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Posthuman Poetics

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Fast, Jorie Graham, Carcanet, June 2017, pp. 96, £12.99 (Paperback)

‘I was very lucky. The end of the world had already occurred […] You have to keep living. You have to make it not become waiting’. Graham’s Fast occupies a different space – temporally and emotionally – to her previous collections. Writing nearly a decade ago, in Sea Change, Graham considered ‘where we are headed’ and found that this ‘desire to imagine / the future’ is analogous to ‘walking in the dark through a house you know by / heart’. Certain poems underlined the arrogance and ignorance of fearlessly thinking we can predict the future. Fast, on the other hand, does not speak of imagining the future. In this collection, we seem to have arrived.

In ‘Self Portrait at Three Degrees’, Graham writes:

Teasing out the possible linkages I – no you – who noticed – if the
world – no
– the world if – take plankton – I feel I cannot love anymore

Syntactically, it’s difficult to keep track of these ‘linkages’, but the title sets a semi-recognisable backdrop of connection. Evoking the ‘three degrees of influence’ (a version of six degrees of separation), it’s impossible not to also think of climate change and the scientific predications of what will happen to a planet that becomes three degrees warmer. Idiomatically, the Amazon Rainforest might be considered as the lungs of the planet, but in this poem planktonic organisms are found to be ‘the most important plant on earth – think love – composes at least half / the biosphere’s entire primary production’. Emerging from the tiny, often unacknowledged linkages that comprise earth’s systems and support life, there is a curious, almost humorous metaphorical relation between love as a reproductive force, and plankton. What appears to be an inner dialogue expands on the connection:

love this – love what – I am saying
you have no choice […] everything
living – take it – here you take it, I can’t hold it anymore – you don’t want it – I
don’t care – you carry it for now – I need to catch my breath –

Graham’s last collection, Place, was, in some part a meditation on the tensions of bringing a child into this world – take the series of interconnected thoughts on cruelty, innocence and determined belief in love in ‘Mother and Child (The Road at the Edge of the Field)’. Fast, by contrast, begins to suggest how love for the planet, and the responsibility that comes with this love, becomes a baby-like burden the speaker seeks to shift. There is an exhilarating movement between the domestic and the global in ‘Self Portrait at Three Degrees’ that raises questions about our limits of connection and about the subsequent difficulty in holding such planetary scales in mind, let alone in heart.

Ecological themes in Graham’s past collections have tended towards the issues of extinction and climate change. To focus on issues less-widely covered by the media – the earth’s dependence on plankton and on practices such as deep water trawling – is not only admirable, but under Graham’s poetic control, also surprisingly moving. ‘Deep Water Trawling’ examines a process in which trawling nets raze parts of seabeds, creating a ‘mouth the size of a football field’. It is possible that Graham’s occasional explication of terms ‘what is bycatch – hitting the wrong target – the wrong size – not / eaten’ means that the reader isn’t forced to turn to Google, but it is her skill in layering, confusing and thereby connecting vocabularies that is most engaging. When poetry about environmental issues offers argument or criticism, this polemic angle is often met with wariness: poets are seen to be sermonising. But Graham’s juxtaposition of lines makes any sense of the polemic feel accidental: her lightness of touch means that the weight of what she writes about is dependent upon how the reader receives it. Consumerist overtones emerge in her vision of this destruction of the ocean floor where ‘there is nothing in / particular you want – you just want’. Once again, Graham is in the business of taking us further if we, as readers, are willing. Drawing no attention to herself, the poet quietly and momentarily embodies the threatened sea creatures themselves: ‘we die / of exhaustion or suffocation’. Likewise, ‘Did you ever kill a fish. I was once but now I am / human’ reminds us of our shared oceanic origins.

