Friday, 8 January 2010

Postcards from the Snow

Well, the New Year's off to a particularly cold start, rendering the outside world beautifully picturesque or treacherously hazardous, depending on your point of view. Personally, I'd like to try and show the best of this unusually snowy spell by interspersing this post with various photographs taken around my adopted hometown(s) of Lytham St. Annes and Lancaster.

And, for the benefit of those who haven't seen, here's a copy of their recently published review of In Memory of Real Trees, followed by an accompanying interview. Thanks to all at Central Lancashire Writing Hub for all their help and support!


In Memory of Real Trees is the follow up to Mark Charlesworth’s debut poetry collection and, once again, there is much to recommend. Landscapes familiar to Sunrise and Shorelines are revisited but with a much keener eye. A gothic gauze is once again laid over the world in Dark Forest, Cemetery Song, Bitterest Sin and Anatomising the Killer, but there is progression from the first collection; Charlesworth has moved on from the musings of a younger poet and speaks with conviction about love, desire, hope and fear.

In many of the poems, love often fails to thrive, or if it does it is inextricably bound up with despair and death: “Love is a parasite deep in the grave”, says the narrator of Victims of Love. Love brings no happiness, only horror, as the macabre conclusion shows:

“There are times in life when we will always feel
Just like little dead girls lying on the beach.”

Even in the more hopeful love poems – Ghosts #2 and How to Stop Time, for example – Charlesworth brilliantly communicates the paradoxically insubstantial and yet permanent feelings of love:

“One second’s intensity can burn an imprint on time
-fleetingly seen from the corner of an eye-
Forge two ghosts together in inseparable binds.”

In Attic Room and Heart-Shaped Hole, however, the tone is less embittered, and a yearning honesty seeps out in the end of the latter. Behind all the nightmarish images, lies a simple human desire for companionship, the narrator saying that the simplest, throwaway pleasures

“would feel a little more extraordinary
With someone else there by my side.”

Interspersed with these seemingly personal concerns are sketches of other lives, damaged and loveless. Second Hand Model and Love Song focus on the mutability and superficiality of youthful beauty, while Collateral for the Company tells the story of a lonely man who is literally worked to death.

One of the strengths of In Memory of Real Trees is the way in which personal and global hopes and fears are interwoven, as demonstrated in the two poems which bookend the collection. The individual anxieties in Damaged Goods in Transit are writ large for all humanity in the aptly named Decision Time. Individual crises parallel the predicament we face as a species.

“Do you feel vulnerable dark and cold?
Too tired to sleep,
Too empty to weep...”

evolves into

“And if we settle for a doomsday scenario
On whose shoulders will rest the blame?”

Like love, a utopian society is possible, says Charlesworth, but not without effort and pain. We first have to walk a road “marked by repentance, recant and repair / or broken bones, regrets and mistakes”. Urban landscapes are as blighted as inner worlds. The city is a dark, bewildering, dangerous place and produces fractured, alienated people, with the opening stanza of Ghosts #1 echoic of both Blake’s London and Eliot’s Wasteland:

“A multitude of drifting shadows
Moving through the city street abyss
Forever haunt the same street corners
Where unseen ropes bound lifeless wrists”

Similarly in Early Morning Commuter, the narrator’s mindscape is mirrored in the world beyond his train window – the “tide of pollution”, the “rain-swept” tower blocks and the “dampness of a disconnected world” all driving him to find escape, both physically and mentally, in “a field of daffodils” where he “begs to be devoured”.

Like those in Sunrise and Shorelines, these are complex poems and demand to be read and re-read. Many of the pieces are dreamlike in their structure, making the world of the collection disorientating and obscured. As readers, as in life, we long for the world to make sense and inevitably it doesn’t; something which is captured well in these poems. Indeed, many of the poems are about the almost impossible task of finding a calm, meaningful space amidst the maelstrom. That aside, Charlesworth’s linguistic inventiveness sometimes gets a little lost in the whirling disorder and so, for me at least, the longer poems are not always as engaging as the shorter, crystallised observations.

There is evidence, though, of a poet finding his voice. Shipwreck, Bees and Bernese Winter are amongst the best in the collection because there is a more judiciously structured progression of ideas, the reader is drawn into the narrative, and there is a more accomplished control of images:

“The frozen green river was picturesque for a while
before absent festive ice-skaters left it still.”

“...the shop-keeper traipses to a cellar store,
cutting spectrums of fabric, lace strands and silk,
in burgundy, violet, thunder-sky-scarlet,
stoking incense, candles and spices enticing...”

