It’s that time of year again: Sheffield’s Literary Festival, Off the Shelf. 

It’s a busy time for me. Yesterday I read at John Clare’s cottage in Helpston (it turns out I won second prize). The poems are here: http://www.clarecottage.org/poetryprize.htm

Tomorrow (Monday) I’m in an Off the Shelf debate on the Future of the Book. (Sheffield’s Quaker Meeting House, St James St, Mon, 10th Oct, 7.30. Freed admission.)

Weds: we’re running the usual (free, open invitation) poetry workshop at Bank St Arts Centre (12.00 to 3.00, Bank St, Sheffield). If you want to take part, bring copies of a poem to workshop, and we’ll have a discussion of Sean O-Brien’s November, too.
(Also that evening Rachel Genn launches her novel The Cure at Blackwells – should be a pleasant event).

Thursday I’ll be reading on the Speakers Steps at the House of Commons, again for the John Clare competition  – a strange prize, but an exciting one. Around 11.30, I believe, if you’re in the vicinity.

Monday 17th: I’ve a ten minute reading as part of the launch of new mag Uroborus, at Sheffield’s West Street Live (7.30). Another free event.

Weds 19th: Launch of Matter magazine no #11. I was part of the editorial team, but won’t be reading, merely listening to all the fine contributors (including Fay Musselwhite, Angelina Ayers, Rosemary Badcoe – lots of great writers)

Also sometime “real soon now” as they say in the software industry, I hope to have the website of Sheffield’s Public Poetry available for OTS to launch. This is proving harder than I thought to get together, but I think I’ll make it.

If you want to choose other OTS events, you can find a programme at: http://www.offtheshelf.org.uk/programme.php

And whilst all this is going on, Rosemary and I are putting the first fabulous issue of Antiphon together. I think it’s going to be particularly good and will, naturally enough, post a notice when it’s there for your delight and delectation. (Apologies to all poets who’ve not yet had a decision from us: we both need to agree to a poem before including it, and that’s caused a fair series of debates).

Well, Sheffield Poetry Festival has now ended. I gave a Poetry Walk, helped with a Poetry Garden Party, performed in a collaborative poetry event (“Out of Place” with the Tuesday Poets), read with Matter writers past and present, read with current MA Writing students. All of this was fun, enjoyable, interesting, successful. As was almost every event I attended. And I attended nearly all of them.

Simon Armitage’s opening reading was great, flanked as he was by the excellent Nell Farrell and Ed Reiss, neither of whom I’d heard before. I found Matthew Hollis’s talk on Robert Frost and Edward Thomas enlightening and perceptive, and he’s sent me back to both poets. I enjoyed his poems, too. The poets I was most amazed by, though, were both new to me: Elizabeth Barrett and Kathy Towers. Liz Barrett’s reading I was enthralled by: the drama and sensuality of her reading I found mesmerising. I’ve not read her book yet (“A Dart of Green and Blue”) but it’s there tempting me. Kathy is a graduate of the MA Writing I’m studying. If my first collection is half as good has hers (“The Floating Man” – check it out) I well be well pleased. “Music and light” abounds in that work, a wonderful lyricism.

However, one event stood out above all others for me. Perhaps not for a good reason, and perhaps I shouldn’t be blogging about it. But I can’t resist.

As a bit of fun Peter Sansom and The Poetry Business set up “University Poetry Challenge” – an homage to the TV programme, containing entirely poetry and song questions, although, Peter being Peter, quite a few of the questions were a little skewed from mainstream poetry. Somehow, I found myself captain of my university’s team (Sheffield Hallam University, since you ask). Now, I’m not a lecturer in poetry, creative writing or English literature. When I taught literature last, Margaret Thatcher was doing her best to destroy the UK. My team consisted of three English lecturers (Chris Jones, a great poet who ought to be wider known; John Turner, a local poet who excels in performance work; and Keith Green, a linguist, who also writes the occasional poem) and my daughter, Natasha, who volunteered to stand in at the last minute because one member fell ill. She’s a poet, just starting out, graduated from Hallam last year.

Ranged against us were a team of Professors of Literature, Sheffield University’s finest. And their captain? No less than Simon Armitage himself. Simon has recently been made Professor of Poetry at Sheffield, a well deserved role which he seems to be fulfilling well – but a rather formidable opponent for me. I’d attended a workshop he gave for the Poetry Business. He’d workshopped my poem. He knew my mettle.