Split into three sections, ‘Deep Water Trawling’ plunges to the depths it describes. At the bottom, we find ‘there are no→fish→no organisms→alive→no→no life→so it’s just us→dead zones’. Likening these lifeless spaces to the moon, Graham takes us far from home. Then: ‘hold on→just a minute please→hold on→there is a call for you’. Reminding us of the transatlantic communications cable laid under the ocean floor, the interruption also has greater significance. These dead zones, created by trawling, but also by pollution, create a wilderness. Whilst there is no explicit human presence – no flag stuck on this empty landscape the way it might be on the moon – humans are everywhere implicated. Spacing, line breaks and the dash remain integral to Graham’s project. Previous collections have explored not only these, but also parentheses and blank spaces that the reader is expected to fill. Fast is the first collection to introduce the arrow. It might be said that in a poem like ‘Deep Water Trawling’, the arrow takes us down to a deeper, darker space. However, given the arrow’s appearance in a number of poems throughout the collection, it has a range of effects. The most obvious and powerful of these is the way the arrow forces the reader onwards. Recent developments in eye-tracking technology have led to a number of studies on reading and the extent to which the eye jumps between lines of a poem: of how much a reader might double back, check, continue. With Graham’s arrow, there is no going back. The dash might simultaneously connect and separate, but with its little sharp point the arrow hastens us forward, enacting the title of the collection. Fast might be at once a period of abstinence, an imperative (to act against ecological catastrophe?), but perhaps also a reference to The Great Acceleration in which our global economic system has been controlling the earth’s natural systems since the industrial revolution.

Time has always been a preoccupation of Graham’s. In writing Never (2002), she aimed to enact ‘the rate of extinction [that] is estimated at one every nine minutes’. In 2017, with no sign of rates such as these slowing down, but, rather, an increase in speed (and even an addiction to technological acceleration), the arrow increases the futility of Graham’s plea in ‘The Post Human’: ‘I don’t want the time to go in this direction’. As ‘The Post Human’ narrates the death of Graham’s father, this plea takes on greater immediacy.

Standing next to you, holding the hand which stiffens, am I
outside of it more than before, are you not inside?
The aluminium shines on your bedrail where the sun hits. It touches it.
The sun and the bedrail – do they touch each other more than you and I now.

As one of the opening poems of the collection’s second section, death prompts a meditation on relationality, response and distance. Do inanimate objects have more vitality than a body within no one inside? The questions continue. ‘Am I to think / you now / natural?’ Strange paradoxes are made between what is human and what is natural, between the stopping of time and relentless progression: ‘Have we caught up with / where we just were?’

Graham’s title of the poem refers quite literally to the post-human – to the end of a human life – but a more theoretical reflection might also be present here. Heralded as the new ‘ism’ in philosophy and critical theory, posthumanism aims to depart from anthropocentric discourse. Posthumanist scholars have focused on ideas of objecthood, animal ontology and technological entanglements with the human. Whether or not Graham is exactly a posthumanist, it is exciting to see emergent theoretical questions and concerns creatively developed in Fast. In the title poem of the collection, Graham asks ‘Will we survive I ask the bot. No’. Here, the lack of a question mark seems to presuppose the answer. Graham blurs natural and artificial intelligence. Where is the divide between cyborg and human in ‘We are not alone. We are looking to improve’? Is this ‘we’ us, or them? Unrelenting in the way it shifts the ground we stand upon, Fast also shakes the ‘the tiny nation state which is / you, your you’ (‘To Tell of Bodies Changed to Different Forms’). To be swept off one’s feet might be a clichéd phrase we reserve for romance, but the passionate and overwhelming nature of Graham’s undertaking has not dissimilar effect. ‘Have you failed to / make your / self?’ might conjure our obsessive creating of virtual selves on social media, but a (re)construction of the physical self occurs too. Small details such as ‘watch breasts grow as the buttonwood grows’ brings into relation The New York Stock Exchange, begun with an agreement signed under a buttonwood tree in 1792, and surgical breast enlargement. Natural, financial and physical (mis)conceptions of progress are condensed into one surprisingly lyrical line that is all the more unsettling for its quiet nature.

