October 14th, 2014

I am tempted to re-open my notebook. I had to close it for a while. Ironically while I wrote my book An Aviary of Small Birds. But a lot of colleagues tell me they use the site as a teaching resource. So I have paused. There is [still] a pause. PAUSE.

Harry v The Robots

March 8th, 2012

I type the word ‘pantoum’ and already the autocorrect feature in WordPress is converting it into the word ‘phantom’ as if the word itself is struggling to remain ethereal and abstract. I read somewhere that the form ‘excites resistance’.

The original Malay ‘pantun’ / ‘pantum’ or ‘two cut’ was a poem designed to be written aa bb. The two couplets ought to have entirely separate subjects which are linked thematically eg. stillness: a single bird on a powerline and snow on the roof of a parked car. Malay poets use the first couplet for fine natural observations while the second couplet has a focus on what this means to the human subject. Following our progression the bird on the powerline and the snow could easily have a concluding couplet about being paralysed in the face of a powerful decision, or to be true to the instincts of the bird we could remove the potentially dangerous aspect of electrocution and the poem could become about safety, vantage and opportunity.

Whatever our decision is will inherently steer the poem’s displacement. Thanks to a bit of history, of which more here, we expect the form to do something different now and it has entire lines, repeated. The lines should fall like this: [1st verse] first line, second line, third line, fourth line, [2nd verse] second line repeated, fifth line, fourth line repeated, sixth line. This reminds me of something else that repeats itself, is abstract and ‘excites’ my ‘resistance’. Automated customer service lines.

It’s relatively easy to get into a loop with automated customer services numbers. With my bank all I have to do is push * then 1 then * then 1 and so on. The recorded Mancunian accent on the other end of the line doesn’t flinch when thanking me for my choice, “Thanks. Okay I now have four options for you.”

What I really needed was a customer services robot that would respond to written human input. There are various reservoirs of amazing programs that work in a customer services capacity. It was time to test out some robots!

This robot is Cleverbot:


Here is Ikea’s robot who finds love difficult:

This one is an insurance salesman in France. I am asking him if he believes in God. It’s a surprisingly pertinent question as ‘an act of God‘ is often cited in insurance contracts:


This is Brian (clearly rather big headed).


Then I found Lucy.


By necessity we have to start from a point of natural input. While punching buttons it didn’t take long for the idea to settle that in order to get a good loop going I need someone who sounded as unquestionably grateful and acceptably sympathetic as my Mancunian banker. I will never be able to have a conversation with him. He is just a voice in the aether.

Jane Austen was a writer of substantial wit, bravery and skill. So I’m sure she wouldn’t mind my choosing Mr. Darcy who is in my  view both unquestioning and incurious to the point where I struggle to take his character seriously beyond the realm of a plot Macguffin. Darcy raises just three questions throughout the entirety of Pride and Prejudice. I fed these three questions in various forms through the bots, but it wasn’t until I arrived on his letter that I struck gold with Lucy and we started to get the repeating lines of a pantoum with that same sense of infuriation. Apart from lines one and three, the rest was pulled from their dialogue. Here is the result:

Conversation Between Mr. Darcy and O2 Customer Services Robot ‘Lucy’ During Mr. Darcy’s Unfortunate Transformation into an O2 Customer Services Robot

Mr. Darcy: I must now mention a circumstance which I would wish to forget myself, and which no obligation less than the present should induce me to unfold to any human being.
Lucy Robot: I’m sorry but I won’t be able to answer such a long question.
Mr. Darcy: You may imagine what I felt and how I acted.
Lucy Robot: I’m sorry but I have not fully understood your question. Please see the FAQs.

Mr. Darcy: I’m sorry but I won’t be able to answer such a long question.
Lucy Robot: Apology accepted, what else can I help you with?
Mr. Darcy: I’m sorry but I have not fully understood your question.
Lucy Robot: I’m glad you understand.

Mr. Darcy: Apology accepted?
Lucy Robot: Unfortunately I have been unable to recognise your question.
Mr. Darcy: I’m glad you understand.
Lucy Robot: I still couldn’t recognise your question.

