Thursday, 20 December 2012

Across the backyards


Is there something you don't understand?
I expect there is.
There's nothing here for me, either
(least of all in these thudding heres and theres).

Unread books look good -
secondhand bargains, online deals.
I've been sorely tempted.

And then, outside the window,
angry magpies,
or, at risk of labouring the point,
a family, a story,
her nearly opaque features
at another address.

Rain falls,
determinedly indifferent.

Or determinedly different,
if that's the way you fancy it.

Tom Phillips 2012

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Olson reading from 'Maximus'

Anyone who uses the word 'geography' in the opening line is fine by me ... and, then again, this also makes you wonder what you have to do to get a voice like this (other than smoking too many fags).

Monday, 26 November 2012

Christmas is coming

"Now that sounds crazy too. Carrying Mr Vukaj through snowdrifts, over mountains, down valleys and up the great looping staircase of hairpin bends, over the pass and down to the city ... But that’s that. Decided. For the sake of the village. For the sake of our honour. This is what they must do."
A short extract from Prella's Gift, my short piece based on an Albanian Christmas tale soon to debut as part of Show of Strength theatre company's Christmas show at the Southville Centre in Bristol (15-16 & 22-23 Dec): see ffi.

Friday, 23 November 2012


Excerpt from work-in-progress

And so there we have it: bench creaks
and shutter clicks, unmuffled.
Shameless adoration.

Tourist congestion
around the Botticelli.

We’re trying to make this up
as we go along.

Amongst the art-junkies
in the café on the roof
of the Uffizi, sparrows
do at least not shit
in cups of over-priced coffee.
In the photograph,
I almost look happy.

Over at the Accademia,
there's Byron’s head on a shelf.

We could drink cocktails all night,
for ten Euros.

In the drafty yard
of the Strozzi Palace,
Sarra’s got the bit between her teeth:
she's typing, pigeon-style,
on a Remington portable,
140 characters – a retro-Tweet.

It goes on. It’s cold
and we should go back
to the hotel. Sometimes
that’s what happens.

Tom Phillips 2012 

Monday, 29 October 2012

Book launch: 'Recreation Ground', Thunderbolt, Bristol, Wed 7 Nov

"We're delighted to welcome poet Tom Phillips to Word of Mouth where he will be joined by a Special Guest.

Tom will be reading from his new anthology Recreation Ground as well as treating us to some of the old favourites. 

He is best known as a performance poet with a sneering deadpan delivery firing broadsides at hypocrisy and material aspirations, but in Recreation Ground, Tom adopts a different style.

The work is more lyrical, the rhythms more complex and the settings tend to be rural rather than urban. Bristol Review of Books described Tom as a 'very special talent.' 

Don't miss him at Word of Mouth."

Friday, 26 October 2012

Review: Ian Brinton (ed.), 'An Andrew Crozier Reader'

