Simon Barraclough is one of the generation of poets who came out of the workshops of the legendary Michael Donaghy. It’s a disparate band of poets who all write very differently, characterised to differing extents by an interest in form, wordplay, humour and wide-ranging cultural reference. Barraclough’s work is wry and witty, steeped in pop culture, bathos and – increasingly – science as a way to access and explain the human condition.
Simon Barraclough was born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, to an Irish mother who was a nurse and a Yorkshire father who built gear boxes for tractors and was a successful brass band composer. Eclectic, crucial books in the house were Ulysses, Ian Fleming thrillers and Arnold Silcock's humorous poetry anthology, Verse and Worse.
After studying English at Nottingham University, Barraclough gained an MA in Critical Theory from Sussex and then decided against pursuing a PhD, preferring to write instead. His first collection, Los Alamos Mon Amour, was published by Salt in 2008 and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
The collection begins, with the title poem, at the moment of the atomic blast. With its mash-up of the place where the US tested its atomic bombs and the place where the first atomic bomb was dropped – via the cult movie Hiroshima Mon Amour – the poem makes the devastation clear:
and your fingers are plaiting my DNA;
my chromosomes whisper you're here to stay.
Other poems in this collection include an ode to Yuri Gagarin, a 'Corrie Sonnet' (based on the long running TV soap, 'Coronation Street'), and 'A Tall Story about a Pushover', made up of taglines from Alfred Hitchcock movie posters – all exploring how popular culture and technological advancements shape our sense of reality.
Barraclough's second collection, Neptune Blue, followed in 2011. Barraclough's verbal and formal gymnastics are everywhere – his poems are overwhelmingly about the possibilities of language, from riffing off idioms and well-worn phrases to experimenting with the Italian he's been studying for the past nine years. The poem 'Roman Heart' begins:
Don't play with your words.
Don't speak with your heart full.
Its second four-line stanza uses both wordplay and rhyme so closely that it calls to mind the American poet Frederick Seidel. He has said in an interview with Ink Pellet magazine:
It's a bit like Chagall – he was a great draughtsman but he chose to paint bendy green donkeys flying upside down. But he could do both. You need to know the rules before you can break them.
The English language allows you to slip in and out of metrical forms automatically.
As well as careening in an electrifying, often productively discomforting way around our text-laden culture, this book turns and looks outward – at the planets. 'Neptune' blends these two arenas, as well as taking in a bit of Chagall (and Carly Simon):
you probably think that Jarman's Blue
is about you…
The allusive and macrocosmic strains in his work often exist alongside moments of tenderness – never sentimental, often interrogated, but all the more moving for it. While Barraclough's work sparkles with self-conscious and often self-mocking intellectual and literary display, Neptune Blue contains as many poems about failing relationships and forlorn mutts that are touching in their ambivalence and ruefulness. Though a literary and worldly sophisticate, Barraclough often cuts a rather solitary, ruminative figure on his (frequent) forays, both actual-geographical and philosophical.
Neptune Blue ends with a poem that marks the next direction for his work: 'Sol' prefigures his current large-scale project, a collection and show called Sunspots, which will be published and produced by Penned in the Margins in Spring 2015. Barraclough was Poet in Residence in 2014 at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory.
'Sol', in the voice of the sun, begins:
I had to laugh. And blast a billion lethal particles
across your path. You say you want your place in the sun,
so be it, but know that I am Heaven and Hell in one,
your saintly haloes and your branding tongs,
an inquisition which no atom can resist,
a thirteen million Kelvin kiss. I must admit
I'm one that loved not wisely but too well.
Literature, language and science are fused once again.
As might be expected of such a questing poet – and one who cites such diverse influences as Hughes, Auden, Samuel Beckett and the great Scottish experimentalist Edwin Morgan – Barraclough has an interest in non-traditional ways of presenting his poetry. Sunspots will tour as a live-literature production; an advance publication – a fold-out limited edition poster called Two Sunspots – features two concrete poems. Barraclough has also been writing concrete or non-linear poems using an Olivetti typewriter and has a continued interest in using film and music.
Barraclough works as a freelance writer, technical writer and creative writing tutor. He lives in London. He was Poet in Residence in 2014 at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory and is also learning to play jazz trumpet.
Los Alamos Mon Amour, Salt Publishing, Cromer, 2008
Bonjour Tetris, Penned in the Margins, London, 2010
Neptune Blue, Salt Publishing, Cromer, 2011
Sunspots, Penned in the Margins, London, due spring 2015
The Debris Field (with Isobel Dixon and Chris McCabe), Sidekick Books, London, 2013
As editor and contributor
Psycho Poetica (Editor), Sidekick Books, London, 2012
Laboratorio (Editor), Sidekick Books, London, due early 2015
Barraclough's own website
Barraclough's videos on Vimeo
Sunspots on the Penned in the Margins website
Interview with Barraclough on the Polyolbion website
Interview with Barraclough on Peony Moon
Interview with Barraclough for Ink Pellet magazine
Review of Neptune Blue on The Graft Review
Profile of Barraclough on the British Council website