After ModPo: a few thoughts

I’ve blogged about MOOCs and ModPo (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry) on more than one occasion.  After two previous attempts, I’ve just completed ModPo 2015’s 10-week course: I read the poem texts, watched and made notes on podcasts and videos of poem discussions. I decided not to write any of the four assigned essays.  Neither did I offer comments on discussion forums.  There just aren’t enough work-free days in my week to fulfill those commitments.

Why did I ‘do’ ModPo?  Maybe I wanted to prove to myself that I do have ‘staying power.’  Maybe I wanted to devote even more time to reading, for a while.  The more I read, the more I’m aware how poorly read I am – woefully so, in terms of American poetry.

Anyway, before I consign another A4 spiral-bound notebook to the nether regions of my study, I’m allowing myself time for reflecting on what I’ve learned.  Said notebook is rammed with cut-and-pasted-in poem printouts, annotations and contextual notes. The wretched thing won’t shut.  As I type, it’s on the dining room table beside my laptop – mouth half-open.  It’s got so much it wants to say but that’d make for a very long blog post.

I’ve spent the past ten weeks reading/listening to the modern and contemporary American poetry that constitutes the ModPo syllabus – meeting almost all of the poems and poets for the first time.  Many of them are what you (read ‘I’) might call ‘difficult’ poems.  I would certainly have moved swiftly on, had I encountered them during solitary web browsing.  I might not have persevered as far as a second, never mind a close reading.

ModPo has been a ten-week act of interrogating the language of each poem: its sounds (including sonic translations of the work of others), the writer’s creativity – or deliberate uncreativity(?!), choice of form or constraint (or lack thereof) and whether form reflects content.  And what of the writer’s choice of words? What happens when Gertrude Stein frees a subject/object from its imposed name?  What happens when language is freed from the conventions of syntax?

That notebook is making me ponder how much I might have missed/passed over in my poetry reading to date.

Some commonalities amongst the ModPo poets:

Each poet interrogated language – its sounds/words/syntax/structure – to extract or communicate new meaning or truth.

Each poet radicalised the conventional use of language and ‘made it new.’

Their poetry requires the reader – or listener – to work harder in search of meaning which lies in ‘how’ rather than ‘what’ is written.

To paraphrase a closing comment from one of the ModPo TAs: How can we, as writers, interrogate language to represent our own narratives and confront our shared experience?

Charles Bernstein said that the point of literature is not to give answers but to ask questions.

If poetry is about the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what,’ then am I looking – or listening – hard enough?

ModPo course materials are available for use until Sept 2016.  Today is the last day for registration if you’re interested.  There’s no fee.  Here’s the link.


Word Art

This is not the blog post I set about writing.  (That’s the nature of the beast, I hear you say).

In August, I visited the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition as a first-timer.  TV documentation of the selection process, exhibition preparations and the launch event didn’t come near.  I won’t gush.  Suffice it to say that I loved the juxtaposition of different styles, subjects and media against the vividly-painted walls:


and sculptures that parted the throng of visitors as they commanded floor space (not least among them, Cork Dome, by my favourite sculptor, David Nash).


By now, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the title of this post – unless, of course, you’ve seen Tom Phillip’s Humument.


This year, the artist was honoured with an entire room dedicated to what has become the work of a lifetime.



Chancing upon W. H. Mallock’s novel, The Human Document, in 1966, Tom Phillips imposed some constraints upon his love of wordplay but admits that “serendipity is [his] best collaborator.”

Here’s the first treatment of page 33, where he began in 1966:

First version 1973

web source:

and its revised treatment in 1994:

4th Edition, 1980 - Page 1

web source:

Here’s a re-working of page 4 (2007) that stopped me in my tracks:

4th Edition, 1980 - Page 1

web source:

You can read about Humument’s origins, Phillip’s page treatments and revisions here.  You can also view the complete work as a slideshow (although there’s a lot of mouse clicking/navigation involved), including the original pages of text.

I’m still exploring…

When a book won’t let go

I might have said this before: I’m a slow reader.  It can take me weeks to read a weighty novel.  Dense text, small font size and narrow spacing puts me right off.

I like a page that’s easy on the eye.

With plenty of white space around the words.

Something that I can read




if I need (or want) to.

“Like poetry”  I hear you say?

So I understand, to some extent, how pupils with specific reading difficulties feel when faced with page after page of the stuff.  You can see the panic in their eyes each time they turn the page.

