Letting the Robin out of the Bag

Robin Concrete PoemI have had poems coerced into handmade paper via letterpress printing techniques, laser printed on broadsides sheets, and even hung like advertisements in shop windows. I am really excited, though, to have a poem on a tote bag.

Not just any tote bag — a concrete interpretation of my poem “Robin”, beautifully designed by Jane Commane, on a classy natural canvas bag. It comes free with a subscription to the Nine Arches Poetry Book Club — itself an excellent idea that gets you six fine single-author poetry collections hot off the press, discounts on other books, and special invitations. Gift wrap available. Really, I hope they made enough bags!

I also like the idea that using this tote instead of a plastic bag might help a scruffy robin survive the long winter of our global mass-consumption.

As they say in the UK: “Bagsy!” And in my native California: “Totes amazeballs!” You get the idea. I’m exited.

Bag in splendour next to fine poetry books
Bag your six books

Why Poetry Workshops Matter

The following reflections appeared in the recent print edition of the Ver Poets newsletter.

“Revision is not cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.”
-Source unknown

“Sometimes the best revision of a poem is a new poem.”
-Marvin Bell

“You must be careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origin.”
-Stanley Kunitz

“You must revise your life.”
-William Stafford

Poetry can be a lonely art. Yet the best poems are rich in influence, and poets seeking to improve their writing (that is, all of us) do well to read widely and solicit feedback. One place we can all help each other is in workshop groups the likes of which I recently attended at the home of Ver Poet Simon Bowden.

The appreciation of poetry is largely a matter of taste, and therefore ultimately only the poet herself can decide what constitutes a “better” decision in relation to her poem. And yet, paradoxically, it is through input from other self-aware readers that poets can often develop most quickly, learning through feedback how their decisions affect a receptive reader. Through both giving and receiving input on poems, the poet also increasingly learns to act as this receptive reader for herself in both composing and revising her own poems. It is useful, therefore, not only to the poem in question, but to the poet over time.

The temptation for the author to explain something in the middle of a feedback session can be great. After all, we often write to be understood — if not intellectually, perhaps emotionally. Yet the greatest benefit a willing author can receive from her writing group is the opportunity to be a silent “fly on the wall” as a group of intelligent readers speak their thoughts aloud in response to the poem. It is a privilege they will not have once the published poem is read silently and more widely in the minds of others.

The best thing a feedback group can do, then, is to reflect their honest experience as a reader. You can reflect on the form of the poem, and what you understand about how it is working. You can try to answer the question, “What happens?” (far more useful than “What does this poem ‘mean’?”), giving insight into where the practical details are ambiguous or clear. You can reflect on what is evoked by the poem, what lines stand out, or where you felt your attention starting to dwindle. You can be curious and inquisitive about what you would do (if the poem were your own) in relation to these observations. All of this can be helpful.

The American poet Billy Collins once quipped that the greatest mistake of the journeyman poet is “being mysterious where one should have been clear, and clear where one should have been mysterious.” It can be hard to tell when and how this is happening on your own. A good group holds up a mirror. The best workshop groups operate in this spirit of confraternitas — all on the journey together, and I saw much evidence of both talent and familiarity in the recent meeting.

[For more tips on getting the most out of poetry workshops, including a list of useful questions, see “The Joy of Revision“.]

The (Poetry) Doctor Is In (Hertfordshire)

surgeryThe chill of autumn brings the start of a new school year, and the beginning of a new venture for me. I am pleased to offer “poetry surgeries” through the UK Poetry Society for the Hertfordshire area. If you’re local, and interested in a bit of encouragement and some fresh perspectives on your writing, you can book your one-hour slot for an individual consultation through the Poetry Society website. I expect them to go quickly.

Since I naturalised as a British citizen just one year ago today, let me explain to my American readers what this is all about. The term “doctor’s surgery” actually refers to a local family doctor’s office, where he or she sees all manner of patients for initial consultations. The term is used exclusively for the operating theatre in America. So, please, think tongue depressors and stethoscopes — not forceps and saws.

In fact, I am a firm believer that, as Wordsworth said, “we murder to dissect”. Which means, far from taking a surgical approach, that at the heart of all my writing, thinking, teaching, and consulting about poetry is the sheer love of poetry itself. This doesn’t preclude incisive perception, but it does mean that I believe we can take our art both very seriously and without pretension.

So if this kind of “surgery” sounds like something that could give you a boost, do have a look at the available slots. I shall look forward to poring over some poems with a nice cup of tea with you in the charming medieval market town of St. Albans soon. No scalpels required.

The Essence of Instinct (Film-Poem Online)

<a href="https://vimeo.com/135297786"><img src="http://www.robertpeake.com/files/2015/08/0196-300x169.jpg" alt="0196" class="alignnone size-medium wp-image-7197" /><br />Click here to watch</a>


The Essence of Instinct

for Charles Darwin

That summer you were alone
with your thoughts, which is to say
you were never alone.

Nuage. Vapours. The Narwhal.
Collecting iridescent bugs
in your barely-visible net.

Cataloguing, by sputtering candle
the endless lists, ink darkening
the corner of your mouth.

Your armament of facts
was nothing much to her, as she
tested your reflexes with a pin.

Birdwatching. Beetles. Pheasant
blood-ruffled, shot-riddled,
a black stone’s coup de grâce.

Once there was no pattern,
the crochet unpicked by needles,
coloured threads, broken limbs.

Pricked, you bleed like a prism,
dividing light from light
through the aperture of pain.

All at once, the peacock
opens his eyes, and the threads
pull tight, stitching you in.

Process Notes

Continue reading…

Help with Your Summer Reading List


[UPDATE: this offer has now come to an end.]

In celebration of summer, I am making a special offer available that should be particularly enticing to international readers.

Purchase The Silence Teacher and The Knowledge together and you will get instant access to download the e-book In Pieces free of charge as well as … wait for it … free shipping on both physical books (yes, including international orders).

If you already have one or more of these books, this is a great way to introduce them to a friend. I am also happy to sign and/or personalise the books — just make note of what you want with the order.

I have a limited stock, though, and summer is on the wane — so do place an order soon if you’re interested.

Upcoming Readings: Ledbury, Leicester, London

The summer and autumn months are looking good for poetry.

I will be giving a variety of readings, in a variety of different formats, at various locations throughout the UK, between now and the end of October.

Ledbury 2015 Ledbury Poetry Festival, July 4th, 15:40 — 16:00

I will be reading from The Knowledge as part of the “20 Minutes With…” series at Ledbury Poetry Festival. This is one of Britain’s best-loved poetry festivals, and I’m excited to attend. More»

Hohensalzburg Castle The Saison Poetry Library at London’s Southbank Centre, August 5th 20:00 — 21:30

I will be reading from The Silence Teacher alongside fellow UK-based poets published by Poetry Salzburg. More»

shindig Leicester Shindig, September 21st 19:30 — 21:00

An ensemble reading and open mic in this much-loved Midlands reading series produced by Nine Arches Press and Crystal Clear Creators. More»

Jazz-Poetry Rhyme and Rhythm Jazz-Poetry Club in London, October 2nd 20:00 — 22:00

I’m very excited to perform poetry in collaboration with the London jazz band Special Edition (Louis Cennamo, Barry Parfitt, Tim Stephens and Graham Pike). Hosted by Allen Ashley and Sarah Doyle, with open mic slots available. More»

Hope to see you there!