“the terrible” Daniel Sluman (Nine Arches Press) – poetry review

In this second collection, Daniel Sluman explores living with a disability and the impact on his life and on the lives of those around him with an unflinching honesty using language stripped of extraneous detail. The “smoke” in “killing the darling of smoke” could be both literal and metaphor,

” having left

your joy between the sheets the loneliness
that enters the window that coming flings

open this rehearsal gasp bookmarking
each moment when you’re single

& crying into your father’s arms
as he did with his father before him

you sit in your bruise-blue dressing gowns
& pull cigarettes from separate packs

inhaling between sips of black coffee
this comma puncturing a sentence

neither of you can bear to finish
only the familiar tug of smoke

a mantra the hardest to kill
that chants death death death”

The familial similarities in their dressing gowns and taste for black coffee is counterpointed by the separate cigarette packets. This father and son are, rightly, both linked and independence. In contrast, “doppelganger” explores dependence and ends

“& you’ll say you can’t bear this weight in a week
you’d rather be alone than with this crumpled mess
of apologies & mistakes that shakes in the corner
of the bedroom a towel over my shoulders
that once tensed over your pupil’s bloom
I’ll keep this lightning trapped in my hip
my strange weather the dent I sank into
will rise from the sofa in a mist
of cologne and possibilities”

It exposes that fear of someone else’s initial enthusiasm of being with you drain when they come to realise how much care they will have to give. It can be a large dent in a male ego when one can’t be the provider but needs care. Exposing and sharing those needs is a vulnerable time as it risks ending what could have been a promising start of a relationship and that fear never quite leaves even in very long term relationships.

“the terrible” isn’t all gloom. In “they say you will become what you think about the most” sees the poet looking through his girlfriend’s eyes until “the evening starts to fill the glass the stitches of you dress/ unwind in the dark & I’m left/ with nothing but the memory/ of staring from behind those/ green-flecked eyes.”

The title poem explores the aftermath of the bone cancer that led to disability. It ends,

“today emily fills my eyes in our grubby basement flat
each time I tell her I love her my heart crushes
like a paper cup the diamond winces on her hand
its brightness weighing us down in shadow”

The longing sense of regret is reprised in “we’ll never dance”,

“as you’re drawn through the ballroom

once again by someone who can lift you

to the light like crystal but just as the dance
is a controlled demolition of the body

I spasm & fall into this crippled choreography.”

“the terrible” looks likes a series of minimalist, muscular poems, yet the intense exterior is able to reveal nuance and shade shaping relationships. The poems reach out to draw the reader in and fizz with vital necessity: the poet had to write them in order to share experiences of chronic pain and loss tempered with tenderness and also revealing pleasure and love.

“the terrible” is available from Nine Arches

My review of Daniel Sluman’s first collection “Absence has a weight of its own”.


“Sword of Honour” David Kirk – Novel Review

Swprd pf Honour, David Kirk“Sword of Honour” is set in 17th century Japan in the aftermath of the battle at Sekiyahara where the clan Tokugawa took over the Shogunate to become rulers of Japan. Musashi Miyamoto [names in the novel are presented in the Western fashion of given name then family name] is injured but able to walk. His sole ambition had been to become a samurai and avenge the death of his father which had been dishonoured by Hayato, the over-pampered, under-skilled and over-praised heir to Ukita of Nakata clan. In the dark, he stumbles across another injured Samurai who requests that Musashi witnesses his seppuku (a ritualised suicide thought to bring an honourable death to a dishonoured man.) Musashi tries to talk him out of it. He confesses to this stranger that he killed Hayato in vengance for dishonouring his father’s death before realising that the stranger has cut his own throat and bled out.

Meanwhile a new sword is blessed by a Shinto priest and given to Ujinari, son of the counsel to the Yoshioka clan, Tadanari. News has reached them that the Tokugawa have triumped in battle. On receiving a missive from one of their samurai that Musashi Miyamoto is to be assassinated, the task is given to Akiyama.