Graham’s departures in pronoun, idea and punctuation are matched by new explorations in sound and image. Writing about her own experience of having cancer, ‘From Inside the MRI’ begins with a gripping revision of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s ‘The Windhover’

– my sub-
tropical dancer, partner, or is it birdchatter I’m hearing now, vein in,
contrast-drip begun, everything being sung in the magnetic field’s no-upward-rung

Throughout the collection there are a number of instances in which birdsong is confused with a cellphone’s ringtone. Such misperceptions are heightened in this hospital setting as Graham’s internal rhymes and repetitions – ‘high high not not not not highnot highnot’ – skip on Hopkins’s poem as if it were a scratched record to reproduce the weird soundscape of the MRI scan. The rhythm of a line has always been important to Graham. In interviews she has spoken of the time spent revising the poems she writes; attending to the music of each line. With its occasionally intense internal rhymes, we are introduced to new musical textures. The 3D printer and 3D glasses that feature in ‘from The Enmeshments’ are anticipated in the vibrations within particular lines: ‘It’s too abstract. I have no contract. Cannot enact impact / interact. Look: the mirrored eye of the fly, so matter of fact.’ At times these sounds seem strong enough to break from the page into physical dimensions.

Whilst sensuality has always been present in Graham’s work, the palpable, tangible quality of Fast distinguishes it, especially in relation to Graham’s early collections. Although it is impractical to summarise her previous work, to some degree this poetry has been marked by its fraught, self-reflexive relationship between self and world. In many instances this has concerned the subjective, lyrical ‘I’ and its perceiving of the external world. In her debut, Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts (1980), the speaker is, for example, self-consciously absorbed in her appropriative representation of wildflowers: ‘Yes should I draw it changing, making of the flower a kind of mind’ (‘Drawing Wildflowers’). Whether it’s because Graham’s subjects have ranged between art, philosophy, history, and religion, or because, at times, her writing has been concerned about writing in (what is often reductively labeled as) a postmodern aesthetic, critics have often suggested that Graham’s poetry is difficult poetry. Sometimes this difficulty has led critics to accuse Graham of neglecting her reader and of creating introspective work. Examining her writing in relation to ecopoetry, Leonard Scigaj once said that it ‘divorces us too far from the practical world’. Fast does much to put these criticisms to rest.

Should poems about ecological destruction, political genocide and questionable social concepts of progress fail to convince the reader of this, then surely those poems about the illnesses and deaths of Graham’s father and her mother will. In the last section of the book, ‘The Mask Now’ describes her father’s prolonged death:

In last weeks wore red sleepmask over eyes day and night. Would
ride it up onto his forehead for brief intervals, then down, pulled by
hand that still worked. A bit. Sometimes shaking too much so just
cried eyes. Cried now now. Once cried out light – more like a hiss – was
there for that.

The protracted horror of the scene feels Beckettian and is pursued in ‘Mother’s Hands Drawing Me’:

dying – mother not wanting to
die – mother scared awakening
each night thinking she’s dead –
[…] now saying I
dreamt I have to get this dress on, if
I get this dress on I will not die –
mother who cannot get the dress on
because of broken hip and broken
arm and tubes and coils and pan

These intimate portrayals of death are deeply painful and affecting elegies in which both mother and father appear desperate to keep their hold on life. After Graham writes of her father who ‘Wants trans-/ fusions which we withhold […] Would buy no // time’, anecdote becomes metaphor: ‘ “I’ve wrapped stumps in / black plastic when they’ve refused to die” says Leila, location Wellington, / posted 4 years ago on permagardening’. Whilst such lines are distressing to read, curiously, a certain tenacity comes to the fore that evokes, perhaps in a more poignantly quotidian manner, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’. As a way of concluding the book, these poems bring a slight glimmer of hope. Fast might immerse us in monstrous acts of environmental and political violence, our obsession with progress, money, and our own individualistic, virtual worlds, but what still succeeds is the wish to live on. Perhaps if we were to listen to that wish we might, amongst all the acceleration, stop and think again as if it weren’t, in the words of ‘Cryo’, ‘too late’.


