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

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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

 

Faber Reading: An Evening with Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, Richard Scott

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Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nargra, Richard Scott

The Crypt on the Green in Clerkenwell Close was beautifully lit with fairy lights, and the low chatter of poetry enthusiasts graced the air. A table was filled with books and pamphlets by Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, and Richard Scott, while another table was laid out with glasses of wine. We were here to hear these five Faber poets read from various new or forthcoming collections. Emily Berry and Dalijit Nagra both have books out this year, while Richard Scott and Zaffar Kunial have forthcoming Faber debuts; Emma Jones’s second collection with Faber will also appear soon.

The scene was set, and Faber Poetry Editor Matthew Hollis stepped forwards to introduce the five poets. Each one, he said, was making an ‘exceptional contribution’ to contemporary poetry, all at different points in their careers, but all working towards ‘a long, long fruitful life in publishing’. He praised the distinctive nature of each poet’s work, and encouraged the audience to listen deeply, drink deeply, and to savour the experience.

Richard Scott was the first poet to read. Born in 1981, Richard’s pamphlet Wound was published by Rialto in 2016, with a Faber debut set for 2018. Speaking of Richard’s work, Matthew states confidently that ‘if you haven’t already read Richard, you will’. His urgent and timely poetry, Matthew argues, is propelled by a ‘pounding sense of injustice about inequality’, and his plea for tolerance, while centred on the gay community, extends well beyond. Richard himself notes that his desire to write stemmed partly from his frustration as a gay teenager, unable to access literature that spoke to his own experiences. ‘Public Library, 1998’, the first poem he reads, addresses this frustration directly, and features the speaker writing the word ‘cock’ in a borrowed book to redress the imbalance in Queer literature. Later poems focus on sensual experiences. The most notable of these involves a fishmonger, who visits the speaker in his van, and who ‘fed me prawns, wiped / the brine from my lips – / let me try my first razor clam / unzipped from its pale hard shell / the tip, soft and white and saline’. The poem is erotic, unsettling, and enhanced by Richard’s grave and thoughtful manner of reading.

To read Emma Jones’s work is ‘to drown in it, to accept inundation’, says Matthew Hollis of the next reader. He compares Emma’s work to the sonic equivalent of a Henri Rousseau painting – ‘that sounds complicated, but you’ll understand when you hear the poems’, Matthew assures us. Emma began her quietly intense reading with a poem from her collection The Striped World, published by Faber in 2009. ‘Tiger in the Menagerie’ does indeed conjure images of Rousseau:

At night the bars of the cage and the stripes of the tiger
looked into each other so long
that when it was time for those eyes to rock shut

the bars were the lashes of the stripes
the stripes were the lashes of the bars

This is a world of ‘open oceans and closed cages’, a ‘bright, painted place’, Matthew notes. Emma’s next poem ‘Pietà’ is a complex and bluesy meditation on the image of the Virgin Mary cradling the deceased Christ. ‘What’s always struck me about these depictions is that Mary is disproportionately big, and Christ disproportionately small’, mirroring the image of Mary holding Christ as a baby, Emma says. This portrayal is linked in Emma’s mind with pop songs, where adults often call each other ‘baby’, and the poem riffs on this endearment. ‘Baby, you sure look sick’, the poem begins.

In contrast to Emma Jones’s song-like delivery, Daljit Nagra commands the stage with a comic’s timing. He uses ‘humour as well as rage to pursue multiculturalism’, Matthew Hollis notes, and he is ‘brilliantly vivid and important in giving voice to those who are not always heard’. Daljit begins by saying that Matthew, his editor, encouraged him to ‘strip away’ some of his famous exclamations in favour of a ‘new voice’, and it is this voice that can be heard in his new collection, British Museum, published in May this year. It is the first time that he has read from his new book, and his reading is clear-voiced and exuberant. ‘Can poetry help me think about the world?’, he asks, and his poems think through both personal and national situations. One poem, at once humorous and touching, centres on his mother’s inability to pronounce his wife’s name; another poem recalls the ‘time-compacted rooms’ of the British Museum. ‘I’ve only got one offensive poem in the collection, but I’m not going to read it now’, he says, motioning the audience instead to purchase copies of his blue hardback book.

