‘Eat Here, Get Gas & Worms’ by Steve Spence – The Red Ceilings Press


I have been looking forward to a collection of these poems from Steve Spence, having followed and enjoyed them online (both in their appearances and within each narrative) in International Times, Stride Magazine and other. I don’t mean I have been looking for, expecting or wanting ‘answers’ – their collages of surprise are wonderfully paradoxical in evasion and anchoring. The ‘he said/she said’ is the one recurring hook in the constantly evolving dialogue, and I think we take this as any and all speakers in a world of disrupted communication.

There are so many ‘themes’: free-market economy, invention of lithography, colouring books, King Kong, bird songs, graphology, log cabins, salmon, self-censorship, surveillance, and bright orange fiddler crabs – to scratch the surface of the poetic preoccupations. In the explorations, nothing is resolved and everything is considered as we move quickly from one captured thought to another.

I take great comfort in the uniformity of each poem’s structure: five stanzas, the first four of four lines each and the fifth with two lines. Perhaps this is as much certainty over which we have control, and this much is therefore familiar and finite. Each poem is

‘…the same storm even if
we’re in different boats’

(An Open Window)

though this could as easily and obviously be ‘different storm in the same boats’.

I think every disruption within any one poem is symptomatic of how reality is impacted and fluid by the nature of things, by the way we experience it, by the way we interpret it, by the way we forget about it (often immediately), and by the way this one and only poem I will quote in full is an example of the whole,

‘One way or another we are
all under surveillance all of
the time. “My concern is that
this is about territory,” he said.

You can always use the studio
as a musical instrument but here
we have a mirrorball and it’s not
for sale*. “Everything in our path

has been obliterated,” she said.
Yet all areas of recording are
happening simultaneously and
we are looking at an increase in

volcanic activity. What about the
headless body? “This is how it
should feel all of the time,” he
said. When magma rises through

the crust it puts pressure
on the surrounding rocks.

(Fixing the Results)

The whole point of reading these poems is to enjoy and maybe to exemplify the human condition – our need to understand, to shape to expectation, to shape to desire, to find humour (there is plenty of this in these), to replicate the confusion, to see poetry as

‘…the beginning of a
full-scale invasion’

(Pub on the Hoe)

To move from the idea of visiting a lake to a consideration of burglars to concern about a dripping tap encapsulates the deception of dancing within seemingly disparate and ordinary fixations, but at every turn, this is living a daily life of experience and anticipation, as well as what is thrown at us, randomly. Like dreaming, but everyday-real.

*And the glitter and shifting refractions in this delightful collection are very much acquirable here.

The Platitude of Apple Trees

It would
be stating the obvious to reveal how
apple trees

sprout more often
in a search engine than

but at their
core, dark seeds are reminders of
the obvious.

If what
is round will come around again,
there it is

again. The
rot occurs because of how we
leave things,

and the half-eaten worm is not
biblical, but

visual, that
one concrete surprise outside yet in
the platitudes.

Generous Observations


Blurb Bounty

I was honoured to have two thoughtful and generous blurbs provided for my recent publication Drawing on Previous Learning. Both Martin Phillips and Peter Thomas are friends as well as teaching/education/writing colleagues. I have always had the utmost respect for their contributions to English teaching across a wide range of national and influential professional responsibilities, and both have – as a partnership and in their individual ways – contributed greatly to the thinking about, training, resourcing, and examining in the subject of English. Naturally, their views matter much to me, and I will be forever grateful for them.

For the book’s blurb, Peter’s fuller response to my text was edited by the publisher, essentially as a back cover has limited space! His trenchant political statements deserve, I think, an airing (my agreeing with them completely) and I am also delighted to have had his further insights into individual poems.

If this sounds like a further big sell, it is. But my appreciation for their support is genuinely larger than this. Here are Peter’s comments:

I have known Mike Ferguson as a friend and colleague for years, and have admired the clarity and integrity of his thinking about education in general and English education in particular. His occasional blog rants and regular Xmas Stocking Filler pamphlets have been a welcome blast against fatuous and bigoted Tory views of education, small bright beacons in an increasingly bleak landscape of politicised interference in the potential magic of English in the classroom. Those beacons draw their energy from a lifetime’s immersion in the craft of English teaching, and in experience as an examiner in various versions of GCSE over the years.

Now Mike has put together a collection that celebrates and scathes, with honours and horrors put on the page in poems, prose poems and monologues. Many of these skewer the way in which the cultural capitalist model of curriculum and assessment has increasingly rewarded the labelling of devices as a substitute for real engagement with thought and feeling in literature. He voices many examiners’ frustration with foreshadowing, caesura, enjambement and the fronted adverbial offered as the assessment tokens of learning in the reduced repertoire of reading for the test.

In A Bold, Cold Autumn, Mike writes:

English enjambement/rules the forward thrust of negativity, and seasonal/expectation is painted with the red grimace of falling/leaves, even when that metaphor has been sucked dry/by a taught language so keen to explain away surprise..

In National Curriculum at Sea Life, he observes the way his daughter’s encounter with a SATs reading test yields surprise and delights in her comments that ‘the o flying away from didn’t is an apostrophe”, and her misreading of “the astonishing angels” from which objects at Sea Life can be seen. Mike’s wryly forlorn comment on such assessable incorrectness is memorable:

Most noticeable angles are actually hard/As she’ll learn and tell/herself when discovering what might have been.

Throughout this volume, there is a call for the humane and creative tradition in English teaching to oppose the reductive barbarism of the Govian inheritance, vociferously promoted by the favoured orthodoxies of Direct Instruction and so-called “knowledge-rich” Tory favourites who adopt the Hirschian model of culture as a means to social mobility to justify a model of education that values what you know over why it’s worth knowing, receiving wisdom over questioning it and, consequently, privileging compliance over agency. As Mike says in Crushed Stetson:

In a room where someone is preaching/better lessons are taught and learnt when chanced upon.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not, it’s in his piece on Art Teachers that Mike articulates those energies that should fuel good English teaching, because they:

Abhor black and white in education/use a palette for being mixed-up/know Dali should design the curriculum/brushstroke their lives.

As may be expected from a writer immersed in poetry, there is wit and warmth in his homage to Coleridge in Aeolian Harping On, to Jonson in On My First Job and in his self-study based on Larkin’s Mr Bleaney. My favourite of these is his reflection on Hughes and creativity in Who Killed the Thought-Fox, in which he considers the “freedom to roam…curtailed by trips and traps set by new hunters who know no better”. He ends:

The murderers can come/running with their measuring tapes/sizing up this final kill.

 Peter Thomas ~ former Chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English