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Poetry London Summer Readings: Rachael Allen, Andrew McMillan, Vahni Capildeo and Emily Berry


Poetry London’s summer launch opened with an impassioned speech by the poet Karen McCarthy Wood, who is a trustee on the magazine’s board. The magazine is known for its support for ‘new and emerging poets’, Karen says, noting that one third of each issue is devoted to poets who have yet to publish a first collection. New names are featured alongside those of ‘distinguished writers’, and Poetry London also completes important work through its mentorship schemes and reviews. As a charity, it is dependent on the funding it receives from the Arts Council England, who have promised to match any donations made by members of the public who would like to support the magazine. In the current context of arts cuts, these donations are ever more necessary, and Karen urges the audience to consider taking out a subscription. ‘This is the end of this pragmatic part of the evening’, she announces. ‘But not quite the end – think of it framing the whole evening!’

Martha Kapos, Poetry Co-Editor of the magazine, offers a further frame for the evening, introducing the poets who will read. ‘We have quite a line-up’, she says, citing some of the highlights in the published magazine, including Ocean Vuong, who features on the cover, and Mark Ford, Martha Sprackland, Anita Pati, and others. It is often the newer or unknown poets who come up with ‘some of the most exciting work’, and Martha references Ella Frear’s poem, which is titled ‘After the Lie, Donald came in a vision to Donald’, as well as the Syrian poet Riad Saleh Hussein, who was arrested in 1982 and died in ‘ambiguous circumstances’. She then turns her attention to Rachael Allen, who is our first reader. Rachael is a ‘rising star amongst the young poets published by Faber in the Faber New Poets series’, Martha notes, with ‘intense, exuberant, skillfully constructed’ poems. When she read for Poetry London four years ago, Ahren Warner, the Poetry Editor, commented that she is ‘the real thing’. Quite an introduction, and when she steps on stage, Rachael hopes that she will ‘live up to it’. After reading a quote from the horror writer Thomas Ligotti – another frame for the evening – she plunges into her reading of ‘Kingdomland’. Eyes shining, back straight, she tilts forwards as she reads, her black outfit merging with the dark curtains behind her. The poem has an incantatory feel to it, with its repetition of the word ‘impassable’ and reference to a ‘superstitious wife’ who ‘throws salt’. Rachael’s level tone means that the clearest indication of the poem’s denouement is her silence, although it feels as if the words stretch into the pause after she reads: ‘The glass and salt my petulant daughter, / the glass and salt my crooked pathway; impassable glass and salt’.

‘I’m a hypochondriac’, Rachael notes with a smile, and the next poem she reads is a clever play on her tendency to google possible ailments and symptoms. These include accidental iron overdose, fizzing feelings around the ankles, and the side effects of donating marrow – all of which intrigue and amuse the audience. Later poems address ‘the position of the animal in our society’, with Rachael explaining that ‘as well as a hypochondriac, I’m a vegan’. The poems are visceral, questioning why we eat some animals and not others, and are heightened by Rachael’s intense and unwavering style of reading.

Andrew McMillan, the next poet to read, has made ‘an astonishing first appearance on the scene’ with his award-winning debut collection Physical, Martha asserts. His poems have been praised as exhibiting ‘tenderness, candour, sensitivity, and vulnerability’, and he launches his reading with ‘Martyrdom’, a poem remarkable for its haunting repetition of the word ‘father’. On stage, his posture is relaxed, one leg balanced behind the other, and he informs the audience that his reading will focus on newer poems. He also speaks of his experience as a gay man: ‘I’m part of a very lucky generation of young gay men – I was born in 1988 and came of age post the worst of the AIDS crisis’, although this period of history has nonetheless cast a ‘shadow’ over the gay community. ‘Blood’ is a poem that deals with this shadow. Other poems delve into childhood and ‘how we might grow into our physical selves’. Andrew refers to the ‘awkward moments after PE’ at school, reading his poem ‘Things Said in the Changing Room’. His lilting way of reading makes him easy to listen to, and he gestures as he reads. Sharon Olds has been a particular poetic influence, he says, citing her collection Odes as a source of inspiration for some of his own writing. ‘To the Circumcised’ takes Olds’ idea of writing odes to things that normally wouldn’t be addressed in a poem and runs with it, inquiring into the foreskin’s fate after circumcision. This is followed by ‘Praise Poem’, which lingers on the words for different body parts, and ‘Clearance’, a visceral poem on sex. Andrew relates how when he gave his new book to Helen Tookey, hoping for critical feedback, Helen ‘walked back into my office on Monday morning and just said, “Oh, your poor mother!”. . . I’m thinking of using that for the epigraph to the whole book!’

