He is poetry editor of the on-line magazine London Grip; and co-organises (with Nancy Mattson) the reading series Poetry in the Crypt.
For further information see About Mike, Mike's publications and Mike's readings
Mike's new book Poems in the Case has just been published (October 2018) by Shoestring Press. This genre-bending volume places an eclectic poetry selection within the framework of a murder mystery and features ten poets caught up in a classic detective story.
When participants gather at a poetry workshop in rural Kent they are looking forward to a preview of a collection of posthumously discovered unpublished poems by the admired and much-missed poet Eric Jessop. Within a few days however tensions have arisen between members of the group—not least over doubts about the collection’s authenticity. When a very public confrontation is followed by two sudden and mysterious deaths will poetic sensibility prove to be of any use in determining what really happened?
Some edited highlights from the opening sections of Poems in the Case
After Eric Jessop’s death, his partner George Hamblin sold the Devon cottage they had shared and moved to Exeter where he lived alone and eventually resumed reviewing, tutoring and composing the well-made poems of reminiscence for which he was widely admired. In early 1999 it became known that he was one of the contenders for the prestigious and lucrative post of poet-in-residence at the investment company McMahon Associates (often pronounced “Mammon”). His rival for the position was Stephen Prince who, besides being Eric Jessop's publisher at Epidermis Press ( Poetry to get under your skin), was also a poet, specialising in dark, enigmatic narratives.
Opinions among the members of the McMahon selection panel were, in fact, sharply divided. There were some who thought Hamblin’s cosily nostalgic verses carried reassuring implications of investor security while others felt that Prince’s darker, edgier poems suggested positive ideas of enterprise and profitable risk-taking. Their contrasting styles can be seen in two examples presented to the McMahon Associates Cultural Capital (Poetry) Panel ...
NATIONAL TRUST – George Hamblin I cut along the Cromwell Road towards Ham House. A mistress of intrigue lived here in Cromwell’s time; and all the staff have fallen half in love with Lady Dysart, Restoration Mata Hari. The Kingston bypass keeps its promise, points me on to Selborne, in whose car park Rovers will be over-represented. (But for me to mention that might be a touch too much like Betjeman.) I’m out to mix with other, older English icons: Gilbert White, meticulous In documenting downland flowers (never eidelweiss or pis-en-lit); and Turner, making permanent a moment’s movement, fixing it in Petworth light, diffused as if by wind-snatched ashes scattering across the sun. I would once have drawn a line at fancying a cup of tea and slice of sponge to follow galleries of portraits and someone else’s limed-oak furniture. But by the time I get to Uppark I’ll be feeling like the aging peer who married his best dairymaid, attracted – as King David was to Abishag – by a pair of firm, warm, trusted hands.
[The National Trust properties in this poem form a straightish line between London and the south coast. Events such as Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh’s late marriage at Uppark House are drawn from National Trust websites.]
ARRANGEMENT FOR STRINGS – Stephen Prince Jazz and puppetry, she says are twins. She’s right: harmonic lines allow as little freedom as a finger up the spine or wires through wrists that push or pull you into false positions. I’m a home-made marionette. She holds the strings. Come here, she calls, pretending that she doesn’t; next she’ll brush me with a kiss or with a lash. I won’t ask which until I close the door. Should she cut me loose I’d slump, a bundle of discordant limbs. Puppetry and jazz run risks: alfresco melodies divorced from chords collapse, go sprawling as disjointed notes. She’s making me negotiate departures: clean out china/filing cabinets and clear the desktop/bedside diary; leave notelets for my next/my old employer/landlord/lover. Puppetry works hand in glove with jazz. My first-choice orchestra has been marched away in chains and handcuffs; in its place a second string quintet rehearses ersatz hot club music.
The McMahon selectors had not yet made a decision when, in April 1999, George Hamblin and Stephen Prince were booked to lead a week-long poetry workshop at Weald Barn writer’s centre in Kent. The workshop title, “Delighting in the Dark Side,” had initially been proposed by Prince to reflect his own poetic style; but the pairing with Hamblin was suggested by the Weald Barn administrator Julia Nelson. Julia had run the centre very successfully for a couple of years; and, although not herself a writer, she was the kind of efficient manager that “creatives” need but rarely value. She had been tempted by the piquancy of asking the two McMahon rivals to work together and was pleased when Stephen Prince made his surprise announcement of the pending Epidermis Press publication of a posthumous Eric Jessop collection since this would surely generate even more interest in the workshop.
