Reviews and comment
Ted Hughes on Half Moon Bay
It rewards and withstands a lot of rereading. What I especially like is the rather apprehensive feeling that absolutely anything can happen… that means great freedom – and a lot of provisional or mental imaginative systems, a big kit of metaphysical templates. His poems are genuine flying machines – bits and pieces of half the world in the rigging – but they take off, and have that sort of beauty which works in the world, and is meant to.
Paul Munden on Dinosaur Point, from P N Review
Mature, philosophical and adventurous work… Paul Mills strikes me as one of the few poets writing today who is fully prepared not to play safe. Deeply (if also mischievously) questioning.
Ian Parks on Dinosaur Point , from Poetry Quarterly Review
Dinosaur Point gives ample demonstration of Mills's gifts for uncovering emotional clarity from complex situations and exploring it in a language at once accessible, approachable, and very often moving. A poet writing at the height of his powers, confident, perceptive, entertaining and assured.
Eric Roberts on Never, in the Yorkshire Post
Mills's background as a poet was the starting-point for this powerful work. His astute use of black comedy leads us into the darker side of human nature. A compelling piece of drama.
Gerald England on Anthology of Gregory Fellows' poetry, eds Debjani Chatterjee and Barry Teb, Sixties Press, from New Hope International
With so many excellent poets it is impossible to do them all justice in a short review but I recommend reading each of them afresh. For me the revelation was Paul Mills, one of the youngest in the group and a poet I had not read before. His writing is on the theme of single fatherhood and he shows us how poetry of the ordinary and everyday can strike us and remain long afterwards in our memory.
Also, an extended comment on the treatment of science in Paul Mills's poetry is included in a chapter 'The Noise of Science' by David Kennedy, in his book New relations, The Refashioning of British Poetry, Seren, 1996. Also see Dinosaur Point in 'On his own work'
James McGrath on Voting for Spring (Smith/Doorstop, £9.95) and You Should've Seen Us, (Smith/Doorstop) £6.95, from the Manchester Review
Paul Mills, at a reading in York in the late 1990s, was the first writer I ever heard to suggest that the next major movement in poetry and also literary theory would have ‘something to do with the environment. It's inevitable'. In the decade since Mills' previous poetry collection, Dinosaur Point (2000), eco-poetry has emerged as a forceful and diverse area; yet, changing and disturbed landscapes, with tensions between nature and machinery, had characterised Mills' poetry since his first collection, North Carriageway (1976). His debut followed his Gregory Award, judged (perhaps tellingly) by Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. In Mills' new, fifth collection, Voting for Spring , ecological concerns are made inextricable from core themes of family, history, conflict and resilience. Mills' additional new publication, the pamphlet You Should've Seen Us , opens up further areas, confirming that this intriguing poet, while publishing collections only once a decade or so since Third Person (1978), remains not just relevant in contemporary poetry, but ahead.
In the late 1970s, Mills was Creative Writing Fellow at Manchester Victoria University, then Gregory Fellow at the University of Leeds (which recently acquired his archive). After establishing one of the UK's first Creative Writing courses, at York St John University, he is now commencing an RLF Fellowship at the University of York. Mills' Routledge Creative Writing Coursebook (2006) demonstrates the methods and standards of his commitment to developing new writing.
Voting for Spring will appeal to readers interested in eco-literature, but it cannot be reduced to this label. While vivid in its images of a marketplace destroyed by a gale, the world as a football sailing down a river, and a Tory MP's novel in a recycling bin, the book is also urgently personal.
Mills' previous two collections invoked his time in California on a Fulbright Exchange and return to Yorkshire as a single parent. Through literary, cultural and geographical reference-points, Britain and America were situated in dialogue. Voting for Spring joins these lands, beginning:
Three hundred million years, no Atlantic –
Scotland, America, one mountain coastline.
