Nottingham Poetry Festival 2017
POMA Arts Presents Salt Modern Voices
Wednesday 26th April 2017

April 28, 2017

Review By Kibrina Davey

Hosted At Jermy And Westerman Bookshop

 

Geoff and Richard Blore’s second hand bookshop was the perfect setting for listening to the poetry of local writers. Situated on a busy main road, the cosy shop offered the audience a peaceful retreat as we took our seats, surrounded by the works of the literary greats.  The small but charming shop on Mansfield road has recently been revamped and now features tables, seats, and refreshments for its customers. There was a great turnout for the event including other local poets such as Kevin Jackson, Andrew Martin, Trevor Wright and Henry Normal (one of the organisers of the poetry festival). The evening was informal and fun as attendees networked and chatted over tea and homemade cakes.

Before the event officially started, we were treated to an impromptu open-mic session as Shaun Belcher invited volunteers to take the microphone and perform their own poetry. To start us off Kevin Jackson, a member of the DIY Poetry Collective regaled us with four poems including one about getting lost in Derby. Next up was Andrew Martin, another member of the DIY Poetry Collective, who kept his performance short and sweet with a comical mini poem / working progress about dead bees. The third volunteer was Trevor Wright whose parody of Psalm 23:4 (‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’) from the point of view of Donald Trump featured the hilarious line ‘I anointeth my bouffant with laquer’. Last but not least, Henry Normal recited a couple of short humorous poems including one about ‘sex in the woods’, before finishing with the more serious and beautiful ‘The Moon in the Morning Sky’. It was a great start to a fantastic evening of poetry.

Shaun Belcher

Belcher began his set with a selection of poems about growing up in Oxford. The first poem ‘The Ice Horses’ included the ethereal image of horses walking across the frozen river Thames. The first set of poems combined arresting natural imagery with personal stories and experiences. In ‘Matilda in the Snow’, Belcher spoke of a snow covered farm in the town he grew up in, depicting it as a ‘blank page’, a peaceful image which was enhanced by Belcher’s calm and even tone of voice.

In between his poems, Belcher shared amusing anecdotes about his life as a young poet in Oxford, telling us ‘I used to think I was Yeats. I grew a beard and wore a green three-piece suit’. Many of his poems commented on the class divide in Oxford, particularly in academic and literary circles. Belcher discussed the history of hostility between ‘town and gown’ in Oxford and in one poem he told us that he was made to change his accent. ‘My accent was drained out of me’ said Belcher before using an animalistic metaphor to depict his aggressive linguistic education, telling us how his ‘nose was forced down in a trough of grammar’.

The second half of Belcher’s set was taken from a pamphlet entitled ‘Burning Books’ which included a poem of six lines called ‘A Poem to End All Poetry’, which he told us was about Theresa May and North Korea alongside a “rant” about television called ‘Dance of Debt’. The titular poem was my favourite from the collection and told the story of a man who realises it was cheaper to burn books from Poundland instead of coal to keep warm and featured the sensationally funny line ‘Fifty Shades of Grey climaxed in less than fifty seconds.’ Belcher’s poems were provocative, encouraging a discussion amongst the poet and the audience about the rise of technology and the decline of the physical literary text and independent/ second hand bookshops.

Belcher’s set was witty, satirical and often moving. His poetry covered both the personal and the political, making us laugh while causing us to reflect on important social and political issues.

Shaun Belcher has been published in a number of literary magazines such as Lines Review, Gairfish, Southfields, and Oxford Poetry. He became a member of the Shore Poets in 1994 and contributed the titular poem for a collection called ‘The Ice Horses’ in 1996. A pamphlet of Belcher’s poetry entitled ‘Last Farmer’ was published in 2010 as part of the Salt Modern Voices series.

Find out more about Shaun and his work at http://www.shaunbelcher.com/

 

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ROY MARSHALL REVIEW OF LAST FARMER December 2011

Lovely review on poet Roy Marshall’s blog.

http://www.roymarshall.wordpress.com

A review of ‘ Last Farmer’ by Shaun Belcher, Salt books 2010.

This is a thematically and stylistically cohesive and deeply personal collection. It opens with ‘The Nettle Fields’, a poem which sets both the physical and emotional theme for the book. The narrator is working to clear a field of nettles with his father. As they work they uncover a broken cockpit and the father relates a tale of a crashing warplane.

This uncovering of the past in relation to the poet’s younger self within the context of wider historical setting, in particular with reference to the war and his agricultural upbringing, recurs throughout the collection. Belcher is of a generation at only one remove from the seismic events which informed and shaped his parents and grandparents lives. The lives of his own generation (and I count myself among them, being seven years younger) have witnessed enormous social and cultural changes.

Belcher explores the struggle to relate across to the gap of generations, to find a ‘common language’ with his forbears and with his own past. These poems deal with changing landscapes and their disappearance, with the traces the past leaves in the present.