After a short break and a few words from Sam Buchan-Watts, the new Reviews Editor for Poetry London, it is time for the next reader. Born and schooled in Trinidad, Vahni Capildeo now lives in the UK. That ‘straddling of two cultures’ informs her work, Martha believes, and she cites Malika Booker, Chair of the Forward Jury, who notes of Measures of Expatriation that ‘When people in the future seek to know what it’s like to live between places, traditions and cultures – they will read this’. Vahni’s work goes even further than this, Martha asserts, ‘to place the language of identity under scrutiny’, questioning words themselves. Vahni begins her reading with ‘Interventions Around a City’, before reading another new poem, ‘A National Literature’. She emphasises each word, and while her performance of the first poem is quieter, the second showcases her skill in building and dissipating intensity as she reads. At one moment she cries out, and the reading speeds, containing flashes of anger, before easing again into a slower pace. ‘I promise it gets more cheerful after this!’, Vahni says, regretting that she had not brought her own circumcision poem along to complement Andrew’s. ‘The Brown Bag Service’ further highlights Vahni’s talent with voice and performance. Her eyes spark mischievously as she reads, parodying the language of customer service to the delight of the audience, who hang on her words. Vahni also reads ‘Utter’, the title poem of her 2013 collection published by Peepal Tree Press: ‘Night drinks salt water from a bucket, draws / a sleeve from the sea, spills hand across mouth. / Night hands back the bucket to sailor. / Night, blue-shirted, wades arrhythmically’.

Emily Berry has also published work ‘to great acclaim’, Martha says. Her second collection, Stranger, Baby, is ‘self-aware but bleak, self-mocking, comic, and at the same time intensely moving’. Emily begins with a piece she wrote a year ago, which was published as a limited edition pamphlet by If a Leaf Falls Press, edited by Sam Riviere (who also published Rachael’s poem relating to hypochondriacal tendencies). Sam ‘must be dealing with a lot of material about anxiety of one kind of another’, says Emily wryly. Her own poem emerged from ‘a series of anxiety dreams’ about her cat going missing, and before she reads ‘Aurora’s Escape’, she notes that ‘one thing you need to know is that Aurora is a cat’. The poem is pierced with moments of humour, so that a cat with a basket across its body is ‘literally hampered’, while at another point the speaker regrets not saying goodbye to the ends of her partner’s hair before he has it cut. Emily’s delivery is serious and crisp, so that the funnier parts of the poem seem almost shocking in comparison. She then reads ‘Sign of the Anchor’ from Stranger, Baby, with its captivating images (and sounds) of the sea: ‘I stood at the dangerous shore / Sleeves rolled to my shoulders. / My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back. / Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea’. Her poem ‘Aqua’ also addresses water, and as the speaker ‘praised / it slightly a feeling / of daughterliness / came over me’. After reading her ‘state-of-the-nation’ poem ‘Remains of the Day’, written after the referendum result a year ago, the evening ends with a flood of people leaving the room, talking energetically about the poetry they had heard, and clutching copies of Poetry London.

By Suzannah V. Evans

Poetry London Summer Readings
Kings Place, Wednesday 7 June 2017


The London Magazine Poetry Prize 2016 | Winners


Thank you so much to everyone who entered The London Magazine‘s Poetry Prize 2016. The standard of entries was extremely high but our judges, Rebecca Perry and Andrew McMillan, have made their choices and we are delighted to announce the winners:

First place: ‘They Don’t Make Gods for Non-Believers’ by Patrick Errington

Second place: ‘Kira’ by Aaron Fagan

Third place: ‘The Truth About Figs’ by Angela Carr

Each of these poems will be published in the October/November Issue of The London Magazine as well as online. The winners will be awarded their prizes at a ceremony held at the Collyer Bristow gallery in London later this month.

