Sunday, 23 July 2017

careful with that axe eugen

Here's a new visual poem, a mutual homage to Eugen Gomringer and Pink Floyd....

Friday, 14 July 2017

the ecchoing green : event in the dissenters' chapel in kensal green cemetery

On the evening of 13 July 2017 I took part in an event at Kensal Green Cemetery with Steve Fowler, who was launching his pamphlet Worm Wood / in / Old Oak (Sampson Low) and Tom Jeffreys who was reading from Signal Failure (Influx Press). I read from by book In the Catacombs, shared some work in progress from a future book about Kensal Green Cemetery (working title '100 Statements Against Death'), and finished with my poem 'Cemetery' from my next collection of poems. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

resurrecting william onions at tower hamlets cemetery

Of all of the dead poets I've found so far on my way around London's Magnificent Seven cemeteries, William 'Spring' Onions is the one that seems to have arrived in life via fiction. Onions was arrested over 500 times for various misdemeanours in the East End and eventually used poetry as a replacement for the alcohol which had sustained the first 70 years of his life. One newspaper reporter wrote:


William Onion, the old man whom the Thames magistrate yesterday allowed to go free on a charge of drunkenness, went to the Shadwell Police station last night and broke the window.
He told the magistrate this morning that policemen followed him about to lock him up for being drunk, and that he smashed the window to save himself from being locked up.

Mr. Saunders said: 'The Court stinks with your name, and you stand in such bad odour that all policemen look after you, knowing you are a dangerous man.'

audience gathering at the start of the tower hamlets performance. photo: harpreet kalsi

Between 5-7 December 2016 I performed three evenings of site-specific work in Tower Hamlets cemetery. This was part of the Spitalfields' 40th birthday celebrations. My response draws on my research in finding the dead poets of London's Magnificent Seven cemeteries, and will be included in the next book in the series (2018) which will focus on Tower Hamlets cemetery.

 john canfield and chris mccabe. photo : harpreet kalsi

The performances in Spitalfields were curated by Penned in the Margins and included John Canfield playing an acting part and reading poems,  and Nick Murray who added intricate and moving musical layers and live viola. The evenings also contributed from essential input from Ken Greenway, Park Manager at Tower Hamlets cemetery, and the team at the Spitalfields Festival.

audience winding through the cemetery towards the william onions scene. photo : harpreet kalsi

The text for the performance combined a mixture of my own poems, the poems of the dead poets in the cemetery and a short play debating who the 'true' William Onions might have been. Here's a short section of the play which explores the idea of how justice might be done to a dead poet, especially one who was known as a criminal:

John: It was a common enough place for criminals.
Chris: Criminal? Onions was a poet.
John: He became a poet when he gave up being criminal.
Chris: Being criminal made him a poet. The 200 criminal convictions was his education …
John: 500 I think you’ll find.
Chris: The numbers don’t count. He never hurt a soul.
John: December 1898: Doncaster, damaging a widow.
Chris: [check his notes]: That was damaging a window.

nick murray on viola. photo : harpreet kalsi
Expanding on my interest in cross-arts work each audience member was given a badge showing a visual poem which I had written for the events:

badge displaying visual poem given to each audience member . photo : harpreet kalsi

All three evenings were sold out and ended with hot drinks in the Soanes Centre, kindly made available by the Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery.

My forthcoming book on Tower Hamlets Cemetery will be the third in the series, following:

Penned in the Margins have made a limited edition map of my project available, beautifully illustrated by Frances Ives:

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

cenotaph south

I'm delighted that my book Cenotaph South: Mapping the Lost Poets of Nunhead Cemetery has just been published by Penned in the Margins. I first became involved with finding dead poets during the Curious exhibition at West Norwood Cemetery in 2013. I discovered twelve poets, each with their own story and body of work, which became the basis for my book In the Catacombs. I was excited to find that West Norwood was one of seven cemeteries opened in London between 1833 and 1841 with the aim of taking pressure from the overcrowding of inner-city churchyards. My interest in finding a great lost poet has grown into an obsession which I am documenting in my series of books, each volume covering one of the seven cemeteries.

Cenotaph South, cover by Ben Anslow

Cenotaph South took two years to write, during that time I not only discovered twelve lost poets but mapped out the area surrounding the cemetery. I discovered that the tree that Blake saw his angel in on Peckham Rye was a hawthorn, visited the road in Telegraph Hill that Robert Browning lived at, followed Barry MacSweeney's footsteps to Dulwich College (the venue for his last ever reading) and walked the Elizabethan village of Dulwich - a village that was built on the profits made from poetry, bear-baiting and prostitution. Walking around the cemetery allowed me to make connections between the poets we remember and those that have been forgotten. One of the poets who is not quite forgotten, but extremely overlooked, is Charlotte Mew, whose brother Henry Mew was buried in Nunhead in 1901.