The first decade or so of the twenty-first century has seen the recovery of several marginalised or entirely ‘lost’ poets. Perhaps, as the twentieth century recedes into history, a desire not to leave its poetic record misaligned, unjustified, is at work. Bloodaxe’s publication of J. H. Prynne’s Poems in 2005 queried the canonical version of that record by producing a major body of work from what – for anyone naive enough to assume that the standard Larkin/Hughes/Heaney/Raine/Motion/Armitage reading list pretty much covered it – might just as well have been nowhere. Published by the same company in the same year, Roy Fisher’s The Long and the Short of It pulled another rabbit out of a neglected hat, while more recent posthumous collections by A. S. J. Tessimond and Bernard Spencer have helped disperse the illusion that the writings of poets shoe-horned into the artificial category of the ‘1940s generation’ can be safely filed between Auden and Larkin as ‘aberrant’ – or, at best, ‘transitional’ – minor work.
On the face of it, these recoveries have little in common – what has Prynne got to do with Fisher and what have either of them got to do with Spencer? – but what’s at stake in all cases is what happened to Modernism and, for want of better terms, experimentalism and the avant garde.
According to the canonical record, Modernism itself was an aberration, introduced into British poetry by foreigners (Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Joyce), and then successfully assimilated into it or excised from it by the return to form and native ‘common sense’ represented by Larkin and The Movement (and an almost criminal misreading of Hardy). As if in penance for this insular cutting-of-ties, the never-knowingly-internationalist 50s poets were succeeded by Hughes’ much-vaunted confessional generation – who had at least read contemporary American poets like Robert Lowell – who, in turn, gave way to Heaney and the Northern Irish ‘school’ (readers of Akhmatova, Brodsky, and Holub), Raine and The Martians, Motion, Armitage, Duffy, Zephaniah et al.
By the early 2000s, the canon had been extended to incorporate what seems to be a multiplicity of voices, from Geoffrey Hill on the one hand to Patience Agbabi on the other. Over the course of sixty years, in other words, the official version of British poetry was free to settle on a diversity and adventurousness which The Movement – or at least the version of The Movement described by Robert Conquest in his introduction to 1956 anthology New Lines – closed down and rejected. This diversity and adventurousness, however, owes nothing to Modernism or any engagement with Modernism; it’s presented as being wholly self-generated, self-invented. Paradoxically, this version of multi-culturalism springs not from an internationalism born of the interwar, pluralist avant garde with roots in Vienna, Berlin, Prague, but from the tabula rasa of Larkin’s return to Englishness: it conveniently does away with American, Indian, Caribbean, Italian, Russian and other poetries which were seeking their own routes away from the monolithic 1920s way before New Lines.
The connection between today’s conservative multi-culturalism and Larkin’s privations is one made by Andrew Crozier in his essay ‘Resting on Laurels’. Born in 1943, Crozier published collections of poetry with small presses throughout his career, beginning with Loved Litter of Time Spent in 1967 and culminating – depending on your point of view – in The Veil Poem, High Zero or Free Running Bitch. He was also a keen advocate of poetry as a serious enterprise, founding publications like The English Intelligencer (that uniquely ad-hoc 1960s journal of poetic toing-and-froing amongst the likes of Riley, Raworth and Prynne) and championing those – like Americans Carl Rakosi and George Oppen – who glimmered in the late Modernist twilight. Charles Olson and Ed Dorn were significant influences, and Crozier was unashamedly interested in the ‘line’ which arises in William Carlos Williams and wells up into the work of the Black Mountain poets and beyond – a line which only the most foolhardy of post-2000 British poets so much as dabble in if they don’t want to be written off as ‘weird’ and ‘eccentric’..
As such, Crozier had little time for the tepid surface distractions of the so-say English scene, its focus on the utterances of a self-aggrandizing, highly polished, lyrical self or ‘what we can all feel comfortable with, each in our own social exclusion zone’. The steady-drip of metaphorical utterance wasn’t Crozier’s bag at all, and in ‘Resting on Laurels’, he argues that post-war British poetry has been hemmed in and rendered dull by its firm insistence on a certain kind of poetic voice or ‘mental conceit’ supported by a limited repertoire of rhetorical figures. Since the booting out of Modernism in the 1950s, he argues, poets have been operating within the delusion that readers are interested in them, rather than in the work they produce. Crozier’s critique suggests that poets have been complicit in creating a spurious avant garde – a celebrity avant-garde – and become standard bearers of a culture which they’ve made great and spectacular but ingenuous efforts to reject.
Like Prynne and Fisher’s, Crozier’s own poetry is ostensibly resistant. Interpretation doesn’t come easily, and yet this apparent ‘difficulty’ transforms, through the experience of reading, into an invitation. Surely, the most democratic form of poetry (or any art) is one which says; ‘Well, here it is. I made this but don’t quite get it. Do you?’: don’t listen to my voice, just appraise the object (Crozier’s splendidly austere Williams-esque poem about a fan heater being a case in point). And once you’ve got over the nagging desire to understand everything or place every reference, it becomes clear that this is the invitation that Crozier’s making, whether that’s in the early anti-sentimental vignettes of Train Rides, the determinedly apersonal Printed Circuit or the more obviously tricky arithmetic of High Zero and the hospital- and traffic light-inspired psychogeography of Free Running Bitch.
One of Crozier’s big things was the line – and he’s certainly a master of that. The Veil Poem – arguably his masterpiece – is full of remarkable examples, and elsewhere you’d be hard-pressed to better the aphoristic quality of Crozier at his most acute: ‘Time – there’s the rub – as wily as a sailor/With only one idea,’ he says in ‘Conversely’, or there’s ‘We can renounce all privilege, no one/can escape the ordeal of being with everything else/in the world’ from ‘The Life Class’. At the same time, the limpid early-ish poem ‘On Romney Marsh’ is a conventionally recognisable gem, the kind of work which could happily sit alongside Alun Lewis’s ‘All Day It Has Rained’ or Bernard Spencer’s ‘Boat Poem’ as an example of what twentieth-century poetry does best – and does better than the faux rhetorical tug of ‘Whitsun Weddings’, ‘The Thought Fox’ or ‘Very Simply Topping Up The Brake Fluid’.
In bringing together Crozier’s poetry and prose, Ian Brinton has done an incalculable service. To describe Crozier as ‘an interesting figure’ is to do nobody any good. Crozier’s combative attitude may not have won him many friends amongst the ungenerous, but as a poet and critic he was more hospitable than most and that, in many ways, is the point. Brinton’s Reader probably won’t win over those already sold on the Larkin-Armitage nexus, but since it also includes a judicious selection of valuable contextualising material (letters from Prynne, some of the postcards which inspired The Veil Poem and so on), it will open doors – and, within Crozier’s unique iconography, tear back veils – for those who are genuinely less deceived. What’s more, it might also help to underline the democratic, pluralist impulse behind the 60s/70s avant garde – the impulse which, beneath those surface difficulties, aimed to offer some alternative to what Prynne described in ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’ as ‘the/gallant lyricism of the select’. (Tom Phillips)

An Andrew Crozier Reader edited by Ian Brinton is published by Carcanet. Full details here.

This review originally appeared in Various Artists.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Sections of a poem called 'Should Start Now'

He is Polish.
Those bulges are onions.
Or those bulges are bulges
onions body –

These onions only:
Spanish (at a guess),
exerting globular pressure,
shadows in plastic,
foamy surface, gossamer membrane,
cuts into them can make you cry.


Onions, these onions,
not equipment.

Should start now (really)
with letting go
it is not his being in here

but the fact of the fact
of his absence herein

language not fit for purpose
nominal inclemencies

he is not Polish
those are not onions

Tom Phillips 2012

Friday, 19 October 2012

Gigs and things ...

