Two Books, Twenty Years

Apologies for being so silent this year – I’ve been busy putting my first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation together – more to follow very soon. But I did just want to note that 2018 is the 20th anniversary of my debut The Heavy-Petting Zoo! (Twenty years as a poet, wow, that’s almost like a career or something.) I wrote the book in sixth form; it came out at the start of my second year at university.

I read it again recently, and it has a few awkward poetic fumblings. The cover is also perhaps a bit on the nose – a, erm, literally heavy pet. (But this was before the internet, and the only relevant image I could find on the shelves of Bolton Library in half an hour whilst my mum did a supermarket shop).

Still, I think it stands up as testimony to teenage yearning and I’m generally pretty proud of my young self (I still find myself reciting snatches of ‘Breakfast Poem’ when I have a hangover. ‘I’m strawberry-jam sickly; I’m bacon dead. / It’s always morning when the ghosts appear -‘)

The University of Bolton is currently putting together a literary map of the town and I’ve been asked to read at the launch on April the 19th (details to follow), so that sounds like a fitting occasion on which to celebrate HPZ‘s birthday – Boltonians do put the date in your diaries and we’ll get nostalgic over drinking Diamond White and jumping around to Supergrass in Hawthorns….

By coincidence, 20 years ago I also met Hannah Sullivan, who interviewed me about The Heavy-Petting Zoo for Varsity at university. We enjoyed our conversation so much we carried it on a few weeks later over absinthe at her college, and it has never really ended. So I should also say that one of the absolute highlights of my year so far has been attending the launch party of her debut, Three Poems (Faber).

For the twenty years I’ve known her, Hannah has been working towards and living with these sequences which tell the story of her (our) adulthood. They’re really like nothing else out there. If you’ve not yet listened to this recording of her reading ‘You, Very Young in New York’, do – it’s crazily good. But it also feels radical for such keen intelligence to be applied to motherhood in the brilliantly titled ‘The Sandpit after Rain’: ‘This is the world and the entropy of things, / The plugged dyke and the sea coming in, / The emendation and the unforced error, / The floor before a toddler’s pasta dinner’…




Very pleased to announce I have a deal to write a nonfiction title for adults about picture books for Fig Tree – the stories behind our childhood stories… Featuring nonsense, Flower fairies, the Mr Men, Babars suits, the invention of flapbooks, Miffy’s virgin birth, thumb sucking, roasted grasshopper with ladybird sauce, nazism, matchgirls, chinese burns, poo, the naming of pets, tragic affairs, ‘That’s not my Princess’, Dogger, wraggle-taggle gypsies, my father’s psychic abilities, wild rumpuses, universequakes, nudity, the mum in ‘the Tiger who Came to Tea’ and forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree.

Thanks to Jenny Hewson who is now representing me at RCW.

Santa is getting Cate a lot of books this year. And if you see me over the festive season I’ll be talking excitedly about why ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ was banned in Communist China.

Mood: The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast


(illustration by Hilda Boswell)

Submit / Subscribe

Modern Poetry in Translation is now open for submissions through Submittable. It’s going to be permanently open. If you translate a poem, I want MPT to be the first place you send your work, whether you’re a professional translator or it’s your first attempt.

I’m extremely pleased to announce my first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation is going to have a Caribbean focus. I’m planning to follow that with an LBGTQ issue in summer. Do please spread the word!

And if those issues sound as exciting to you as they do to me, please think about a subscription for yourself or someone else this Christmas. An annual subscription is a mere £23, for three completely beautiful 128 page magazines that will enhance your poetry shelves (I mean, the paper), plus full access to the digital catalogue. Every issue will give you insight into different poetries – new forms, radical approaches, fresh voices. If it’s a gift we can also send you a PDF that folds into a lovely card.

On Friday at the MPT away-day we were treated to a look at the archives at the British Library. I loved the handwritten, earliest correspondence from Ted to Daniel Weissbort – particularly the advice that: ‘The lifeblood of poetical translation is this: not to change a good poem into a bad one.’