Darcy Robot: I’m sorry I didn’t recognise your question, please can you rephrase this?
Lucy Robot: Apology accepted, what else can I help you with?
Darcy Robot: I still couldn’t recognise your question.
Lucy Robot: I’m sorry I didn’t recognise your question.


Want to see more? Cornell University have conducted some interesting experiments with chat bots talking to one another, more here

Photo Love: The Hitcher, Hannah Lowe

November 14th, 2011

This coming year is all about reading. I won a scholarship to study for a masters and my plan is to use the time to read as much as I can. As readers of this blog will know I like to take photos, although I’ve been far less prolific recently; through NOT taking photos I’ve realised that photography is a big part of my creative process. I’m very much more connected to the world around me when I photograph it.

This summer I read Dostoyevsky's novella The Gambler. It's compulsive reading and was written in a month while he was writing Crime & Punishment. His publisher had got him to sign a contract handing over the rights to everything he had written or would ever write unless he delivered on time.

One of my aims with Open Notebooks is to think about how we can use the blog as a form in itself, to do something in the space that you wouldn’t do elsewhere. So the plan is to respond to a book of poetry in photographs and write about it on the blog. They won’t be traditional reviews in that I’m most interested in the emotional impact of the work and how this translates to the visual and how, in turn, this might influence my own writing.  They’ll also most likely be short.

Last month Jocelyn Page booked me to read at Lone Stars: Poetry and the American Imagination with Tamar Yoseloff and Hannah Lowe amongst others.

Hannah's biog says she's lived in Ilford, Santa Cruz ...

and Brighton.

I was excited to hear Hannah read as I’d read an article by her in The Rialto and was captivated by both her poetry and approach.

'...But this street/just links one dirty corner to another ...' from The Flowers on My Balcony in The Hitcher, Hannah Lowe (Rialto, 2011)

One of the things that caught my attention was the work which centred on her father who was Jamaican Chinese and a professional gambler. I also have a Jamaican father who has been known to like a flutter.

From Now That You Live in Hoxton. '...We were bored, I said, done with the chicken emporiums, pound shops/and chain pubs, no matter we'd fallen in love in/The Crown over pre-packed lasagne and 2-4-1 pints.'

Hannah’s work takes you to ‘dirty corners’ but there is a luminescence in its truth that makes these places magical. Even the Elephant is [almost] exotic. Her poetry is unflinching yet full of hope and light.  She writes about family, relationships, friends, love, sex, affairs. There’s a universal element to her work even though it’s very singular at the same time. It’s full of movement; she likes terza rima and it keeps the pace cracking along.

'You are reverent in the half light, splendid as a tree.' From The Picnic

These are poems that want to communicate and be understood. They made me feel like she and I live in the same city in similar yet very different ways.  I found her ability to inhabit her own, often crepuscular, landscape inspiring with its ‘dim-lit poker clubs’ and ‘the orange glint of cigarettes on balconies’. It made me want to go back to my journal and write what I feel; to say ‘so what if I’m writing ANOTHER elegy for my son’; and to meet her for a pint in The Crown.

You can read more about The Hitcher here.


Matt Bryden on Writing an Unconventional Sonnet

October 30th, 2011

Every now and then I invite other poets to guest blog on Open Notebooks. I bumped into Matt at a reading I did last week and he told me about working on this sonnet. It was perfect timing and a perfect fit for Open Notebooks as the process IS very much the poem. I love the way it looks and I love the magical, almost divinatory wonder of discovering text within a text.


A couple of days ago, my friend Suki Kalsi, who is an artist living in York, visited my new flat in Camberwell. While walking along Bellenden Road we popped into the superb Review bookshop, host of the Peckham literary festival. This is not the time to mention the book of Egon Schiele’s paintings of Cesky Krumlov, or the fact I picked up a copy of 10 featuring our own Karen M-W, rather that Suki was amazed to find a copy of Tom Phillips’s A Humument, which she had studied during her fine art degree in Exeter. Not only that, she was amazed to find he was a resident of Peckham! (I later took to her Peckham Rye, where Blake saw the angels.)

An example from A Humument

Philips is an artist, and A Humument is his project which has been running for 40-odd years. Having read William Burroughs’s comments on cut-up techniques, which inspired David Bowie among others, in 1965 he purchased a forgotten Victorian novel, A Human Document, by W.H. Mallock, and began ‘treating’ it, blocking out parts of the text, and creating links between different words. He then painted the page too.