Miyamoto camps out in hiding, drifting from place to place. He swears he will be an enemy of the Way of the Sword, the code that governs samurai, and regards seppuku as evil: death is not honorable, choosing to live is. Akiyama is tracking Miyamoto and eventually after several skirmishes, the inevitable duel begins. Battle scenes are one of David Kirk’s strengths. Their description is credible, paced compulsively and no one emerges unscathed. The author’s extensive research allows him to describe fighting stances and skill in weaponry and apply these to individual characters whose strategies and abilities are kept in character. Here Akiyama’s experience and agility is pitched against Miyamoto’s strength and youth. However, Miyamoto was still a child learning swordfighting skills when his father died. Since then he’s been self-taught so he knows manoeuvres which are not part of standard samurai training which gives him a slight advantage.

Miyamoto does not kill Akiyama, as the victor in a battle should, but tends his wounds. Learning why Akiyama was sent after him, Miyamoto swears he will go to the Yoshioka school in Kyoto and challenge the man who sent Akiyama to kill him. He explains to Akiyama the reason for the assassination was false. Before the battle at Sekiyahara, he was challenged to a duel by a Yoskioka samurai. Miyamoto won the duel fairly so did not insult the Yoskioka as Akiyama has been led to believe.

When Akiyama’s wounds have healed sufficiently to allow travel, he accompanies Miyamoto to Kyoto, the home of the school of Yoskioka. He knows Kyoto well. Although the city is nominally governed by the Tokugawa clan, the Yoshioka are very powerful and confident enough to carry out acts of sabotage as reminders of their power. Captain Goemon, representative of the Tokugawa clan and governer of Kyoto draws on extensive knowledge of the city and diplomacy skills to keep peace. He later proves a useful ally to Miyamoto without appearing to help him. As they reach the city, Akiyama and Miyamoto find the gates shut due to an incident at the garrison. A Yoshioka samurai tells Denshichiro that he saw Miyamoto and Akiyama set off in the direction of Mount Hiei, home to Shinto temples and graveyards. Akiyama has a shrine to his family there and goes to visit it. Miyamoto gives him privacy and heads into one of the temples to pray. Denshichiro takes a group of samurai with him, leading two to Akiyama’s shrine and sending six after Miyamoto.

Denshichiro’s plan backfires, leading Miyamoto to issue his challenge to the head of Yoskioka, Seijuro Yoskioka, Denshichiro’s brother. Tadanari, had he been given the opportunity, would have counseled against such action. He has been reading the reports Akiyama returned while tracking Miyamoto and thinks the masterless samurai dangerous and beyond control. He attempts to negotiate with Miyamoto who agrees he will accept an apology from Denshichurio and leave Kyoto. Denshichurio appears to agree but insists that Tadanari is absent when the apology is given. Tadanari suspects a trick but does not have the authority to insist he is present. Denshichurio’s trick sets in motion a fatal chain of events that could lead to the destruction of his family or Miyamoto. Ironically, it’s diplomatic counsel Tadanari who strengthens the links in Denshichurio’s chain. Who will win: the samurai who seeks brutal vengence at perceived insults or the masterless whose principle is to choose life and is not afraid of a tactical retreat?

“Sword of Honour” does follow on from “Child of Vengeance”, however, apart from a handful of references to the battle at Sekiyahara, it effectively stands alone. Musashi Miyamoto is the only character from both books and in “Sword of Honour” he’s matured from a child to a young man. The samurai are firmly characters in their own right despite a commonality of scholarship and status.

Although “Sword of Honour” builds towards its climatic battle, it’s not all battles and skirmishes between samurai. In the downtime while wounds heal and battle strategies are thought through, there’s time to take in some scenery and get a feel for life in Kyoto. Miyamoto is not alone. He and Akiyama befriend a blind woman and girl who end up sharing lodgings. The woman makes money by weaving and is not afraid to challenge Miyamoto’s attitude and rigid stance, allowing readers to learn her history. He’s not afraid to own up to doubts and there’s more to Miyamoto than his swordsmanship. Background information is fed in a timely manner and never feels like an information dump. It doesn’t overstay its welcome either. If it were a film, it would be one where you emerge from a cinema and wonder how time seems to have gained three hours because it felt as if the film only lasted for one.

Listening to Music and Writing Poems

Someone recently asked if I listen to music when writing. They knew I used to write music reviews and were looking at a poem called “Analysis of a radio song”. It’s certainly not the only poem I’ve written influenced in some way by music. I’m still in the habit of listening to what I’d told is a lot of music.

However, I prefer not to play music when I’m writing:

Poems have a rhythm and musicality of their own

It’s hard to pay attention to that when you’re listening to another piece of music. It takes a fair amount of discipline and practice to tune out the influence of the music in the background and let the poem find the rhythm that’s right for it.

