her voice small and clear
yet somehow distant, disarming;
the way, as the last notes faded,
silence seemed to fold about her …

Now she sits with her arm resting
on the check tablecloth, her hand
close to his but not quite touching;
the café doors behind them open,
waiter hovering, a tune somewhere playing.
the world waiting,

Those carefree days before the war:
Ostend, Spring 1939

I REMEMBER

I remember the first time I heard a big band
or any kind of jazz at all –sitting across from my mother and aunt
in the splendour of Lyons Corner House
at Marble Arch, feasting on cakes and petit fours
from a glass cake stand tiered like a chandelier
and listening in muted amazement
to Ivy Benson & Her All-Girl Orchestra
swinging their way gloriously
through the fusty afternon.

And then, a little older,
parties at my friend Michael’s house,
where his Uncle Mac, six foot and sixteen stone,
would get himself up in women’s clothes –
skirt, rouched blouse with false boobs,
stockings, suspenders, bright red lipstick and rouge,
and, between jokes I didn’t always understand,
impersonate Sophie Tucker singing Some of These Days
and, a family favourite, Nobody Loves a Fat Girl,
But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love.

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Out & About in 2019

After an enforced quiet year in 2018, I’m doing my best to make up for it in 2019, beginning with two very enjoyable events – one, with Stella Duffy, at Owl Bookshop in north London and another (SRO – almost) at Nottingham Waterstones – which marked the paperback publication of the fourth Frank Elder novel, Body & Soul.

Things continue with appearances at two major crime writing festivals, Bristol and Newcastle, as well as the publication by Shoestring Press in April of Aslant, which features my poetry alongside photographs by Molly Ernestine Boiling (who also designed the cover.)

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Here’s the list of events … diaries at the ready …

Saturday, 23rd March
States of Independence: a one day celebration of independent publishing, writing & thinking. http://www.statesofindependence.co.uk
Clephan Building, De Montfort University, Oxford Street, Leicester LE1 5XY.
Between 11.00am and 11.45 I shall be reading from Body & Soul and maybe one or two other pieces as well.

Thursday, 25th April
Shoestring Press launch of Aslant, which features my poems alongside photographs by Molly Ernestine Boiling.
Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham NG1 2DH. 7.00pm – 8.30pm
This is a relatively small venue, please book in advance.
0115 8373097 bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Friday, 26th April
Fourth Friday at The Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, London.
8.00pm onwards. I shall be reading from Aslant, with support from singer/songwriter, Liz Simcock, and one or two other poets from the Shoestring stable.

Saturday, 4th May
Newcastle Noir. Newcastle City Library. https://newcastlenoir.co.uk
Saturday Night Showcase: Going Back to My Roots 7.30pm.
I shall be in conversation with the veteran Norwegian writer, Gunnar Staalesen. Two old guys for the price of one!

Saturday, 11th May
CrimeFest, International Crime Fiction Convention Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel, Bristol. http://www.crimefest.com
Wearing my Special Guest hat (well, cap) I shall be interviewed by Alison Joseph about some 40-plus years of the writing life. Or however much we can fit in between 3.10pm – 4.00pm in the afternoon.

STILL TO COME [Assuming I last that long … ]

Penzance Literary Festival in July

The Inspire Poetry Festival in Nottinghamshire in September
Two Poetry & Jazz sessions, most likely at Beeston & Worksop Libraries.

 

On the Road Again …

Belated best wishes for the New Year with my first post of 2019 in the blog’s rather fine new livery.

After missing out on a number of book events last year, primarily for health reasons, I’m hoping to do better this year, starting with two occasions marking the paperback publication of Body & Soul. Again, a little belatedly, but none the worse for that.

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On the evening of Thursday, 31st January, at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, North London, I shall be joined by Stella Duffy to talk about said Body & Soul, as well as Stella’s most recent publications, the suspense novel, The Hidden Room, and the Inspector Alleyn mystery, Money in the Morgue, which she completed after it was left unfinished by Alleyn’s creator, Ngaio Marsh.

