1. The Final Front Ear

    Written by Ian McEwen at 11:57 am


    How many ears does Mr Spock have?


    The left, the right and the final front.

    Maybe working on Magma 57 has addled my brain, but the old playground joke seems to me about the best summary of the role of shape/space in poetry.

    In an early version of the editorial for the magazine I tried to list the ways poets had ‘used’ shape in the issue. Certainly visual effects in poems are sometimes indices of some other property the poet is seeking – timing the breath, semantic emphasis, making equivalences/non-equivalences more explicit and so on. The eye is often engaged to guide the ear and/or the voice and/or the train of thought. (In the course of proof corrections several poets have explained to me their thinking behind some of the arrangements and they are at least as various as this – though the poem always gets the final word.)

    There is at least one reason why such a list can never be satisfactory. Invention is inexhaustible – poets will find new ways of writing beyond the confines of any fixed list of technique. That’s to be expected. However the more I tried to complete my list the more obvious it became that there was something faulty with my presumptions.

    Anne Berkeley’s snail poem, to take one example, didn’t just delight me, but brought smiles to all the team in our final editorial meeting. (The poem is titled ‘Helix aspersa’ and you will find it on page 10 of your copy!) There are several ways I could suggest this poem ‘uses’ its shape, which both recalls the silhouette of the snail and highlights the poem’s formal properties. I would also say that it also makes a kind of slow expansive gesture (and gesture is integral to forming both thought and feeling). Yet the whole idea of poet as ‘user’ of the poem to manipulate something falls short of what we see in even such a simple (can we say ‘light’ without it sounding pejorative?) example.

    A poem is space and words and and and…it is an object that celebrates being here, in front of us. The materiality of a poem is of its essence and to always insist that these properties are ‘used’ for something else forces us to step aside from the poem itself – perhaps too often the pit that lit. crit. leads us into. It is surprising how often I come across people who report that the academic study of literature turned them off poetry. When some wag comes up with a list of 340 possible allusions in a J H Prynne poem I myself feel somewhat turned off: but then the poem still sounds great, still moves in the way that an intellect moves, still occupies a piece of the world (and possibly that ‘340 allusions’ is an intended reductio ad absurdum of some of the literary world?).

    Poetry does not like conclusions, so I hesitate to give one, but please engage all your ‘ears’ to enjoy the poems in Magma 57 – the left, the right, the final front of the eyes, and all those other ways I cannot list – to engage with and enjoy these new things in the world.


  2. Who said it? A male or a female poet?

    Written by Claire Trevien at 11:00 am

    Every competition it’s the same thing, we poets get sucked into endless debates on Facebook as to whether there is a ‘male’ of ‘female’ way of writing and whether this is responsible for female writers getting less coverage.

    So here’s at last a way for those who believe so strongly in the gender binary to test themselves. Among these poem excerpts (taken randomly from whatever I had closest to hand: magazines, anthologies, pamphlets, and of course the internet) can you guess which ones were written by a man and which ones were written by a woman? To make things more balanced, I’ve also included excerpts by two openly genderqueer poets (i.e poets who sees themselves as other than male or female).

  3. Poems that come free with a tube ticket

    Written by Jenny Wong at 3:00 pm

    When you commute to work or make your way home, it is always such pleasure to spot and read, in your part of the train carriage, poems that crop up unexpectedly in the Underground. This year being the 150th anniversary of London Underground, new poems have been added to the existing, diverse range of verse displayed on the tube, ranging from Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, 1802’ to Jo Shapcott’s ‘Gherkin Music’. What’s there to admire is not just how these poems stand as self-contained works in their own right, but the way they have conversation with each other as responsive texts. By posting them in the same public space, we are invited to consider and compare their themes, imageries and contexts.