Sat 20 Oct, 1pm, Leftbank Centre, Stokes Croft, Bristol, Bristol Festival of Literature gig - some poems from 'Recreation Ground'.
Wed 24 Oct, 5pm, Bristol Old Vic - supporting the Stepping Out book launch for Neil Gooding's new collection
Tue 30 Oct-Sat 3 Nov, 8m, Alma Tavern Theatre - '100 Miles North' is curtain raiser for 'Honest' in the Theatre West A-Z autumn season's production of Alice Nicholas's 'Honest'
Wed 7 Nov, Thunderbolt, Bristol - Word of Mouth, official launch of 'Recreation Ground' with v. special guest.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Playing football in Vermosh

The opening paragraph of the travel book's final chapter

The ball thumped against the churchyard wall and someone cheered. Nobody could remember the score, and we were probably losing, but that was incontrovertibly a goal for our team. I hadn’t had anything to do with it. I was bent double in the centre of the pitch, trying to catch my breath. We were a thousand metres above sea level, and football in Vermosh was fast and physical. I was also the oldest player on the field by nearly twenty years, and for most of those twenty years I’d been smoking half an ounce of tobacco a day. Both teams charged back down the slope, chasing the ball back towards our goal. I still couldn’t move. Nobody in the small crowd who’d gathered to watch the match showed any sign of volunteering to take my place. When someone tried to pass me the ball, more out of sympathy than need, and I toed it straight to one of our opponents, I decided that it was best for all concerned if I retired hurt. My absence wouldn’t affect the result. Lydia and Sam gave two loyal cheers as I limped off and hoisted myself over the churchyard gate.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Some notes on the 'Recreation Ground' book

Following questions at launches for the book, here are some bits of information or 'info-bites':

Life After Wartime: a poem first published in 100 Poets Against The War (Salt, 2003) and then in Burning Omaha (Firewater Press, 2003) and Nagy Vilag (Budapest, 2003). Occasionally known as 'Life During Wartime' in reference to the Talking Heads track of the same name.

Burning Omaha: first published in Burning Omaha (Firewater Press, 2003) and In The Criminal's Cabinet (nthposition, 2004). Refers to a curious atmospheric phenomenon in the 1970s and takes its title from Billy Bragg's 'Help Save The Youth Of America'.

Just Before The Boat: set on the dockside in Corfu, August 2006.

Dubliners on the Adriatic: originally published in Poetry Scotland. Begun in Trieste, summer 2006. Maximilian set sail from the city to take up his ill-fated but Monet-documented role as Emperor of Mexico from Trieste. Trieste's Risiera was the site of the only fascist concentration camp on Italian soil. The last line is a would-be Joycean hotch-potch of Albanian, French, English etc.

In The Small Museum: the museum in question being Prague's Museum of Communism.

Moving East: set in the Slovakian town of Zilina, close to the Czech and Polish borders.

A Curious Friendship: refers to an incident in the citadel at Gjirokastra, southern Albania.

Ornithology in the Balkans: the northern Albanian city of Shkodra, 2009. Xhiro is the Albanian equivalent of the evening promenade. The legend of Rozafa - the woman immured in the walls of the castle to stop them falling down - is well-documented.

Here After All: a poem set in Parma, northern Italy, 2006.

European Union: a poem set in Brasov, Romania, 2009.

View Becoming A Poem: the setting here is Halifax, Yorkshire.

Found In The River: originally published in A Mutual Friend; concerns my great-grandfather who reputedly sold his art dealership to buy a boat in Margate.

Ellerker Gardens: an address in Richmond, Surrey, where my mother lived during the early part of WW2. 'Secret War' boffin Reginald V Jones lived in the same building and insisted that my mother go out with him into the Blitz to search for unexploded bombs.

The Air Display: at Kemble Air Show.

Wearing Thin: a walking-home-from-poem, almost certainly set at the pedestrian crossing beside Bristol Bridge.

Catching The Drift: a largely imagianry incident somewhere along the coast of NSW, most probably occurring in Sawtell or Coffs Harbour.

Almost There: the places mentioned are almost all in Salzburg.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Some recently published books

Three which have caught my eye anyway ...

Peter Robinson (ed.), Bernard Spencer: Essay on his Poetry & Life (Shearsman Books): a collection of essays about one of those mid-20th-century poets who have been routinely overlooked in the past. Spencer's published output in his lifetime was relatively small, but his original poems and translations (of Greek poet George Seferis, in particular) are well worth discovering. As well as their own intrinsic virtues, they cannot help but seem - with the benefit of hindsight - precursors for or, perhaps, tributaries into the post-war non-mainstream. for these essays - and for the poetry, translations and selected prose.

David Caddy, So Here We Are (Shearsman Books): another interesting-looking book of essays from Shearsman, this one bringing together the Tears In The Fence founding editor's Alistair Cooke-style letters on English poetry, from thematic studies of 'forests' and reflections on Caddy's own introduction to poetry to vignettes on individual poets such as JH Prynne and Andrew Crozier.

Kate Behrens, The Beholder (Two Rivers Press): the opening salvo of Two Rivers' series of debut full-length poetry collections - and an impeccably fine piece of work, full of insight, compassion and wit (in the proper sense of the word). Poems about nature, family, love, sex which, for all their apparent 'difficulty' - i.e. slip-slidy grammar, ellipses and lacunae - have attracted endorsements from the likes of Brian Patten and John Hegley.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Autumnal clicking

Like buses, weblinks seems to come along in batches. Here are a few recent ones:

Feature in the Bristol Post re: our involvement with the B3P Summer Programme in Vermosh, Albania, this year:

Films from the B3P Summer Programme in Vermosh - the first two from our English/Drama classes, the third made by American Peace Corps volunteers:

Film from this summer's Miss Accursed Mountains competition in Lepushe, northern Albania:

And, from closer to home, film of the Augmented Reality project as part of The Future Cemetery at Arnos Vale in Bristol, with Doug Francis of Invisible Circus and Jeremy Routledge et al from Calling The Shots:

And, finally, info about my short play 100 Miles North of Timbuktu - programmed as a curtain-raiser for Alice Nicholas' Honest in Theatre West's autumn season (and here if you scroll down a bit):

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Recreation Ground reviewed

Ian Brinton's review of Recreation Ground, the book, was circulated by Various Artists yesterday and is now available on line at the Two Rivers Press website, along with details of the launch event in Reading on Friday (7 Sept): 

Thursday, 30 August 2012

In the meantime ...

