Simon Collings

Kenya – political change bottom up?

While Uhuru Kenyatta  retained  the Kenyan presidency in the recent elections, there seems to have been  lots of change lower down the political structure. The devolution of power to the counties, following adoption of a new constitution a few years ago, has led to fiercely contested elections for many local posts this year.  Young political activists  captured some of these positions, and will hopefully bring a new, more progressive approach to local government in the next few years. Have a look at the latest issue of African Arguments for an article on this.

A good African story?

A few weeks ago a parcel arrived for me at work from Amazon. It was a book – A Good African Story: how a small company built a global coffee brand – no note or letter with it. I had no idea where it had come from. It looked intriguing, but it took me a while to find time to read it.
The book is by the Ugandan entrepreneur Andrew Rugasira, and it tells the story of his eleven year’s of struggle to export roasted coffee from Uganda, thereby capturing value locally. The extra margin earned on the crop was to be shared with the growers, through the price paid for coffee beans, and though investment in improved productivity.
Rugasira’s battle with the international trading system is compelling reading. He’s particularly good on the kinds of ‘non-tariff’ barriers which confront African exporters, including the many practical obstacles to breaking into UK and US markets.  The story begins with some helpful scene setting, a succinct analysis of how the colonial legacy continues to shape present day African realities, and a trenchant critique of corrupt African elites.
Good African Coffee, the company  Rusagira and his team built, became the first African-owned roasted-coffee brand to make it onto UK supermarket shelves. If did not carry a ‘fair trade’ label because, as Rugasira explains in his book, it was ‘more than fair trade’. His vision went beyond paying farmers a little bit more for their crop, aspiring instead to invest in them,  transforming their lives.
Rugasira’s particular spin on the ‘trade not aid’ theme has gained him a degree of international prominence. It’s a story and a message to which we should pay more attention. His critique of the aid industry is hard to argue with. If you want to understand why so many Africans are trapped in poverty read this book, or listen to him here.
His book appeared in 2014. What’s happening right now at Good Africa Coffee is unclear. The company’s website doesn’t seem to have been updated for quite a while, and earlier this year the business was temporarily closed by the Uganda Revenue Authority over tax arrears. The coffee no longer seems to be available in the UK.

Belated birthday tribute

The online magazine Stride has just published a poem of mine – 13 Haiku for John Ashbery – written as a celebration of the American poet who turned 90 just over a week ago. I wrote the piece  a couple of years back after reading ‘37 Haiku‘ published in Ashbery’s collection The Wave (1984). I enjoyed the way Ashbery sends up contemporary hiaku writing in English in this work. My own poem is a conscious imitation of Ashbery’s  challenge to conventional haiku, and is intended as a tribute. For anyone wanting to know more, there’s an interesting essay by Dean Brink on Ashbery’s haiku here.

Stride has also published reviews I’ve written recently on Susan Howe’s latest book Debths, and Eileen R. Tabios’ The Opposite of Claustrophobia.


From the back cover of a poetry book I have just been reviewing, a choice example of literary twaddle:

‘Eileen Tabios gives us a very human sounding algorithm that lists for us what “I” has forgotten. In the backgrounds of paintings like those of Lucas Cranach, Bosch, Durer, Da Vinci, are castles, ruins, caverns. Each one is an invitation, a window into which I’d like to peer. In just such a way each of the lines of Tabios’ new work is an invitation to seek within the sfumato for a miniature clarity – sometimes the blinding light of a furnace, sometimes an old movie set swarming with quotation marks, sometimes lines that, with their specificity, invite us to linger and to imagine the margins full of novels, short stories, memoirs of: “Marisa peeling the skin from a blue-boned fish…Luisa who squatted beside betel-chewing crones with crooked front teeth, and Marjorie who swallowed the scarless sky over Siquijor.” Some lines are mere rungs for the hands and feet of angels and these I recommend to you most of all.’


Sources of embarrassment

1000AD: Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book, Section 91 – ‘Things it’s frustrating and embarrassing to witness’

‘…your lover becomes terribly drunk, and starts coming out with confidential things when he can be overheard.’

‘Someone insists upon telling you about some horrid little child…’

‘It’s also painfully embarrassing to have to stand by and hear someone proudly reciting to others a poem that isn’t really much good, or bragging about the praise they’ve received for it.’


Not even warm

Three of my prose poems/short prose pieces were published on Stride today.  Also issue 17 of The Long Poem magazine – with my article on Susan Howe in it – arrived in the post. It’s a very nicely produced journal with lots of interesting contributors. For those of you who live in Oxford there will be a couple of copies for sale in Albion Beatnik after I drop them off there at the weekend. Alternatively you can order a copy on line.

Perkins Industrial Concerts

Having recently invested in a new CD player and amp I now also have a turntable which works. This has given me access to old vinyl records which for years I haven’t been able to listen to. Looking through the collection I found a recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s first symphony – called simply ‘Symphony’ on the cover.

The work was commissioned by the British manufacturing company Perkins Engines, and given its premier in Peterborough Cathedral in 1973 by the London Symphony Orchestra with Penderecki conducting. This was the fifth in a series of Perkins Industrial Concerts designed to ‘bring the best artists and orchestras in the world to Peterborough, where they can be enjoyed by all members of the community from which Perkins draws its workforce.’

The sleeve note continues: ‘Perkins, the world’s leading manufacturer of diesel engines, offers tickets for its concerts at half price to all industrial employees in the area below supervisory level, and each year two-thirds of the 1600-strong audience for the concert is made up of people entitled to this concession.’

What, I wonder, did those thousand plus shop floor workers in Peterborough make of what Penderecki later described as the ‘summa’ of his avant garde style.  Sadly the Perkins Engines website makes no mention of these concerts.

Susan Howe’s homage to Stevens

The forthcoming issue of Long Poem Magazine, Issue 17, includes an essay of mine on Susan Howe’s poem ‘118 Westerly Terrace’, which forms part of her book Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007). The address 118 Westerly Terrace, in Hartford, Connecticut, is where the poet Wallace Stevens lived. Howe revers Stevens, and this is her moving tribute to him. The new issue of the magazine is being launched at the Barbican Library in London on 22 May – full details here. I will be there, though only those who contributed poems will be reading.

Essays on Roy Fisher and Veronica Forrest-Thomson

I have two essays in the latest issue of Journal of Poetics Research, issue 6, which has just been published. One of the essays is on Roy Fisher’s long poem The Cut Pages, which I have blogged about before. Sadly Roy died last month.

The other concerns the poet and critic Veronica Forrest-Thomson who died in 1975 at the age of just 27. Forrest-Thomson was one of the first poets in Britain to engage with the work of French theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva. She was feisty and clever, a woman on a mission to shake up British poetry, her death a tragic loss. In the essay I argue that her theoretical writings, and her poetry, owe as much to established literary figures such as T. S. Eliot and William Empson as they do to post-modernism.

Reading at The Windwill, Brixton

Here’s me reading at the launch of Best New British and Irish Poets 2017 from Eyewear Publishing, in Brixton on 2 April. It was a a hugely enjoyable event and a pleasure to hear the work of other contributors who were there. Todd Swift, founder of Eyewear, did a brilliant job as master of ceremonies.

And here is poet Luke Kennard, who chose the poems for the anthology – a big thank you to Luke.