This is not a sales pitch

This is not a sales pitch. This is a confession. But this is not a confessional: I have nothing to be ashamed of.

In May Test Centre will release my second collection of poems. It’s been six years since I published How to Build a City. It is an understatement to say that I have waited long enough. I am pleased with the book, but of course I am also anxious about its reception. These poems are my way of speaking out from interior places. This is not a sales pitch.

Poets talk about ‘finding your voice’, which I have always found faintly repellent. Its almost gnostic suggestion of a revealed truth or essence. Its sly rejection of multiplicity, of the poet’s capacity for ventriloquism. Not to mention its reinforcement of the notion of serving a ‘poetic apprenticeship.’

Dark Islands is not bound together by one unifying voice or theme, but instead is governed by a dense cloud of ideas and images that, through their accumulation and interaction, I hope create pleasing or troubling or powerful effects. That is, at least, my desire. This is not a sales pitch, though selling is in my blood. Money is one of those ideas that filters through this book, its register of loss and profit interrupting and destabilising the lexicon.

The island is the metaphorical apparatus of my book. Poems are islands, drifting in a sea of white, guarding their limits against the tide, governed by their own internal rules. The human body is an island: a unit of meaning as much isolated as it is self-determining. This is a book against loneliness.

And when the poems speak of ‘the black Madonna spinning on the Lazy Susan‘ or recall a fascist march in Aldgate, they chart my own faulty, faltering pathway back to faith and forgiveness. Good people do bad things. But this is not a confessional. Poetry brings me to my knees.

A publisher who rejected an early manuscript commented: ‘I would like a little more warmth, vulnerability and emotion overall, more of the poet who is currently hiding behind his words.’ I didn’t know whether to feel flattered or indignant. Because on one level, they were right: the masked man appears throughout my poems, a shadow of myself perhaps, or a childhood fear? I am interested in the hidden places; and in those things which are not as they appear.

But this is a book of vulnerabilities. More than ever I want to share the things that hurt. It’s just that, sometimes, I am compelled to conceal them within a joke or a riddle. That’s my protection. It’s not me, it’s you. ‘I bruise as keenly as a supermarket fruit.’

The city is there too. Its dense histories and pressure cooker atmospherics provide a backdrop to the poems’ very modern neuroses: protestors outside St Paul’s ‘in the costume of the dead,’ City boys ‘on bonus day in Cornhill,’ ‘the swashing potage of the Thames.’

This is not an advertisement. This is a pitch into the dark.

Poems from Dark Islands

Island of Voices (The Island Review)

Ecosystem (Wild Culture)

The Herbals (3:AM Magazine)



A New Kind of Street Ballad

So, I didn’t quite make the Michael Marks Award. That honour rightly goes to Selima Hill for her outstanding Flarestack pamphlet.

Any (mild) disappointment was erased by the privilege of hearing an exhilirating, learned and empassioned speech by Ali Smith. She was one of three judges, alongside Jo Shapcott and Richard Price. A speech so good it was republished in yesterday’s Guardian. If you’ll forgive the egotism, here’s the bit that concerns my pamphlet:

Tom Chivers’s The Terrors (Nine Arches Press) is a prose-poetry fusion of 18th-century London and online modernity. Questioning notions of freedom and imprisonment, it fuses the inmates of Newgate prison with the inmates of contemporary online chatrooms. It makes for a new kind of street ballad.

I’m well proud of that last line especially. Thanks, Ali.

Had I won I would have thanked publicly the brilliant Jane Commane and Matt Nunn of Nine Arches Press. I may even have revealed how the publication came about. I sent one or two early poems from the sequence to my friend George. He then forwarded them, without my knowledge or blessing, to Jane. A few days later, she emailed me with the opening line (I may be paraphrasing), Thank you for your submission…

So basically without George it never would have happened. You should check out Nine Arches anyway. They do good work.

Oh, the photo at the top shows a contestant attempting escape from the Big Brother house. I’ve run out of images of Newgate Prison to illustrate The Terrors, but the pamphlet does begin with a quote about Big Brother and celebrity. You can order it here, or drop me a line and I’ll send you a signed copy.