In its treated form, A Humument tells the often amorous tale of ‘Toge’ (who can only appear when the novel uses either the word ‘together’ or ‘altogether.’) The sheer amount of care taken to transform each page, and the beauty of the language, which often makes oblique sense as fragments of poetry, makes it one of those meisterwerks whose founding ideas are so simple, yet whose execution is meticulous.

Philips only ever worked on his project at night, unsure whether it was a folly. However, it has since become a cult, especially in France (where people like la vie amoureuse, perhaps).

I’ve recently started a course with Roddy Lumsden at the Poetry School on Form&Music as a spur to my own writing in form. This has worked, in so far as I have written a few conventional sonnets. However, for this week (week 4), we’ve each been asked to bring in an ‘unconventional’ sonnet of their own. Fresh with my exposure to A Humument I took an oblique conventional sonnet of my own about losing the sight in one eye, and began blocking out words to find patterns in the text. This is what I came up with:

It was a collection of monosyllables with vowel sounds: ‘o’, ‘eep,’ ‘ou’ (x4), ‘igh’ (x3) and ‘I’ (x3), and some monosyllabic ‘l’ sounds: ‘le’, ‘li,’ ‘la,’ ‘il,’ ‘el,’ ‘ol’ (which reminded me of ‘La Ilah Ila Allah’ – ‘there is no God but Allah’). I then thought the existing phrase ‘Lost my bearings’ fitted with this text well.

However, although I liked the sounds when I read them aloud, I thought it was doing too much. So I split it into two pieces:

I liked the latter better. This would do for my unconventional sonnet, I thought. However, having opened up the text, as it were, I realised there was a lot more going on (and it was fun!). The next close look revealed this:

I liked how the blocked out words resembled clouds out of which things were revealed. The ‘wo’ and ‘aw’ sounds seem to register pain at being ‘lost’ in the previous piece. While doing this I noticed the five ‘we’s in the text, which I would use later, and also that three of the capitals spelt the word ‘SON’:

There was a pun of sorts, with the SON revealing itself from behind clouds. I began hunting for other members of the family. I found:

I thought that the ‘we’ piece would fit well coming either before or after this list of family members:

It was at about this point that I realised my unconventional sonnet would comprise 14 of these treatments of the original poem. The sonnet perhaps lends itself to pictorial play, as readers of Don Patterson’s introduction to 101 Sonnets, with its comparison to the golden ratio, will be familiar. My sonnet also has a clear visual break into two halves, hinging on the word ‘Now.’ Given the fact that the subject of the poem is eyes, it is not surprising that I found themes of doubling and darkness in my ‘treatments’.

My next page was a contrast of adjectives and nouns –

The next two worked well together, as many facing pieces in A Humument do.

This latter was in full Tom Philips mode, and I was amazed to find it. How was I going to do six more?

For number nine, I blocked out the second half of the poem (fitting the title ‘One Pane’) imagining a second counterpart poem. However, it didn’t need one in the end, as it seemed to suggest its counterpart already.

Also, I didn’t want it to be possible to read the original poem in its entirety so easily.

The next three took the most trouble – I chopped the poem into words (NOTE always increase the font size before doing something like this, or you will go mad!) and followed the Burroughs method of rearranging the words into new forms. This made three ‘new’ poems.

Sadly, while the poem ‘One’ looked fantastic on the dark teak table I arranged it on, it looked less dynamic glued down to white paper.

First 'new' poem

Second 'new' poem


Third 'new' poem

I wanted to use every word of the original poem, so the title ‘One’ has a few addenda, and four words/pieces of paper were reversed and used as speech marks in the final piece.

That was enough for the evening, so I slept, thinking I’d broken the back of it.


The next two were done on the bus, and have a kind of narrative. The first is about an imagined Transylvanian.

Ideally, I would capitalise the beginning of the (three) sentences, but didn’t know how. I thought about getting out the caran d’ache and dividing the poem into three by different background colours, but somehow wanted to stay monochrome.

The last treatment (so far) repeats the trick of ‘SON’ and finds the word ‘OWL’ among the capitals. By scavenging for ‘owl’ words I found bough, thighs, down, squint, orbit, field, diving, hoot and wing. In Tom Phillips overdrive, one sentence gave me ‘wan rider.’

