Buy my book, 'Anatomically Incorrect Sketches Of Marine Animals'

Click here to read my poetry eBook, Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals, for free, or click here to get the Kindle edition for just over £1 "Dawson’s poems are lyrical observations, shot through with imagery that is tactile and visceral." Sabotage Reviews

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

New Poetry Foundation Newsstand App

Apologies for the prolonged absence. I'm still alive, I've just been buying a lot of paper books of late, which has left me with little to say about digital literature. Having become a bit more confident in my tastes, I started wanting to develop a permanent collection of favourites. I also needed paper books to bring to the book club I recently joined, so I could try and strong-arm more unwitting fiction readers into picking up Anne Carson and D.A. Powell.

However, when I found out the Poetry Foundation had developed a Newsstand app in addition to their existing poetry roulette style app, I decided it was finally time for me to get some poetry on my iPad.

You probably already know that poetry publishers are obsessed with iPads, which offer fixed layouts and an alternative to 'ugly' eReaders. Having now owned one since Christmas, I'm less convinced. My iPad may look swankier than my Kindle, but it's much less ergonomic, and the backlight exacerbates my migraines. It also offers far more in the way of distractions, (my top three are: 1. Kingdom Rush 2. Ms Splosion Man and 3. Plants Vs. Zombies).

It doesn't help that some literary magazines' Newsstand offerings are disappointing in the extreme. Long load times, with background downloading unavailable, endlessly doing that pinching motion to zoom in and out... It seemed like a lot of money for a frustrating experience, and I quickly resolved not to waste any more money subscribing to iPad magazine editions.

Refreshingly, the Poetry Society have developed an app that does everything you need it to do and not a lot more. Each page fits the width of the screen, meaning you just need to scroll down to read the rest of the poem, which is much less disruptive than zooming in and out. The font is enormous, so you can read it comfortably with the device resting on your desk or lap. Visually it's very plain, but pretty pictures mean big files and longer download times, so I'm grateful to Poetry for resisting them. There's an info button on each page for the author bios, which are as dull as ever, (poets! tell me something about you other than who's published you and which uni you teach at!), but if you're connected to the internet there are links to full bios on the Poetry Foundation site which are Actually Interesting. There's also an exclusive discussion guide and podcast.

UK prices are £1.99 per issue, or £20.99 pa, (eleven issues). Which is wildly cheap when you consider that Apple take a 30% cut. If the app cost around £15,000 to develop, (my semi-educated guess), this would mean they'd have to sell a thousand subscriptions to break even. That's before you take into account the production costs of each issue, (Poetry pay their contributors generously), and the hit on print subscriptions. The Poetry Foundation are clearly in a very privileged place in terms of having the financial stability and readership to make this app feasible, but I'm still thankful to them for taking advantage of their position to make something so joyously useful.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Book review: Oli Hazzard - Between Two Windows

I've deliberated over this review for a long time, because ‘Between Two Windows’ is in many ways an archetypal promising first collection, and I wanted to do justice to its originality and its flaws. Essentially, Hazzard is a language poet, albeit an evolved one with various strategies for developing and framing his free associations. The results range from brilliant to skip-able to arduous depending on the success of these strategies.

The opening poem, 'Moving In', is ostensibly a narrative poem, an attempt by the author to guide us through a landscape and series of events that have a particular significance to him - in other words, the opposite of language poetry, in which meaning is arrived upon through language play. Linguistic embellishments are modest but effective; 'The orange trees, after all, seem to clutch themselves', 'night is simply the folding over of fingers, leaned into a steeple'. Having lived with this collection for a while, I now suspect the narrative is illusory; Hazzard probably began this poem with language play, and continuously reworked it until it looked like a narrative. This gentle surrealism crops up throughout the book, and is consistently diverting, but never startling – if these poems were dreams they’d be the kind that made good anecdotes, not the kind that shock you awake with palpitations.

The second poem is organised very differently. 'The Inability to Recall the Precise Word for Something' consists of a list of obscure word definitions, eg. 'Someone who hates practicing the piano'; fittingly, I couldn't recall the word for any of them. The poem does recreate the sensation of reaching for language and not quite getting there, but it's a sensation of mild annoyance, like the inability to solve a crossword clue. Not feeling able to express yourself adequately in English is a pretty hefty social issue; I'm not saying that's can't be expressed through language games, but I did wish this poem had a bit more clout.