Highlights amongst the poets found buried in Nunhead are Marian Richardson, who invited Garibaldi to stay with her in Peckham; Tom Hood, who helped to introduce fun to the Victorian readership and Walter Thornbury, a brilliant chronologer of London who wrote many overlooked books in the spirit of what we now know as psychogeography. I wrote Cenotaph South during a period in which my mum was receiving treatment for cancer and this personal crisis became part of the text, weaving between the discussion of the poets with diary entries about mortality and the role of art in helping to overcome trauma.

As well as the beautifully designed hardback edition, with cover by Ben Anslow, there are a limited number of special edition copies available which include a postcard of my poem 'Nunhead Cemetery, a map of the Magnificent Seven by Frances Ives, and a found object from the cemetery. The book will be launched at Nunhead Cemetery on Sunday 30th October at 4pm and all are welcome. More details on the launch here.

Cenotaph South is available to buy for £12.99 from Penned in the Margins here .

Special editions are available for £20 here.

Friday, 15 July 2016

poetry tour of nunhead cemetery

Along with Tim Stevenson of the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery I'll be leading a tour of Nunhead's poets on Saturday 27th August 2016. The tour is free, all are welcome and there's no need to book in advance - simply turn up at the Linden Grove entrance at 2.15pm. I have some limited edition flyers that I can send on request; these include artwork by Sophie Herxheimer and were printed by Aldgate Press.

Nunhead tour flyer, artwork by Sophie Herxheimer

The tour comes out of my research for the second book in my ongoing project to map out the dead poets of London's Magnificent Seven cemeteries, with the first book In the Catacombs: a Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery being published by Penned in the Margins in 2014. I am hugely grateful to Arts Council England for Grants for the Arts funding which has allowed for me to find time to fully research the Victorian dead. The next book in the series is Cenotaph South: Mapping the Lost Poets of Nunhead Cemetery and will be published in November.

If you have any questions about the tour on the 27th August, or my overall project, please email me at

Friday, 24 June 2016

depart: dancing with the dead in tower hamlets cemetery

Imagine Thriller opium-slowed. The show’s only just begun – the first dancer moving above a verdigris-stained headstone – and I realise that what we’re here to celebrate is the body: its dexterity and strength. Its ability to do its own thing. Let it: even inadvertent twitches are a sign that it goes on – a huge advantage of the thousands of burials beneath us, gathered for this dance event in the grounds itself. As I enter the cemetery a looped series of commands are played to the audience:

Depart with care
Walk with silence
Stay with your group
Do not look back

There’s a blonde woman on a rope, above us, still - or dead - amongst the branches, wearing satin white underwear. There’s something masochistic in how she comes to life and handles the rope that the audience brushes against as they pass. The orchestra at the base of the tree sings as she twists fish-lithe to the song; then a male performer starts to ascend on another rope, legs angled in adductor locks, passing the woman who descends as he rises up. I walked past the man a few moments before, led by the funereal host’s amber lantern: he’d stood with his face in his hands as the audience were guided along the sodden path. The female dancer brings her performance to a halt with a sudden abrasive release of her body, her ankles now securely wrapped by the rope: the body as rejected cargo, swings from the tree. Contortions and twists fused by ankle and wrist now cease.‎ In Anne Summers’ chic she swings head down to the headstones. Eros and thantos: the erotics of the cemetery.

As new stunts rise from behind gravestones and in nettle-logged parts of the cemetery the ambient music score provides a consistency: a mellifluous white noise. Repetition and loop. A woman sits up high in a hula hoop, then a male dancer dances inside a hoop on a trampoline, surrounded by the silent peninsula of the audience. He lets the hoop circle towards its final flat rest on the trampoline as he walks away towards the Scrapyard Meadow. The circle is the presiding symbol of the show: eternal life: no beginning, no end.

Now all things rest
Darkness and light

Whilst working on my Magnificent Seven cemeteries project (the first book, In the Catacombs, is published by Penned in theMargins) I’ve spent many hours looking at angels attached to mausolea, but this is different: behind the bluish-green patina of the headstones are living women, faces blanched, dancing with sinews flickering to the last of the summer light. They are orchestrated to be part of this bigger performance but within that they freeform: each body moves its own way, just once like this, for this performance.