Perhaps the experience of growing up on a farm exacerbates the feeling of being out of step with both the past and with a changing modern world. Some of these poems convey a sense of being trapped and growing up in an age which is disappearing, where things are falling apart or are already broken like the 78 records that

‘ seemed to break of their own accord.
Splinters of black shellac
bulging the faded paper sleeves

Belcher evokes evenings in which parents play Ray Martin records, and despite this being the early nineteen seventies, try to teach the children to Foxtrot, Tango and Waltz, a world in which

‘Somehow we never quite learnt the steps
even when we stood on their feet.

The physical and emotional landscape of the present is shot through with history which intrudes, unbidden and inescapable. A photo in the newspaper of an uncle’s war grave sparks his mother and father into memories of the uncle’s ‘glider crumpled in a field near Arnhem like a puffball’. The uncle is shot and wounded, but does not die of the bullet but of
‘…poison seeping through his limbs’.

In the powerful ‘The Ice Horses’, timelines are collapsed and blended to bring generational experience together. The poem contains one of the few untarnished images in the book; the new-born child is taken to be shown to his grandfather ‘like a new tractor bought to his farm.’

A complex relationship exists with a world of disappearing accents and ways of living, with lost promise and opportunity, a world to which the writer is simultaneously drawn but to which he seems to feel he may no longer belong, if indeed, he ever did. The power of these thematically linked poems lies in the fact that the past is not one-dimensional country to be viewed through rose-tinted glasses, but one in which there was always disintegration and constant change.

These poems explore the conflict between a compulsion to revisit and to break free from a world which is already ‘Lost like a spitfire over the channel’.

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SPHINX REVIEWS February 2012

http://www.sphinxreview.co.uk/pamphlet-reviews/sphinx-19/478-last-farmer–shaun-belcher

Two great first one pretty awful…say no more..

I copied the two better ones

Fiona Sinclair:
The Last Farmerhas an almost prophetic tone as it witnesses the demise of rural life. When recalling his childhood the narrator is not sentimental, rather he portrays farmers engaged in a battle to yield crops from over worked land. The poems of the present are far from bucolic as they describe abandoned farms that ceased to be competitive and  ‘pretend farms ‘ that are little more than chemical factories forcing arid land to mass produce food. Ironically some of the sweetest and most poignant images of nature occur in urban poems where a bird or a shrub is exiled to the city, much like the narrator.

The first poems in the collection have the narrator time-travelling between his youth and the present. It’s an effective device:  we see the comparison between the care-free child who plays with his tractor in the dried mud and the man trapped in the city who is reduced on Sundays to  seeking his nature ‘fix’ in the brown land that fringes  the urban  sprawl.  I got the image of a person trapped in the past unable or unwilling to move on largely because he refuses to accept social change. This is best exemplified in the poem ‘Following the Map’. Here the narrator describes two friends content as boys to

…….jostle and race Corgi, Matchbox and Dinky
…….through those hot July afternoons

However as adults, the narrator recounts that his friend has abandoned rural life for a better future and

…….now sells Porsches in Sweden
…….with hand shakes and brochures pushed into the palms
…….of businessmen whilst I sit here, stalled again.

The tone subtly reveals the narrator’s belief that the friend has sold out, mixed with envy that the man, unlike himself, has been able to adapt and move on.

The poet makes effective use of the ‘I ‘throughout the collection. The result is an isolated figure whose world is populated only with characters from his past. There is mention of a ‘we’ or ‘you’ but the brevity and rareness of the references only enhances his loneliness.

Such isolation reinforces the idea of a prophetic voice warning against our dislocation from the natural world. His argument seems to be that our society is sleep walking in to a partitioning of the countryside every bit as devastating as the enclosure acts of the 18th century. He portrays cities that either consume the landscape as they spread out or surround rural areas so that

 

 

…….tarmac roads, steel rails
…….and winding streams and tributaries
…….mesh with hedge rows and power lines
…….in a cats cradle of communication links

 

 

At the same time the poet has no illusions about the current state of the countryside. ‘Flint Field’ paints a grim portrait of land stripped of its fertility by over production where “we force plenty with additives and pesticides’’. What is striking though throughout the collection is the narrator’s radical point of view that this plundering of the land’s fecundity has ‘’grown poor through centuries of tilling and reaping’’.

 

 

Significantly the poet lays the responsibility as far back as the 18th century, blaming the Industrial Revolution for changing irrevocably the shape of the landscape and creating cities with vast populations that continue to demand increasing food production. To argue his point the poet skilfully juxtaposes past and present in many poems, allowing the reader to see both historical cause and effect.

Ross Kightly:
I am sure this collection will not leave too many readers indifferent. There is an angry and bitter flavour to many of the poems and the themes such as change (mainly for the worse) and loss of past innocence—or at least dignity in adversity—are not comfortable ones.