After a musical interlude, Zaffar Kunial, a ‘guide for modern times’, as Matthew calls him, steps up to the podium to read. Zaffar ‘vocalises what it means to be a human being, planting your two feet on this earth’, Matthew asserts. The poet begins by showing a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, which belonged to his mother and was in his family home as he grew up. He is thrilled to now be ‘on the same team’ as Eliot. The first poem Zaffar reads is called ‘Fielder’, taken from his Faber New Poets pamphlet, published in 2014. It is set ‘somewhere between Birmingham and Yorkshire’, but Zaffar notes that it is equally about where poetry began for him: ‘The whole field, meanwhile, waiting for me, / some astronaut, or lost explorer, to emerge with a wave / that brings the ball – like time itself – to hand. A world restored’. A later poem speaks of the mixed feelings – ‘In two minds. Ashamed. Aware.’ – prompted by hearing his Kashmirian father make a grammatical mistake in English, and his own realisation that he is ‘native here. / In a halfway house’ (‘The Word’). Zaffar’s reading emphasises each word, pausing minutely between each utterance, and his deeper speaking voice lifts when he reads.

Emily Berry is the last poet to read. Hers is ‘surely one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged in poetry in recent times’, Matthew notes, with ‘no wastage, no excess, and total focus’. He compares her to Sylvia Plath, and Emily, dressed in a Sylvia Plath t-shirt, jokes that she is ‘smuggling Sylvia on stage with me’. Her rigid posture when she reads makes it seem like the words rise up from within her, unbidden, and her performance is spell-binding and incantatory. She starts with ‘a newer poem’, before noting that it’s ‘not even that new’, but still more recent than her book. ‘Remains of the Day’ exhibits Emily’s typical concentration: ‘my neck aches from studying / a number of compelling thoughts. I am being / observed, it transpires, from a distance by a / huge coral-coloured bird. I may be paranoid, / but I feel like it’s mimicking my movements’. A further poem, ‘Sign of the Anchor’, shows Emily’s skill in writing about the sea, and she finished by reading work that engages with Freud. The evening itself ended with raucous applause, more wine, book buying, and musically-infused conversation.

By Suzannah V. Evans

Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry

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Freud is dangerous territory for poets. He did more than just make his mark on the literature of the twentieth century: he cross-hatched it. Psychoanalysis might have been discredited as a way of understanding the mind, but it still permeates the world of words. Freud’s hold on literature is so extensive that even the phrase describing the author’s fear of repeating what has come before them – ‘the anxiety of influence’ – invokes the Oedipus complex. Freud is so last century, because the last century is saturated with him. Few poets today dare to get near him, unless he’s packaged in allusion and irony. Not so, Emily Berry. Freud’s words – ‘the loss of a mother must be something very strange…’ – form the epigraph of her anthology so that his influence bleeds into each and every of the poems that make up ‘Stranger, Baby.’

She charges at Freud head-on in an affront that sidesteps the risk of cliché, instead abounding in individuality. Freud’s words slip into 35 poems that meditate on grief, lack, and despair – a meditation that, as we hear again and again, can never be answered. ‘Stranger/ Baby’ is unlike other anthologies: it does not attempt to universalise or synthesise loss, but obsessively recapitulates it, runs at it from different directions, all the while knowing that it cannot be tamed. If the collection does not ask questions – or, at least, does not expect answers – it simply screams instead. The poems are beset with the background of a female voice – a voice that we end up suspecting to be autobiographical – that ‘screams and screams without any self-control.’ In the play-poem ‘Tragedy for One Voice’, the screaming becomes the stage directions that form a perennial white noise behind the entire anthology.

Berry’s images are stark and polarised, the forces of fire and water competing throughout the collection. The speaker repeatedly fashions her image as water, the sea, or the curl of a wave, as is made explicit in ‘Tidal Wave Speaks’. The motif breathes life into the oft-repeated poetic exploration of the ineffability of emotions. In Berry’s poetry, it is clear that words fail to heal – the collection attempts to use self-expression as a kind of ‘talking cure’, but the speaker is left realising that this as impossible as an attempt to take hold of the ocean. Time and again, she makes a statement, only to remake and restate: ‘That is what I did./ Laid it all out like tidal wave./ Thought you could in fact/ lay out a tidal wave.’ What emerges is her sense that the process of confronting and turning into poetry her feelings is the experience of coming face to face with an unconstrained force of innumerable power.