There’s an opera in the woods: a woman in blue, Eurydice, is dancing to the song of a woman wearing all black. Before the song is finished the audience is moved forward by torch-bearing hosts, the hearse-people of the show. We walk past digital roses on a head stone, twisted ghosts streamed to tombs. I’m so used to walking around the Magnificent Seven alone but here we move as one group. The experience brings me closer to strangers, all of them: these shuffling stragglers squelching, like me, through mud. Fellow travellers to the grave, sharing the ambient backing track. I love how people have dressed up despite the email from the cemetery giving a MET warning about the weather. Ankle cut jeans, hipster leather: look your best for the East End dead. I could even love ‎the man with a ginger beard and Led Zep t-shirt, the woman with grey hair in an oversized mac, the young couple who giggle all the way through, kissing under a rain-sodden elder. Sharing this death-changing experience, breathing in this festival of revenants. Making sense of it.

I’ve always loved being alone in cemeteries‎, out of the crowd: the last person above ground. A woman stands on an oak stump to get a better view. A man performing above me, in his Travolta whites, stares at me with a purple determination in his temples. Even the guides, with their amber torches attached to gnarly sticks, seem to be here just to be a part of it. The crowd and the audience are united as the living. We’re outnumbered by those below whose chances are gone. Here we hold hands freely or think ahead to supper or last orders. I even love the man in front of me swinging his rucksack to the orchersta’s lament. We’re together in that: path-led to the grave but still on the path with all to play for. Even the rain’s stopped for us. Eurydice in her blue dress winds through the crowd: immersive theatre: the audience and stage as one. The stage we occupy is real land and air, the act of breathing.

As we walk through the paths, through deeper puddles and nettles fronding the brown soup of the mud, it’s easy to imagine figures calling you forward, with flames, down abandoned paths. Cut sap hits the nostrils. A performer dances with the upside down anchor of a crucifix shadowed against his chest. This is the East End, as much as the pubs or cafés. It just turns out that local history is also the human condition, the generations of dockers beneath us. Order another cup, add an extra hash brown.

The highpoint of the show is the penultimate moment: two men dancing together in white, tenderly, supporting one body on the other. They hoist their bodies sideways like a flag, static from the post. The inner core that includes the heart. Hoisting themselves up a poll in an entangled caul of limbs. One body levitates on the other. Sinks and rises. There is strength in fusion.

It might be said that all art appeals to us, draws us towards it, to feel what it is to live more keenly. But Depart takes us further into that driving force, connects us to the memento mori that exists in sensory experience: we’re here only because we’re living.‎ The two men in white walk off breathing heavily towards the high rise flats, blanched with mist. No one has noticed that it’s raining again, dripping from the canopied roof branches. We all gather in the open field that we started in – the man in the Led Zep t-shirt, the woman in the mac –  to watch the final dance. A dance paced to the fugue of the pain of loss, and not just the pain of loss in death:  the loss of love, that death known in life. It’s here in the embraces, bonding and flourishes of the dancers’ bodies. Eurydice has made it this far through the winding paths of Tower Hamlets, but not far enough to escape the loss that comes with looking back. She breaks into a run, the uplighters dropshadowing her body against the windblown trees above. When the lights go out – after the massive applause – the crowd moves towards the cemetery entrance: the lights along Mile End welcoming us back  to a more familiar landscape, each of us more alert than when we entered the cemetery two hours ago.

Depart with care
Walk with silence
Stay with your group

Do not look back

I am writing a series of books about London's Magnificent Seven Cemeteries: West Norwood, Nunhead, Brompton, Tower Hamlets, Abney Park, Kensal Green and Highgate. I am grateful to Arts Council England for Grants for the Arts funding to give me time to work on this project. The first book, In the Catacombs: A Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery is available here. The next book, Cenotaph South: Mapping the Lost Poets of Nunhead Cemetery will be out in November. 