The magazine has such an amazing history, that we all have a chance to participate in. We need more subscribers to carry on our work – allowing poetry to bear witness; giving voice to the silenced and excluded; creating an international community of translators and readers. This feels more important than ever in the wake of the UK Brexit vote.  So please, do support us! (Also, if you need further present ideas, this Jeremy Deller towel would make a good gift).

Various Rainbows

I’ve had a stressful few days juggling work with a sick, mucusy, furious baby, but in the interest of counting blessings, I did enjoy teaching at the Hurst for Arvon last week with the wonderful Steve Ely (who is insanely knowledgable about everything from Rwandan history to Willow Tits), managed to do some reading, and had one long, bright, blustery walk on which I saw this rainbow:


The last night’s group performance was just one of the best I’ve heard too.

Also, Asha’s collection ‘The Sea-Migrations’ was THE Sunday Times Poetry Book of the Year! So proud and pleased for her and the Poetry Translation Centre! Why not buy a copy for a Christmas present?

Some online stuff to draw your attention to as well. Firstly, tomorrow the seasonal tradition that is the Modern Poetry in Translation Advent Calendar begins. A poem a day – it’s been a pleasure looking through the archives and helping choose some of them. Do follow us at @MPTmagazine (and can I just quietly whisper an idea in your ear: gift subscription).

My mood was also really lifted this morning by this lovely review of ‘Incarnation’ by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs for London Grip.

And this podcast I did for the RLF in which I chat about the nonsense poetry has also just gone up (I’m ten minutes in, giving a talk about Jabberwockies and Jumblies). Something to listen to whilst wrapping your Christmas presents perhaps…

Now must blow my baby’s nose whilst she screams ‘ow’.



Pebbles, Poems, Friends

At the weekend I was in Aldeburgh, in the chill, blasting sunshine of a glorious autumn weekend: taking part in a panel for the Society of Authors, buying smoked cockles off a hut on the pebbled beach, catching up on poetry gossip in The Cross Keys, and listening to some wonderful readings: Bernard O’Donoghue, Lavinia Greenlaw, Jacqueline Saphra’s sonnets about Lee Miller from her Hercules Editions pamphlet A Bargain With The Light (set off rather wonderfully by surrealist canapés of skewered eyeballs and meringue nipples), and the brilliant Ishion Hutchinson reading from his Faber collection House of Lords and Commons – this poem, ‘After the Hurricane’, in particular, felt awfully relevant (flies returning to genuflect / at their knees, on Aunt May’s face.) Many thanks to all the volunteers who make Poetry in Aldeburgh possible and so special.

Then on Monday I headed to Queen’s College Oxford, as they generously hosted a launch for Sasha Dugdale’s final issue of MPT, which has a Russian and Ukranian focus. It’s a double-length issue packed with wonderful things. David Constanine’s Hölderlin translations were exquisite. It was also very special to hear Maria Stepanova, and Sasha’s own translation of her ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’, a mindblowing 26 page masterpiece that is the issue’s centrepiece and the best thing I’ve read all year. Honestly, I felt like I’d just heard ‘The Waste-Land’ for the first time. You can read her editorial and an extract here, or why not subscribe to MPT instead?

I also want to say something about Sarah Maguire, who very sadly died last week. She was the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre and a huge influence on me: encouraging me to think I could translate though I’m not a linguist and bringing me round to her conviction that ‘poetry only ever develops through translation’. Without her Asha and I would never have published The Sea-Migrations this month, and I don’t think I would be taking on the editorship of MPT. She was a superb poet in her own right (read ‘The Florist’s at Midnight’ and feel your heart break), a superb anthologist (as a fellow gardener, Flora Poetica is perhaps my favourite anthology of all time), a superb translator of Arabic. But I will remember her most of all sharing gossip over heaped plates of Persian food with dried limes and saffron, or dancing joyfully with the women at Somali Week. I visited her in her last month, and she was still surrounded by flowers and friends. RIP Sarah.

The Sea-Migrations

Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s The Sea-Migrations is now real!! Here’s my beautiful copy:


I’m so pleased I’ve been able to work with Asha over the last ten years, and be involved in putting together this book with Bloodaxe and the Poetry Translation Centre. Buy your copy here.