If I’m reading poems that are not sufficiently engaging and music is being played in the background, I find I end up trying to read the poems to the rhythm of the music. If the poems engage me, the background music is tuned out.

Poems have their own vocabulary

If you’re listening to music with lyrics, it’s not easy not to absorb a word or a phrase from the song you’re listening to. I have very few instrumental pieces. But even an instrumental piece can suggest imagery, which writers instinctively convert to words, and rhythm which might influence a poet to choose a short, staccato word when a longer, smoother one is needed.

Music influences mood

It might help playing the right kind of music to set an ambience before you write, but it’s not sustainable while you write. You might be trying to write a fast-paced thrilling chase, but you need to slow down and get the wording, rhythm and sound-patterning right. Loud, repetitive noise can induce stress: no one writes well under stress.


Poems are rarely dashed down in ten minutes flat. Repeatedly playing the one track or album on a loop that suits the mood, rhythm and even vocabulary of the poem will bore you, frustrate the poem and you’ll never finish it.


The second stanza’s tying itself in knots, you can’t think of an alternative description for “orange” that would give you a rhyme and the next track’s your favourite…. Or if you’re listening on shuffle, trying to anticpate the next track might become more interesting…


Even favourite tracks can get boring if played on a continuous loop and bored minds wander… This can be a good thing on a first draft but not when you’re editing. If you’re bored of your poem, your readers will be bored too.

Some circumstances where music can be useful:

Setting the mood

Some writers need a buffer between everyday living and time allocated for writing. Some achieve this with a favourite pen/notebook, getting a desk in order before turning on a computer, a few moments’ quiet to create a break between chores and time to write. For some, it might be playing a track or two to focus. It can be hard writing an autumn poem in midsummer or a love poem when you’re anxiously waiting for news or constantly glancing at a to-do list.

Tuning out distraction

Distracting noises are unpredictable interruptions: a ringing phone, the neighbour’s DIY, an unevenly dripping tap, someone alternating periods of silence and whistling with no consistent duration. These can be soothed out by a constant noise which can be tuned out. Workplaces with a radio constantly playing in the background can be more productive than a ‘silent’ workplace with unpredictable interruptions such as a printer starting, a phone call, someone tapping their fingers, a noisy typist.

One morning I had a poem competing with a pneumatic drill from workmen in the street. I was also waiting for a delivery so couldn’t go and write elsewhere. Music helped poetry win.


Extended Play short stories from Elastic Press

(“Extended Play” includes one of my stories)

“Winegarden” Anthony Ferner (Holland Park Press) – novel review

winegarden Anthony Ferner bookcoverJacob Winegarden is a professor of theoretical physics, specialising in thought experimentation, and shielded from commerical reality by working in academia. While his department’s offices were being refurbished, Winegarden was temporarily relocated to a cramped space above a Cats Protection League centre where a black cat adopted him and became a running joke amongst faculty staff and students. Winegarden is agnostic but was brought up in the Jewish tradition and marries a Jewish woman, Miriam. Their only son, Joshua, is stillborn.

The story opens with Winegarden in middle age and moves back to his childhood and forward to old age in a nursing home. It explores Winegarden’s attitude towards his Jewish religion, the persistence of his love for Miriam and his reluctance to shut down options by making a decision.

Winegarden’s wedding day was upset by an outburst from his father so, although the day ended happily, it was also marred. One of the most successful periods of his working life was marred by the serious illness of his colleague’s daughter. The delight and anticipation in Miriam’s pregnancy gives way to grief as his son is stillborn. This nearly breaks his marriage. Winegarden wants to talk but his wife doesn’t. Her grief is internalised, finding eventual solace in religion, shutting off from her husband.

These ambivalences allow Anthony Ferner to explore ironies using a sense of subversiveness to show how Winegarden copes with the life he finds himself in. Miriam is his anchor, pulling him out of his head to engage with daily life, while friends prefer to engage on an intellectual level. It is in nearing the end of his own life, Winegarden is pushed to confront his grief for Jacob and the life that could have been.

Winegarden and Miriam are engaging characters and the mix of seriousness and humour make “Winegarden” a compelling, thought-provoking read. Despite his intellectual, abstract thought patterns and career Winegarden’s anxieties make him human. He naturally over-analyses and over-things everything but the wry humour brings him to life.