Depart is part of the LIFT Festival and takes place in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, 16-26 June 2016

Monday, 9 May 2016

transaction: playing around with letraset

I've been playing around with letraset, combining visual poetry with collage. Here are two different version of a recent poem called 'transaction':

'transaction', clean version, 2016

'transaction', collage version, 2016

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

nightwalking with dickens

‎‘Some years ago, a temporary inability to sleep, referable to a distressing impression, caused me to walk about the streets all night, for a series of several nights.’ So begins Charles Dickens essay ‘Night Walks’, an essay written for his column as ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ in the early 1860s. I start my walk – following his route – in the converse state to his description of sleeplessness, at the end of a long day and evening’s work, in the last hour or so before sleep. The day’s work done, the evening passed: I’ve been waiting for the pubs to close to start my walk. Only then does London change, when most of the people with homes and people waiting for them have all vacated. The city is taken over with the homeless and the diaspora of transient inhabitants. When the real cold comes in – on a November night like this – and something close to silence begins. As close to silence as London ever gets.

At this time of night the streets are beyond surreal. I see what Matthew Beaumont means now when he says ‘The nighttime is another city’. Not enough has been said about Dickens the Surrealist: the creator of ghostly palimpsest Paul Dombey, puppeteer of the ultra-industrial backdrop of the city, the man who made one of his characters spontaneously combust. Dickens made his nightwalk in March, I’m here nine months – and over 150 years – later. The hands of the clock are the same: half-past twelve. Dickens invented a word for those still out at this time: ‘houseless’. This is a kind of temporary homelessness of a body outside the confines – and safety – of four walls. Despite the end-of-the-day tiredness, all my senses – the rods and cones at the back of my eyes – are fox-sharp. My nerves hooked to the movement of each shadow.

I remind myself what a new phenomenon this is: to be able to walk at night without suspicion of arrest. ‘Who walks alone in the streets at night? The sad, the mad, the bad. The lost, the lonely. The hypomanic, the catatonic. The sleepless, the homeless. All the city’s internal exiles.’ This is Matthew Beaumont again. His book tells us that in the late Middle Ages nightwalkers were knows as ‘noctavigators’. Wanderers without purpose: stragglers. In Elizabethan England there was a curfew on being outside the confines of the City after 9pm in summer and at dusk during winter. But this is historical. These days one in eight of people in the UK work nights – we’ve become used to the flux of human traffic after dark. Though it always feels different to be out in it yourself, alone. The old social unconscious is hard to shake off. ‎

Dickens made the distinction between walking ‘straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace’ and that which is ‘objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond’. I realise that – if stopped for questioning – I would form the latter. To say ‘I'm writing a book’ is a very different – and less plausible – reason, than saying: ‘I’m heading to my shift at St Thomas’s hospital’. Though I wouldn’t be the first writer for whom the act of writing has landed them in casualty.

In his essay ‘Poor Mercantile Jack’ Dickens takes us on a journey through the docklands of Liverpool – also at night – and despite being accompanied by police officers but it’s not the city’s poor inhabitants that receives his satire, but the law. The four officers he walks with are lampooned as ‘Mr Superintendent’, ‘Trampfoot’, ‘Quickest’ and ‘Sharpeye’. Despite the police officers eagerness to show up the black residents Dickens sees through this and paints then with affection. Trampfoot is keen to show Dickens ‘Dark Jack’:

But we had not yet looked, Mr Superintendent – said Trampfoot, receiving us in the street with military salute – for Dark Jack. True, Trampfoot. Ring the wonderful stick, rub the wonderful lantern, and cause the spirits of the stick and lantern to convey us to darkness. 

There’s a scathing spittle of satire against Trampfoot’s attempt to conjure a genie here‎. And what Dickens concludes – after being taken to a dance and drinking several lemonades there – is that ‘If I were Light Jack, I should be very slow to interfere oppressively with Dark Jack, for, whenever I have had to do with him I have found him a simple and a gentle fellow.’

These are the ‘midnight streets’ where Blake heard ‘the youthful harlots curse.’ I see what Dickens means about London – and he referenced Borough and Old Kent Road on the south side as specific examples of this – when he said that it ‘has expiring fits and starts of restlessness’. The intoxicated magnetize, he suggested: ‘when one drunk staggers into the shutters of a shop another will soon be along to fight with it’.