Berry’s attempt to turn negative energy into positive through poetry is stated with the grim humour of the title, ‘Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living.’ The speaker mocks her own attempt to ‘lay it all out’ through poetry – to observe her own grief by putting it into words – by presenting a gauche image in parallel, of photographing herself in the cemetery. Predictably, she finds that the attempt rids her action of authenticity – ‘I pose and yet I cannot pose’ – just as an articulation of grief fails to capture its true face: ‘I wrote this down, regretted it.’ An angry undertone emerges, equating healing with self-effacement; ‘Once’ presents ‘embracing’ grief as welcoming ‘my own/ diminishment’. A desire to be healed emanates from the collection, but it is paired with the realisation that such healing relies on eroding the self. Therapy is spoken about bitterly as a faceless attempt to polish one’s feelings.

Berry’s speaker conveys the gulf between poetic intention and creation. Poetry is stripped of its mystery as the process of creation is described with almost staged self-awareness. What is left is sometimes seen as hollow – the line ‘This is the rain, the October rain’ is unpicked instantaneously by its speaker with ‘I wrote that when it was still October/ It must have been raining.’ There are points where Berry herself shies away from the immediacy and starkness of her topic, asking ‘Can you distort my voice when I say this?’ – ‘So people don’t know it’s me.’ At times the realisation that poetry is not big enough to contain the sea of the speaker’s grief is bleak; at others, the resulting chaos is shown to be what invests the poems with such power. As the Tidal Wave itself says ‘Tidal Wave don’t sing… Tidal Wave crash.’

Indeed, this is powerful poetry. But it is also clever, modern, and playful. Berry refuses to withhold any of her poetic artillery; she experiments with form boldly, an experiment that might fail in the hands of a weaker writer. The poems modulate between different rhythms and styles, delighting in the elasticity of poetry. Some mischievously challenge the criticism of ‘prose-like’ poetry, others are laconic in their staccato lines; one converts the speaker’s conflicting feelings into dichotomous voices in a play. Sometimes, as in ‘Song’, Berry looks to other poets for answers. Here she responds to Luna Miguel, referring to Miguel’s tattoo of a mermaid representing her mother to inhabit tentatively her own mother’s psyche, paradoxically giving herself up to death and believing that it will save her. ‘Aura’ is a poem that revels in its own form, a visible chasm between the speaker and her mother that is bridged, movingly, in one line.

The destructive power of absence is quick, fierce, and brutal in these poems. Sitting in her mother’s cemetery, the speaker asks questions of her mother, breaking her own rule that only the ‘idealistic’ expect answers of their questions. She is forced to answer herself, and that lack becomes palpable when ‘Your silence reaches out from inside me and meets itself on the outside.’ The blank space left by the speaker’s mother creeps inside of her, linking the visible, external lack of a mother with the resulting emptiness inside in a destructive circle that ironically mimics the closed circle of mother and child. Berry’s second anthology, ‘Stranger, baby’ generates a high voltage; its energy feels dangerous for both writer and reader, and no one who reads it will deny the sparks that fly off it.

By Charanpreet Khaira 


Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry, Faber, £10.99

Faber & The Poetry Society Reading: Eric Berlin, Emily Berry and Jack Underwood

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Emily Berry, Eric Berlin, Jack Underwood (c. Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society)

Poetry was necessary on this year’s election night.  As we sat in a beautiful, packed room in Bloomsbury House, Faber’s headquarters, surrounded by first editions and fairy lights, it was easy to forget the news.  We were gathered for an event organised by the Poetry Society, bringing together three of the most innovative young poets – Eric Berlin, Emily Berry and Jack Underwood, to read poems from their collections.