All set then, one would expect, for Sheffield University to walk over Sheffield Hallam University, and grind us into the dust. And, in fact, they probably should have. Their knowledge of “real” poetry and its literary context proved much greater than ours. However, and luckily for us, and certainly for the entertainment of the audience, Peter had liberally sprinkled the questions with local info, jokes and lateral questions: “In poetry, what do Robert and Gravy have in common?” Answer: Browning.

To cut a long gloat short, we won. According to the scorers, by one solitary point. Admittedly, the scoring systems seemed a little, er, flexible, with points being awarded and deducted for somewhat strange reasons. (We lost six, I think, for suggesting that a quote about tears was definitely not by Ken Dodd.) Nevertheless, a point is a point, and that difference is enough for victory, and we had it.

Of course, it now means that I’ll never be able to attend a workshop run by Simon Armitage again. At least, not if I want my poem to remain intact. And I’m grateful that every competition he judges will be anonymous, because I suspect he won’t be too keen on my presence in any other competitions.

But he’s a generous man, and a forgiving one, I’m sure.

I hope.

Or my poetic career may well be over………

is the name of an anthology to be published by Cinnamon Press in Spring 2011. I’ll have four poems in it, as I was shortlisted in their pamphlet competition (but didn’t make the final cut). The poems are: Litany (I wrote for my daughter, Natasha); In the Vice Provost’s Garden (which was written actually overlooking the garden of the vice provost of King’s College, Cambridge); Seven Summers (a sequence of seven haiku I wrote for the Sheffield Haiku trail, describing seven distinct summers of my life); and, The Song of Yellow Skin, which is one of the poems from my woman and warfare sequence on Kim Phuc. Strangely now, four of those six poems have been taken, but not the key, central, poem See Kim Run (although thei was recently workshopped by Michael Laskey, so maybe I’ve now an improved version).

Here’s an update of my events in the near future (mainly within Off the Shelf).

Oct 6th, 20th and 27th, 5pm till 7: Poetry workshop, Methodist Chapel, Denby Dale: A free workshop organised by Art in the Park

Oct 9th, 12.30: The Word Tent: Sheffield Town Hall (with Angelina Ayers) – reading. A free event.

Oct 13th, 1-3: Greenhill Library, Sheffield: an introductory workshop for writers. A free event, organised by Art in the Park.

Oct 13th, 7.15: Launch of Matter #10, Readings at Blackwell’s Bookshop, Sheffield. Free.

Oct 21st, 7.00: Readings by Matter #10 writers, Riverside pub, Sheffield. Free.

Oct 23rd, 10am till 4pm: An Art and poetry workshop (with Angelina Ayers), Bank Street Arts Centre, Bank Street, Sheffield. £4/£3 (Supported by Bank St and by Blackwell’s Bookshop)

Oct 26th, 12.30-5.00: Drop in Poetry Clinic, Bank Street Arts Centre, Bank Street, Sheffield. A free resource. Drop in to the poetry cafe anytime for chat, reading, workshopping, discussion of poets and poetry.

Oct 26th, 6.30-10.00pm: Tuesday Poets on a Tuesday, Fusion Cafe, Sheffield. £12 for food. Book in advance.

Nov 4th, 7.00:  Launch of Matter #10, Readings at London Review Bookshop, London. Free.

Oct 9th to Oct 26th: as part of Off the Shelf, we’ve organised a series of “Poets in Residence for a day” at Bank St Arts Centre, Bank St, Sheffield. Come along to work with a different poet every day (except Sundays and Mondays). Twenty different local poets, supported by Noel and Angelina Ayers, will be on hand to help you with your work, or to talk about their own.

It’s busy, busy, busy at the moment.

Sheffield’s Literary Festival, “Off the Shelf” begins in October. I’m in five events, and most of them are attached to other activities. Matter #10 will be launched, a golden magazine, so there’ll be two events launching and reading from it (at Blackwells on 13th Oct and Riverside on 21st Oct) and a third, excitingly, at the London Review  Bookshop (7pm Nov 4th). With Angelina Ayers, we’ll also be Bank Street’s Poetry Cafe reps at the Word Tent Launch of OTS on the 9th Oct. Angelina and I will also be running a day long workshop at Bank St Poetry Cafe linking poetry and art (you get to do a bit of both). I’ll be running a community writing workshop at Greenhill Library in Sheffield on the 13th. Finally, as a member of the brilliant Tuesday Poets we’ll be launching our new CD of poetry on the 26th Oct at Fusion Cafe.