I have arrived, like Dickens, at Waterloo Bridge. He describes looking at the bridge’s tollkeeper, wrapped in shawls against the cold‎, resistant to the dawn. The only contented person to be seen. ‘The bridge was dreary’ Dickens says: it still is. He wrote of the water dripping from all around him: ‘Drip, drip, drip, from ledge and coping, splash from pipes and water-spouts.’ When Dickens looked out across the river he saw ‘the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds’. Tonight there’s neon as far‎ as the eye can see: the deep blues of the Pizza Express logo on Belvedere Road, the seventies’ orange of Brasserie Blanc. There’s no drip drip tonight but there is a fierce hurtling wind coming in off the river. Waterloo Bridge has been rebuilt since Dickens walked here and there are now numerous ways to access it from the South Bank – each of them impossible to find at night. A red staircase spirals up between the BFI and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Beyond the BFI – which is advertising a season of 'films to fall in love with or break your heart’ – I look for the solid base, a staircase worthy of the tollkeeper Dickens described. People are parting around a revving cab, a young woman among them shouts: ‘I love you all!’. A man is walking more slowly than I am – hooded against the wind, wearing shorts. Earphones beneath his hood. There is a new kind of nightwalker, one that isn’t homeless – and not even houseless – but simply here. Transient. Passing between rented beds.

It’s only a week after the Paris bombings and the only thing to cut the silence is tension. The occasional person I pass would have ignored me a week ago – now we are quickly glancing, checking. Creating a narrative as to why the other person is out at night. I walk up the imperious steps to the bridge. When my eight year old son heard the news about the attacks in Paris he asked ‘when will the war be over, is it finished?’ The London I’m writing about now – like any London writer – is mostly unknown. Things change before text goes to print. Could Dickens have imagined the future zeppelins over the foggy streets he loved? The blitz of shrapnel? Bombings at Russell Square? The words go down as mere impressions – trapped in time – waiting for the city to flex, or fracture or morph – into a new incarnation. To see Dickens as really here you have to think of the modernity of the Victorians, the man who could write that: ‘each century [is] more amazed by the century following it than by all the centuries going before.’ A man passes in a black beanie – listening to his headphones – heading north towards the Strand. To the ghosts Dickens said that he saw in the windows of the closed theatres.

What has not changed is the aloneness of the transient houseless. This has exacerbated. Dickens described an incident at St Martin’s Church in which a beetle-like, ghostly man in his‎ twenties seemed to disappear before Dickens’s eyes: leaving the rags he was wearing in his hands. Occasionally, in the day, people walk across the South Bank and stop to ask for directions. This rarely happens after midnight. People walk because there is safety in walking. If someone was to make contact unexpectedly we’d all turn to rags and disappear. A few weeks back I was on the night bus and the driver – stopping the bus – came up the stairs to ask a child aged about eight who they were with? Faces in phones, sleeping, drunk: no one had noticed the child. Then a young man – getting some downtime with his iPod at the back of the bus – appeared to claim back responsibility for his younger brother.

Dickens walked northwards to the theatres, watching ghostly shadows appear in the upper windows. He then went on to Newgate Prison – along the north bank to Billingsgate – before crossing back on London Bridge to the ‘surrey shore’. Then to King’s Bench prison, and with good reason: Dickens – agitated in mind and unable to sleep – was haunted by his childhood experience of visiting his father in the debtor’s prison at Marshalsea. The experience changed the way he looked ‎at the poor throughout his life. He then walked to Bethlehem Hospital – the current Imperial War Museum – and into the parameters of this book: ‘partly, because it lay on my road round to Westminster’. He also had an idea that had occurred to his overactive, sleepless mind: ‘Are not the same and insane equal at night as the sane lie a dreaming?’

On Blackfriars Bridge Road the new bus stop is planted in the freshly laid concrete. The mulch of root and bone has been replaced. A man stands next to the pillar, as some do, bobbing on his toes with a Metro in his hands. A cyclist goes past with an orange Sainsbury’s bag swinging from the handlebars. Two men walk together, laughing at the behaviour of someone else they’ve just been in a bar with. It’s nearly one o’clock in the morning now and still the people continue to surface: Orpheus figures led by the underworld of their phones. Apologies sent to sleeping lovers. No one stands still – even while standing.

A bus passes: the number 4, making its way to Waterloo. A blast of hot air streams from its reignited exhaust. Two men pass me, talking in Spanish, smiling. In the dark, after midnight, the passing shadows of others can be whatever we want them to be. Dickens saw no cyclists at night. There were no candles for the nightcyclist. And the cars, now, never end – on the bridge there is a constant stream of full-beams heading towards me. The next language floating on the wind is German as a young man – like a thin Rainer Werner Fassbinder – walks past, expounding emphatically. Then the white noise of the never-silence comes again. It is these torrents of people and movement that define our night London from that of Dickens. South Bank speed. The city sleeps – like fish – with its eyes open. On the other side of the glass are‎ those who bother to watch. The 188 bus stops and opens its doors, though there’s no one to embark or alight. Commuter ghosts.