Isabel Galleymore’s debut pamphlet is Dazzle Ship (Worple Press, 2014). Her poems have featured widely in journals such as Poetry and Poetry London. This summer she was awarded an Eric Gregory Award. She lectures at the University of Birmingham.

Excitement, Heart in Mouth, to Listen: 50 Years of Poetry International

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Amongst the audience for the first Poetry International gathering, which took place in July 1967, was London writer Iain Sinclair. He’d come along to see Charles Olson, all six foot eight of him, but due to the American poet’s decision to sit in the aisle rather than taking a seat on stage, Sinclair got much closer to him than he expected. Amongst the other poets reading that evening were W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Giuseppe Ungaretti and Allen Ginsberg, who was photographed earlier that day wearing a ‘God’s Eye’: a gold charm from Mexico.

Sinclair remembers: ‘Olson put himself in with the people. He sprawled across the aisle, wearing a dirty white suit’. The young Sinclair offered the poet his seat; Olson refused to take it: ‘Olson preferred the space on the floor, not paying attention to incomers who were forced to negotiate a passage around his notable bulk’. When Olson did get up to read, just before the interval, Sinclair wrote in his diary later that day: ‘It was an excitement, heart in mouth, to listen’. A statement which has echoed through audience reactions to the festival over the past 50 years.

The awkwardness of Olson was symptomatic of the times and, perhaps,   of the growing pains of the festival in those first years. Ted Hughes had initiated the idea for the festival as a response to the global polarisation of east and west during the Cold War, writing in his introduction to the 1967 brochure: ‘The idea of global unity is not new, but the absolute necessity of it has only just arrived, like a sudden radical alteration of the sun’. Despite, or perhaps because he wasn’t fluent in any other language than English, Hughes firmly held the notion that poetry could be ‘a universal language…. in which we can all hope to meet’.

Behind the scenes Hughes had already relinquished his main directorship of the festival which he handed over to Patrick Garland. Hughes sensed the board of the festival thinking ‘he ought to be restrained … So the festival could only be 5 foreigners, 5 Americans, and 5 English. It was those 5 English I was trying to avoid’. Hughes hadn’t wanted any English poets but the Poetry Book Society who were administrating the festival had persuaded him to include some English ones ‘for box office reasons’. As it turned out only three English poets came (out of nine poets), but   the imbalance was skewed elsewhere with only two female poets being invited (Anne Sexton – who one reviewer commented had appeared on stage wearing ‘shocking pink’ – and Ingeborg Bachmann). There was a lot of work to be done. The sun had many more alterations to make.

The audiences, however, arrived, with one reporter saying that 500 people were turned away from the event at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as they didn’t have tickets. As The Observer wrote, aware of the various problems off- stage and behind them: ‘Getting an audience is about the only problem the organisers of Poetry International ’67 have not had’. If audience sizes have varied over the years one thing that has been consistent is the precariousness of putting together a festival of this scale, the least of which is in negotiating the travel and arrival of dozens of poets from around the world. Charles Osborne organised the 1970 festival and kept a daily diary of proceedings:

The poets begin to arrive. I sit in my office like some bemused Shakespearian monarch while messengers … rush in to explain ‘Thom Gunn has just arrived from San Francisco’, and ‘Soyinka has flown in from Stockholm, but we’ve lost him’ (Stockholm? I was expecting him from Ibadan) and ‘I met the plane from Rome but Pasolini wasn’t on it’

Rick Stroud, who worked on the 1972 festival, was sent nervously down to Devon to encourage Ted Hughes to take part in an event around Sylvia Plath. When he got there, Stroud recalls, Hughes ‘showed me a pet badger that he had trained to wear a little leather harness. I spent a wonderful afternoon with the legendary Ted, talking to him and walking the badger’.