I love my work as a teacher and tutor of struggling readers. I love guiding them through the morass: facilitating background knowledge, making it relevant; ‘picturing’ powerful passages as screen shots (with sound effects.  Why not?); finding the poetry in the prose (goes without saying) and all that grows a lifelong love of books and reading.  (Yay, verily, the State Education policy-makers doth now acknowledge the importance of Reading for Enjoyment, gawd bless ’em).

One of the highlights of my teaching week is the hour I spend with a dyslexic pupil whom I’ve tutored for the past five years.  A large part of the ground we cover, these days, is the advance reading of class texts. Like this meaty (and mighty) read:


These lessons are very much a shared experience, down to the rollercoaster of emotions that comes from empathy with the main characters (even though I’ve read ahead).  Last Sunday afternoon, and having reached the Big Reveal on page 222, the book just wouldn’t let go.  I HAD to read the last sixty or so pages right there and then.  To leave the ‘picture’ on pause would have been unbearable. (The roast dinner could wait; the book wouldn’t). So I read on, with the text as my film script, the images and sound effects as captivating (and horrific) as any cinema experience.

Wednesday’s lesson was a hurtle to the end, with total immersion.  I read key passages and my pupil read the letters which moved the plot towards its climax (yes, we cued the soundtrack) and tied together the remaining loose strands.  The lesson ended in a three-way conversation as her mum (and shared reading partner, between times) joined us and talked about the profound effect the book had had on her, too.

Amen to the power of words and the art of writing.

NaBloPoMo #1: Jack-o’-lanterns

Until I read Josephine Corcoran’s latest blog post, I’d never even heard of National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo, for short).  And, no, I’m not about to set myself up to fail by committing to daily posts but, hey, what better way of getting my blog out of the doldrums than a touch of seasonal colour:


At school on Wednesday, it was all hands on deck as staff and parents assisted Reception and Year 1 children in the carving of approximately 120 pumpkin lanterns!  The cats and I are enjoying a lazy weekend (avoiding all things Hallowe’en-related) – but, en route to my favourite coffee shop, I couldn’t resist snapping this display of Jack-o’-lanterns in a florist’s window.  Quite a show-stopper, don’t you think?

For a brief history of the Jack-o’-lantern plus a demo, by Steve “the world’s fastest pumpkin carver” Clark, click here.

And, via the Academy of American Poets newsletter, I came across this poem by Carl Sandberg:

     Theme in Yellow

I spot the hills 
With yellow balls in autumn. 
I light the prairie cornfields 
Orange and tawny gold clusters 
And I am called pumpkins. 
On the last of October 
When dusk is fallen 
Children join hands 
And circle round me 
Singing ghost songs 
And love to the harvest moon; 
I am a jack-o’-lantern 
With terrible teeth 
And the children know 
I am fooling.


Sarah James micro-reviews Beyond the Tune

In her most recent micro-review post, Sarah James says:

The vivid sensual details of the first half of the pamphlet bring a whole era to life, with subtly startling yet apt memorable lines, such as “tannin, bitter through the Tate & Lyle scree”.

Of the collection’s darker side:

Not all stories from the era are sweet though, a darker side revealed in the hauntingly beautiful poems of the second half that gradually bring us back through poems that could be then or now to the present day and then the present day looking back, linking us again to the pamphlet’s opening.

On her journey as a reader:

Each re-reading brings new connections with these evocative and atmospheric poems.


From “my spine | a river of running quavers that stick | to the soles of my sensible shoes” (Sin É) back to “ re-set your body clock to seal a time line” (Grace Notes), and then immersed again in a constant invitation to “Slip beyond the tune.” (Grace Notes)


Sarah James has been widely published in poetry magazines and anthologies.  She has published four full-length poetry collections, most recently The Magnetic Diaries (Knives, Forks & Spoons Press) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press).  She co-edits poetry small press V.Press.

Beyond the Tune review: Under the Radar

Deborah Tyler-Bennett, reviewing for issue 15 of Under the Radar magazine (Nine Arches Press):

…the volume of poems that really blew me away this time was a slender pamphlet collection from Soundswrite Press, Jayne Stanton’s Beyond the Tune.  I’d heard Stanton read a few times, but that did not prepare me for the sheer elegance and grace of her first volume.

On lines from Flown, and Suave and Debonair:

…her collection… has a musicality to it and rare lyricism

On first reading Beyond the Tune:

…a collection I’d return to time and again, as poems were economic and demonstrated that, in the poetic line, less really can mean more.