Additionally, for the length and breadth of OTS Angelina and I are organising a “Poet in Residence for a Day” scheme at Bank St, so budding writers can drop on every day and work with a different poet. Some great poets are committing to this idea, making themselves available for what is a programme of free poetry workshops/consultations nearly a month long. I’m not sure there’s been an event like this before.

All of these things, in different ways, need organising and preparing for: whether it’s sorting out a programme, rehearsing, recording, planning the CD or simply encouraging fellow poets to sit in the Poetry Cafe and share their expertise.

But I’m also delivering several workshops for Art in the Park. I did a couple for Nook Lane Junior School, in Stannington and the year 3s seemed to have a great time. They certainly produced dozens of wonderful poems. Today we gave poetry workshops in Wither Woods, at Denby Dale (near Wakefield). Although the weather was a bit fractious, around 30 people turned up to write poems in the woodlands.

If you live in or near Denby Dale, I’m also running a series of free writing workshops in the evenings. Although they’re primarily focused on poetry, I’ll be aiming to deal with the whole range of interests of whoever turns up: whether its short stories, novels, life writing, children’s writing – even journalism, perhaps. You can come along to one session or all of them.

And I’m still continuing with the Poetry Business Writing School. This month we have to write a poem a day for a fortnight, and send six poems for commentary by a fellow poet AND find a poem that we can face receiving feedback on from Michael Laskey, of all people. (And also read Coleridge and Wordsworth in our spare time).

The upshot is, I’ve not been sending out so many poems for publication or competition. It’s nice, therefore, to find this week that readers of Orbis #51 have voted my poem “Presumably Butterflies” the best in the mag, and the Yeovil Poetry Competition gave me a Highly Commended, which is pretty good, too.

Around now (7.30, 21st July) in Pontpridd the winners in the Welsh Poetry competition will be announced. I didn’t make the trip – but I’ve come fourth, with a poem called “Jetsam”. So “specially commended”, but just outside the prizewinners. This seems to be my story this year.

For the poem, and other winners, see: http://www.welshpoetry.co.uk/winners.html

I wrote this as part of a small sequence I’m constructing, but its tone and approach is rather different from my usual line. To attempt it, I emulated the work of a fellow student of mine (whom I won’t name here, just in case) and, whilst what I wrote is a world away from what he might have written, I think, nevertheless having his work in mind clearly helped me, so I thank him for work that has made such an impression. He will have several pieces in Matter #10, when it is released in October, which should be worth buying for those alone. (I’ll have a piece in it too, though: an extract from my children’s novel. More details later in the year.)

Last week readers from Sheffield Hallam’s MA Writing gave two readings as part of local festivals in Sheffield. We read at the Sharrow Fringe Festival on Monday, and at the Dore Festival last night (Friday). Both were great sessions, with audiences who seemed very aprpeciative and took the time to give us pleasant feedback afterwards. I’m going to list all our names here, because I’m pretty sure these are all names to watch for the future: Angelina Ayers, Susan Clegg, Helen Cadbury, Marian Iseard, Fay Musselwhite, Ruby Robinson, Laura Wake (and me). I won’t be surprised if in, say, three years, all these people aren’t out there, seriously published.

In October, during Off the Shelf in Sheffield, the new issue of Matter will be launched. This is Matter 10: as our tenth anniversary issues, we’ve made a special effort, with a celebratory cover and some superb contributions, both from the upcoming student writers, and well-established writers of excellence who are keen to contribute to support us. You can find more info at: http://www.makingwritingmatter.co.uk/

We’ll be reading twice in Sheffield to launch the mag: once at Blackwells bookshop, and once at the Riverside hostelry.

The Poetry Library runs an excellent web resource, amongst other things: listing magazines and competitions and archiving a range of sample magazines. Recently I’ve had a couple of requests for magazines which contain my poems, hopefully to appear there in the not too distant future: Matter 9, which contains “On the Edge of Something” and “Snapshot” and Purple Patch #124, which contains “Chains” and “Thread”. Previously, I’ve only had one poem in the whole archive (I think), a very slight little thing called “Sparks” in The Ugly Tree (a magazine now sadly passed the way of all small poetry mags): http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=22349