I walk back to Waterloo Road. A man in a suit – his tails like cut flippers – marches against the backdrop of another Sainsbury’s window, with an umbrella and a batch of newspapers. Three students stumble into the shop. There’s no need for an end goal – another drink or a home – it’s perfectly possible to just be in today’s night London. This new breed of the transient know that it’s possible to simply be here, out under the stars – night is the same as day, working and dreaming are the same thing – being away from something is as good as being present elsewhere. These are not the houseless but the consenting revenants. I jump the bus. It follows a cyclist without a light towards the Elephant & Castle. A tree branch thumps the window as we approach St George’s Circus. This is the night bus: the known route cloned for after hours. The night bus is a kind of living hearse for the drunk – the aggressive and the lost – but tonight the experience offers some level of serenity. It is emptier than usual – as if the recent bombings took place in this city – and I watch the reflections from the front mirror reflecting those behind me: a woman, with a ribbon in her hair, reading the Metro. The rest are texting. Quiet last words: it feels like we’re all writing them now.

Leaving a data trace of where we are.

Touching text.


Meaning it.

'Nightwalking with Dickens' is an extract from Real South Bank which will be published by Seren in June 2016.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

o fook: found poem

found poem, taken in The India Club. 143 Strand, London

Tuesday, 1 December 2015


My short story Mud, a version of the Orpheus myth - involving a fake wizard, a camera crew, scallops that can speak and tonnes of mud - has just been published as an ebook by Galley Beggar in their Digital Singles series. It costs just £2 though you can become a member of their Singles Club and receive a story a month for just £12.

The air grew stronger as they got higher. All she could hear was the wind. A voice above her was repeating, Good. Good – keep moving – that's good, remember the air!

It occurred to her as she crawled that she didn't know what a pocket of air, in mud, actually looked like.

The voice shouted from the top of the hill:

– It's a wrap – we've got it!

Mud is available as an ebook from Galley Beggar for £2 here

Thursday, 15 October 2015

the dedalus poems

the dedalus poems

Openings-closings Press have just published a very limited edition of poems called The Dedalus Poems. The poems, inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses, are from a longer sequence which is set on the 17th June 1904, the day after Bloomsday. The main focus of the work, as the title suggests, is on Stephen rather than Bloom. The book also plays around with developments in literature and technology since Joyce's time and explores ideas of where Joyce’s innovations might take us in the era of computers, the internet and big data. In the longer work, the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ section is written in the styles of novels published since 1922 (when Ulysses was published) and there are Twitter comments from contemporary Dubliners in my version of the ‘Wandering Rocks’ section.

poem from the 'Cyclops' page of The Dedalus Poems

I first read Ulysses when I was 17 and the book has shaped my thinking on literature and my approach to writing ever since. Joycean prose cares little for where its borders break with poetry (or drama, history, news or any other kind of register for that matter) and I have extended this approach into my writing of The Dedalus Poems.  This made it difficult to pick out the sections which might be ‘poems’ as distinct entities from the fluid compounded prose of other sections. In the end I have decided to present here the visual and sound pieces from my novel, both of which have either lineation or a distinct shape on the page.

Taking the cue from the numerous schematas on Ulysses there are notes before each section of poems.

I am delighted to be part of The Images to Accompany James Joyce's Ulysses series, which features some of my favourite artists including Tom Phillips and John Furnival.

The Dedalus Poems is published in an edition of 100, 26 of which are hardback and signed (priced at £50) and 74 are paperback (priced at £30). Books can be ordered from

Friday, 14 August 2015

the new concrete: an online course in attentive poetics

The editors of The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century, Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe, will be leading an online course for The Poetry School, beginning on 15th September 2015.

The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (Hayward Publishing, 2015)

One of the narratives of visual poetry since the 1950s is that the form has become one that can be taken up by any poet at some stage of their writing life. The concrete movement had such a strong impact that it's impossible not to write poetry and to consider, at some point, how these techniques might be put into practice in a particular poem or sequence.

Edwin Morgan is significant here. His work is remarkable for its variety, dexterity and energy. I have always felt that his concrete poetry allowed him to get right down into the syllables, particles and phonemes of poetic language which he could later put to such effective use in his non-concrete work. Like an arachnophile coming back from years of living with insects the poet who's immersed in visual poems hears the rustling underwiring in the ecosystem of language. Options and possibilities appear on every level of poetic play. The poet's understanding of the micro elements that poetry can explore  – including space and erasure – gives them a forensic eye for maximising each element of their poems.