Poetry that begins with language play can be more powerful than this, and there are poems in which Hazzard succeeds in inferring much more potent emotions. My favourite poem of this collection is 'Entre Chien et Loup'; the title is a french phrase that literally translates as 'between dog and wolf', an expression meant to describe the time in the evening when there is still a little light left, but not enough to tell the difference between a dog and a wolf. Here, Hazzard takes on a voice that is pompous but simultaneously self critical, and has a one sided, almost prayer-like conversation with his muse, language poetry figurehead Lyn Hejinian.
'Though ostensibly civilised by my refusal
to lust after what I am unable either to attract or afford
I worry I only think I own nothing
Hazzard seems inspired by the conversational pretext, and the poem that emerges ties brilliantly re-made language, (‘I mow on, fish-eyed, pink-lobed’), to complicated relationships and ideas. Is the title self depreciating, or does it reflect the speaker’s fear that he cannot ever fully perceive the world around him? The simple act of addressing the poem to a public figures enlivens every aspect of Hazzard’s language play.

Similarly, the distinctiveness of the voice in ‘Glasnost’, that of a creepily besotted office worker, ties together a frantic series of non-sequitors. The importance of distinguishing ‘texture from the appearance of it’ becomes less academic construct and more real life concern when it’s placed in the context of a character pining for sex. The flawed protagonist, rhyme scheme, and cadences are very reminiscent of Michael Robbins, eg. ‘Can you believe we were ever strangers? I’m leaving you everything except my corneas’. This is a compliment. Rhyme and free association arranged into anxious monologues offer a rich seam to mine, and Hazzard duly mines it.

In short, I don't want to write that language poetry is whimsical or apolitical – that would be a gross over-simplification. However, I do think you have to work that bit harder at it to ensure the poems do something measurable before they drift past, and by continually refining his composition tactics, Hazzard will achieve that with increasing regularity.

Buy the Kindle ebook

Buy the paperback from Carcanet

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

My POEM podcast with Ahren Warner

I am very grateful to POEM for giving me permission to create this podcast, and to Ahren for taking the time to do this and giving me so much insight into his work. The poems Ahren reads here are from POEM's first issue, and will also feature in his new collection, 'Pretty', due out in June. If you'd like to find out what you can expect from 'Pretty', this podcast will tell you everything you need to know. As ever, if you enjoy this, I'd really appreciate it if you could share it around.

POEM on Facebook

POEM on Twitter

Ahren Warner's website

Pre-order 'Pretty'

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Newsstand-style apps for book publishers?

As Publishers Weekly recently reported, the conference producers TED have decided to publish their 10-20,000 word non-fiction ebooks via a dedicated TED app. I bought a book via the app to get an idea of the format: 'A Haystack Full of Needles' by Jim Hornthal was a fairly enjoyable overview of current dilemmas facing developers of internet search engines, (by which I mean every internet service that requires searching, so dating sites and music recommendation sites as well as Google), and the solutions they've come up with so far. But I'm not going to write about that today.

What I find interesting is that they've essentially taken the Newsstand app format and used it for books rather than magazines. For those who've not succumbed to buying an iPad yet, Newsstand apps display all of a magazine's issues, and facilitate in-app purchase of monthly and yearly subscriptions as well as individual issues. The magazines have fixed layouts; typically each page fits the width of the device held horizontally, and you scroll down to read the rest, which is the perfect solution for poetry. You can also build in audio, video and lots of high-res images for that sumptuous, expensive look, (note: if you're going to do this, please enable background downloads).

Why is it such a great idea for book publishers to offer digital subscriptions, rather than just individual ebooks? For established niche publishers, reinforcing your status as a reliable curator is hugely important to sales - I know I'm not alone in checking favorite publishers' websites first when I want to buy a new book. So why not encourage readers to formalize a relationship that's already fairly well established? Some print publishers already use a subscription model: Peirene Press have successfully sold subscriptions of up to three years to readers who trust their taste in translated short fiction. People are busy, and if you can bring great new literature to them when they haven't the time to go and search for it themselves, they'll often be happy to make the investment, and sit back and let you do the work.

In a digital marketplace I'd argue that the benefits could be even greater. Amazon and iBooks don't highlight recent picks from small presses in the way some book shops do, so brilliant new books get lost under an avalanche of re-packaged classics, and customers are unlikely to find your books unless they know exactly what they're looking for. (iBooks, I recently discovered, don't even allow you to search by publisher.) An app is obviously an investment, but once that icon is on your customer's iPad, it's a perpetual reminder to come to you first when they need something new to entertain them. You could even make use of iPad's push notifications, which interrupt whatever else the person is doing to point out you've just released an exciting new translation. Which is one way of making sure someone buys those digital books you're just spent a fortune developing.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Can the internet choose you a book to read? pt2

Those with good memories might recall that this is the second time I've tackled the subject of literary recommendation systems. I thought it worth revisiting to reflect the some recent developments, and also because I think literary recommendation systems are incredibly important. Poetry is a fiendishly difficult genre to discover your taste in - book shops hardly stock it, so you often end up buying blind, and I'm still on the hunt for a poetry book reviews website that doesn't drive me insane. Goodreads is improving, but I'm bad at remembering to update it, so I need more options.