Poetry International was initiated to address political tensions in the world but humour quickly became a part of it. ‘An Evening of Innocent Australian Verse’ was programmed as part of the 1973 festival in which the host, in mint-fresh BBC RP, apologised because one of the speakers on the panel, Dame Edna Everage: ‘couldn’t get into her head that any hall seating fewer than 6,000 people could be one in which she expected to appear and we’ve heard that she’s gone by mistake to the Albert Hall’. Barry Humphreys, of course, was on stage, switching at the interval to enter as Dame Edna and read a series of Australian poems, one of which was called ‘Pigface’.

There was a long lapse in the festival, between 1977 and 1982, when it emerged for a few years, bringing together ageing American Beats (Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso) with UK performance poets (John Cooper Clarke, Joolz Denby, Benjamin Zephaniah). If poetry hadn’t quite come down from the shelf it was compact enough to fit in   the pocket and City Lights Editions flooded the South Bank. Archival photos from the late ‘80s to early ‘90s show poets we now take as state figures caught in mid-flight between juvenilia and imago. In one shot Andrew Motion looks like he’s arrived from the set of Grease; in another Paul Muldoon appears as a schoolboy who’s been caught bunking off. UA Fanthorpe described what it was like behind the scenes at the festival, when the poets were off duty: ‘the lovely thing is that we are all put up in a hotel together so we can actually meet each other … it’s very stimulating. The young ones sit around talking about the meaning of life and the old ones get drunk’. There’s a letter from Tony Harrison in Southbank Centre’s archive saying that he was once given ‘warm Liebfraumilch’ before an event at   a school but when he comes to Southbank Centre he doesn’t have such concerns. I don’t know where he got that idea.

Behind these attempts to open up poetry to new audiences there’s a sense in which the festival had, for a while at least, lost its way. The programming of the 70s over-cooks the American beef, and that of the 80s is extremely UK-centric – everything that Hughes had been against. What might be seen as the modern era of Poetry International began in its re-launch in 1988 (the first festival for four years) when the National Poetry Library moved from its home in Piccadilly to the 5th floor of the Royal Festival Hall. The poet Maura Dooley was the Head of Literature at the time and she saw the potential for this collision of two great institutions to combine their legacies and bring the festival into a new era. In the end there was no library, Dooley recalls, as it wasn’t ready to be opened, but the drive of the programming was very much about getting back to its roots: ‘The re-launched festival really resonated with the Cold War themes of the 1967 festival. The Berlin Wall had come down in 1989 and all these Eastern Bloc countries were opening up. There was a renewed interest in work in translation, so that was very much a feature of the 90s’.

Looking through the brochures for that period shows this focus on the international and translation to be at the core of the programming with poets such as Joseph Brodsky, Goran Simic, Hans Magnus Enzenberger, Tadeusz Różewicz, Valerio Magrelli and Piotr Sommer coming to read. Weaving through these European legends, figures coated with the dust of previous epochs on their shoulders, was a new streak of youthful glitz which came in the form of the New Generation poets. The future GCSE syllabus had just come out of school and was gaining a wide readership; it was inevitable that the new UK cool would be fused with the lesser known and more mysterious forces of the continent. Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead, Simon Armitage and Lavinia Greenlaw appeared to read a number of times during these years with some critics taking issue with it, including Daniel Weissbort, who had partnered Ted Hughes in launching Modern Poetry in Translation the year before the first festival. Weissbort wrote an article for Poetry London in 2002 under the title ‘Is Poetry International Becoming too British?’ saying: ‘perhaps … the organisers had little if any choice in the matter. They had to make a case to their financial masters and they had to do the best they could to get bottoms on seats…’