When Morgan began his poem ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’ (in  Glasgow to Saturn, 1973) with:


he had developed an instinctive awareness of how the compacting of consonants can accelerate the sound and sense of a poem; he had explored these techniques to the nano-level in a poem like ‘Starryveldt’ (from The Second Life, 1968) written over half a decade earlier:


Concrete poetry allowed him to become an architect of all kinds of poetic structures and gave him the ability to design the internal corridors and finials of his poems with a jeweler’s eye-piece. It’s this approach  to writing poems that Victoria and I will be helping students develop in our online course The New Concrete for The Poetry School. 

We will look closely at letters: their shapes and visual impact. We will take Hansjorg Mayer's The Last Alphabet as inspiration. We all know what a letter 'e' looks like, represented beautifully in Mayer's piece here:
Hansjorg Mayer, from The Last Alphabet

Mayer then takes the insides of the letters, inverting the white space inside the black print, to play with the pattern left behind – making these new letters forms appear as compellingly other:

Hansjorg Mayer, from The Last Alphabet

The white space around poems will be looked at, giving primacy to the idea that the slightest mark or piece of type can transform blankness into galactic meaning. Simon Barraclough does this brilliantly in his poem 'Tromso':

Simon Barraclough, 'Tromso' in The New Concrete and Sunspots (Penned in the Margins)

Movement will be looked at too; through poetryfilm but also through how the kinetic poem uses placement and overlay to create a sense of visual shift – as Paula Claire does here:

Paula Claire, 'A Sonnet in Motion'

And don't let the black and white minimalism of the above suggest that there will be no colour. We will be looking at poets who've used paint, lithograph printing and computer graphics to arrest the eye through patternings and juxtapositions of colour – as in this work by Augusto de Campos:

Augusto de Campos, 'Sem Saida'

Victoria and I have been researching this book for three years and editing for the last two: there are conversations with over 100 poets and artists from around the world that we will be drawing on to inspire those taking the course. The book is the launching pad for discussion, idea-sharing and offers the inspiration for the writing of new work. Like Morgan, what you take from such close-up attention to poetic language will reinforce and energise everything you go on to write. Which is why Morgan continued to work with visual poems throughout his life, creating this curious code poem a few years before he died; its curious made-up language of Runic and Cyrillic returns us to the idea that visual poetry emerges from humankind's first languages and that the merging of the visual and textual in visual poetry is a form potent with current possibilities:

Edwin Morgan, untitled, 2001, from The New Concrete

Book your place on the online course The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century here

The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century is available to buy from Hayward Publishing here 

Thursday, 16 July 2015

the new concrete: visual poetry in the 21st century

After two years of research and conversations with artists and poets‎ The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century has arrived back from the printers. Along with my co-editor Victoria Bean this has been a massive journey from the starting point we set off from: to capture and define the legacy and influence of concrete poetry on current visual poetry. We have also put a sharp focus on the word New in our title, exploring how image manipulation, cut and paste, digital text and the internet have all influenced work in this area. One of the most exciting strands can be seen in the work of James Hoff and Eric Zboya which uses algorithms and viruses to form work in which text is in the back- rather than foreground. The ghost of the machine of visual poetics.

This isn't a book that could be made through simply surfing the web. We've asked all 106 contributors to suggest a further poets or artists that we should consider for the book. Visual poets spiralled into more visual poets. We have looked at well over 500 possible candidates for the book. From this list we were able to put together a list of significant visual poets as nominated by the contributors to the book itself, which we'll be releasing on The New Concrete blog soon.

This wasn't a book that could be made just from looking at a computer screen. Victoria and I had to get out and see people. Tom Phillips in Peckham welcomed us up to his top story den and we told him about the book as he toked on an e-cigarette. The latest pages from the A Humument dried on the mantelpiece. ‎We drove to Nailsworth in Gloucester to see John Furnival and his wife Astrid, arriving after an incident with the side of Victoria's car and an old country wall. We eat a large rustic lunch with wine as John filled us in on the punch-ups and backbiting of the original movement. We saw the new work on his wall that would go into the book. Victoria visited Robert Montgomery in east London while I caught the Bob Cobbing exhibition in Liverpool and the Graphic Constellations exhibition in Cambridge. All of this added the background we needed as the content for the book filled with quotes on concrete poetry, images of new work and references for further reading.

The New Concrete captures the first 15 years of the Millenium in visual poetry and we hope will be viewed as a comprehensive snapshot in time of this thriving form.

Available to buy from Hayward Publishing here.

