Freelancing (poetry-style)

Well this has been a proper full-on poetry week.


Monday my publisher/producer/director/magician Tom Chivers and I met with Sarah McCartney of niche perfumery brand 4160 Tuesday, who is going to be creating a scent for the show-version of The Shipwrecked House. Sarah was very generous with her time and let Tom & I smell all sorts from her collection, I think my favourite was The Dark Heart of Havana, which I am definitely saving up for. I don’t normally get vivid colours when I smell something for the first time, but this evoked to me the colour of honey. Really, it’s a perfume about the dark side of the night, it’s sugary and dark, and exuberant, what’s not to love really? Me being tangentially involved in perfume thanks to Penning Perfume is quite funny really, mainstream brands tend to remind me of the insides of cars, but working with all sorts of creative and wonderful perfumers has shown me a much more invigorating and intriguing side to that world. So if you are someone who doesn’t think perfume is for you, I do recommend you sample some of Sarah’s wares.

I listened to myself reading some of the poems that will feature in The Shipwrecked House show on the way up in an attempt to learn my lines. It’s slowly working, though poems that have a call and answer (such as Sing Bird) are proving tricky to remember in the right sequence.


On Tuesday, I returned to Oxford to judge and give a short reading at the Martin Starkie Prize, named after the founder of the Oxford University Poetry Society. The last few weeks have been interesting for me, as I judged not one but two poetry prizes for the first time (results of the Iain Rennie competition should be announced soon). I’ve edited before but judging is a very different kettle of fish, you don’t always find yourself rewarding the poems you fall for, you find yourself swayed by a brilliant image here, the promise of future brilliance there, an intriguing concept elsewhere. You find yourself worrying whether the winner is incontestable (whatever that means!), you start doubting your very own ability to judge, you want to reward poems that weren’t afraid to fail a little in their attempt to push boundaries.

It must be very different when you’re part of a panel, more compromises, more debate, other people to blame for your choices. On the flipside it’s also been fascinating to sift through such a variety of voices, some loaded with so much potential. In the end though, I remained pleased with my final choice, Theophilus Kwek’s ‘Ultimate and Penultimate Things’, which subtly grew on me the more I read it. I’m a real sucker for forms going hand in hand with content, and this was an excellent example of it.



Daisy Johnson
Conor McGillan
Sarvat Hasin
Adam Leonard
Nasim Asl


Theophilus Kwek

I was glad to finally put a name to poems, and had a wonderful time both at the readings and at the drinks afterwards… Particularly good to meet the new OUPS president Leo Mercer, whom I’ve been in virtual contact with before, and a previous OUPS president April Pierce.

I made the most of my Oxford visit to also catch up with my Other Countries: Contemporary Poets Rewiring History co-editor Gareth Prior to discuss the current submissions. Our consensus so far is that we need more pre-early modern history poems, and also more non-European voices (which isn’t to say you should restrain yourself from submitting that 18th century Lithuanian poem if you have one).

I also popped into the end of the Hammer and Tongue final to say hello to Salena Godden and catch the winner (the lovely Tina Sederholm), so all in all quite a busy whistle-stop visit.

The wonderful Salena Godden

The wonderful Salena Godden


Wednesday I travelled to the University of Kent in Canterbury to give a talk with Helen Ivory and Kate Birch (of Ink, Sweat and Tears). It’s the third time Helen and I have been on a panel together, all very different experiences (the Poetry Library and the Ivy Club were the first two). I think this was my personal favourite in terms of audiences, which mostly consisted of their MA students. The students were very entrepreneurial and engaging, and I hope that we’ve given them some hope and ideas of what they can do to promote their endeavours. I think it’s drawn home for me the need for students to have access to more help and advice when it comes to things such as social media and arts council applications, and fewer attitudes of gate-keeping. We were wonderfully looked after by Patricia Debney and David Flusfeder, and I came home loaded with goodies to read…

Oh and they took us out to dinner in a place that has a Shipwreck Tart, I kid you not (cf picture).

photo 2 (1)


After travelling in the morning, I spent the rest of my day preparing for my Poetry School course livechat in the evening. This week I’d asked my students to personify a home and while they did admit that it was a challenge, the results were seriously impressive. It’s a real pleasure working with them – they all have different styles and accept this rather than trying to mould each other’s poems into a factory-setting. I’ve just sent out the last assignment, one more livechat to go in a fortnight – I shall be sad when it is over!


No travelling, hurray!

Friday was mostly spent catching up on various pieces of admin that had accumulated while I was away. The Arts Council Grant for The Shipwrecked House also finally came through so I took my brother out for lunch and tried to convince him to let me cut his hair (he said no).

Plans are afoot to maybe visit NYC in the autumn, I have never been to the USA before and hate flying, but it would be wonderful to see in the flesh the backdrop of so much pop culture. I’d love to combine the visit with some readings, so if you have any pro-tips, I’d love to hear them…


So far, writing this, in an elaborate procrastination scheme: I’ve been commissioned to write a poem for someone’s 50th (in French and in English). It’s nearly there, but reaching the stage where I need to print everything out, take out the blue pen, and possibly start again.

This really has been an exclusively poetry-based week, which looks set to continue in coming weeks with the start of The Shipwrecked House rehearsals.