(‘Brimham Rocks in January')
However, the focus moves from ecological unity to sinister political mergence. The book's most haunting question is ‘who is the President of England?'. The question is posed by a psychiatrist in Mills' twenty-one poem sequence ‘21/2001', reflecting on his twenty-one year old daughter's psychiatric illness, which began in the week of the terrorist attacks on America. The personal and national strands are so tightly twisted as to be inseparable, and the repeated question ‘Who is the President of England?' yields implications of the planet itself undergoing an unprecedented kind of illness in the 21 st century.
It is, though, the experience of a family that makes Mills' ‘21/2001' remarkable. Other than The Bell Jar , I have encountered no other literature or textbook that so devastatingly, yet truthfully (and thus consolingly) addresses the terrifying unpredictability of some psychiatric illness for both individual and family. The breakdown is also one of language itself for the young woman:
Now she rehearses walking across
the polished surface of words, without taking her eye
off her mind, just in case it slips into a corner
While hope becomes the most persistent but fragile expression in ‘21/2001', it emerges long before the situation has finished swinging between glimpses of recovery and new extremes of despair:
So we pronounced you you and brought you home.
Two days later your mind slipped from its ledge […]
When you seemed so much yourself
too much to be inside one skin –
she appeared, an excess of you […]
Every morning the shock like new knowledge
after deceitful sleep.
While healing is eventually confirmed, the cautiousness of hope coincides with thankfulness. In this way, ‘21/2001' honours the book's overall perspective. Mills ends the sequence not by providing any fixed or reducible resolution, but a look to the ever-evolving landscape:
driving towards the moors one afternoon,
my hands at the wheel turning glooms
of walls and hedgerows light in the last sun,
a field stood out, wrecked, luminous
As well as reflecting on Mills' travels in Peru, the book presents alternative viewpoints on contemporary England by invoking the country's past, juxtaposing geological evolution with the modern history of photography and film. Through the latter, Mills expands another longstanding focus throughout his work: the effective ambiguity between technology and (or as) human nature. In Voting for Spring , and also his new pamphlet You Should've Seen Us , Mills (who is also a painter) reflects on the relationship between history and photography, as well as (implicitly) that between photography and poetry.
While the camera's invention sent painters in various new directions, its impact upon poetry was more delayed and has been largely uniform. Many relatively recent poets who have written about photographs – including U. A. Fanthorpe, Ted Hughes, Dianne Wakoski and Jen Hadfield – have focused on photographs that are generations old and usually depict the author's family. Mills has proven adept at this in earlier volumes, and a highlight of Voting for Spring is ‘My Parents'. This is not without risk: such a title – over a poem beginning
1940, married a year, stopping in front of a camera
outside a church at his brother's wedding
risks letting the whole piece and the tradition it (initially) follows seem, if not clichéd, then close to wearing out. Yet, ‘My Parents' indicates how it is at such points that tradition can be forced (or forces itself) towards reinvention.
Mills enables details in ‘My Parents' and the unshown photograph to convey whole aspects of lifestyle and personality, but gradually becomes a commentary on the incompleteness of all perception. What makes the poem most valuable – long after first putting the book down, I noticed – is how Mills philosophises on photography itself. The effect is similar to that of Manchester artist David Gledhill's 2008-11 Dr Munscheid Paintings (paintings adapted from photographs), encouraging us to gaze at any photograph from the past with imagination. Mills quietly shows what photography can do to us and others, but more pointedly, how, for earlier generations, the photographic occasion could represent not typicality but anomaly in people's lives:
She beside him, waiting for the aperture
to click, for the moment to be returned to movement
Although much of Voting for Spring appears autobiographical, it also enriches Mills' poetry through powerfully convincing contemplations of strangers' pasts. Essential to this are the group of poems composed in response to selections from the Yorkshire Film Archive, which has prompted Mills' second new publication from Smith/Doorstop, the large, beautifully illustrated pamphlet You Should've Seen Us . This reproduces three poems from Voting for Spring with stills from the films that prompted them, and six new, illustrated poems. These, mostly responding to municipal films of community events, are Mills' basis for an imagined history from below.