Athens: Day Nine

On Sunday I performed a new piece written especially for Dasein Festival. Athens Burns (which I may post up here in full at some point) was performed with a soundtrack – I had been recording snippets of audio during the week, at the protests, on the train, in the street, etc.

Oh, and this was the previous night – reading with translator Theodoros Chiotis.

Earlier in the day (Sunday) I went to a museum called Man & Tool. Cool name. I like bijou museums. Find out more here.

Here are some tools.

I also had a lovely wander around the picturesque and in parts quite dilapidated Plaka area, and then a huge lunch with Katerina, Yiannis, Ivan, Adela, Phoebe Giannisi and others. I ate some intestines. Nice.

I’d like to thank Dasein Festival organiser Christos Chryssopoulos for his energy and skills in bringing everyone together and giving us foreigners a warm Athenian welcome.

Next up, first impressions of Thessaloniki, where I am giving a workshop and reading.

Athens: Days Six, Seven, Eight

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s troubles, the organiser of Dasein Festival hastily assembled a press release to announce an event with Netalie Braun exploring the themes of Violence and Silence. The event comprised the screenings of two films, followed by a Q&A.

I would like to draw your attention especially to Netalie’s hour-long film Metamorphosis (2006), which employs Ovid’s myths in conjunction with contemporary testimony from victims of rape in Israel.

This conceit is realised with formidable skill; the familiar mythological exemplars off-set and illuminated by the modern stories. The latter are shot in super close-up, with bright white backgrounds. The effect is one of intimacy, complicity and cleansing. I’ve not been as moved by a film of this kind – at its heart a documentary, though it makes use of techniques from fiction – for some time.

You can see a trailer here.

After the screening, Netalie revealed that the film is quite controversial in Israel – its release leading to the identification (and in one case, I think, the prosecution) of perpetrators. Bleak, but inspiring.


I visited a great little gallery / arts venue called Aboutt. It was darned hard to locate, being situated on the second floor of a relatively anonymous block of shops and offices in the Monasteraki area of town, with minimal signage. There is a buzzer to get in. It was closed. But luckily the gallery owners – Marie Alouopi and Andreas Diktyopoulos – are very nice and let me in anyway. They are the pair behind the Centre for Music Composition and Performance, and gave me a well-designed book documenting their events and projects to date. Today they were showing their first exhibition in the new venue –  Space is the Place, curated by Lo and Behold. Some excellent reimaginings of urban landscapes in photography, architectural drawings, video, installation art and even embroidery. I wish I could find an image of two drawings by ? which depict the Parthenon in traditional form, but with its columns first geometrically skewed and then folded into intricate, intestine-like tubes. Instead, here’s a screengrab from a piece of video art by Rui Toscano.


Some other stuff I’ve done / seen.

Eaten the most amazing sweet red peppers stuffed with feta.

Visited Gazi, the old gasworks of Athens which are used for events and art exhibitions. Think East London warehouse space, but with all the equipment still intact.

Visited the beautiful and interesting Acropolis Museum with two new poet-friends, Ivan Hristov and Adela Greceanu.

Enjoyed an overpriced meal and walked around Plaka with Netalie, Ivan, Turkish poet (and engineer!) Gokcenur C and head of Literature Across Frontiers Alexandra Buchler.

Factoid: Gokcenur has met Uri Geller, when Geller was representing a Nigerian Prince in a business meeting. Why? Because he can. My friend Nathan was pleased to hear it.

Last night I drank way too much Ouzo with Ivan.

Tonight I gave my first reading (of two) – in collaboration with Theodoros Chiotis, my translator (!). The venue was full, and the poems seemed to go down well. They even laughed at some of the jokes, which is always a bonus.

Here’s a fuzzy shot of the venue, during a stand-out performance by Lina Theodorou.

Finally, let me leave you with a photograph of something I found amusing.

Over. And. Out.