“Winegarden” is available from Holland Park Press.

Poets and working for free

Every poet eventually will be asked to provide an original, unpublished poem for exclusive use by a shiny new magazine or to come and do a reading because “it’ll be great exposure.” Unfortunately enough people who want to establish themselves as poets will agree to do this but stop and think:

If a magazine can budget for marketing and printing and includes advertising and a cover price, but will not pay the people who write its contents, how long will it survive and how great will it be that your name will be associated with it?

Even poetry magazines that are run on a shoestring with an editor working voluntarily manage to pay in contributors’ copies, so if you are not being paid (in money or kind) or discover that contributors are expected to buy a copy if they want to see their work in print, is it really worth it?

If you are invited to do a reading where entry is by tickets bought in advance or on the door, the organisers and staff at the event are being paid, is it fair that the only person not getting paid is the poet?

Some poetry events and open mic evenings are organised by unpaid volunteers with either free entry or ticket prices only covering the costs of hiring the venue. Open mic slots won’t be paid. If you’re invited to read as the featured poet, you may not be paid. This isn’t exploitation because no one else is being paid either but there should be an opportunity to sell books or other promotional materials and there may be travel expenses if you are not local. If you think it’s worth travelling to a venue because you’re sure you’ll recoup your travel expenses in book sales, it might be worth doing, but if you’re going to be out of pocket with no benefit to you, it’s not worth it.

If a publication or event is organised to raise funds for charity, the organisers may suggest you waive your fee. This decision should be yours. If the organisers say there’s no fee or no contributors’ copies because it’s for charity, walk away. If you want to waive your fee or buy your own copy rather than have a contributor’s copy because you support the charity, that’s fine, but it should be your decision, not an assumption from the organisers. Some poets who want to get involved may not be able to afford to attend the event or buy a copy of the publication so it should not be assumed everyone can waive their fees.

Most publicity events such as book launches or a interview on local radio to promote a book or event won’t be paid. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing, but weigh up the pros and cons before agreeing to do them.

Often it is worth volunteering to help organise a local open mic night or set up a local poetry group or start a magazine or get involved in a similar project. You might not get paid in money, but there will be other rewards: learning new skills, improving skills you already have or meeting other writers who you can learn from. Here there’s a mutual benefit: you’re helping others and yourself and whilst it feels rewarding, it’s worth doing. As soon as it becomes a chore or you feel you’re being taken for granted, that’s a signal it’s time to move on or change the way the project works.

If you’re being asked to do a reading or a workshop or event that doesn’t feel like it has any rewards and it’s not offering pay, it’s not worth doing. And if an organiser mentions the word “exposure” or is working from the assumption you’re not worth paying, they’re not worth working for.

Social Media and Emails shouldn’t be a time suck for Writers

Publishers require writers to have a social media platform and self-publishers need social media as part of their promotional toolkit. I’ve discussed elsewhere that social media isn’t an end in itself and writers should use the right social media tools rather than spreading themselves thinly across several platforms or wasting time on one social media site when your readers are on another. Like off-line promotional tools, it’s best to find which social media sites work best for you and focus on those.

Like all promotional campaigns, time on social media has to be scheduled. You wouldn’t show up at your local radio station’s studio on the off chance they’d have a spare slot to do a radio interview with you, particularly if you didn’t have a book or reading to promote. You wouldn’t fire off a press release to a newspaper or magazine without having any actual news. So why would you hang around on social media on the off-chance a reader might post a comment for you to respond to?

If you have a blog, post articles to a regular schedule so readers know when the next one is due. Ignore anyone who suggests you should be posting daily or even more frequently, especially if they refer to themselves as a ‘social media guru’: they are not trying to write poems around a day-job and other commitments. If you use a status-driven social media site like Facebook or twitter, get into the habit of logging on at predictable times so people know when you’re available. There are apps that can discourage you from using social media when you really should be writing. Or you can opt to work off-line so you’re less tempted by distractions. If you’re already fitting writing around a day-job, you need to prioritise actual writing over social media availability. Much as readers are interested in your social media posts, they’re much more interested in you writing your next poem or getting a new book out.