We would also like to extend a special mention to those who were shortlisted, your poetry also impressed our judges and magazine staff:

an eternal & – Mary Jean Chan
Amber – Rachel Bower
Baton – Theresa Lola
Bridges – Natalie Burdett
Carol (and her wing girl), Summer 1976 – Estelle Goodwin
Delivery – Eleanor Hooker
Divisions, Approximately – Ralf Webb
Drishti – Paul Nemser
From A Table – Craig Bregman
Harmony – Aaron Fagan
Living With Bluebeard – Lesley Sharpe
My Father Shows Me His Knuckles – Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Orbis Alius / Other World – Eadaoin Lynch
Sonnet – Alexander Shaw
Syrian Woman, Berlin 2015 – Joan Michelson
The Last Woman Born On The Island – Sharon Black
Three Other Ways To Look At Venice – Julie Irigaray

Thanks also to our longlist, as selected by Theophilus Kwek, whose poem ‘What Follows’ was chosen for third place in the Poetry Competition 2015.

Natalya Anderson, Elaine Beckett, Kaddy Benyon, Mary Jean Chan, Elaine Cosgrove, Annmarie Drury, Robin Durnford, Mike Harding, Tania Hershman, Jack Houston, Wes Lee, Ali Lewis, Amelia Loulli, Jill Munro, Rachel Piercey, Bethany Pope, Lesley Saunders, Lavinia Singer, Miriam Sully, Sarah Watkinson


Poetry Prize | An interview with Andrew McMillan


Ahead of our Poetry Prize, which opens 1st May, we caught up with one of our two esteemed judges to get his perspective on prizes, publication and what he’ll be looking for from this year’s entries.


You’re a very active figure in the contemporary poetry world, as well as a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. How do you juggle your writing with your other commitments? Do you have a strict routine which incorporates writing?

I’ve never been one of those writers (how I envy them!) who can just sit down and write at a certain point of the day, every day. Certainly with poetry I just have to wait and let it come to me, oftentimes when I’m travelling on trains, or thinking of something else entirely a line will come to me, and then another line and eventually it might grow into a first draft – I’m lucky in academia that there is space for thinking, for research and for writing.

Could you tell us a bit about the process which led to the publication of your first pamphlet back in 2009?

I’d started writing ‘seriously’ I would say when I was about seventeen, and was writing bad pastiches of Gunn and Larkin, who were the first two poets I read seriously, and who I still adore. I went off to university, and my English degree had a minor in Creative Writing; towards the end of my first year I decided I wanted to start getting things published in magazines, so I sent some off to The North, and The Cadaverine and, because of beginners luck, they got accepted. There followed  a string of other successes, and a lot of rejections of course, and then I started to get asked to read at the launch of a magazine, or an open mic night and I started feeling that I needed something I could give away or sell at such events.

The Michael Marks competition had just started so I looked at all the people who’d submitted, all the different pamphlet publishers and found Red Squirrel Press who seemed to be doing something really exciting – I emailed some poems over and the wonderful Sheila Wakefield said ‘send me some more’. I’d worked with the great poet Sarah Hymas through a project at Lancaster Literature Festival and so I asked if she’d help me edit it as well, and in 2009, when I was a second year undergraduate, it came out.

You’ve participated in a lot of community writing projects, workshops and residences. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences of working with aspiring poets, and comment on the important role established poets can play in encouraging new voices?

I genuinely believe everyone should write, in the same way doctors tell us everyone should exercise  even if we don’t want to be in the olympics – some people don’t want to be published writers, but for anyone writing can really help you get a sense of yourself and your place in the world.  I think as a poet you never want to be someone who pulls the ladder up after you; I’ve always been immensely grateful to the poets who really helped me when I was first starting out, Sarah Hymas, Michael Symmons Roberts, Paul Farley, and countless others, who didn’t have anything to gain from helping me and yet they did. And I want to be like that – I never want to be one of those poets who is bemoaning a new, younger generation of poets coming up behind them. If anyone ever, and they likely won’t, wants to ask me for help or advice, I’d always hope I gave it honestly and sincerely. Poetry is such a long game that you’re still a young voice when your 40, and I find that reassuring too.