Athens: Days Two, Three, Four

Yeah, so, surprise surprise I haven’t blogged every day from Athens. Hey ho… I have better things to do, such as visiting the Acropolis

snapping more Athenian graffiti (oooh they do love their graffiti….)

and hanging out with the artists participating in the festival.

A few notes.

I climbed the Acropolis with Netalie Braun, a filmmaker and writer from Tel Aviv. Tomorrow night she is presenting an excerpt from her documentary Metamorphosis, which you can read about here. I’m really looking forward to that. She’s a very inspiring artist and thinker.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time with Theodoros Chiotis, who coincidentally – or not – writes for Hand + Star. He has translated loads of my work into Greek and will be presenting that with me on Saturday night. Lots of weird connections actually. We were both at Oxford University at the same time (I was an undergraduate; he was doing a doctorate) and for about a year were actually neighbours. We also have similar tastes in poetry (esp. Sinclair), music (Bat for Lashes, the XX!) and clothes. I had a lovely dinner of rabbit with him and his lovely partner on Saturday, followed by an ice cream in Syntagma Square. Fantastic. Theo is also a very interesting poet. I will point you towards Codeswitching which you can download as a PDF.

Hmmm. What else? The protests continue, sporadically. On Sunday the Greek government announced a programme of huge cuts in public spending, a prerequisite of the EU/IMF bailout. There is a General Strike tomorrow, and I intend to go along – I’ve been invited to join the protests by the filmmaker Yiannis Isidorou.

Factoid: Yiannis lived in Brixton for 3 months. South London la la la!

Tonight I attended the presentation of two films by into the pill, an artists’ collective of which Yiannis is a member – along with Lina Theodorou (another of the festival participants). The first piece was a short film that sensitively captured the sounds of a city. Lots of still camera shots, very beautifully textured, and thoughtful. The second film was simply brilliant: a kind of spoof documentary about three office buildings in Athens, which drew on politics, numerology, genetics and downright craziness to construct fictional conspiracy theories. It was both very funny and, in the current climate, thought-provoking; faintly reminiscent of the films of Adam Curtis as well as the psychogeography-inflected work of Mythogeography and Align (which I’ve mentioned before). Also, the tone was similar in parts to Found in Translation. Below, Curtis then FIT.

Both films were followed by short but passionate debates in Greek. It was held in Dasein, the festival venue. Friendly and hippish bar with dark wood everywhere, Heineken on tap and a dartboard. Tonight was also the launch of an brilliant exhibition of photography by Efthymis Kosemund Sanidis. I bumped into him later, when I was sneaking in a post-midnight espresso and chocolate crepe in Exarchia Square.

In other news, I have started a new piece of poetry (that’s what I’m here for, I guess…).

At the current time of writing, it’s called:

Like Starlings

I’m lucky enough to have been invited to take part in Like Starlings – a poetry project organised by that very nice man Caleb Klaces. The project teams up pairs of poets in a kind of collaborative game of Chinese whispers – a creative two-step with no fixed outcomes.

Tonight Like Starlings became Live Starlings at The Betsey Trotwood, Farringdon. Fascinating performances by lots of people involved in the project, including outrageously good collaborations between Luke Kennard and Richard Price, and Claire Crowther and Chris McCabe. Some poets were without their partners for the night, so read solo (George Ttoouli was excellent, with a poem I knew already but which grew even darker in performance). Well done to Caleb for pulling together such an interesting and open-minded group.

I read last, with Emily Berry, my poet-buddy for the project. We’re only a couple of poems into our collaboration, so just read what we’d done so far. I’m really excited to be working with Emily as her work is very different from mine, and I really admire it. As I mentioned tonight, I read her first poem as a weirdly personal accusation, so my response became a sort of apology. When I raised this with Emily, she said that her ‘accusatory’ poem was in fact an apology. And in some ways, mine is actually quite aggressive… So there you go, in knots already! I can’t wait for her next instalment! In due course, the whole set will be online at the Like Starlings website (which has just been renovated, don’t cha know).