Jack Underwood delivered the most reassuring poem of the evening, Instead of Bad News about a Person I Love, which probes the psychological tendency to chronically imagine the worst possible scenario taking place.  Underwood inverts such catastrophising and instead offers us the possibility of relentless optimism.  The poem is an amusing and therapeutic piece on the prospect of things not always being as bad as they seem.  Appropriately, the poem is also a celebratory exploration of procrastination as a coping mechanism for bad news.  Instead of confronting the problem at hand, the person engages in a series of meaningless and soothing tasks: “I spent that morning cutting white paper into triangles / I spent that afternoon staring at my bits / enamoured. I spent that evening clapping loudly in the garden.”

It is necessary to hear Jack’s delivery to properly appreciate the poem.  His tone has an effortless cadence and whimsy which accentuates the sinuous rhythms of the poem.  For example, one cannot help but chuckle at the unexpected appearance of the cat: “the cat came in, little devil, and I forgave her.”  When Jack reads this, he adds a quick tempo and natural conversational flow to the line, which highlights its childlike playfulness.  Out of the three poets, it is clear he is a natural performer and could have easily had a career as a stand-up comedian.  His preface to the poems, unlike the usual unnecessary preamble, was witty and instilled a sense of the poems before we even heard them.

Speaking to Jack after the event, we discussed Emily Berry’s style of reading.  We agreed that Emily’s delivery resonates with the words of Anne Carson that “poetry must be recited, not performed”.  The reading of poetry must be stripped back so that the poem may speak for itself.  It is clear to see the fact Berry adheres closely to this philosophy.  Unlike Underwood’s confident cadence, Berry is calm and composed in her reading with the natural phonetics of the words producing their own significance, unforced by Berry.  Listening to her recite is hypnotic and lulling, yet the steady, introspective pace of her delivery also allows for reflection on the complex imagery and sensations spawned by the language itself.  Poems which stood out were the pensive Picnic, with such lines as: “watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continuously trying to be whole”, which continued to reverberate in my mind long after she finished her recital.  In addition, Freud’s Beautiful Things is a witty and inventive example of a ‘found-poem’, comprised of single lines taken from Freud’s correspondence, which Berry turns into a collage of alternate meaning.  She explained that this was a way to get Freud to say things she wanted him to say.

More like Underwood, Eric Berlin’s delivery was suffused with a conversational lilt which moved with the ebb and flow of emotions and images in his poems.  The words and verses drifted seamlessly between memories, objects and sensations, the sense of rhythmic tempo accentuated by his smooth American accent.  His poems oscillate between being enchantingly mystical and yet piercingly realist.  Thanksgiving Fair on Market Street and Apparición were two especially affective poems.  He packs these works full of evocative quotidian objects and images which become otherworldly through his microscopic observation, such as Columbus unclenching “moth-eaten parchment” and encountering “soft pretzels”, “samples of Pepto-Bismol” and “the jester in clashing plaids” at the street fair in Thanksgiving Fair on Market Street.  In a similar way, Apparición combines religion and mythology with the seedy underbelly of urban life: “hunger is so often mistaken for prayer”.

Berlin comes from a fascinating background which fuses cultures as well as disciplines.  His grandparents were from Chernobyl and escaped to Philadelphia before WWI broke out.  While in Chernobyl they experienced widespread anti-Semitism as one of the scapegoats following the frustrations felt after the defeat of Russia in the Sino-Russo war.  Alongside this, he has an array of degrees: an MFA in Sculpture from NY Academy of Art, an MFA in Poetry from Syracuse University and a BA in English from Harvard.  All these layers add a complexity and texture to Berlin’s poems.  Firstly, an awareness of history and culture.  Secondly, his affinity with visual art, particularly sculpture, partly explains why his poems are loaded with materials and striking images.  Berlin has recently received the news that he is a finalist in the Manchester Poetry Competition and will be returning to the UK for the ceremony on the 25th of November.

It is apparent that the New York School in some way influences all the poets.  Like their mid-century predecessors, the poets’ work contains a great love of the quotidian and a casual playfulness with language that continues to be concerned with philosophical problems.  Through their energetic pieces, all three poets advocate a child-like fascination not only with poetry but also the world we experience every day.  Like the New York poets, it is futile to unite these very different writers under one definition.  However, their one shared quality is that they inspire a similar sort of excitement for life, language and paying attention.

By Diana Kurakina


Future events from the Poetry Society can be found here.