The New Concrete Launch
The Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX
Saturday 25th July 3-6pm, £9.50
This is the big one, the launch of The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (Hayward Publishing) There will be over an hour of poetry film along with performances from: Simon Barraclough, Victoria Bean, Derek Beaulieu, David Bellingham, Cecilie Bjørgås Jordheim, Paula Claire, S.J. Fowler, Daniel Lehan, Henningham Family Press, Sophie Herxheimer, Sarah Kelly, Liliane Lijn, Tony Lopez, Chris McCabe, Barrie Tullet and audio from Tom Comitta.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

'dark islands' by tom chivers

Dark Islands

Dark Islands is unlike any other poetry collection you'll pick up this year. It is printed in white text on black paper and has a City Lights compactness. Hold it in your hands and the unmistakeable waft of quality paper rises to the senses. 

In the opening front matter the phrase Dark Islands press into the name Tom Chivers, verso to recto: both coupled words have the same amount of syllables and metrical cadence. They press like a lock opening the book. It is at this point that we realise how closely the contents of this book – the brilliant poems that make up Chivers' second collection –  and the conception of the book are integrated. Like modern London towering over the rubble of earlier civilisations, this book has been made from the inside out. The poems cut shard-like, reflecting – and refracting – the flotsam and printed verbiage that appears, like dried-out sea flowers, on London's shore each day. 

The poems are listed on the contents page with Roman numerals instead of numbers. Throughout Dark Islands Chivers steers the reader through an eery time-freeze that suggests both past and future: we are as much on the shores of the first Roman docks as in an apocalyptic landscape.This recalls the opening of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, often cited as the first modernist novel – published in 1899 – which begins by looking from the shore near Gravesend back towards the same dark island of Chivers' title. I've always loved the saturated weight of Conrad's prose in the opening of this novel, as if forged from iron scavenged from the river bed and foisted into a new cast that can't quite join together the unsettling hinges of place and story that we are entering into:

A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.  

Chivers' handling of London fits into this Conradian tradition, which isn't - like so much 'London poetry' - the jangling music box of wonderment in well-cut verse. This is London as the mudlarker's reality, the collecting and assembling of past devices, symbols and matter which is then organised with jeweller's attentiveness. Words and objects are the almanac indicating the future direction of the city and our relationship with it. 

The book begins with two epigraphs which also provide an unexpected symmetry: the two 'J's, Donne and Ballard, are twinned. No man is an island but then modern man is islanded in a city made of Ballardian concrete. This suggests a further hinge of modern London that Chivers isn't afraid to attempt to stabilise, if fleetingly – like the  parallax of a viaduct wingmirror – which is that between the spiritual and the environmental. We can't come to terms with our modern selves without  considering the impact the city as environment has on that self. Obvious, but largely unexplored in contemporary poetry; this is Chivers' milieu:

From the house, from the spring-line, from the sugar cane factory
   we watched the breaking of colour on a false horizon.

As if that fizzing ring might hold back ocean.    
                                             (from 'Island of Coral')

Contemporary poetry is too full of poets trying to make modern by referencing iPhones, Skype and social media leading to poems which, at best, twinkle with a garish finish. Addendums to teeth-whitenting formulas. Chivers' force in this collection is showing - no ideas but in things -  that we only understand where we are, and where we're heading, through a deep and vigorous sense of what's come before. This doesn't simply mean the history of London as reading matter; it means going to touch the walls where the layers of remaining historical sites meet or watching a hidden river silently pour itself into the thriving Thames. In this sense, Chivers' poems work in forensics, clawing back the pieces that help us make sense of the whole: they are not broken jetsam but carefully honed fractals. 

It is also worth remembering that Marlow, the person telling the broken 'story' of Heart of Darkness, is addressing a lawyer, an accountant and a Director of Companies. All professionals of rigid outlooks and controlled languages who often warp the idea of 'progress' to suit their worldviews. Chivers has this same Marlow-esque cynicism towards bandied language. Contemporary techspeak figures prominently in Dark Islands which Chivers pins into the larger historical collage, aware that the 'modern' has been here before and that there'll be new buzzwords tomorrow:

Everything is swipeable. The spire daggers skywards.

                  (from 'Funeral Ikos in Clifton Cathedral')

Test Centre are to be praised for taking the rich material of Chivers' poems and giving the publication a feel of classic past print, a future collectible. White text on black: the poem at the fore of the city apocalypse that smoulders behind. The poem as the only map: light in blackout. 

Dark Islands is available to buy from Test Centre here