Here's what we did this summer: a film and photo montage of the Balkans Peace Park Project summer programme in Vermosh, northern Albania:

Readings for 'Recreation Ground'

Published this summer by Two Rivers Press (, Recreation Ground is now available in book form. The book collects nearly 40 poems written over the last decade or so, including those published in anthologies such as 100 Poets Against The War (Salt, 2003), Babylon Burning (nthposition, 2008) and A Mutual Friend (Two Rivers Press, 2012), as well as material only previously published in magazines or online.
To launch the book, I will be doing a series of readings over the next few months. Dates so far include:

Fri 7 Sept 'The Time of Our Lives', Waterstone's, 89A Broad, St, Reading, 6.30pm, free (but adv booking req'd), with other Two Rivers Press poets including: Adrian Blamires, Samuel Burgess, Elvira Rivers, Kate Behrens, A. F. Harrold, Ian House, Jean Watkins hosted by Peter Robinson. To book a ticket, call 0118 9581270.

Wed 26 Sept The Berkeley Square Poetry Review Show, The Square Club, Berkeley Sq, Clifton, Bristol, 8.30pm, £3 - readings from the book together with a short Q&A.

Mon 1 Oct Alchemy, Napa Bar & Art Gallery, Prokopska 8, Mala Strana, Prague 1, 7.30pm - with Peter Robinson. Ffi:

Wed 7 Nov Word of Mouth, The Thunderbolt, Bath Rd, Bristol (details tbc). Ffi:

Copies of the book will be available at all these events or can be ordered from, Amazon, Waterstone's and elsewhere.

Also forthcoming: an interview in Bristol Review of Books ( this autumn and an appearance on the Oxford Brookes University Poetry Centre website (

Tom Phillips’ first full-length collection navigates terrains which range from Eastern Europe, Australia and the Home Counties to his own back garden in Bristol. From the different perspectives these vantage points offer, it unearths connections between chance meetings and ‘big history’, family stories and the state we’re in. It also looks at poetry itself as a ground on which to recreate – and negotiate with – one thing that nobody can change: the past.

“In Tom Phillips' work, the world is unsettlingly close, whether the poem is set in his home town or at the other end of Europe. Other times, too, are alongside in the present, and echoes of conflict or loss disturb the surfaces of life, which are nonetheless carefully, caringly observed in these intelligent and watchful poems.” Philip Gross

“The landscape of Tom Phillips’s poetry is an ‘unexpected geography’ within the contours of which we are reawakened to recognition that meaning amid a world of war and confusion is to be discovered in the unchanging nature of small things.” Ian Brinton

"Those who have followed Tom Phillips’ steady progression over nearly 30 years value him as, in some real sense, the quietly spoken voice of a generation.’ Tony Lewis-Jones

“Tom Phillips reveals that the distance between oneself and elsewhere is both geographical and ontological. Recreation Ground provides  a poet’s map; there are no shortages of frontiers and the means of travel are various but the journeying out is a way of coming home, a way of measuring the ways in which we occupy place and a recognition that this occupation is mysterious as well as pragmatic. Travelling - both near and  far - opens the senses and defines the traveller. ‘Not Really Climbing the Malvern  Hills’  is full of Larkinesque gesture: ‘Aiming to get away early,/not from everything exactly,/…/we made the first train out of Temple Meads/barely noticing where it would take us:/the slow, stopping service to Malvern.’  The travellers stumble upon an ‘unexpected geography’ whose un-lyrical  conglomeration of ‘stockaded new towns’ and ‘gated gravel driveways’ carve up middle England.
"Donald Davie’s ‘exiguous island’ has long replaced John of Gaunt’s ‘blessed plot’ and Phillips is skilful at donning a poetic veil of modesty, which can be lifted or not accordingly. A view of hills, in ‘Miles Away’ is ‘bisected  by the London train’; earlier ‘the bus never came’ and a walk across the Downs leads to a canny re-evaluation  rather than easy effusion: ‘So much for moving on or growing away./Somehow I’m always partly on the stairs.’ These poems are infinitely resourceful; their poetic readiness allows attenuated gesture to tap into parallel existences and rewarding, if quietly heralded, dislocation. Phillips is good at getting hold of an English psychological  terrain, and this is complemented by his journeys further afield. England/abroad is less a binary opposite than a set of inter-related conversations. Joyce’s Trieste becomes a study of imperial tristesse (‘Dubliners on the Adriatic’), and  in ‘Here After All’  the poet asks, under ‘pink stucco facades’ and almost unexpectedly at ease, as he watches the  passing trams, whether it’s time ‘to turn for home?’ Home, too, is merely a geographical  expression and Recreation Ground is not about leisure, it’s about the frisson of existence.” Julian Stannard

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Recreation Ground the book on Amazon and so on

Although it isn't officially published until October, Recreation Ground the book - published by Two Rivers Press - is now available for pre-order from Amazon. That said, of course, orders direct to Two Rivers and purchases from your humble correspondent would be a more than welcome alternative once it has been published. Opportunities to do just that should occur in Bristol and Reading (UK) in September, Prague (Czech Republic) in October and Bristol again (UK) in November. Ongoing comments, tasters and the like are on the book's Facebook page here.