What role do you think competitions can play in the development of a poet?

I think for some poets who are only just starting out they can catapult you into the wider poetry consciousness – they can give you a calling card, they can make your name. They can also give you an aim – I think when you’re starting out, there’s a sense in which you might not be motivated to write for a particular reason but then if you have a deadline, if a competition is closing next Wednesday, that can motivate you.

Do you have any advice for poets entering their work into competitions?

Don’t try to write to what you think the judge’s taste will be; I write a certain way, about certain subjects, but I love a broad range of poetry about a plethora of different things. That’s not to say homoerotic, unpunctuated verse won’t win just because I’m judging a competition; we very often like things which we know ourselves we couldn’t write.

Without being too prescriptive, is there anything you’ll be looking for from entries into this year’s London Magazine Poetry Prize?

Something that feels effortless and fresh, something which isn’t trying too hard, something which isn’t ‘poetic’, and something with a coherent thought-process of images.

Lastly, could you tell us three things you’re reading/watching/listening to/thinking about/generally digging at the moment?

Eileen: A Novel, by Odessa Moshfegh is stunning and upsetting and arresting

I’ve just started watching House of Cards (I know I’m late to that one, but everything people said about it was true)

Poetry wise, Vahni Capildeo’s new Carcanet collection is unlike anything I’ve read, and the great indie Valley Press have just realised a posthumous first collection of David Hughes, edited by Antony Dunn which is reminding me of Ian Hamilton and John Riley in all the best ways.

Interview by Rachel Chanter

For information on entering our Poetry Prize, click here.  

Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988; his debut collection physical was the first ever poetry collection to win The Guardian First Book Award. The collection also won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize,  was shortlisted the Dylan Thomas Prize,  the Costa Poetry Award and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. It was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2015.  In 2014 he received a substantial Northern Writers’ Award. He currently lectures in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University and lives in Manchester.


Poetry | Translated Love Letters by Andrew McMillan


‘Translated Love Letters’ by Andrew McMillan was first published in The London Magazine, October/November 2009. For more from our archive and for original issues from our back catalogue, discover our Legacy Issues from 1954 onwards.

Andrew McMillan

Translated Love Letters

from Norwegian

oh love, doesn’t the fact that the world is so big,
laid out like ripe fruit
make you want to stay?

from Arabic

how I long to cleanse you
in the waters of the Tigris
how I long, as though you were a small and
priceless artefact,
to take you in my arms

from Ant-speak

I will carry you carry you
through legions of grass
protect you from the thumb,
the sole; the eager-feathered bird
will not swoop for you

from American

love is just love, and I’m in it
for the ride, o.k.?
love is just an elevator
and man you sure can push
my buttons but you’ve got a voice
that tells me just exactly
what I need to hear
and nothing else

from Russian

ended, and I would repeat it
like a lake refreezing
after momentary warmth
tell me, do you remember
the bribes to the ushers
in the opera?
me slipping roubles underneath
the table as though delivering
still-born cattle?

from him

please, love, leave,
like leaf from tree;
taking beauty,
leaving seed


41iVvLBFIIL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Andrew McMillan‘s first collection Physical, published in June 2015 by Jonathan Cape, startled and impressed the world of contemporary poetry with its frank and moving portrait of male desire. Nominated for numerous prizes, including the prestigious Forward Prize, the Aldeburgh prize and the Guardian First Book Award, its understated compassion and unflinching honesty have assured McMillan’s status as one of Britain’s most exciting poetic voices. ‘Translated Love Letters’, published by The London Magazine early on in McMillan’s career as a poet, bears the hallmarks of playfulness and intimacy which flourish in Physical.

Physical by Andrew McMillan is published by Jonathan Cape

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