Weald Barn was an unusually small establishment, partly supported by a legacy from a literary-minded manufacturer of tomato sauce. Converted from a group of oast houses, it had room for only eight visitors. Its high fees were justified by the excellent tutor-tutee ratio and also by the quality of meals supplied by an outside catering firm – much better than the do-it-yourself cooking arrangements at most other residential workshops. In the circumstances, the number of applications for “Delighting in the Dark Side” easily exceeded Weald Barn’s capacity. Hence Julia and the two tutors had to choose just six tutees (or “guests” in Weald Barn parlance) on the basis of their submission of a small batch of poems. Here are a couple of examples ...
DIGITAL ALARM 1999 – Stanley Spenser If you thought this year’s end meant emergencies or supposed that rows of zeros were important then you gave too much significance to fingers. Octal anniversaries that might have been were the norm two less, have gone unmarked; two extra and four figure years arrived while Dr Halley hunted other comets in the Greenwich skies and hummed unpublished firework tunes by Mr Handel. CRIMINAL TENDENCIES – Barry Wigfall I was talking in my sleep to this policeman. What it is, he said, is this. You trust your judgement. You get real close in up against your suspect then you lean on him (and here he rubbed his face on mine) and you notice his reaction. You can always tell the guilty ones. Does it stand up well in court? He didn't answer but applied his cheek again and I could feel reactions that were asking to be noticed. But what I want to know, I said, is how many of the people get to pass your test and walk away? None of them, he smiled, and that's the point. That's the way we know we've got it right.******
Stanley Spenser was very pleased to learn his application to attend “Delighting in the Dark Side” had been successful because he had already booked that week as part of his annual leave. (In the government department where he worked, holiday requests at short notice were regarded unfavourably.)
On the Sunday when the workshop was due to start, Stanley arrived at the railway station for Weald Barn a little earlier than the recommended hour. He was still undecided which to do to kill the remaining time when he was approached by the only other passenger to get off the train. She was an smartly dressed woman of about sixty and Stanley thought her face looked familiar.
I’m willing to bet you and I are bound for the same place, she said in very clear RP tones. I believe you are a poet who delights in the dark side and I claim my prize!
Stanley was never comfortable with people who spoke in such flamboyant language. But it was simple enough for him to admit that he had been identified correctly and to introduce himself. In his slightly nervous state, however, he was unable to refrain from adding his habitual and redundant half-apology for being no relation to the Stanley Spencer.
And I’m Mary Maxwell, said his new companion. She decided not to remark that Stanley did in fact bear some resemblance to the famous artist with his combed-forward hair and round rimless glasses.
Stanley now knew why her face was familiar. She was a moderately successful character actor who had been in a number of long-running television series.
Well, let’s grab a taxi and get going, she said.
Stanley pointed out that they were, strictly speaking, not supposed to arrive at Weald Barn for another twenty minutes. Mary was splendidly dismissive of this observation: Well, what are they going to do – pour boiling oil on us? They’re much more likely to smile and put the kettle on!
During the short taxi ride Mary made quite sure that Stanley knew who she was and in response Stanley felt obliged to mention his own day job as a mathematician – which was something else he tended to be apologetic about since people often seemed to find it threatening. He gave no details about his work in a high-security government department for communications and encryption.
Stanley and Mary were indeed the first – and slightly early – arrivals, but Mary’s optimistic forecast about the welcome at Weald Barn proved correct. Julia, the administrator, greeted them warmly and showed them into the lounge where tea and cakes were served almost immediately.
Within the next hour or so, all the other guests arrived, some by car and some on the next train. The afternoon went by in a flurry of introductions, half-finished conversations and attempts to share and absorb names and a few personal details. Stanley was more of a watcher and listener than a talker and probably did as well as anyone at retaining an initial impression of each of the guests.
Daisie Blake arrived only a few minutes after Stanley and Mary had poured their first cups of tea. She was in her mid-forties, pretty in a fluffy sort of way but with sad blue eyes. She was soon followed by Frederick Willoughby. He was a heavily built man, nearing sixty, who had a permanently down-turned mouth. He was wearing – as it turned out he almost always did – a musty-smelling tweed jacket.
The next to appear was the much more eye-catching Abigail Forsberg (you say it “Force-berry”). She was a tall and strikingly beautiful twenty-something Canadian postgraduate student with a fondness for brightly-coloured scarves. Abigail was accompanied by Barry Wigfall who had evidently met her on the train. He was also in his twenties and had a long mischievous face. He already had a PhD and a job with a major publisher. In a pleasant Yorkshire accent he suggested that people might like to call me Baz; but few of the other guests took him up on this.
Quite a varied bunch, Stanley said to himself. I wonder how we’ll all get along. Then another thought struck him. I wonder how we’ll get along with the tutors...?