    For example, John Agard’s ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture acknowledges Wordsworth’s Sonnet ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’ ’ enters into dialogue with Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’. Highlighting the difference between Wordsworth’s daffodils in the Cumbrian landscape and the Haitian hills where the revolutionary leader L’Ouverture grows up, Agard imagines how L’Ouverture might respond to Wordsworth’s poem, and sees poetry as a tool to articulate liberty, regardless of one’s language, origin or location. In Derek Mahon’s poem, ‘J P Donleavy’s Dublin’, one is shown an anti-clockwise clock reflected in a bar’s mirror, which engages with Kamau Braithwaite’s ‘Naima’ where John Coltrane’s saxophone music fills the space of a jazz bar: ‘he leans against the bar / and pours his old unhappy longing in the saxophone.’   Reading these poems from the red-and-blue moquette seats in the carriage, as the train passes through one station after another, one is imbued with a strange feeling of self-awareness and geography. We are invited to enjoy and reflect on the poem anonymously, in the company of others. Sometimes, the commute is long enough to allow passengers to repeat and memorise the poem.   Evoking faraway lands, exotic cultures or tumultuous times, these poems address the importance of understanding, calling for more empathy and equality: in Lorna Goodison’s prose poem ‘Bam Chi Chi La La London, 1969’, the Jamaican charwoman in the West End who used to work as a teacher in her home country would sing ‘Jerusalem’ to herself and recite the Romantic poets while she cleans the hallways and toilets; in Lotte Kramer’s ‘Boy with Orange (Out of Kosovo)’, we are confronted with a lone child refugee who ‘crossed the border with uncertainty’; while Nigerian poet Niyi Osundare’s poem ‘I Sing of Change’ speaks out against an unfair regime, hoping for ‘the beauty of Athens / without its slaves’ in ‘a world reshaped’. The political realities in these poems prompt the reader to confront the impact of the city’s social issues on his or her world, especially the impact of economic policies, immigration restriction and a widening wealth divide.   A handful of the selected poems are translated from other languages. Reading Li Bai’s poem ‘Listening to a Monk from Shu Playing the Lute’ translated by Vikram Seth, I am surprised by what is gained in good translation: how the grandeur of Emei Shan (Emei Mountains) and the cleansing power of lute music are expressed fully even if (understandably) the 5-word verse form and rhyming structure cannot be preserved as a result of translation. The very act of inviting passengers to read these poems from diverse places represents the meaning of ‘travel’ itself, as the passenger-reader’s state of mind is transported from one place to another. It also reveals the power of poetry in evoking what lies beyond the reader’s immediate social and political experience.   If you find your tube ride’s too short to enjoy the full range of poems, why not get a copy of the anthology and finish the entire collection: Poems on the Underground: A New Edition by Judith Chernaik (Penguin Hardback Classics 2013).

  4. 13 days to Christmas, 4 days to enter the competition

    Written by Jenny Wong at 12:00 am

    It’s never too late to write poetry…

  5. Magma 54 launches at the Troubadour

    Written by Laurie Smith at 12:55 pm

    Another packed evening as well over 100 poets and friends met at the Troubadour in Earls Court, London, on 19 November to launch Magma 54. The Troubadour’s famous cellar was full as the editors, Cherry Smyth and Judy Brown, each hosted half the evening. Each poet read two poems – one from Magma and another – which gave great pace and variety. Everyone published in an issue of Magma is invited to read at the launch if there’s space and poets come from all over the country. Many have told us this is the first time they have read to a large audience and they enjoy appearing in the same line-up as some well-known poets.

    Cherry started her half with strong readings by Martin Kratz (Manchester) and Anna Kisby (Brighton).

  6. The importance of place

    Written by Helen Mort at 10:00 am

    Where do you write your poems? We’re fascinated by the places where poetry happens, the idea that inspiration might not just be a moment-in-time but in a moment-in-place. The Guardian’s regular feature on is popular for just that reason: there’s something very compelling about being able to see inside an artist’s study (or shed, in the case of Louis de Bernieres), almost as if we imagine there might be traces of what provoked the work snagged in the hairs of the carpet or shadowing the walls. As if a room can be responsible for a poem. No wonder writers become almost superstitious about the environments they write in, from Andrew Motion’s insistence on a bare desk to Michael Longley’s presiding talisman or “genius loci – a raven created out of scrap metal by the magnificent Scottish sculptor Helen Dennerly.”

    But others find the notion of a writing room restrictive. As Philip Hensher remarked: “I don’t have a writing room, and don’t want one. I’ve never written successfully at a desk.” As someone who writes primarily on the move, I can sympathise with him. Most of my best poems are composed when I’m out running, walking or even rock climbing (though hard rhymes and hard reaches can make for a hazardous combination). There’s something about the rhythm of moving through a landscape that helps the rhythm of the poem and something about the strange, half-delirious states that distance running can induce that helps me form unusual connections. I often take an initial idea or line for a poem out for a run with me and build on it, trying out different phrases that suggest themselves. As the poem grows, I become increasingly terrified I’ll forget it. But, inevitably, by the time I get home, the best lines have stuck and only the weaker ones, the ones that didn’t quite work, have been forgotten.

  7. Launch of Magma 51

    Written by Jacqueline Saphra at 9:00 am

    What an evening it was. A cold night, a packed house, and the utterly complementary talents of Pascale Petit and Selima Hill as our guest readers.

    We were also fortunate to host a large number of contributors, many of whom had travelled some distance – from Sweden, Switzerland, Brussels and even California.

  8. Magma’s Early Days

    Written by Helen Nicholson at 11:53 pm

    I’ve been around Magma since before it was Magma, a name chosen “to suggest the molten core within the world, hidden as deep feelings are and showing itself in unpredictable movements, tremors, lava flows, eruptions”.  Magma began not so much as an eruption but as a slow burn.

    It must have been in the summer of 1992 when Laurie Smith and several of his City Lit poetry class decided we wanted to carry on reading and discussing our poems after the end of a shorter-than-usual summer term. So, we spent the summer bringing bottles and poems to a different flat or house each week. I remember helping wash up in the small kitchen of a flat in a Vauxhall and feeling enormously excited about the idea of starting a poetry magazine called Urban Fox.