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 is available for readings and festivals and can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org
No current engagements due to Covid
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!