Mike is available for readings and festivals and can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org
February 2nd 2019 - Enfield Poets with Nancy Mattson - 7.30 pm Dugdale Centre Enfield
February 20th 2019 - Writers At the Goods Shed, Tetbury
March 23rd 2019 2019 - States of Independence Book Fair, Leicester
March 28th - Chichester Library - 7.30 start
May 12th, 2019 - SaveAs Writers - Canterbury - details to follow
October 26th 2019 - Poetry in Palmers Green
March 1st 2020 - Buzzwords in Cheltenham with Nancy Mattson - details to follow
His work also appears in on-line magazines such as Writer's Hub, Fulcrum, The Bow-Wow Shop, morphrog, Penniless Press, Message in a Bottle and Ink Sweat & Tears and in print magazines including Acumen, Assent, Critical Survey, Envoi, The Frogmore Papers, Interpreter's House, Other Poetry and The SHOp.
He has also been a guest reader at the Torbay and Essex Poetry Festivals.
His first chapbook, Anglicized by Common Use, appeared in 1998. This was followed by Inklings of Complicity (2003) and then by Uneasy Relations (2007) in which he allowed the two halves of his brain to cooperate and produce poems which link mathematical ideas with subjects as diverse as hill-walking, portfolio theory, sexual politics and the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
His latest full collection Fred & Blossom, published by Shoestring Press in summer 2013, is a narrative sequence set in the world of aviation in the 1920s and 30s. A chapbook Pictures from a Postponed Exhibition was published by Lapwing Press in September 2014. This is an “evolution myth” which features paintings by the Australian artist David Walsh.
The following Q & A was conducted for an American magazine but never appeared. So it might as well get an airing here...
1. Before your career as a writer, you had a career in mathematics—first in the aircraft industry and then in research and higher education. How did you transition to a career as a poet? What first interested you in writing poetry?
I had a brief and slightly pretentious flirtation with the work of TS Eliot when I was about eighteen – valuing his writing chiefly because it seemed daringly different from things like ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ that I’d had to learn when I was younger. But I then paid little attention to poetry until my mid-forties when my wife (Lynda Bartholomew who, sadly, died in 1994) took a break from work and went to literature evening classes. This started her on reading poetry – and writing it too, but under a pseudonym - and I’m afraid it was nothing more than vanity and a spirit of competition that made me try to write poetry too! Fortunately there was a very good local poetry group near where we lived; and it was through them and their reading series that I got some essential guidance and measured encouragement.
Mathematics and poetry do have some things in common – they both deal with abstraction and with generalization from specific instances. They both value elegant and concise forms of expression. But mathematics involves precise statements whereas poetry aims for a kind of ambiguity that allows the reader to pick up multiple resonances rather than one intended meaning.
2. Who is your favorite poet and how has his or her work influenced your own writing?
I have always admired the work of Welsh poet R S Thomas for his ability to make very few words say a very great deal and say it in a very surprising way. But, as a Christian, I also relate to most of his subject matter and his troubled, psalm-like conversations with God. Thomas probably remains my overall favourite but there are many other poets I enjoy and whose skills I try to learn from. Some are well-known and others less so – but the list would include (in no particular order) Philip Larkin, TS Eliot, Hugo Williams, Robert Bringhurst, and D Nurkse.
3. Do you have a favorite form you tend to use for poetry?
I like to write in fairly regular metrical patterns with stanzas of fairly constant length; but I only make occasional use of recognizable forms. I enjoy working on pantoums when the poem’s subject seems to justify it. I have tried a haiku-like form a few times with mixed success and also the odd villanelle and sonnet. No sestinas yet! One slightly unusual way in which I become involved with form is when I write pastiche versions of well-known poems – there are quite few of these in my recent collection ‘Fred & Blossom’ which contains imitations of John Betjeman and Louis MacNeice, among others.
4. Do you have a favorite theme or topic you like to write about? Has this theme or topic evolved over the years?
In the beginning I followed R S Thomas and wrote a lot of religious poetry. This often took the form of a re-telling of a Bible story in the voice of one of the characters. From this I went on to develop a fondness for writing narrative poetry of all kinds. The narratives may be either factual or fiction; and a political element sometimes creeps in. More recently I have been writing quite a lot of ekphrastic poetry – mostly based on work by artists that I know personally, rather than on well-known paintings in galleries.
5. Your work has been published in a number of online and print magazines. What can you tell us about the publication process? How did you decide which magazines to submit your work to?
Mostly I submitted to magazines which printed a lot of poems I liked! But I was also realistic (or cowardly) enough not to bother submitting to magazines whose contributors seemed mostly to be winners of major prizes! There were no on-line magazines when I started; and when they first came on the scene I was reluctant to submit to them because I thought that print-on-paper was the only proper way to be published … but I have now revised that opinion because there are some very good well-edited magazines on the internet.