Monday, 9 July 2012

'Samuel Mapping The Dead': The Future Cemetery at Arnos Vale, Bristol

'Samuel Mapping The Dead' is a short piece of theatre I was commissioned to write for The Future Cemetery project at Bristol's Arnos Vale Cemetery - a project to explore ways of bringing heritage to life using performance and technology in various combinations. Four pieces were given a 'test drive' at the cemetery on 30 June: here's film of my contribution as performed by Doug and Alex of Invisible Circus (in between rain showers) that afternoon:

Friday, 6 July 2012

Vermosh, Albania

Some YouTube excursions from where we will be in three weeks' time with the Balkans Peace Park Project ... Sorry about the completely inappropriate soundtrack. A social gathering followed by footage from the road into the valley - ulp. The Miss Bjeshka competition in Vermosh in 2010. And now the region in a kind of MTV-friendly format - for some reason this song reminds me of Public Image Limited.

Books again for a change

The Country Where No One Ever Dies Presented as a novel, Albanian writer Ornela Vorpsi's slim tome is probably best described as a collection of short stories. From chapter to chapter, the identity of the narrator seems to shift, while the precise setting of each episode often remains unclear. As a result, it has an uncertain fabulous atmosphere familiar from some of Ismail Kadare's work: each narrative might be archetypal, might be hearsay. A bitingly unsentimental portrait of both communist Albania and traditional patriarchy, it's also a bitter lament for a lost home.

Rules of the Road Mike Manson's hippy road-trip novel set in the Balkans - good fun, with lots of well-turned jokes, mostly at the expense of dim-witted Westerners (which makes a change). One of the few works of fiction (in English) to mention the Han i Hotit border crossing post in northern Albania.

Women Who Become Men Hugely readable anthropological study of the 'sworn virgins' of northern Albania by Antonia Young. I should probably have read this about six years ago.

Slow Winter Alex Hickman pretends to be a 'war correspondent' in Sarajevo before travelling to Albania to organise an international business conference just as Albania's about to plunge into the notorious 'pyramid lending scheme' disaster. He must have been there around the same time as Robert Carver (of The Accursed Mountains), but while he's not averse to the odd Albanianist comment, Hickman does at least give the place and, more importantly, its population the benefit of the doubt.

The Tao of Travel Paul Theroux makes a concerted effort to become the voice of contemporary travel writing with what is, against all expectations, quite an entertaining compendium - although, to be honest, his wants-to-have-his-cake-and-eat-it stance that travel writing doesn't have ethical consequences (in its portrayal of 'others') but is also key to our understanding of the world and ourselves does start to grate after a while. Come on, Theroux, is it a worthwhile genre or not, eh? This kind of dithering is possibly why I can't watch his son Louis's equally want-it-can't-have-it documentaries on TV.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Samuel's Italia hat

From I Went To Albania 

We’ve just come out of the museum. We’ve seen a Chinese tank and exquisite Orthodox icons. Photographs of Zog – and a partisan jacket with a bullet hole. Embroidered traditional costumes – and a section of the communist border fence. The lists of people Hoxha had killed...

And in the corner of every room, an assistant sitting at a desk with a Bakelite telephone and an ashtray. It’s a museum where you can smoke ... And then, in the gift shop, Sam notices something. He’s lost his baseball cap. The Bakelite telephones start ringing – and before you know it every assistant in the museum, every curator of Illyrian artefacts, every expert in bourgeois reactionary monarchists is up on their feet. They’ve squashed out their fags, and they’re advancing through the priceless exhibits. They’re like lines of Highland beaters flushing pheasants from the heather... Even the woman at the front desk has abandoned her post to shout at the gardener – who’s weeding the treads of the Chinese tank in the yard – and get him looking for my son’s baseball cap. Everyone in the museum has dropped everything to look for my son’s baseball cap. Imagine the National Gallery grinding to a halt while the entire staff go in search of a Japanese tourist’s daughter’s friendship bracelet. They won’t give up until ... Ah, here it is. Here’s the baseball cap. Found underneath a sofa ...

The thing is, it’s like this everywhere we go. It’s as if everybody’s expecting us. I get the feeling the gunmen in Durrës would understand this better than we do.

'I Went To Albania' was first performed during Ferment at Bristol Old Vic. It's currently in development with Ferment and director Andy Burden. 

Summer in Vermosh

As I've previously mentioned on this blog, I'm returning to Albania next month to work on the summer programme of the Balkan Peace Park Project (, working with young people in the northern community of Vermosh to create a community play in two weeks and see it performed at the end of the programme. Vermosh is six hours' drive from the city of Shkodra, in the so-called Accursed Mountains, very close to the border between Albania and Montenegro. Three-four pages of photographs by someone who drove from Shkodra to Vermosh a couple of years ago are posted on the web here:
There are also photographs from the 2007 Vermosh Summer Festival on YouTube here:
And you can find out how to support our trip here:

Friday, 15 June 2012

Top five municipal fountains (eastern Europe)

1. Kosice, Slovakia
A superb example of the genre: elaborate light and water patterns apparently choreographed to a soundtrack of Chopin etc in front of the most easterly (and one of the largest) Gothic churches in Europe. And the focus of both the daily promenade and civic pride - Kosiceans watch it with an avidity which can mean flippant tourists blocking the view by taking photographs are met with disapproving looks, tongue clicks and hisses - as, indeed, they probably should be.