Right now, it feels more vital than ever that we listen to the voice of a black, Muslim woman who has lived in exile in the UK for 20 years, and whose poems explore patriarchy, colonialism and immigration. But describing her poetry in such a way also feels strangely reductive – first and foremost Asha is just one of our most important writers. These poems are astonishing formal feats, and expand my sense of what poetry can do.

It’s really worth listening to her live too, so please do come along to one of our upcoming launch/tour dates:

– British-Somali Women Poets at the Southbank Centre – October 24th, 7.30pm

(Our London launch! One of Time Out’s picks for the London Literature Festival. Do come, even my mum is coming)

– Sea Migrations Reading in Sheffield, Burngreave Library – October 26th, 7pm

(I’m also leading a translation workshop earlier that day if you’re interested…)


The Lady or the Tiger

Last night I was part of a panel talking about Sylvia Plath’s new collected letters (1950-63) at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, alongside Erica Wagner and Matthew Hollis. And so for the last week I have been steeped in Plath’s letters, reading them on every journey, every night, in every snatched moment, skimming occasionally (I admit) but trying to glean all the pleasure and interest I could out of them before the event. They are full of delights. The earliest -sent to her mother from summer camp – make post-war America seem utterly alien. She spends her whole time trying to feed herself up, gorging on steak and puddings until she can hardly walk. Plath obsesses over tanning, collects stamps and only has a shampoo every two weeks. Camp activities include a minstrel show and making ashtrays.

Sometimes Plath’s hyper-articulacy and attempts to sound mature and successful backfire. There are some very funny letters to a German penpal where she explains Christmas trees and skiing to him (Americansplaining, perhaps). As she gets older, too, her attempts to get published are unbelievably shameless – at one point she writes two villanelles in a day and sends them off that afternoon to the Atlantic and New Yorker. (The New Yorker send them back saying some of her rhymes don’t work, especially ‘up’ which is ‘not even an assonant rhyme.’ She cheers herself by sending them a third villanelle immediately). In her letters about the college dating scene too, she asserts a world-weary bravado that doesn’t always fully convince but is very enjoyable (‘the dearest boy – just eighteen, very unspoiled and quite delightful…’)

But in these letters we also see Plath’s vulnerability, as she keeps up a brave face for a mother who ‘reverberates so much more intensely than I to every depression I go through’ and has to constantly take second jobs and account for every penny to keep up with her richer classmates. And we watch as she becomes a really exquisite prose writer, hungry for experience and evoking place perfectly whether describing babysitting or a cocktail party, a new York summer or a hospital ward. There are so many marvellous details that bring her to life. Plath’s attempts at making an ‘esoteric’ dinner with ‘consommé in champagne glasses’; her brimming sexual desire, which makes her feel like a ‘feminine H-Bomb’; her obsession with cocaine nose-packs for her sinuses (her fury when they are not provided on the NHS is palpable). There is a letter to Gordon Lameyer about the many parts she plays – ‘serious creator’, party girl, ‘sun-worshipping pagan’ – where she asks: ‘shall we release the lady? or the tiger?’ There is also her growing realisation that she is foremost a writer, and that ‘I have to live well and rich and far to write’.

Near the end of the volume too there are the letters about Ted, including a couple of wonderfully sharp ones from Yorkshire – rapture at the romance of Bronte country quickly souring to complaints about the food and Ted’s mum’s ‘sloppy cupboards.’ And then just a few letters to Ted himself – astonishing things to read. You get the sense of them as true literary partners, Plath’s writing lifting up a whole other level as she articulates her love. It very much leaves you wanting the next volume, which is due out in October next year…

Now though, the next thing on my literary calendar is Poetry International at the Southbank Centre this weekend. I’m involved in two events if you’re interested – I’ll be attending the (free) Modern Poetry in Translation event on Saturday night, where I’ll be raising a glass to Sasha Dugdale’s wonderful editorship and there will be readings from Golan Haji & Stephen Watts, and I’m also chairing a panel that asks ‘How Can Poetry Respond to the Present?’ on sunday.