Book RX is the newest project tackling the book recommendation problem. It analyses your tweets to try and predict which books you might like to read, which is an exciting idea because it neatly sidesteps the problem of having to enter the details of 50+ books you've already read before you can get any meaningful recommendations. I also like that it feeds off a service you've already signed up to, rather than making you fill out another social media profile.

Unfortunately, BookRX doesn't currently recommend poetry, although I'm told it's coming soon. I spent a while entering various usernames to look at whether they were recommended different books, (they were!), whether the recommendations were more interesting than classics and bestsellers, (mostly!), and what information was used to come by the results.

The lists of hashtags and words used to recommend particular categories and books are fascinating because they show you how BookRX ends up either getting it right, or getting it very wrong. I can completely understand how their system would see that I'd used the words, 'training, player, draw, shirt, mate, race, fan, shame, train, upset' and conclude that I want to read books about sport and fitness. However, if it were capable of looking at the context those words were used in, it would change its mind pretty quickly. 'Shame' almost certainly referred to the film of that name, 'shirt' would have been me talking about expensive tailored shirts, 'draw' was referring to having to draw up a poetry app sitemap... You get the picture. I have no interest in reading about sport.

In order to work, BookRX needs huge volumes of data about how people who talk about certain things behave. It's obvious then that users with niche interests will take it longer to figure out. At least for a while, BookRX is more likely to be interested in the most popular cultural things you tweet about; in my case, it was much more interested in my Eurovision live tweeting than the literary magazines and writers I follow.

Nevertheless, I really hope BookRX gets lots of attention, go give it a try because every set of data they receive helps them fine-tune the system.

Friday, 21 December 2012

My Favourite Poetry Books of 2012

2012 has been a strange year personally for me; I've achieved a lot, (a first, two wonderful internships), but haven't really felt able to celebrate any of it for various reasons. So I've retreated into culture, and not regretted it at all. Reading these books has been the tiny little bit of joy I've managed to squeeze in around the endless grind of internships and retail work; they really have made my year. So if you've not bought them yet, I suggest you do, along with my favourite 2012 albums Quaratine by Laurel Halo and R.I.P. by Actress. (Since it's the season of giving, I've linked to sites where you can buy physical copies and avoid giving your hard-earned to nasty tax dodgers. My 'digital theme' will return next year, I promise!)

There is no number 5 because I couldn't decide between Bevel by William Letford, 81 Austerities by Sam Riviere and Emergency Window by Ross Sutherland.

1. D.A. Powell - Useless Landscape or a Guide For Boys (Graywolf)

"Before the flatland is occluded
by the staunch of light at end of day,
I wanted to be content with all its surfaces:
weed, barb, crack, rill, rise..."   from Tender Mercies

The back cover of Useless Landscape is an ordinance survey map, presumably of Georgia, where Powell was born. The scale reads '10 POEMS to the inch', which seems an apt considering the exquisite detail in which Powell has rendered his home environment. As thick with memories as they are with heat and nature's fecundity, these landscapes bear witness to history, hook-ups, rural life, rape and suicide. The flora and fauna, the crass intrusions of industry and human life, Powell's memories and current state of mind are all seamlessly interwoven into one of the most perfectly realized universes a poet has ever created.

2. Michael Robbins - Alien Vs Predator (Penguin)

I don't think there's much left to be said about Robbins joyous pop-culture rhyming festival, so I'll quote my original review:

'Robbins is adept at sidestepping every reason contemporary poets have for discarding rhyme. For instance, rhyme can make the craft behind the poem visible; all the agonizing that goes into finding that elusive half rhyme that's also semantically perfect. Robbins doesn't agonize here - of course he chooses words because they rhyme. He's the New Yorker's very own Des'ree...  The voice in Robbins' poems issues put-downs, boasts, ('I make love to an ATM. I enrich uranium'), gossips, ('Your tribe's Doritos are infested with a stegosaur'), makes threats, ('I'd eat your bra - point being - in a heartbeat'), and complaints, ('Am I supposed to be impressed? My smoothie comes with GPS'). Importantly, it's never at ease, which I suspect is what makes it stand out against the placid voices that seep through poetry journals, seeming to blur the ink.'

3. Eduardo C. Corral - Slow Lightning (Yale)

Corral creates so many contrasts in this book that it's difficult to know where to begin in describing it. So I'll start with a joke. In the third poem of Corral's 'Border Triptych', two Mexican immigrants trek across the desert towards America. "Sapo shits behind a cluster of nopales, & shouts out our favorite joke, No tengo papeles!" The first poem in this triptych also ends with a flash of brilliant humor, but the middle poem offers no such relief; the protagonist narrowly avoids being raped. Corral continually shifts between languages and tones; stories, characters, and meanings proliferate. He also has the knack of creating unusual images that make the book a joy to unpick; 'The deer passes me. I lower my head, stick out my tongue to taste the honey smeared on its hind leg.'