I was interested that two such nocturnal poems were in a poem that was initially about sight. It also followed that an owl can see in the dark, hence the poet/poem has somehow regained ‘its bearings’ since the first poem.

So the next step is to pretty them up, present them more clearly, add colour to the poems to show SON and OWL are titles, and then reproduce them for Monday’s group.

I have never previously engaged with poetry concrete before, but I like the space it gives each word, especially how there is a mix of the handwritten and typed in the resultant version (I’ve always preferred the look of my poems when handwritten). There is also the fun of the enterprise (the ‘ludic’ spirit which informs Philips’s work) – getting down on your hands and knees, rearranging words into phrases, scribbling things out. I look forward to seeing what my classmates bring, and learning whether they think what I’ve come up with is a sonnet at all. In some ways I can’t believe how much I found in the writing. On the other hand, I am aware that Philips has spent 46 years developing his initial idea, so am careful how deeply I tread.

All the pages of A Humument are available at Tom’s own site:



Poem V Kettle

October 28th, 2011

In the first of the ‘In the Time it Took‘ poems, I decided to time various events during the day such as the time it takes for a tube to travel between Angel and Oval and to write poems in those periods and see what crops up. You realise after a while in London that on average about nine minutes of your day is taken up with delay. That’s certainly long enough for a short draft however bad and illegible the first attempt. So in that spirit, I thought that the only way to go would be not to cheat. Sometimes I have ideas floating around in my head for a few days, or even years, and the words gradually form around the idea like ice around a dust particle (or in one of my favourite phrases ‘a snow-forming nucleus‘). So I tried to avoid these ideas and go with whatever happened, turning these rushed bits of writing, however surreal, into poems. Here is the first, a poem in the time it takes to boil the kettle.

About to press start on the stopwatch


Starting the stopwatch!

The clock is running

Blurry stopwatch

At 2:56 the kettle grew to a crescendo and then clicked.

2:56 and the poem is complete

Here’s a transcript:

In the Time it Took #1

What was it that took them
out of the wilderness, droning
in through the window
to the silent smell
all hope of shade damaged
by the presence of a glass jail cell.

The nightmares flies must
have of newspapers the size
of old intercity trains
descending on them
the Sunday supplements
stalking them in hot parked cars.


And after a post-writing tinker, here’s the poem now:

The Secrets of Flies
What is it that catches their eyes,
a fanciful change of scenery
from the blue blur-wilderness
droning through the open window
to signature smells detected
in their feet, the helipad
of a fingerprint, the crinkled
toffee wrapper? Some how they
are master thieves, and with the door closed,
whole squadrons arrive
and like a victorious F1 driver
who never tires of his pride,
they do the same slow lap over and over.

The nightmares flies must have
of newspapers the size of intercity trains
colliding with them, the looming Kate Moss
face of a Sunday supplement
stalking them in hot parked cars
and after every escape between panes
that same deluge of suggestions
that comes after the event.


June 30th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from the poet Dorothea Smartt asking if I’d like to read at the Life Stories Cafe at Woolfson & Tay, a capacious independent bookshop in the heart of Bermondsey. Life Stories is a novel idea, a storytelling event, based on Pecha Kucha, an adapted Japanese presentation form, based on 20 images 20 seconds each.

I didn't know quite how I was going to approach the presentation until I saw this flyer on a friend's noticeboard.

As the theme was RECYCLE I jumped at it, even though I was mad busy and the deadline was short. Some of the images have appeared on Open Notebooks before, but that seemed to be part of the spirit of things. It mixes my poetry and photographs, which as regular readers will know, is an integral part of my process.  Coincidentally, writing a Pecha Kucha (as a straight poem, no images)  was one of the poem a day prompts for this month’s 30/30, which, being the superstitious beast that I am, I took as a serendipitous sign.

How To Build Your Own Gated Community

I’m not going to include the whole presentation here, partly because some of the photos have been seen on the blog before, and also because there were some ‘out takes’ I loved. I was struck by this elegant recycling by the people up the road.

Just when you thought the luxury brand was dead in the water...