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Then, on the following evening, I shall be flying solo at another of my favourite bookstores, Waterstone’s in Nottingham. Tickets for both of these events are available now.

http://www.owlbookshop.co.uk/events/john-harvey-stella-duffy/

https://www.waterstones.com/events/an-evening-with-john-harvey/nottingham-60757

Move ahead to the spring and two events to launch the Shoestring Press publication of Aslant, which features both my poems and photographs by my daughter, Molly Ernestine Boiling. Any of you who’ve been following her work on http://whyernestine.tumblr.com will have a good idea of what to look forward to.

Molly and I will be at (speaking of favourite bookstores) Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham on Thursday, 25th April, and at the Poetry Café in London’s Covent Garden for Hylda Sims’ Fourth Friday, which will also feature the excellent singer-songwriter, Liz Simcock.

Step forward just one week later and over the Bank Holiday weekend I’ll be up in the north-east at Newcastle Noir. The programme is yet to be officially announced, but it may well reveal that I’ll be paired in discussion with the formidable Norwegian author, Gunnar Staalesen.

Details of these events to follow.

Saturdays … soccer to poetry …

Funny day, Saturday. Used to be football, most of the year anyway; playing it, watching it: cycling with my dad to White Hart Lane, where we’d pay a couple of bob to someone near the ground so as to leave our bikes in the safety of his front garden. Then, more recently, Meadow Lane: gloriously in the heydays of Don Masson and John Chiedozie, Tommy Johnson and Rachid Harkouk; more recently, the doldrums of … well, best perhaps not to name them. Though, after losing the first umpteen games of the season, it seems, at last, as if we’re on the way up.

Could have gone to watch Spurs play Cardiff today, but, shy of Wembley and its transport problems, I’m waiting for the new ground finally to open in Tottenham; if I were in Nottingham I’d be at the County ground, braving the rain and plummeting temperatures to watch the England Lionesses play Brazil in a friendly.

As it is I’m at home, watching the rain through the windows; happily there when the postman calls with three packets; one, an unsolicited proof copy of a soon to be published novel I might like to read and comment on [well, I might … ], the others, poetry: a copy of Amy Key’s Poetry Book Society Wild Card Choice, Isn’t Forever, which I’d ordered from Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop on the strength of one of the poems on one of the little poetry cards they publish to coincide with National Poetry Day; the other – also unsolicited, but more than welcome – a copy, sent by Maura Dooley, of Negative of a Group Photograph, the book of poems by the Persian writer Azita Ghahreman, that she has translated with Elhum Shakerifar.

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Maura’s book comes with a picture postcard – a carving from Southwell Minster – the message on the reverse remembering a freezing November long ago when she came to Nottingham to do a reading and on the way back wrote “a little poem, All Hallows, that I still quite like”. Here it is …

ALL HALLOWS

This is a day for souls.
Morning doused with air
that has rinsed itself,
wrung itself out over
cropped lands, picked lands, dug lands.
Autumn’s over. Winter comes
in the first stiffening of grasses,
frost seasoning the land like salt,
a chill biting to the core of day.

The town’s horizon blurs with
steam, smoke, mist, never resolving
quite the mesh of silver and heat,
like looking at the world through tears.
Hot, salty tears can’t melt the ice,
nor sluice his heart: but it’s a comfort,
this light and water mixing,
on the day her soul walks out
over the fields to him.

from Explaining Magnetism: Maura Dooley. Bloodaxe, 1991.

Negative of a Group Photograph: Azita Ghahreman, translated by Maura Dooley with Elhum Shakerifar. Bloodaxe, 2018

Isn’t Forever: Amy Key. Bloodaxe, 2018

And with just a few minutes to go before half time at Meadow Lane, England are one goal up against Brazil.