2. Saranda, Albania
Currently under repair, as this photo shows (the man in the suit is Saranda's mayor, Stefan Cipa, who's engaged in trying to prevent the transformation of a rather lovely south Albanian port into a Costa del Sol-style tourism-ruined hell hole). Like Kosice's, this one behaves according to an elaborate rhythm - although without the musical soundtrack - and also provides a focus for the evening promenade or xhiro. The multi-coloured, all-singing, all-dancing fountain in Tirana's Rinas Park is more obvious as a watery spectacle, but personally I prefer this one. Go here  for more on the 'tourist threat' to Saranda.

3. Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Not far from the WW2 eternal flame in central Sarajevo is this other memorial - to the children who were killed during the siege in the 1990s - which is, perhaps, all the more effective because at first it appears to be just another bit of municipal fountain whimsy until you read the plaque and realise what it commemorates. The incongruity of its serious purpose opposite a huge complex of shiny glass-fronted shops and cinemas only adds to its poignancy as a memorial.

4. Brasov, Romania
Aesthetically, it's probably not one of the greatest, but the square it's in (overlooked by the famous 'black church' - so-called because it was nearly burnt down) has a gloriously relaxed atmosphere, to which this piece of optimistically angular watery architecture only adds (in a strange sort of way). It also acts as a magnet for every tourist in town: a perfect place to spot people hurriedly leafing through their copies of the Lonely Planet/Rough Guide to Romania.

5. Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
The siege of Mostar and the destruction of the famous bridge commemorated in fountain form in a park just off the former 'front line' and overlooked by gutted buildings. It's also a way off the tourist trail - possibly because its ambiguity sits uncomfortably. This bridge, after all, still has a gap in the middle. 

Thursday, 14 June 2012

More on 'Recreation Ground' the book

Namely, the info to be found at where you'll also find a sample poem and other comments.

Recreation Ground is the first full-length poetry collection by Tom Phillips, published by Two Rivers Press in 2012. ISBN 978-1-901677-85-0, 56 pp., £7.95. Cover design by Nadja Guggi with illustrations by Peter Hay. Text design by Nadja Guggi
Tom Phillips’ first full-length collection navigates terrains which range from Eastern Europe, Australia and the Home Counties to his own back garden in Bristol.

From the different perspectives these vantage points offer, it unearths connections between chance meetings and ‘big history’, family stories and the state we’re in. It also looks at poetry itself as a ground on which to recreate–and negotiate with–one thing that nobody can change: the past.

‘In Tom Phillips’ work, the world is unsettlingly close, whether the poem is set in his home town or at the other end of Europe. Other times, too, are alongside in the present, and echoes of conflict or loss disturb the surfaces of life, which are nonetheless carefully, caringly observed in these intelligent and watchful poems.’-- Philip Gross

‘The landscape of Tom Phillips’ poetry is an “unexpected geography” within the contours of which we are reawakened to recognition that meaning amid a world of war and confusion is to be discovered in the unchanging nature of small things.’-- Ian Brinton

‘Those who have followed Tom Phillips’ steady progression over nearly thirty years value him as, in some real sense, the quietly spoken voice of a generation.’-- Tony Lewis-Jones

Monday, 11 June 2012

The problem with titles

As the plethora of poems with such illuminating titles as 'Untitled' or 'Sonnet' seems to suggest, coming up with a title constitutes something of a struggle for even the most hardened of poets. Paradoxically, I've been suffering from the opposite problem of late - loads of titles have been suggesting themselves but with no poem to go with them. Hence the blank or only partially filled spaces where 'Blues for my Home Town', 'Snail Weather', 'The Comfort of Railway Stations', 'Are you Sure you Want to do that?' and 'Gestures of Independence on Dogger Bank' might be. I'm not complaining. I'm just intrigued. Did Ashbery think of 'Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror' before he wrote the poem or afterwards?

Friday, 8 June 2012

'Recreation Ground', the book, approaches. Updates, reactions, reviews and details of launches and other events will be posted here:

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Start of a poem putatively called 'Showing off about railway stations'

Under high stucco ceilings,
we can't help but mention
we're breakfasting
in the cafe at Budapest Keleti.
You're not here - but these students
and luminescent festival-goers
are forming a picturesque backdrop.
Did I say we'd finally arrived?
Oh, look, it's the Trans-Siberian.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Start of a poem putatively called 'The comfort of railway stations'

Under high stucco ceilings,
we're stifling over ham and eggs
in the cafe at Budapest Keleti.
We've only just arrived
among American students,
festival-goers whose luminescent wristbands
evangelise this stock-shot gathering
in an otherwise vacant ticket hall.
The connection for the Trans-Siberian
flick-flacks on the departure board.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Radio interview

Ann Kennard from the Balkans Peace Park and I were interviewed on Radio Bristol about the project's summer programme in Albania on Sunday (20 May) and can still be heard until Sat 26 May at iPlayer here (if you fast forward to 2hrs in):

Thursday, 17 May 2012

You make things sound good

You make things sound good.
I don't trust that.
Even though you must do it,
I can't imagine you
lolling on the sofa,
eating takeaway meals,
putting out the recycling bin.

There is a limit
to how much I believe
of what you're telling me.

You'll say it's only suggestion
but there you are, in print,
suggesting what you say
is true, is permanent.