Poetry really began for me – at least in the sense of showing what was truly possible – in 2002. I’d started working in Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library earlier that year and came to every event at the festival in the autumn of that year. The library was already asking me to rip-up- and-start-again with what I thought I knew about the art form, pushing me towards the weird and offbeat, the challenging and original, and there were elements of the festival that perfectly extended that. If the National Poetry Library collections contained the under-wiring for everything that was possible in the form then the festival was the lit-up, unmissable realisation of that in the live instant. The French Oulipian poet Jacques Roubaud applied his mathematical training to the experimental poem and took his lines for a walk around Paris and the screen behind the stage. This set off a love affair with Roubaud’s writing which, I’d discover time and again through the years, was exactly what the festival was there to do: to connect audiences with poets from around the world who were performing tricks with language they would never forget. After listening, heart in mouth, audiences walk out amongst the open spaces of the brutalist site with their heads filled with the impossible. After-images moving across the shards and angles.

In 2004 August Kleinzahler gave an incredible reading, picking out poems from the four or five collections he had balanced in the lectern, saturating the audience with the grime and lived experience that his poems seemed to mop up, then moving to the next poem with the speed of a world-class waiter who had chosen to work in the local café because that’s where the life was. Anne Carson explored the silences in the fragments left behind by Sappho, making the absences do the work. Saadi Yousef refused to let what was happening in Iraq go unnoticed by the audiences on the South Bank.

This focus on the Middle East began in earnest with the 2010 festival Imagining Peace, bringing the festival into a new era of urgent and direct programming which has continued since. That festival invited poets from twenty-nine countries arriving to take part, a big increase on the nine countries of the original festival in 1967. It was this urgency which saw the one-off, impossible, dizzying and unforgettable 2012 Poetry Parnassus festival take place. As the festival was due to fall in the year of the London Olympics, Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director Jude Kelly CBE aimed to do something on an epic scale. Simon Armitage became the curator and the festival organisers Anna Selby, Bea Colley and Martin Colthorpe worked for over a year to make the impossible happen. The idea was simple: to invite one poet from each of the 204 Olympic-competing countries. After the easy bit of sending out the invitations came the administration around visas, booking hotels, organising translators and giving the poets something to do when they got here.

London’s South Bank was overrun with poets speaking the universal language of their art: running late, asking for directions for somewhere they were meant to be an hour ago. The New World Order event brought together Nikola Madziroz, Kei Miller, Valzhyna Mort, Ilya Kaminsky, Tishani Doshi to the same stage, to read in pairs – collaboratively if they wanted to – which some did, fusing together their extempore collaborations minutes before going on to the Purcell Room stage. The Chilean Arts Collective Casagrande’s Rain of Poems involved a helicopter which dropped poemswritten by each of the attending poets over Jubilee Gardens, landing on the grounds of the Shell Building, onto the roof of ITV studios, melting like London snow into the Thames. It was discovered later that one of the poems had fallen onto the lap of a cyclist who then looked at the poem to find that he knew the poet who had written it. Poetic visions sent like business cards from the sky. The dream logic of poetry as a waking reality.

Throughout the week of the festival the National Poetry Library created a unique, one-off edition called The World Record for which each attending poet hand-wrote a version of one of their poems in its original language. In addition a modernist desk with a leather surface – blank green to begin with, an open field – was prepared for each poet to sign as a relic of the incredible week. The poets came to the library to sign the desk and write their poems, leaving their mark in space before returning to the cities and villages they came from. On the final day of the festival Seamus Heaney, who’d arrived to read at the climactic gala event in the Royal Festival Hall, wasn’t able to make it up to the library to sign the desk. We did what we had to: picked up the desk and worked our way back of house through three floors of the Royal Festival Hall, narrowly missing walking on stage where the audiences were beginning to gather, until we found the dressing room he was in. Seamus saw the humour in the predicament: if the poet doesn’t go to the inscribed memorial desk, the inscribed memorial desk will come to him. He raised his pen saying, cryptically, ‘let the fox see the rabbit’. The next day Kay Ryan, the U.S. Poet Laureate (who’d also read that evening), came into the library looking for her jacket, saying she’d either left it backstage of the Royal Festival Hall or in the less salubrious Hole in the Wall pub, just opposite Waterloo Station. It was that kind of week.