“Fedora”

SLOW cover

As I’ve been telling anyone and everyone who’ll bend an ear, Five Leaves are publishing Going Down Slow, a collection of seven of my previously uncollected short stories, on November 14th and marking the event with a launch evening at their grand little bookstore in Nottingham. On Monday of the week following, November 20th, I shall be joining forces with Woody Haut at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, north London, to celebrate the publication of both Going Down Slow and Woody’s new novel, Days of Smoke. And that Friday, I shall be at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road, doing my poetry & jazz thing with the John Lake Band and sneaking in a smattering of short fiction when the band’s back is turned.

I might even read the beginning of “Fedora”, which goes like this …

When they had first met, amused by his occupation, Kate had sent him copies of Hammett and Chandler, two neat piles of paperbacks, bubble-wrapped, courier-delivered. A note: If you’re going to do, do it right. Fedora follows. He hadn’t been certain exactly what a fedora was.

Jack Kiley, private investigator. Security work of all kinds undertaken. Ex-Metropolitan Police.

Most of his assignments came from bigger security firms, PR agencies with clients in need of baby sitting, steering clear of trouble; solicitors after witness confirmation, a little dirt. If it didn’t make him rich, most months it paid the rent: a second-floor flat above a charity shop in north London, Tufnell Park. He still didn’t have a hat.

Till now.

One of the volunteers in the shop had taken it in. ‘An admirer, Jack, is that what it is?’

There was a card attached to the outside of the box: Chris Ruocco of London, Bespoke Tailoring. It hadn’t come far. A quarter mile, at most. Kiley had paused often enough outside the shop, coveting suits in the window he could ill afford.

But this was a broad-brimmed felt hat, not quite black. Midnight blue? He tried it on for size. More or less a perfect fit.

There was a note sticking up from the band: on one side, a quote from Chandler; on the other a message: Ozone, tomorrow. 11am? Both in Kate Keenan’s hand.

He took the hat back off and placed it on the table alongside his mobile phone. Had half a mind to call her and decline. Thanks, but no thanks. Make some excuse. Drop the fedora back at Ruocco’s next time he caught the overground from Kentish Town.

It had been six months now since he and Kate had last met, the premiere of a new Turkish-Albanian film to which she’d been invited, Kiley leaving halfway through and consoling himself with several large whiskies in the cinema bar. When Kate had finally emerged, preoccupied by the piece she was going to write for her column in the Independent, something praising the film’s mysterious grandeur, it’s uncompromising pessimism – the phrases already forming inside her head – Kiley’s sarcastic ‘Got better, did it?’ precipitated a row which ended on the street outside with her calling him a hopeless philistine and Kiley suggesting she take whatever pretentious arty crap she was going to write for her bloody newspaper and shove it.

Since then, silence.

Now what was this? A peace offering? Something more?

Kiley shook his head. Was he really going to put himself through all that again? Kate’s companion. Cramped evenings in some tiny theatre upstairs, less room for his knees than the North End at Leyton Orient; standing for what seemed like hours, watching others genuflect before the banality of some Turner Prize winner; another mind-numbing lecture at the British Library; brilliant meals at Moro or the River Café on Kate’s expense account; great sex.

Well, thought Kiley, nothing was perfect.

Two Poems for National Poetry Day

Both of the poems I’ve lighted upon to share on National Poetry Day were written in the States in the mid-90s when I was fortunate enough to be a participant in a couple of poetry writing courses at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, tutored by Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Brenda Hillman, Lucille Clifton and Galway Kinnell. If you can’t come up with something half way decent after that, it’s likely time to give the muse a rest.

OUT OF SILENCE
Squaw Valley, 1995

How the light diffuses round house corners;
redwood walls, the breaking colour of packed earth,
ochre in the mouth

The red woodpecker
testilly chiselling sap from a small ash
the only sound in the valley.