I’ve been writing about death and the concept of spiritual ‘recycling’ for a couple of years now.

I wonder if the reason we need to buy things is because we're afraid of death?

I am very ambivalent towards Twitter, but I do like it as a way to get quick links to news. But it’s also a disheartening testament to the extent of our distraction that topics such as THIS are overlooked while people yak on about super-injunctions.

We're facing a 95% marine species extinction in one human generation. The sea is one of our most efficient recyclers, along with our trees and forests.

It can feel daunting, knowing that we are living in such catastrophic times. Yes, we do like our apocalyptic narratives, but environmental devastation is a reality; all we can do is try to minimise the extent of it do what we can to pull us back from the brink. But, as the presentation concluded, I don’t care whether it’s futile, I have to know that I tried. I do my little things: shop local, eat organic, write my poems and work on loving myself so I don’t have to buy stuff to do it for me.

Mandela reminds me of what it can take to make change happen and why it's so powerful to remember that we can.

I’m planning to recycle this pecha kucha live at an event in the autumn, so look out for it. Meanwhile, I need to get on with a bit of actual recycling…

In the Time it Took…

June 4th, 2011

to find my glasses I had invited Harry Man to be a Guest Booker.


I met Harry outside the Betsey Trotwood, a pub in Farringdon. We were both waiting to be allowed in to a Modern Poetry in Translation launch at the Freeword Centre. Harry has a mercurial mind and is a fascinating poet. He also likes mixed media collaborations and will be sharing an illustrated poetry project here.

This is our new kettle. The old one was boiled dry too many times because it didn't have a whistle. (Note passive tense: nothing to do with me!)

Harry wrote me an email in the time it took for the kettle to boil. I loved this idea and given that we met while waiting, I thought  our collaboration could work on this same basis. So over the next few weeks, Harry and I will be writing poems, notes, scribbles in the time it takes to…


Secret No Six: Offer No Excuses

April 30th, 2011

Katharine Hepburn said ‘never complain, never explain’. One thing I try never to do on Open Notebooks is offer excuses for extended absence. I also try to avoid extended absence. But now I have a very dear correspondent in the mix, so it is hard to keep to this resolve.


You will see I include Secret Number 6. This is because it is the not doing of this thing that has kept me away from the blog this month and a bit.

One thing that has happened since I received this letter with its fantastic back of envelope instructions is I have lost my notebook that contained the requested haikus. Losing the notebook was DEEPLY disruptive to my process. It threw me off kilter. I lose things more often than most people – this past 6 weeks I’ve lost: a Canon point and shoot camera, a SECOND pair of new prescription sunglasses and an expensive new badminton racquet. But the half-filled notebook was the thing that really got to me. What does it mean? Is there a larger significance to the things I let slip through my hands? The answer is undoubtedly too lengthy to contemplate here and now. Suffice to say I decided to start again with the haikus.


I resorted to a tried and tested formula: buy new stationery. In this case a rubber stamp kit where you set each character, like a hot metal press.


It was a wonderfully painstaking process and made me think about how much more slowly we used to live our lives.  Having to select each character with a pair of plastic tweezers and squash it into place really makes you think about what you’re saying.


I also wanted to make something for Miriam so she would know how important our correspondence is to me. Making something with your hands is one of the ways we express love. Maybe that’s why people get so passionate about modern conceptual artists who don’t make their own work. But love is also in ideas. And maybe even in Twitter?


Although I suspect that is pushing the point a little too far. But working with my hands helped connect me back to the heart, and that, for me is where the poetry lies.


March 2nd, 2011

I am writing a sequence about the moon. Today I am thinking about the colour blue.


I have been reading Louise Gluck (sorry, don’t know how to do umlaut here). I made a note of the word ‘cerulean’ in my notebook, along with some other words I wanted to look up for clarity: tenebris, bathinet, Shadrach. Etymologies, as well as definitions, can carry rich stories with them.


Louise Gluck has a cerulean quality in her voice. It is clear, pure, celestial, exact.


I just went downstairs and got a cup of tea. I was thinking about how I want to go out and find a blue flower, but it’s a little early for blue flowers. Then I noticed in my tea, that I have Earl Grey with bergamot and blue mallow flowers.

The little white cloud is feeling blue.