 

 

In several poems the narrator is drawn back by an older person’s recollections to the Second World War and some of the best imagery is to do with that experience. For example, in ‘The Nettle Fields’:

…….He started telling me about a German fighter
…….that came down over his village
…….trailing thick white smoke like silk.

This quotation illustrates also the deliberate and measured rhythmic quality of many of these poems—clearly Belcher has a good ear for the music of the line, the stanza and the whole poem: that is one of the great pleasures of reading it aloud.

At one point in ‘Following The Map’ this reviewer had the strange feeling that his own life was being described:

…….We’d jostle and race Corgi, Matchbox and Dinky
…….through those hot July afternoons until light faded
…….from the downs and flickered on vapour trails.

Sometimes a poem just pushes all the buttons—’Clinker’ with its packed imagery of youth on motorcycle goes from 0-90 in thirty seconds! Certainly, the girl with her “wide grin/ framed by hair dyed to the colour/ of the amber slag we’d find by the rails/ and think was something precious” may be back with her boyfriend pushing a pram, but in one of the best concluding stanzas I’ve ever come across:

…….. . . that’s later.
…….Right now that grin won’t fade
…….and he’s hardly holding on
…….and in front of them
…….there’s every part of England.

Not every poem strikes me with such force and I found the generally melancholy tone sometimes oppressive, but this is a matter of personal taste and in the case of my difficulties with the metaphorical animals in ‘The Ice Horses’ the barrier is my problem, I suspect.

There’s not much cheerfulness in this collection, but the anger is mostly well-directed: targets such as the imperialist past and its legacy certainly deserve some of this attention.

I am genuinely looking forward to Shaun Belcher’s next book: The Drifting Village. Can’t say better than that.

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Ruth Fainlight in The Guardian Poetry Workshop 2004

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/oct/19/poetry13

Shaun Belcher’s “On Regarding a Distant Prospect of Oxford with Greyhound in Foreground on a Frosty Morning” and Colm Early’s “My Father Once Saw an Old Woman Being Killed in the Autumn” are ambitious pieces which give evidence that their writers have read a lot of poetry and been writing for a long time, but in both cases I think their poems need more thought – either simplification or amplification.

SOUTHFIELDS MAGAZINE 6.1. (London/Glasgow)
Nov.1999.Raymond Friel

Shaun Belcher’s ‘Flint Fields’ explores another aspect of unnatural disaster caused, this time, by generations of commercial exploitation of the countryside. Behind Belcher is Larkin’s ‘Going, Going’ with its splenetic denunciation of the ‘crooks and tarts’ who are spoiling this ‘other Eden’. Larkin’s schematic presentation of past and present sets harmless ‘village louts’ against the screaming kids in the M1 cafe; the vision of England as an idyll of ‘meadows.. lanes..guildhalls’ against an equally imagined ‘first slum of Europe’. Belcher cannot be accused of nostalgia or pastoral myth-making but is as vituperative in tone as Larkin and as ready to blame commercial avarice in the form of the ‘fertiliser salesmen / intent on reaping the highest bonuses’

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The Ice Horses : A Second Shore Poets Anthology
(Scottish Cultural Press) 1996
Anna Crowe, Lines Review, Edinburgh (excerpt).

A concern for language, and for how it shapes memory and identity, runs through Shaun Belcher’s work. To be forced to lose your accent, your mother-tongue, is an act of violence that is devastatingly conveyed in the farmyard and slaughter-house imagery of “Severed Tongue”:

My accent was drained out of me.
A slit bullock over a drain
taught to sound better
my nose forced down in a trough of grammar.

The search for his grandfather’s voice becomes a search for his childhood self, and the question that opens the poem – “Where’s they going grampy?” – is finally answered when the poet confronts a butcher’s shop in ” Oxford’s covered market” (an expression bursting with hidden agendas). In the end, the “reflection” that the effort of writing entails seems to offer a process of re-integration : “looking down through my reflection / at a tray of severed tongues. / trying to find a bucket for his vowels.”
In his poem “The Hare-Lip”‘ the search for memory is a search for truth, for clarity of language, an attempt, in spite of the vulnerability of childhood to ” tell a false accent from a real one”.

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Reg Little, Oxford Times 4/9/.92 ‘Verse or Worse’
article on Last Gasp Poetry Group.

Mr. Shaun Belcher is an artistic all-rounder. He paints, with his work used as record sleeves, he sings and, of course, he writes poetry. Much of his conversation centres on Didcot. “How can a poet come out of Didcot for God’s sake?” he likes to ask. I wondered whether he was aware that Philip Larkin owed everything to Hull. It was difficult not to be impressed by Mr. Belcher’s enthusiasm.
Some may have been expecting An Ode to Elvis Presley or On Moving to Didcot. Instead we were treated to some emotional poetry about the changing face of rural life in Oxfordshire, dedicated to a member of his family who had worked the land…the generous applause was richly deserved.

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