FAILED SONNET HOME

The window boxes outside the Clocktower Café
are delerious with blood. Cappuccino with
chocolate and cinnamon. Blueberry muffin.
How many more days can the sky sustain
this absurdity of blue? I can taste vanilla
from the pines. You know the other day
Jake drove me to Truckee in his van
and in Safeway I was stalled mid-aisle
by the scent of that hot-buttered toast
we shared before you drove me to the train.
How far are we away? Crimson columbine,
black centre of violet pansy, its yellow eye –
one thing you learn here: how little soil
it takes to nourish the most stubborn root.

I’d always thought the final lines refer to the continuance of love in what seem to be unfulfilling situations, but it occurs to me now they might also refer to the writing of poetry.

And I believe, for a while at least, the second poem was included in a University of Nottingham English course about the sonnet – a self-confessed example, I suppose, of how not to do it.

For anyone wanting to read more, both poems are in included in Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014), available from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk or http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/bookshop/books-pamphlets  

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.

 

 

 

Frank’s Friends

Celebrations of Frank O’Hara’s life and work, both, of course, closely entwined, continue apace. Last Saturday’s colloquium at the ICA – Frank O’Hara and Friends – broadened out those celebrations to include references to the work of some of the other poets and painters of the New York School with whom O’Hara was closely associated. One such, the artist (and sometime jazz musician) Larry Rivers, contributed the collage, based on his own nude portrait of O’Hara, used on the cover of the 1974 Vintage edition of O’Hara’s Selected Poems, edited by Donald Allen, and shown below. And today, it  should be noted, marks the 89th birthday of one of the foremost of the New York poets, John Ashbery.

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The ICA event was, as those occasions tend to be, a mixture of the interesting and entertaining with the academically obscure and self-serving, the first keynote speaker, Geoff Ward, Principal of Homerton College, Cambridge, being all of the former and none of the latter.  Jess Cotton, a PhD student from UCL, talked interestingly about the relationship and cross-influences linking O’Hara and fellow poet James Schuyler, and Eleanor Careless (great name!), studying for a PhD at Sussex, spoke of the connections between O’Hara and the painter Helen Frankenthaler and his poem/her painting Blue Territory in the context of “gendered risk”.

Last night’s event at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, organised by Leah Wilkins, was an altogether less grandiose affair and none the less enjoyable for that. Some fifty people crowded into the store, taking up all the available chairs and filling all the nooks and crannies between bookstands, to listen to largely unexplicated readings of O’Hara’s poems by, amongst others,  the poet and lecturer, Matthew Welton; the newly in place director of Nottingham Contemporary, Sam Thorne; gay literature historian, Gregory Woods; and founder of Mud Press, Georgina Wilding. As I said when someone commented kindly on my reading of The Day Lady Died, that poem is so close to perfect that being given the opportunity to read it aloud feels almost like stealing.

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More & More Frank …

You’ll have noticed, if not from this blog then from elsewhere, quite a lot of brouhaha around the 50th anniversary of the death of New York poet, Frank O’Hara on July 25th. 1966. Some – a mass reading of Lunch Poems outside the South Bank’s Poetry Library – just gone; more to come. On Sunday, July 24th in London there’s a one-day symposium – The Day Before O’Hara Died – organised around O’Hara’s life and work at the ICA. As well as talks, readings, discussions, there will be a number of rare and limited editions from the Poetry Library’s collection on display. And then, less grandiloquently, there’s a celebration of O’Hara’s poetry at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham on the evening of Wednesday, July 27th. The poet, Matthew Welton, will talk about the importance of O’Hara’s work and a clutch of others – Becky Cullen, Leah Wilkins, Gregory Woods, David Belbin and myself, will experience the joy of reading a selection of the poems aloud.

I don’t know if anyone is going to be reading “My Heart”, but if they’re not, maybe they should.

MY HEART

I’m not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don’t prefer one “strain” to another.
I’d have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind, I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
some aficionado of my mess says “That’s
no like Frank!”, all to the good! I
don’t wear brown and grey suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be be,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart –
you can’t plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.