Since Poetry Parnassus the festival has happened twice, in 2014 and 2015. The impetus for addressing issues in the Middle East has continued, with essential programming inviting Afghan women poets to come to the festival and read their landays: short, acerbic poems that they write secretly– out of the male gaze – harbouring and venting their anger at their social and political reality. Pakistani poets were invited to share their experiences of being forced to flee from the Taliban. A mushaira – a gathering of poets by candlelight – was held on the Clore Ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall.

This year’s festival presents a strong line-up of poets from Nordic regions, tying in with Southbank Centre’s year-long programme celebrating Nordic culture, Nordic Matters, and many more from further afield. There will be a strong focus on endangered languages activated by Southbank Centre’s Translator-in-Residence, Stephen Watts, who will host an event called Seven Thousand Words for Human in which poets, including Joy Harjo, have been commissioned to write new poems in a language that is under threat. There will be workshops (including one led by Anne Carson who will set the task of inviting students to ‘invent a suburb’), a celebration of Modern Poetry in Translation and exhibitions delving into the history of the festival. The Wall of Dreams exhibition, in collaboration with award- winning Danish artist Morten Søndergaard, will project the dreams of refugees onto the Royal Festival Hall building exterior and the festival will culminate in World Poetry Summit, a stellar line-up of poets including Claudia Rankine, Sjón, Choman Hardi, Anne Carson and Yang Lian. Five of the seven poets are female. The sun is altering. As the programming team, led by Ted Hodgkinson, gear up for the poets to arrive there is a sense in which the festival, now in its 50th year, is only just getting started.

Poetry has changed so much since 1967, we now demand that any festival is inclusive of a broad range of experiences and can showcase the variousness of the developing art form, from the conceptual to the digital. The ideas that will surface and invite engagement reflect this. At the heart of the festival is the notion so important to Hughes, and to many poets today, that poetry continues to provide a space in which divisions can be met face-on. Or as the female Afghan poet Sahira Sharif said at the 2015 festival: ‘A poem is a sword. It’s our form of resistance’.

 

Poetry International runs from 13-15 October and forms the opening weekend of Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival. www.southbankcentre.co.uk


Chris McCabe is the Poetry Librarian at Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library and programmer for Poetry International. He is also a poet and writer, his most recent book be- ing Cenotaph South: Mapping the Lost Poets of Nunhead Cemetery (Penned in the Margins, 2016).

Through it by Ila Colley

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Photo by Jeremy Segrott

This is not throwing plates, how
you ask me. Too late for that.
This is a whisper dissection. This

is a beggar’s hand in my mouth.
This is the quiet I forget in, shy
hiss of the gas left on. Wish with 

this. This decanted antidote
isn’t fit for everyday use, you
with this inevitability, this

mimetic healing from behind
windows. This only on the road
minutes at a time, this falling

pose and these docile headlights
letting the water in a little,
this as you tell me. This world

you assembled. Your hand in me
that broke the surface, breaks,
these wars are worse than accidents. 


Poetry at the Print Room: Kayo Chingonyi, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Daljit Nagra

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Plush red cushions. Red floorboards. Flickering candles and the walls hung with a myriad of mirrors. We were sitting in the luxuriously lit Print Room at the Coronet theatre in Notting Hill, admiring our lush surroundings. On one side of the sloping room, a grand piano had been transformed into bar, where poets and listeners were ordering wine and warming spirits. Another piano was tucked away in the far corner of the room, and the shelves behind the podium were decked with photographs, paintings, wine bottles, and books. The room itself, with its tilted angles and darkened interior, looked like the belly of a great ship, where we were gathered to hear readings from Kayo Chingonyi, Karen McCarthy Woolf, and Daljit Nagra.