With a bit of discipline, emails can also be dealt with systematically. Most email packages allow you to create rules so that emails from editors or publishers can be automatically placed into a priority folder or flagged as priority with email queries from curious readers left in a general inbox. Alternatively you could use a separate email account for general enquiries so you know all email sent to Account A, which you use for submissions and queries to editors and to send out press releases and publicity, needs actioning but emails sent to Account B, which is the email visible on your contact sheet or on social media, can wait until you’ve time to respond. You can always set up an auto-response on Account B to say that you’ve received the email and have a scheduled time to respond to emails on a first-come-first-served basis.

Of course, it’s courteous to respond to queries, but a writer is not under any obligation. If you find the same questions keep coming up, consider creating an FAQ page and directing enquirers there rather than repeatedly typing out the same response. Be wary of students who tell you their grade depends on your response: it doesn’t. No teacher should set grades based on anything other than the student’s own work. Your response should be governed by how much time you have and whether you are willing to give an in-depth or concise response, not on an enquirer’s pester-power or attempts to blackmail a “better” reply. Your primary job is to write new work and your time should be prioritised accordingly.

Although it can feel as if social media is available 24/7 and anyone can send an email at any time during the day or night, it doesn’t mean that writers have to be available 24/7. Writing is a business and those businesses that are open 24/7 operate in shifts. One individual writer cannot split themselves into shifts, so, like those businesses that don’t operate shifts, choose your opening hours.

There may need to be some flexibility here, with there being more open hours immediately after a publication (whether a book or individual poem in a magazine) and fewer open hours when you need to focus on writing without distractions. Put yourself in control.

Poets in Solidarity with Refugees: selecting anthology poems

The task was to select around 100 poems from 204 submitted. The poems that didn’t qualify because they were too long or submitted after the deadline had already been eliminated. It really does pay to read submission guidelines and, no, you don’t get round them by saying “I know my poem’s too long or too late but I thought I’d send it anyway.”

The first part of that task was straightforward: read each poem and select the best. There were three of us on an editorial panel and we each read through all the poems and made a selection independently of each other. The best poems generally selected themselves.

  • They had something to say without preaching.
  • They said it without telling the reader what to think.
  • They said it in an engaging way that demonstrated the writers’ understanding of poetic craft and form and it was hard to take anything out or put anything in without substantially changing the poem.
  • They were also poems that hadn’t jumped on the first, obvious response to the topic.
  • They were poems where the poet had thought around the subject and picked a fresh approach.

We had a remit to select poems that shed new light on the refugee experience, writing that was specific rather than general and which was not unremittingly gloomy, harrowing or preachy. We wanted a variety of work to produce an anthology which would interest, engage and surprise readers.

To ensure that variety, we didn’t impose any arbitrary limits, but to include a second or third poem by the same poet, those second or third poems would really have to work to justify their place. This meant some good poems were excluded simply because their author had entered more than one poem and we were trying to ensure a variety of voices, viewpoints and topics.

Selecting the best was the easy part. As the best were selected, they were grouped by theme and an order of contents began to emerge. There was a core of around 90 poems which all three of us had independently agreed on. When we met we discussed the poems that at least one editor had selected that the other(s) hadn’t. We read poems aloud as well as silently from the page. After discussion, some of these were selected. If we were putting together a magazine or blog, we could have stopped there.

However, we wanted a coherent anthology where poems covered all aspects of the refugee experience: their journey, why they’d left, where they were hoping to go and why, compassion and the media reaction, and the poems worked well alongside each other. Some good poems didn’t fit with others selected. There are times when a brilliant soloist has a voice that doesn’t blend with a choir. Without deliberate intention to stand out, when the choir sings, the soloist’s voice can still be heard and it doesn’t feel to the listener as if the choir is singing with one voice. I know I’ve had some poems published in magazines that don’t fit easily into a collection unless I create a separate section just for one poem which undermines the intention of a collection. Again, some good poems got put aside.

At this stage, we’d selected 101 poems. We went back through the ones we’d put aside to check we hadn’t overlooked a poem that was worthy of inclusion and to ensure that we hadn’t excluded one that we could have made fit. We were happy with our initial choice and went back through our selection to check we were happy with the order. We then gave ourselves a couple of days to independently read through our selections again and check we were happy with the order.

We’d met on a Tuesday evening and by Thursday were in complete agreement over our choices. Emails and letters informing those who’d submitted poems were sent out on Friday evening so that everyone would hear at more or less the same time. The anthology is currently being typeset in preparation for printing.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 246 other followers