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Freiraum unthanks picture2.docxIn the days after Freiraum I have kept returning in my mind to one thought: how can art events have a more sustainable impact?

To ask a another question (but one that runs off that one), how can we maintain the momentum built by having an event like Freiraum in our city? When the funding machine rolls out of town… when the people with gold chains go home… when the cameras are wheeled away… when the local journalists are away elsewhere… what is left? If you, too, are asking yourself that question – perhaps the first step is to find out about John Chambers’ ‘Beacon’ project – which takes place under the umbrella of his ‘Patchwork Opera’ – find it on Facebook – or via the Speakeasy page there (I can’t give you a link, I’m afraid…).

I like Auden, but I don’t love Auden the way many other poets…

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Missed it by a whisker! But not the next one, I hope!


Here is what I wrote for the fanzine, if you’re interested. I think (in true fanzine style) it might be a little bit difficult to get hold of.


Symposium audienceThe biannual Carlisle Poetry Symposium on the 24th of November featured nationally and internationally regarded poets, as well as writers based in this corner of the world. The Phil and Lit Society in the Fisher Galleries, Fisher Street, were kind enough to let us host the event there.

The whole idea of the Symposium is to promote the poetry and the poets of Carlisle/Cumbria and to provide a link between the open mic element of live events here (like the redoubtable Speakeasy poetry nights) to wider poets, to poetry presses, and poetry on the page, too. Each Symposium includes input from specific poetry presses, or magazines, or specific editors. This means that it is a rare opportunity for different writers…

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Malcolm Carson plus headsI got asked to write a feature on the Symposium for a fanzine! And there’s a journalist coming to my house (!) to interview me today. Given that interest, I wanted to put down dome early thoughts.

I’d firstly like to thank everyone for their positive comments about the second Carlisle Poetry Symposium. After the May Symposium I tried to track back my favourite ‘moments’ from the event, but that is going to be too big a task or this event. I’ve had some brilliant feedback and some constructive thoughts, too. I will post up developments as they happen: but I would like to grow the Symposium over time. It might well be that, in time (i.e. years) it becomes a bigger event. And there’s been some discussion (following on from the panel on the day) about funding. The irony of poets talking about not getting paid for reading events…

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Yesterday I kicked off the lunchtime poetry reading at Maryport’s The Settlement, as part of a weekend celebrating the meeting there of Norman Nicholson and Percy Kelly in 1959.

I came home with the same question in my mind as had been there when I set off (and for a long time before!). That question is ‘what makes you – the writer – think it’s a poem?’

It’s not simply a matter of techniques, like rime, and rhythm, and alliteration, for all those techniques can be used in what is clearly prose. It’s not simply a matter of profundity or any other quality of content. Both poetry and prose can be deep, still and unfathomable; both can be shallow, fast flowing and limpid. Both, to push the metaphor, can be pools or streams.

It’s not simply a matter of the line breaks either……is it? Yet the line breaks are the one obvious marker of the poem.

Perhaps it’s not simply a matter at all, but rather subtly and complexly one; a matter even, perhaps of intention, of what we’re thinking when we decide to put in the first line break, and what we’re thinking in the aftermath of that decision.

The word ‘purity’ springs to mind, with implications, for me, of deep insight, and tight focus, and tighter structure. But I could say the same of prose, where I’d probably add, clarity, and revelation, but also, contradictorily, ambiguity and suggestion. Not helpful is the fact that we can have ‘poetic prose’, and think that an enhanced variety; we can have prosaic poetry – but will probably think that diminished.

Yet, the fact remains, though I have reached no conclusions, that I still, and often ask that question. The late (and great) Geoffrey Holloway once demanded in a poem, that we ‘ask the right question’, which here might be instead, ‘what makes me – the listener, or reader – think it’s poetry?’ But we still might have to put with not knowing the answer!  

Overheard in a Carlisle Travel Agents yesterday: The Virgins come in cheapest…..

The issue of form and content comes up over and over again in writing, and thinking about writing. What is the relative importance of one versus the other? Does one serve the other? Should one dominate, or both be equal?

It’s an obvious subject for discussion in such genres as poetry, where the form can often be on display, but it’s there also in prose fiction where style and story arcs come under scrutiny. The essay, too, though more obviously concerned with content is a structured piece of writing. Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis is a rule of thumb I remember from schooldays.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the possibility that the issue might be raised at the micro-level of the sentence itself. Looking to work on a first draft recently, I was trying to frame a question that would help me bring some dispassion and analysis to the re-drafting process. What, I asked myself, could I ask myself about what I’d written, with a view to making it more readable, and more worth reading? And there it was: form versus content again.

Look at each sentence I answered myself, and ask if it makes sense, and ask if the sense it makes is worth having made. The basics, I guess, never change, they just look different from different perspectives.

Did you have the pleasure of watching, as I did, a little of the recent World Cup? On a day England was playing I was going to a party later, and felt I should take a look, so that I’d know whether it was likely to be a House Of Gloom, or otherwise.

I happened to switch on the TV as the second half started, and I stood watching for about twenty minutes. It looked a good game, but then the BBC commentator remarked that ‘anyone reading a book this afternoon should get a life’. I’ll repeat that, because yes, that was, as far as I can recall, his exact words:


‘anyone reading a book this afternoon should get a life’.


The word ‘jerk’ among others sprang to mind. The TV, by a whisker, survived. I went and got a book. The party, by the way, was in a House of Joy, though not solely because of a football result.

Writing can be an alarmingly fragile activity.  It’s all I ever really wanted to do, and even I was blocked for a decade and more. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say. It was something to do with confidence. i was like a horse refusing a jump (apart from the four legs, of course).

So one of the issues I’m aware of when working with other writers is how easy it is to put people off, by saying the wrong thing, or too much, or not enough. I don’t always get it right! Everyone will have something to say, even if they don’t realise it, and anyone with any sort of language has a tool for saying it, however crudely.

The issue came to mind recently. I’d been recalling a meeting with the poet R.S.Thomas (I recalled him as gaunt, grey and fierce), and that brought to mind my old friend and poetry mentor, Geoffrey Holloway, who died back in 1997. I wrote an article about Geoff, comparing him and Norman Nicholson: two poets writing in Cumbria when I was a young man, and who seemed a generation apart though they were only four years different in age. The essay is in Steve Matthews anthology Nicholson at 100 (Bookcase, Carlisle, 2014).

It was Geoff who saved me from that ‘block’. Shortly before he died I attended a celebration of his life and work, re-connecting after a gap of several years. He’d heard from mutual friends about my situation, and not quite metaphorically had me up against a wall. He talked about ‘back then’, and in the collection I bought that night, wrote ‘for Mike, and the old days in the vat bar’.

The ‘vat bar’, at Kendal’s Brewery Arts centre had, and may still for all I know, round tables and seats in each of two or three old beer vats. That was where our tiny audience had sat to hear R.S.Thomas read! That was where ‘the Brewery Poets’ met, to share their work. Your stuff, he told me, had been among the best.

You could interpret that, but I took at as I’m sure it was meant. It was the right time. Other prompts, life threatening, and life expanding, were already pushing me towards breaking the block.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to discourage, but equally a little encouragement goes a long way. (and having written this, I find myself reading that old collection once again. – And Why Not?, Flambard 1997)

Well, here it is, officially… the short play, Telling by Me and Marilyn Messenger was one of 3 winning plays and will be performed at the Theatre By The Lake, Keswick, on October 20th.  Did you spot the link? It’s there, and here, if you see what I mean….Perhaps I’ll see you there!

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

BHD has a couple of Flash Fictions in #5 of the Black Market re-View. You can access it here