4. Jane Yeh - The Ninjas (Carcanet)

I have yet to read a better depiction of awakening from a period of sadness than 'This Morning', the final poem of this second collection from Jane Yeh. 'It was to breathe the sausage-scented air, and feel/ The throb of the washing machine like a second heart'. The Ninjas flits between describing such quiet days spent inside, and the lives of Yeh's beloved androids, witches, ghosts and of course, ninjas. In insisting on the normalcy of mythical figures and the strangeness of everyday life, Yeh's work might appear to have some relationship to nonsense verse, yet she is much quieter in her rhymes and rhythms. The result of this quietness and subtlety is that you'll find both the joy you expect from surrealism, and the empathy that you don't. The Ninjas is a very recent find, so if you ask me again about this list in a few months it will probably have jumped up a place or two.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments. I'm currently waiting for a UPS person to arrive with my new iPad mini, so expect my future posts to discuss all things iBook and app related!

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Review: Alicia Ostriker - The Book of Seventy, (Pitt Poetry Series)

It was the four poems that appeared in the February 2011 issue of Poetry, each describing the world from the viewpoint of an old woman, a tulip, and a dog, that first alerted me to Alicia Ostriker. The old lady in these poems has attained a clarity of perception that contrasts with the dog's sensory overload and the tulip's propensity to being swayed by beauty, but is her clarity desirable? I became attached to these figurative voices, remembering them as I showered and cooked and ironed shirts at work. Eventually, I bought The Book of Seventy in the hope it might expand upon the ideas I'd first encountered in these poems.

Reading The Book of Seventy, you quickly learn that Ostriker aligns herself with the figurative old woman in hoping for, and to a degree attaining, a new perception of the world as she prepares to leave it. In 'Approaching Seventy', she refers to the paintings completed by de Kooning when he was suffering from Alzheimers;
A field of cerise another of lime
a big curve slashes across canvas
then another and here it is the lucidity 
each of us secretly longs for
By rendering de Kooning's art in a style that parallels its lucidity, Ostriker hints that she has found what she longs for; her simple syntax and strict one clause = one line form are the linguistic equivalent of de Kooning's brushwork. This style, used throughout the book, is disarmingly peaceful; not every line screams for attention, and as a reader you are continuously occupied but never really stretched. The poems attain a sensory equilibrium, and make you feel as though you've attained it too.

But is old age as enlightenment available to everyone, is it the complete picture of Ostriker's old age? In the same poem, she acknowledges the fear that it is not, asking the reader, 'do you know what is meant by the tide', with reference to a preceding allegory about the tide coming in. Ostriker might be able to portray old age with figurative clarity, but she knows that this will not shield her from its realities.

Other poems expand upon this theme, explaining that Ostriker attributes her new found clarity of mind to the menopause; the 'swamp' of lust 'cleared from her mind'. She is becoming more like the old woman, and increasingly alienated from the dog in April who enjoys, 'a concerto of good stinks'. Yet she acknowledges some sadness at losing the sensation that previously cluttered her mind;
what a joke sex is, though without it
no avenue to paradise
no human glue
In one poem, Ostriker unambiguously portrays clarity and precision as an inadequate response to the human experience. 'Laundry' removes the line breaks that guide the reader slowly through this collection's other poems, replacing it with prose that jumps back and forth between Ostriker's beautifully clean bathroom and a US run Iraqi prison. She expresses disgust at the sanitized language used to describe human rights violations; 'hooding, waterboarding, rendition', by contrasting them with language that is appropriately grotesque, 'the nude prisoners have been formed into a pyramid... A stack of magnified calves' livers'. The former is whitewashing, 'The bleaching of the news. The rinsing and spinning'. So, there are still experiences which resist a calm response, to which a messy, sensory response is necessary.

The poems which inspired me to buy this collection aren't included, but the three allegorical figures do make one appearance, in 'The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog', discussing what it means to them to feel blessed. The old woman's version of blessedness, 'God's love/ washes right through you/ like milk from a cow', represents the acceptance of an unstoppable process of change. But rather than building towards this pinnacle, Ostriker presents the old woman's perspective first, so the poem seems to slip away from it, and towards the more visceral blessings of the tulip and the dog. Ostriker may aspire to have, 'less interfering with my gaze', (from 'West Fourth Street'), but in her central allegory, the dog, whose perception is still muddied by his numerous attractions, has the last word.
To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
of God
inside you
and all the other dogs
can smell it

Buy The Book of Seventy as a Kindle ebook