Copyright Tom Phillips 2012

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Positively Dickensian

The London Magazine's review of A Mutual Friend: Poems for Charles Dickens is now online here:
Published by Two Rivers Press and edited by Peter Robinson, the anthology includes poems about/in response to Dickens and his work in a wide variety styles by a wide variety of poets - and is out now. Contributors include Paul Muldoon, George Szirtes, Alison Brackenbury, Fred D'Aguiar, Sean O'Brien, John Hegley, Elaine Feinstein, Ian Duhig, Carol Rumens, John Fuller, Moniza Alvi. You'll find my offering amongst those of the Our Mutual Friend gang (Conor Carville and others) in the form of the Gaffer Hexham-referencing 'Found in the River'.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Recreation Ground: the book

Reading's Two Rivers Press are publishing my full-length collection Recreation Ground in the autumn. In the interim, I'll be reading poems from the book at:

Poetry and a Pint, St James' Wine Vaults, Bath, Monday 14 May (from 8pm)

and at

The Museum of English Rural Life, Reading, Saturday 19 May (from 6.30pm).

Here's a not particularly typical poem from that collection:


All through her second wedding, your sister carried white lilies.
She chose Psalm 23 and we duly mumbled
‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’,
thinking this is more like a funeral
and trying not to giggle at the serious bits.
You dug me in the ribs and said,
with more feeling than you meant,
that this is what passes for life in Portishead.

Outside – we nipped out for a fag during ‘Abide With Me’,
tip-toeing past weeping aunts and teenage sons
in suits they’d bought for work experience
(a row of bulging parcels waiting for collection) –
outside you breathed again and then you said
how glad you were you’d escaped
what passes for life in Portishead.

And when you kissed me in the graveyard
with its blots of dead confetti like giant flakes of dandruff,
I was thinking: Yes, thank God, thank God,
if it hadn’t been for this town’s deep chill,
its icy politeness and evening classes,
its Sunday lunch drinks and over-cooked roasts,
the dismal rain on the Lake Grounds of a Saturday night,
if it hadn’t been for the gossip which spread
like a bushfire when you dyed your hair red
and started hanging out with unsuitable types
who played in punk bands like Chaos UK
or limped along the high street on farting Vespas –
if it hadn’t been for this town’s desire
to disapprove of all it didn’t understand,
you’d never have run for Cornwall and the sea,
you’d never have run for a place to call your own
and you’d never have run into me.
In the doorway of the church, I almost smiled and I almost said:
there are so many reasons I’m grateful
for what passes for life in Portishead. 

An uncertain ratio?

My friend Steve Wright explores the post-punk musical landscape with some good choices and erudite commentary here:

Monday, 9 April 2012

From 'Catching Up'

Never having been this far north,
I’m curious to trace tarmac remains
thinning to patches in couch grass.

There is, perhaps, a freshness to the light,
these distances, and those we’ve come
in – what is it? – twenty-five years.

Gathering in hotels, B&Bs,
tomorrow we’ll descend
on their wedding party,
but for now there’s the distillery,
a scent of malted air.

The secondhand car lot extends
to muddy reaches
plunged at by dunlins, knots.

Copyright Tom Phillips 2012

Thursday, 29 March 2012

A possible truth

And, indeed, a slightly depressing possible truth is that many of the poetry magazines which have sustained the to-and-fro of contemporary writing over the last few decades have had their funding cut and need the support of readers more than ever. Two publications which definitely deserve that kind of support are Agenda and Tears in the Fence, both of which have offered an alternative to the constricting metropolitan orthodoxy established by a certain Penguin anthology back in the 1980s. More here: and

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Another part of At Home

The garden reeks of a season’s neglect,
the sweet, dank mould of cherry leaves,
parsimonious winter. Failing to make
amends; pigeons coo arguments
from an outhouse roof.

You ham it up by calling it regret.
The moon’s blur lights an island of cloud.
Nothing’s out of place but your self –
or that’s what you’re thinking
(if that’s your voice you hear speaking),
but it’s doing you no good.

Originally published by Various Artists; copyright Tom Phillips 2012

Friday, 23 March 2012

Says it all

Mr Gramsci has the floor ....

from At Home

Tracer fire across sand dunes works hard
to mark a limit to our enterprise.

You can balk at that possessive all you want.
In this rock pool, the stick stirs one way

and every hermit crab scuttles in the same direction.

Originally published by Various Artists; copyright Tom Phillips 2012.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Centre, Friday

This is not a place to be in at a loss:
you need wits and cash about you.
And I am a different person on these streets,
adjusting pace and expression to how
it might be possible not to stand at odds.
Common ground amongst predictable gridlock
is reduced to a concrete plaza with fountains,
Bible bashers, benches, rubbish bins:
whatever each complains of when we’ll be home.

There’s a long way to go before that.
The waterfront bellows with stag parties;
tourists affront lovers sequestered at wharf’s edge.
Negotiating the overspill from franchised bars,
there seems to be some hope for separate peace.
At the outset of Friday night, the cordon’s drawn up:
helicopter flashlights splash along the harbour.

It’s not the whole story. On the corner
by the swing bridge’s worn-through asphalt tiles,
the leaf-clogged puddles on harbourside cobbles,
you were almost in danger of kicking away
a used condom’s rubbery squiggle:
sign at least that, in this intoxicating air,
someone was tempted to believe
love was somewhere near.

Tom Phillips

Sunday, 26 February 2012

A rare excursion into limerick

How pleasant to feel slightly jaded
while joggers round Queen Square paraded,
I don't give a fart
for the state of my heart:
my aorta's already degraded.

