I’ve recently started entering competitions again. Well – I entered two. And because of the year it was (2016 of course), I forgot to keep notes, so I entered the same poem into both of them.

Kids! Don’t do this!

So I effectively paid two fees and entered one competition, and probably pissed off the people at the other. However, I have got a commendation in the one I did effectively enter, and it was judged by Andrew McMillan, which makes me happy. All the winners are on the Café Writers website, but the commendations are not, so I’m putting mine here. Do go and read the others.

Love Poem to the Great Houdini

Cassandra sits and thinks of the great Houdini.
We’ve seen her doing this, shut in her glass box.
He could get her out, she knows he could free her from this –
this stasis – this bending air that never goes anywhere.

Houdini can escape from anything. He bites through chains,
Houdini wrestles with gravity itself.
Houdini has the biggest laugh in the neighbourhood;
in his one-piece swimming costume like a stripy barrel
he throws his head back and the stripes splosh like waves,
and everybody in the restaurant also laughs.

Houdini has thick black hair and deep dark eyes and although
he is all business his cheeks were made for laughing.
When he tells a joke it’s as if he just escaped from something,
and he laughs inside while he’s busy doing escaping.
Houdini has the strength of nine men – no, of one.

But what a man that one is. Go on – punch him.
His stomach goes so hard you’ll break your hand
and he won’t feel a thing – though why would you want
To break your hand. Or your heart. Houdini’s only human.

He needs to escape himself sometimes,
he needs to escape these bonds of death,
you could even say he needs to escape into love.
He’s only human. Into the light, the candles, the warmth,
the shining eyes of his fellow humans as alive as he is.
Cassandra imagines he needs to escape into her.

Because when Houdini goes home to bed, and he’s warm,
and his heart is quiet and his brain isn’t pounding,
he slips under the duvet with an animal smell,
warm skin and breath and sleepy-lidded eyes,

it will be as if he were a barrel she could curl up in
and hide from death with his big arm around her.
She climbs into bed and escapes. She loves Houdini.
She’s never known a man like him before.

I don’t really know how these things happen; it wasn’t till after I’d written it that I remembered I already have a poem about Houdini. Well, there you go.


Well, it’s that time of year. The TS Eliot Prize is coming up, marking the end of this year’s ‘prize season’. In recent years it’s been the most prestigious, and biggest, award for poetry in the UK; it’s getting a bit of a run for its money lately from the Forward Prize, but still forms a defining look at the state of (‘mainstream’, published, page) poetry in the UK.


My annual one-day workshop on all ten shortlisted books is on Saturday 14 Jan this year – the day before the big ten-poet reading at the Southbank Centre. I think this might be its fifth year – it just feels like a tradition, now. It’s a fantastic way to get stuck into ten books in one day of intensive reading, talking, arguing, laughing, and asking questions no matter how silly they seem. We always have a gas, and are genuinely moved, and are excited by new things, and if you’re going to the big reading event the next night, it will be immeasurably enriched by having done this day. (And if not, you’ll feel as if you had.)

At the end of the day you should feel energised, enthused and fizzing with ideas for your own work, have a new favourite poet, and have somehow discovered something new about what poetry can do for us, right here and right now. You’ll definitely have a handle on this year’s poetry crop. We break for lunch and there’s a wind-down drink afterwards for those who fancy it.

This year’s shortlist contains five books published by Picador – six by women – several new ones by really exciting poets – one first collection so small it’s nearly a pamphlet, which was also shortlisted for the Forwards – it contains form, free verse, prose, long and short, voices and alter egos – love, politics, myth, death in several different guises, exile and longing, mordant humour… Come on!

  • Rachael Boast, Void Studies / Picador
  • Jacob Polley, Jackself / Picador
  • Ian Duhig, The Blind Road-Maker / Picador
  • Katharine Towers, The Remedies / Picador
  • Denise Riley, Say Something Back / Picador
  • Vahni Capildeo, Measures of Expatriation / Carcanet
  • J O Morgan, Interference Pattern / Cape Poetry
  • Alice Oswald, Falling Awake / Cape Poetry
  • Bernard O’Donoghue, The Seasons of Cullen Church / Faber
  • Ruby Robinson, Every Little Sound /Liverpool University Press

No No No, NaNoWriMo

December 1, 2016

Well, it’s December now. All over for another year. The failure, the ignominy… The typewriter you see above is not mine, as you’ll read in a minute. It is, in its cool, metallic, clean-lined sleekness, in its bland-faced 1960s rationality, in its businesslike luxe, its straightforward imperturbability, everything I could not be in November 2016. There […]

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A letter to Barack Obama

November 22, 2016

It’s Thanksgiving week in America, and while schoolchildren are being told the old stories about Pilgrims fleeing persecution and friendly Indians teaching them how to grow their harvest, there is a mighty battle raging in North Dakota. At Standing Rock reservation, militarised police are attacking peaceful protesters – protectors, they call themselves – in service […]

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November 11, 2016

This is for everything. I guess at some point I’ll be able to string together a sentence. In the meantime…

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Transatlantic pre-election news straddle: the government? against whom?

November 5, 2016

Well, it’s the final stretch now: three days till the election. The long-form analysis pieces are following thick and fast, the tit for tat continues, and most sensible people have stopped even trying to talk about it. I will just refer you to Andrew Sullivan – the erstwhile indefatigable blogger of The Daily Dish – who has surfaced […]

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A poem on National Poetry Day, 6th October 2016

October 6, 2016

If the state of politics is bringing out your nervous tics – your leg, your nose, your eye, your face – if you despair of the human race, if Brexit leaves you short of breath, where ‘May’ means ‘must on pain of death’ – if you despise a shirt of black, if you fear no one’s […]

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The worst thing in the world: a view from London

September 11, 2016

It seems like ancient history now. The world before. I remember staring at the BBC website and saying to my colleague, ‘Oh Jesus so this is it. This is it. The beginning.’ He goes, beginning of what, what you talking about? I said, ‘World War Three. This is it.’ He laughed. Don’t be ridiculous, no […]

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