The little white cloud is feeling blue.

I’ve noticed that at home in the garden flowers seem to have an order. White is first (snowdrops), then yellow (forsythia, daffodils), then blue (hyacinths, forget-me-nots) wth hotter reds, purples, oranges coming after. Not an exclusive pattern, but a cycle I’ve noticed.

I was surprised to see gorse in bloom just up the hill from almond blossom. I think Spring comes earlier in Spain.

We went for a hike and ended up in a sea of gorse. I was surprised to find it here in Spain.

I’m thinking about Blue Mallow. What its properties are. I’m also resisting googling it. There’s a big library over the road and I wonder what will happen if I go down and have a look.


I couldn’t find anything in the library about blue mallow. It is clearly rare. As is a blue moon. Or perhaps something the tea company invented. Mallow is usually pink. This isn’t mallow, and it’s not almond either.


Almond blossom.

My running off to the library to find out about blue mallow did not yield anything other than the distraction that it was. Although I did see Fina, a beautiful white Alsation who lives in the blue house over the road. She likes a lot of attention. Which suits me.


I threw Pluto in the pool while playing with Christopher & Marisa’s other dog Lula. He looks a bit like a sun in the sky. But let’s not forget I’m after the moon. It reminds me though of a note in my book that came to me ‘out of the blue’.

Why is this tree growing out of a wall?

Why is this tree growing out of a wall?

Here it is: ‘Blue Moon, Oh Patron Saint of Swimming Pools and all things azure [could that be cerulean?] who protects us from inauspicious odds, and the stuff we never expected to happen, hear our prayer…’ Hmmm. Well it’s something to start with…Oh, and a secret…I too am feeling kind of blue today.


O is for…

March 1st, 2011

One of my favourite things about letters is envelopes. I recently received a very exciting one from Karen:


On the back

1) Write a poem where each line begins with a word beginning with ‘O’

2) Write a poem where each line ends with a word ending in ‘O’

3) Write a 10 line poem that takes place at night

4) Write a haiku before opening this letter that anticipates its contents

5) Write a haiku after opening this letter than summarises its contents

It took a whole morning and a large dose of self-restraint to complete the tasks before opening Karen’s letter. Here’s the haiku I wrote just before opening it, anticipating its contents:


One revolution,
a bird, swimming or flying.
Winter, a secret.

When I opened it, I discovered where all the ‘O’s came from:


This wise, old gentleman is neither swimming nor flying.

Our correspondence helps me to play, to not take writing too seriously and to worry less about whether what I write is ‘good’. Here are two of the poems from Karen’s tasks, just for fun:

1) Write a poem where each line begins with a word beginning with ‘O’

Bromo Erupting

On every slope and furrow, it settles,
Ominous thick black ash.
Only the shoots of the green peeking
Onions survive, their smell pressing
Over the landscape, the bikers, the peeling blue vans.
Only the billowing mountain-cloud
Owns its own choices
Out in the flat, marbled lands.
Older than ancestors
Open now
Ogled at


I recently visited Java, Indonesia, where I stood in front of an erupting Mount Bromo. See my last post.

The word that sparked this poem was actually ‘Onions’. The smell crept into everything.

3) Write a 10 line poem that takes place at night

Last year, I wrote a letter to Karen about the night market in Malacca, Malaysia. This task prompted me to write it into a poem:

Night Market, Malacca

Who will buy the latest suction gadget
from Korea, the magic wallet with no seams
or a potato swirled to a tornado
on a stick? A custard tart, a sweet green blob
of stickiness, a toy Toyota, six pairs
of pink and yellow earrings shaped like keys.
The night breaks out in fairy lights and neon,
boom boxes and kids. Who will try the potion
concocted by the kung fu master
who splits the shells of coconuts with just one finger?

Potato Tornado

Potato Tornado

I don’t know if Karen has received these poems yet, but she is offline on retreat, so hopefully she will only discover them in the post…

Travel photos by Hristo

Karen McCarthy Woolf

karenreddressfull Karen McCarthy Woolf was born in London to an English mother and Jamaican father. Her poetry pamphlet The Worshipful Company of Pomegranate Slicers was selected as a New Statesman Book of the Year. She is also an editor. Check her website for more.


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