‘Coronation Celebrations, Harrogate, 1937' accompanies images of a street procession; ‘Almost the whole town, it seemed, on parade'. However, ‘you hated it;/
you refused to participate'. The same poem has ‘Everyone thinking about London,/ even the men doing silly athletics', before
Upbeat of swingboats, play-time England.
Downbeat of endemic depression, rain.
Meanwhile, ‘1958' asks ‘Who owns the garden fete?'. The guest of honour Major, the Vicar and the May Queen are all dismissed from the answer, as Mills' focus transfers to those on the margins of the filmed occasion. An insistent implication through the pamphlet is that the archived films can mask the realities of both local and national community through the very act of parade. It is in imagining back to the mid twentieth century that Mills' poetry becomes most thought-provokingly political in relation to the present.
Mills' poems are unflinchingly candid in their reflections on family, ecology, and a de-sentimentalized national past. It is when moving around and between some of the most frequent topics of contemporary poetry that Mills is most inspiringly risk-taking. The risk is that such areas are already overly-familiar. Yet the achievement of Mills' two new publications is that they continually address prevalent – and important – concerns of current poetry in uncompromisingly stark ways.
Sarah Hymas on Out of Deep Time, Sabotage
Out of Deep Time, as the title indicates, is a wide-ranging pamphlet with a relaxed, inclusive long view. Poems are playful, thematically interconnected, in dialogue with each other and, as a whole, make for a collection that is both within reach and yet somehow also slipping beyond.
The opening poem, ‘From the Palaeolithic’, sets the tone. A familiar domestic setting of condensation running down the kitchen window becomes a scene in which a man appears, “one of the first coming into Europe / out of the east following rivers and sunsets”, who is “one of the first sons of the mother who is our mother”. The narrator considers him and how he might interact, at this imagined point of temporal dissolution, with a tone that twists about despair and uncertainty, the reality of his destructive capacity and vulnerability, hinting at climate change, never quite settling, just as the trickles of water disappear. The trickles are described as “wriggling forest vines”, which flashes forward to another poem in the pamphlet, ‘A wriggle’. Here, the protagonist is Time itself, invisible but for its wriggle, watching the “new creature / unclenched its feet and stood erect”, planning to keep it subordinate. Time is, understandably, a trickster, taking pleasure in its power and the subsequent powerlessness of the creature who “had started digging / found little bits of itself and put them together…” Time’s forecast is not positive for the ‘creature’, and the linking back to the first poem is hinted at in the penultimate line where the creature is “smeared on the invisible”, in a strange slightly disorientating telescoping of timeframes and perspectives that give the pamphlet a vitality that keeps these poems, which often, rightly it seems, have a disheartening view on outcomes, free from a pessimistic tone that may otherwise overwhelm.
Other poems, such as ‘Song without words’, are more tentative in their perspective, raising the notion of durational time, time that lingers, vapourises, that connects and separates creatures (I assume humans from nonhumans). The role of predator and predated shifts into the “swaying of minds together”. Here the lack of punctuation, sustained throughout the pamphlet, allows the images and lines to slide across each other, and rub up against each other, while being contained lightly in the couplets of the poem. The voice of this poem is more remote, does not take a position, is not a narrator or protagonist, describing what comes from “deep in the throat / in the chest”, so enabling the reader of the poem to draw it from their throat and chest, to embody the poem, to articulate it, to become one of the creatures in it.