Remarkably, Charlesworth has suggested that he is currentl writing his last collection of poetry. Personally, I think this would be a great shame as there is obviously so much potential here for him to become an excellent poet. He is clearly prolific and watches the world carefully. If more work emerges from Charlesworth, it would be nice to see a shorter, more thematically-focused collection which will allow the reader to savour the richness of his language and the poet to cut the skin of a particular aspect of human experience sharply. In the meantime, it is well worth reading In Memory of Real Trees. These poems deserve your time.


It's 3pm and I'm standing outside Caffe Nero, waiting to meet Mark Charlesworth, the poet. Mark is also standing outside Caffe Nero, waiting to meet me. The only problem - as we eventually realise – is I am in Lytham and he is in St Anne's.

One quick bus journey later we are ready to start the interview, no real harm done. It's an occupational hazard when there's a ubiquitous Coffee House on every high-street. We chose Nero because Mark is a vegan and here in Suburbia the major chains are the only place you can get soya milk. I say this because it seems typical of the myriad contradictory challenges of Modern Life which so fascinate Charlesworth: where we are forced into making bizarre choices between Veganism and Globalisation, or Fair Trade V Organic, Locally Available V Superfoods. Mark's poetry finds modernity confusing, worrying and often painfully self-aware.

I have armed myself with a Vegan-friendly green tea and a serious expression, but within five minutes of meeting, Mark has used the words 'warm and fuzzy' to describe one of his favourite poems, and concludes the interview with a persuasively positive slant on the recession. While grappling with dark and socially aware themes, there is ultimately an irrepressible love of beauty throughout Mark's writing which makes both reading and listening to him a pleasure.


Daisy: The Central Lancs Writing Hub (formerly Preston Writers Network) focuses on the Lancashire literary community. Do you believe specific places can shape and inspire its inhabitants in unique ways and have any places particularly inspired you?

To an extent, yes. This latest book really began to take shape after I attended a wedding in Blackpool. After a while the music began to grate a little and my friend and I decided to go for a walk. It's weird because I've always slagged off Blackpool because of its seediness, its tackiness, and the commercial aspect of it, but we took a walk through all that, quite a way out onto the beach, and then we turned back to Blackpool... All the illuminations were sparkling, like Christmas lights, and it looked almost picturesque. We were seeing Blackpool from this whole new perspective. It started to rain then and the lights through the rain looked... fuzzy. [Laughs] - You don't get words like that in the book, 'warm and fuzzy', honest. 'Carnation' was the poem that eventually emerged from the contrast between the tackiness of the golden mile and the original seafront which attracted the Victorian tourists in the first place. It wasn't the first poem I wrote for the book, but it was the one which gave it structure.

I've also always enjoyed going to Leeds on the train, through the hills and the bleak industrial towns. Despite all the crumbling buildings, there's a beauty about them, set into the jagged hills, which Southerners might not get. The poem turns round the clichés and throws them back at the detractors. The picture on the cover of the book is of Fairhaven Lake, another inspiring spot.

Daisy: Could you tell us a little about your background?

I'm twenty-three, and a Northerner born and bred; I went to college at Cardinal Newman in Preston, before studying English at UCLAN. The course there had some optional creative writing modules, and while at college my English teacher always encouraged us to submit writing to him. I self-published my first book, Sunrise and Shorelines in 2008 and am launching my second book of poetry, In Memory of Real Trees, at The New Continental on the 28th of November. I feel the first book gave me the confidence to start down the road of self-publishing, and with the second I've introduced more of a theme and concept to the work.

Daisy: In terms of poets, who would you cite as influences?

That's hard, I suppose I haven't followed poetry in a linear fashion; Simon Armitage certainly, and Ted Hughes. I'm a big admirer of Baudelaire, especially his poem 'A Carcass' which is about this disgusting cadaver but somehow Baudelaire manages to make it almost beautiful... I think the first book displayed these influences more prominently, it was straight up Nu-Gothic – one reviewer called it that and spelt it that awful 'N-U' way! (Ed. Whoops so did I). Who else? I admire Roger McGough's stark, concise stanzas which somehow manage to contain so much emotion. Then there's our new poet laureate, Carol Anne Duffy.

[The interview here deteriorates into a discussion on the merits of Duffy who still brings back bitter memories of school and forced readings of 'Valentine' for me. Mark suggests I should revisit her as he didn't appreciate her work until he was older, and thinks teaching her in school is a mistake.]

Daisy: I'm interested in the distinction between music and poetry, are there any musicians who have inspired your poetry and to what extent do you think the two forms are interrelated?

I think certainly the line between poetry and music is blurred at best. I'm a big fan of The Smiths. I remember someone read some of the lyrics out in a presentation while I was at University and it was strange how un-lyrical they sounded read aloud. The magic takes place in the way he sings them, and so I suppose there is a distinction there. I also love Nick Cave - the way he constructs lyrics is so totally idiosyncratic, they almost shouldn't work but they do. I also like The Waterboys, especially their song 'Bring 'Em All In', which is extremely poetic.