Tom Phillips 2012

Friday, 17 February 2012

Book review

 A Manner of Utterance, ed. Ian Brinton (Exeter: Shearsman, 2009)

No living poet causes quite such a partisan commotion as J. H. Prynne. For some, understanding or at least grappling with his arcane, multivalent, multi-vocal poetry has become a sort of litmus test of avant-gardism: you either ‘get it’ or you don’t – and if you don’t, well, stuff you. For others, the Cambridge don whose poetic beginnings lie adjacent to Edward Dorn, Charles Olson and the Black Mountain School has done little but publish gibberish and bamboozle a readership made gullible by an hysterical psychological weakness for the ‘different’ and ‘new’. On the one hand, Prynne is the reluctant figurehead of a poetic experimentalism which was effectively banished to the margins by Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison’s 1982 convention-defining anthology The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (which ostentatiously ignored the ‘Cambridge School’ and other leftfield strands into which and from which Prynne’s poetry feeds). On the other, he’s an over-intellectualising con artist who’s probably best left in the woods while the Carol Ann Duffys and Don Patersons of this world get on with writing poetry the public can readily understand.
The truth, of course, is that Prynne is none of these things. Certainly, he is donnish (if donnish means having an active knowledge of an astonishing spectrum of poetry) and, certainly, he writes in a way which makes even the most ‘difficult’ poems in the Motion-Morrison anthology seem almost overly accessible. What, for example, are we to make of this?

Now a slight meniscus floats on the moral
pigment of these times, producing
displacement of the body image, the politic

Well, to be frank, who knows? It’s not exactly Wordsworth. Or Browning. Or even Pound. But, then, here at least, in the opening lines of ‘The Ideal Star-Fighter’ from the 1971 collection Brass, there is a sense of density, of a rightness about the proximity of words like ‘pigment’ and ‘albino’, ‘meniscus’ and ‘image’, ‘body’ and ‘politic’. With adequate time and resources, it seems, you might just be able to tease out what these lines and the rest of the poem are about.
Whether you want to do that, of course, is another matter. And in many ways the message which emerges most clearly from the diverse essays collected in A Manner of Utterance is that if you’re asking what Prynne’s poetry is about, you’re already coming at it from the wrong angle.
Written by a variety of readers and collaborators, these essays are not primarily concerned with elucidating the overarching themes of Prynne’s poetry or tracing the development of his work from the shifting but still fundamentally grounded Kitchen Poems of 1968 to the slippery, unleashed verbiage of 2004’s Blue Slides At Rest. Rather they approach Prynne’s work as a reading experience: the predominant question is not ‘what is this about?’, it is ‘what does it feel like to read it?’ As such, they constitute a more useful introduction to the wild world of Prynne than more conventionally exegetical critiques. How reassuring, after all, to come across statements like Erik Ulman’s: ‘My initial encounters with [Prynne’s poetry] have often baffled me, and there are many sequences into which I have as yet only rudimentary insight.’ And yet how encouraging to find quite so many baffled readers also asserting that, even though they still haven’t reached any kind of rudimentary insight, they believe that the pursuit is going to be worth it in the long run. Unlike that kind of literary criticism which attempts to exhaust the possibilities opened up by poetry, these essays strongly refuse any kind of closure. Like Prynne’s poetry itself, they keep their options open, and are all the better as a result.
Not that there are no traces of exegesis here. Simon Perril’s reading of Prynne’s 1987 collection Bands Around The Throat in ‘Hanging on Your Every Word’, for example, is an entirely convincing and illuminating critical engagement with the surfaces and depths of a peculiarly dense and near-apocalyptic series of poems written in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Whatever Prynne himself might think of the Cambridge discipline of close reading, Perril’s deployment of that technique in combination with contextualising references to geo-political studies of the Chernobyl fall-out brings the poems to life in a way which also illumines their author’s political and poetical displacement. Similarly, Richard Humphreys’ conversations with artist Ian Friend – whose work has included a profound engagement with Prynne’s 1983 collection The Oval Window – draws out and explicates some of the many scientific allusions in Prynne’s work, while Keston Sutherland’s ‘X L Prynne’ usefully questions the ways in which Prynne might be seen as a radical, not simply in terms of his foregrounding of injustice (which is, in fact, one of the supposedly ‘donnish’ poet’s most pressing worldly concerns), but also in relation to his understanding of humanity’s ‘size’, its correlation to the world.
Above all, what these essays bring out are the aesthetic qualities of Prynne’s work, the richness and colour generated by the different voices and vocabularies which cut across it. On the face of it, those cross-cuts render the writing rebarbative, almost hostile to the reader’s interest in or desire for ‘getting something’ from it, but here Brinton and his fellow contributors argue cogently for a different approach, an approach, in fact, which is more relaxed, more forgiving, more hospitable – and more cosmopolitan. As Chinese poet Li Zhi-min points out, reading poetry in the longstanding Chinese tradition involves – indeed, requires – an engagement with the work which might well last a life time: only by repeating and repeating a poem can a reader come anywhere near close to understanding it.
Prynne’s work seems to offer precisely this kind of life-long opportunity. Whether one wants to take up that offer is, of course, up to each individual reader, but the essays Brinton has collected in A Manner of Utterance make for a persuasive argument that, for all the frustrations, bafflements and temptations to waste whole days punching arcane vocabulary into Google, the effort of taking up that offer has its own unique rewards, if only to enable an encounter with a poet whose work could well be described as ‘the/most intricate presence in/our entire culture’. In that sense, at least, Prynne, his readers and his would-be readers are well served.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Provenance issues

Just what is it about
this surface I am looking at
refusing to be said

source of hope and irritation
semblance of clouds of paint
but not clouds not just or

just is
no source no semblance either

Rothko, there, said it.

Tom Phillips 2012

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

I Went To Albania 2

A short new blog posting about my imminent one-man theatre piece 'I Went To Albania' is now up on the Bristol Ferment site here: Where you can also read about some of the other work in this month's fortnight of new theatre at Bristol Old Vic (11-21 Jan).