6. What guidance might you give to poets who are only just beginning their literary career?
It is very important to read lots of poetry. You should certainly read more than you write! And, if possible, you should go to readings and join a workshop group. In this way your ideas will get broadened and you will begin to discover what kind of poetry you really like and also how it works – so you can try to emulate it. It is important to read contemporary poetry – not because it is ‘better’ than classical but because editors will think your work sounds old-fashioned if your poetic ears are only full of Keats or Tennyson. Having said that, I myself probably still don’t know the classics as well as I should.
7. You’re the poetry editor of the online magazine London Grip. What do you typically look for in the poetry you publish? Are they any common errors/pitfalls in work that is submitted to you that results in rejection?
This is a very interesting question. I have recently been thinking about what my unspoken guidelines are for London Grip submissions. Of course there are no hard-and-fast rules because a good poem can surprise you into liking something you didn’t expect to like. But, in general, a poem that gets into London Grip is likely to be about people rather than a ‘nature poem’; it will probably display some structure and craft rather than being loose and free-form; and it will feature some surprising images and metaphors but will also tend to understatement rather than extravagant or clichéd poetic language. I like poems which display a sense of humour. And I am always sympathetic to poems which make serious political points – but without turning into a manifesto or rant.
Two common ‘errors’ that occur in submissions are: sending in too many poems at once (we ask for no more than three at a time); and not reading the magazine before submitting and hence sending in work that is either wildly experimental or ponderously old-fashioned. It does not create a good impression to send in poems without any kind of covering letter and perhaps a short biographical note. On the other hand a long and boastful biographical note does not create a good impression either!
I try to be a sympathetic editor and will sometimes offer suggestions for improvement if a poem doesn’t seem quite good enough as it stands. In a few cases – typically when there has been an informative covering letter – I will try to offer helpful advice even when none of the poems comes very close to being accepted
8. You’ve also published full collections of your poetry. Was it difficult to transition from single poems to an entire anthology?
My first two full collections were largely put together from poems that had originally been written as singletons with no thought of making a book out of them. Assembling the collection was largely a matter of grouping these poems by theme (and seeing that I had repeatedly been writing about certain subjects without fully realizing it!) and then arranging them in such a way that each poem had (at least) a tenuous link to the one which followed it.
My third full collection however was planned from the start as a narrative sequence (about two real people and their romance in the world of aviation in the 1920s and 30s). This meant that for three or four years I was consciously writing poems that were connected with one another and with the background reading and research I was doing. It was therefore important for me to be really enthusiastic about my subject
9. Do you have a favorite place to write your poetry? What does your writing process look like?
I am lucky enough to find it quite easy to work at my own desk at home. Unlike some authors, I don’t seem to need to get away to unfamiliar and peaceful surroundings in order to be able really to concentrate on their writing. (Of course, it is possible that I would write better poems if I did go away to somewhere tranquil …)
My poems usually start as a scribbled line in a notebook which is transferred to my computer as soon as I start to build a poem around it. I often finish a first draft pretty quickly – maybe in a few days. That draft will then stay untouched until the next meeting of one of the poetry workshops I belong to. It will then undergo some revisions – perhaps before I share it at the workshop and certainly after I have had some audience reactions. I will probably review and revise it again when I am putting together a magazine submission. In other words my poems are seldom judged to be finished until somebody has published them! And maybe not even then…
10. You’ve participated in several reading series. Do you see a difference between your poems when they’re written and when they’re spoken? What advice can you give to poets preparing for a reading series?
I try to read my poems in a way that is faithful to their layout in the page, respecting the line breaks and stanza breaks. If a poem feels awkward when you read it in this way then it may mean that its form is still not quite right.
When choosing poems for a reading I try to remember that my favourites on the page may not always be the best ones to read. On the page it is possible for a reader to go over a difficult passage more than once; but an audience only gets a single chance to appreciate a poem. If there is too much complicated syntax or if the poem is simply too long then the hearers can get lost and lose interest.
It is important to rehearse for a reading and to be sure to speak clearly and project your voice (or learning to use a microphone if the venue provides one). A common fault is to drop the voice at the ending of a line or a sentence and this can be very off-putting for the audience. Learning one’s poems by heart is an impressive trick if you can do it. But it is just as good simply to know the poems well enough that you do not rely 100% on the book and just look down every so often for a quick reminder of what comes next. You can then make eye contact with the audience and pay attention to the expression in your voice and even a bit of helpful body language.
If I look at the question from the point of view of an event organizer I would say that the single most important thing is that each reader should stick closely to the time that they have been allotted. To do otherwise is very unprofessional and discourteous to your fellow readers. And it certainly spoils the evening for the hosts of the event – so you will probably not be invited again!