In first book two of the poems are actually adapted from song lyrics we'd written, and in the new one the poem 'Bitterest Sin' also. It works both ways too, a friend recently read 'Second Hand Model' from the latest book and called me to say he thought it would work really well as a song. So that's a case of poetry inspiring music.

To diverge from the question slightly, I went to an exhibition earlier this year at the Tate Modern which looked at the connection between poetry and painting: Poetry is a snapshot of the world much like a painting is; it takes one concise idea and inspires a train of thought and emotion, and I thought that was a nice idea. In the book the poem '11 Self Portraits' was inspired by this.

Daisy: Are you PC literate? What forms of so-called 'social networking' do you favour and what have you found most effective in creating publicity and maintaining interest?

Yes I'm certainly part of the PC literate generation. But you have to pick and choose, because there are so many different ways to communicate out there that you can spread yourselves too thinly. I looked into various different options to publicise my first book and at the time the buzz about Twitter was just getting started. But Twitter really didn't appeal to me; I don't like the way it reduces everyone to soundbites, whereas with blogging you can actually construct varying arguments, and people can state their case and back it with evidence. I think this reduction of everything to mere soundbites is dangerous to society actually. To elaborate is in a writer's nature. So yes, I avoid Twitter but I do have a blog ( and I try to promote it on forums, link to MySpace, Facebook etc. I've found though that sometimes the old-fashioned ways work best. Last year while I was publishing the first book I asked anyone interested in hearing more to scribble their email addresses down – I ended up with a mailing list of over a hundred people. So I use that to update people and I've had a surprising level of responses – sometimes I think there's so much out there that things can sink and get buried. Communicating with people directly can be more successful. Obviously this wouldn't be possible for bigger writers, but I feel privileged to be able to respond to people individually.

Daisy: You've self-published your first two books, why did you make the decision to go down this road to publication?

Originally it was partly because it's much harder to pitch poetry to mainstream publishers. There's a lot of cliché surrounding poetry; people see it as dark and arty and they don't want to go near it. I think there's less of a commercial aspect. At the same time I think there's becoming more of a market for it. I also wanted to some extent to create and control my own reputation by self publishing poetry as a way to progress towards publishing a novel. One step at a time, you know, but I am trying to increase exposure and I have quite a fixed plan. The next book is going to be a concept book dealing with issues very close to my heart and so naturally I would like a wider audience for it. That will be my last book of poems. I don't want to be in danger of repeating myself...

Daisy: That's a very intriguing idea; the attempt to avoid repetition as a writer. Many of our best writers seem to return time and again to the same preoccupations. Some writers (and readers) embrace that and some try consciously to avoid it – do you think it's even possible to do so?

To go back to the previous question, Nine Inch Nails are a big influence, and I read an interview with them recently after their final tour –which was amazing- and they said they had bowed out because they wanted to end it while they were at the peak of their game. I'm hoping I have the willpower after this next book to say that's it for poetry and I'm moving onto prose. I'm not saying I won't return to it at some point in the future but I would want to put a lid on it for the time being. But I'm getting ahead of myself! I would like to get an agent at that stage anyway. I would want to ease up a bit if I were publishing a novel as I'm a bit of a control freak when self-publishing.

Daisy: You talked about the fact that poetry isn't very commercial – and I think the same thing is true of short stories, novellas – do you think the 'credit-crunch' has affected the publishing prospects for writers of these genres and would you advise writers who aren't currently getting offers from mainstream publishers to self-publish or wait it out until the economy has improved?

The society we live in now can be a bleak place sometimes, but there are hopeful things which come out of there: Although yes, this recession can mean mainstream publishers are clinging to their cash cows, it's possible to see it as a good thing because it leads people to take things into their own hands - not just in publishing, but big business and retail as well.

In recent times we've seen a very corporate world in which people have had to ally themselves with a brand, or publisher, and ultimately they compromise their integrity to an extent, just to get their work out there. Now I think people are starting to realise they have to take personal responsibility for themselves and their lives. In a way I think we are witnessing the rebirth of the Age of Independence – not just in terms of writing but in the way people approach their lives; like renewable power, growing their own vegetables, self-sufficiency in lifestyles and business occupations. I think that's a very positive thing.

Perhaps I'm being too optimistic, but it seems to me we're actually making poetry more commercially viable for the future. I'm certainly seeing more grassroots arts events out there recently [like our own Word Soup!] and then there's the web of course – there's a whole network of tools and resources out there for writers. I think in a way the recession or 'credit-crunch' has led to a widespread feeling of empowerment, and it's this sense of being empowered which will carry us into the next era.