Against the grain: unbound poetry

IMG_4722In a quest to secure crowdfunding for our new anthology, No One You Know, with Unbound, Anthony Wilson and I are writing a series of blog posts about poetry anthologies that have influenced us as readers and writers…. An approval copy of the Against the Grain anthology (published by Nelson) appeared in the English department where I worked in 1989 at just the right moment. Against the Grain continued the conversations about poetry that I had begun to have with other writers and wanted to share with my students. I had previously experienced the poetic whirlwind that its editor, Ian McMillan, was able to stir up when I heard him and his Yakety Yak pals, David Harmer and Martin Wiley, reduce a group of English teachers to tears of laughter at a NATE conference. Then I had the great fortune to spend a week writing poetry at Arvon in Totleigh Barton where Ian was tutoring and the great Charles Causley gave a wonderful guest reading. I soon ensured that we had a whole set in our stockcupboard and frequently gave students chances to dip into it, to see what they liked and what they could take from it for themselves.

Against the Grain is a poetry anthology where poetry, in many different forms, and the possibilities of writing poetry are at the fore. Through an incredibly varied selection of work which included many poems and poets who were rarely anthologised at that time, McMillan aims to make young readers curious, questioning, tempted, angry, amused, frightened or even repulsed by what they read. His mission, clearly expressed in the introduction, is that he wants you as a reader to ‘complete the poem by reading it’ rather than to leave it ‘for dead on a wooden slab’. Poets such as Shirley Bell, Valerie Bloom, Maura Dooley, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead and Martin Stannard are included here. Their voices use language in their own distinct and different ways. The ordering of poems within the five main sections brings about lovely contrasts: Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Mrs Skinner, North Street’ (a poem for Brexit Britain?) shares space with Leslie Ullman’s poignant and bizarre ‘On Vacation a Woman Mistakes her Leg’ while Terry Caffrey’s ‘Scouse Apache’ – the deliciously named ‘Ang on a mo’ – contrasts with Duncan Curry’s ‘McCoy’s Last Stand’. The concrete poem ‘The Honey Pot’ by Alan Riddell is one I still go back to along with many of the surreal poems like Stephen Knight’s ‘The Gift’, in which a boarding school boy receives ‘another four-sleeved pullover’ with rotating sleeves and the extraordinarily rhythmic, hilarious and moving ‘Trainspotter’ by Harmer and Wiley. Each section of the book is followed by a commentary where McMillan talks animatedly to his young reader about why he chose the poems and how they might trigger ideas, structures, topics for the reader’s own writing. He also included an enlightening section of poets’ drafts with poets’ accompanying comments about how they came to write their poems. This section was a particular revelation. Not only did it enable me to share the messiness of other poets’ composition processes with my students but it also sowed the seeds of Drafting and Assessing Poetry – a book I would go on to write over ten years later. McMillan has always had a taste for odd juxtapositions in his own poems but I can’t think of an anthology either before or after this one that allies the acts of reading and writing poetry so naturally together.

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