As well as time migrating, poems feature physical migrations, journeys across landscapes and across poems. A series of poems that declare themselves to be the story of hands – of glass – of a line unfolds a sense of human activity, or perhaps industry, from the body to the wider world and back to the body, and the need to communicate, to connect, to make sense and impact which seems in the scheme of the pamphlet a futile but necessary drive that pulls us out of ourselves and across the world. ‘The journey from Easter Siberia to Tierra del Fuego’ concerns itself with mass migration, widening out to cover vast tracks of time – two thousand years, more – that is somehow loosely contained within this poem, and not at all diminished by being so. It stretches around the world, on the physicality of the task, the details, the tools, the knowledge, to the hairs on the back of the neck. In it there is a stanza:
"alone and not alone there were ghosts
the dead so easily offended
must be abandoned"
The dead are clearly not abandoned in this pamphlet, but upheld as stories, as spirits as the vital life that has resulted in these poems being written and read. The odds against the survival of the species seem to be underlined again and again: in this “long journey”; in the 1832 witnessing of Charles Darwin of a people whose “future appears to him like their past abject/ a long steep-sided sound from end to end swallowed by cloud”; in an Arctic expedition where hope seems an irrelevance.
Elsewhere, Mills writes of a “finished past”, yet the past of this book, spun so continuously into the present wherein future slides, is constantly searched for, found, unmade, remade – imagined and set against the land-and-air-scapes of these poems. They have the sense of being unearthed, disturbed in the rubble of the archaeological dig, as if the language, the questions, images and ideas have been upturned, shown the light for the first time, along with creatures in the poems, still settling amongst the remains. This pamphlet reminds us of our collective past, the reach of it, that encompasses humanity while managing to maintain a sense of geo-centricity. In doing so, it remarkably gives hope for a collective future.
On The Routledge Creative Writing Coursebook
Paul Mills`s Routledge Creative Writing Coursebook is the rich fruit of his decades of experience in teaching and writing across the whole range of genres. As well as being intensely practical, a great strength of his approach is an utter lack of snobbishness in his using sources that make his point clearly; from Geoffrey Hill to Coronation Street , he knows the material to reach the students and shows them the steps that will take their own writing further. This is not a mere eclecticism, but comprehensive knowledge deployed in the best book I know in this field
Sarah Solway in Writing In Education
The chapters are genre-based, covering Writing as Art, Personal Narrative, Poetry, Fiction, Children`s Fiction, and Drama, and I was impressed by the mix of references from recent newspaper articles, theatre programme notes and interviews with writers, as well as the more usual sources. This gives an up-to-date feel to the discussion, and mirrors what might take place in the classroom, although it does suggest the book will have to be revised over time, (it is apparently somewhere between a second edition and a sequel of Mills`s Writing In Action ). Equally, the use of extracts from works by writers as diverse as Elizabeth Bishop, John Berger, DCB Pierre, Keats, Julia Copus, William Carlos Williams, Sujata Bhatt, V. S. Pritchett and Mark Haddon is bound to introduce its readers, all presumably emerging writers, to new styles and influences – one of the joys of any writing course.
Kevin McCarron, Roehampton University , in the Times Education Supplement, May 2007.
This book is intended for students on creative writing courses, although the teachers of such courses will also benefit from reading it.
An unusual feature of Mills's book is its eclectic range of references and quotations: in the space of a few pages he refers to the 16th Century English poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, the television soap Coronation Street, and Quentin Tarantino`s film Reservoir Dogs.
This is a book completely free of snobbery; it is totally focused on the needs of its readers.
Each of the six chapters concludes with sound, practical advice for aspiring writers, and with useful exercises. Even more pragmatically, each of these sections concludes with a page entitled 'Revision and Editing'.
While all six chapters are full of shrewd, economical insights into their subjects, the one devoted to poetry will probably be the most informative and helpful for students of creative writing.
Clearly aware that many of them regard such essential elements of poetry as metre and stress with trepidation or boredom, Mills wisely delays their appearance until near the chapter`s conclusion. Moreover, he performs a valuable service to students with this suggestion: `instead of the usual question: “What does it mean?”, the preferred question should be “How does it speak?"