Kayo Chingonyi has been to the Print Room many times before as a listener, and was pleased to be returning as a reader. ‘It’s a really beautiful quality of attention that you get from the audience here’, he says, thanking Marion Manning, the Poetry Coordinator of the Print Room, for his invitation. He begins his reading with ‘The Colour of James Brown’s Scream’, noting that his fellow reader, Karen, was excited by the poem’s dedication to her brother Steve McCarthy. Conversations with Steve prompted some of the phrases in the poem, Kayo explains. His voice when he reads unfolds into the red room, accompanied by the quiet whirring of fans, and the audience’s attention as they listen is palpable. ‘I wanted also to honour my other fellow reader by reading this’, Kayo says of his next poem, ‘Legerdemain’. He speaks of Daljit’s skill with voice and personae in his work: ‘this is something I’ve also tried to do’. After advising the audience on how to appear knowledgeable about basketball, and reading his poem ‘H-O-R-S-E’, Kayo talks about other people’s impressions of his work. He is ‘fascinated by the manner in which someone reading your book deeply, on more than one occasion, can give you an insight into the book that you as a writer didn’t have’. Someone recently was relating to him ‘ideas they had gotten from reading the book and certain patterns that I’d created, and isn’t it nice that this chimes with this’. Kayo ‘wanted to say that it was all very designed […] but really it’s a subconscious process working’. The next poem that Kayo reads is called ‘How to Cry’ – ‘which seems to be a tragic poem, but it’s actually a celebration’:

I’m going to fold, as an overloaded trestle folds,
in the middle of Romford Market and bawl
the way my small niece bawls for her mother
when she leaves the room. In spite
of our assurances, already the little one knows
that those who leave might never come back

Looking up wryly after his reading, Kayo says ‘It’s not all that joyful, is it?’, although he praises the benefits of ‘having a good cry’. His poem ‘Curfew’, set when Zambia was a British protectorate, also has sombre undertones, although it is related through vivid dialogue between the speaker, his aunt and uncle, and possibly other family members. The aunt ‘smiles a knowing smile at our scandalised / faces’ as she recounts her experiences.

Karen McCarthy Woolf is the next poet to read. A Londoner with English and Jamaican parents, Karen began writing poetry as a teenager, and later worked in publishing. Her previous poetry collection, An Aviary of Small Birds, was published in 2014 and described by Kate Kellaway as a ‘beautiful, painful, pitch-perfect debut’. She is currently working on a doctorate at the University of London, and is particularly interested in ‘how a poetry of protest can also be infused with awe’. Her new book is called Seasonal Disturbances, and she begins by reading the title poem – ‘it felt apt, given the weather’, she notes, referring to the ferocious June downpour we had experienced earlier. The poem turns from a meditation on the disquieting meteorological conditions to other unsettling situations:

[…] My train
was the only train running, so
I got on, made my way in to the office
where everyone else was white
and the two typesetters I managed always
queried my edits and all along the way looking
out of the window from the empty carriage
I could see trees blown over,
their roots curling up into the air.

London is a city that features heavily in the collection. While Karen’s first book was one of elegies, the second is also ‘elegies – of sorts’. The collection is ‘a little broader – a book that mourns lost loves’, including cities. ‘Men, hollyhocks, and cats have also featured in this litany of grief’, Karen notes, smiling. ‘The Hollyhocks’ is the next poem that she reads, and while the first was read with urgency, here Karen adopts a more conversational tone, smiling and acknowledging the audience’s shifts of emotion. ‘I was very obsessed with hollyhocks for a while’, she explains, while the poem exclaims ‘O hollyhocks of Ile de Ré / O tunnels of pollen / O wooden boardwalks across the marshes / O pastel petals crushed by bicycle tyres’. Her reading also encompasses a range of poetic forms – including one invented by the American poet Terrance Hayes and titled the ‘Golden Shovel’. This particular form ‘references your reading – transforms it and makes it something else’, she says, and as she reads her own Golden Shovel, ‘Ars Poetica 101’, she gazes out at the audience as if she is addressing each listener individually.

Daljit Nagra has ‘leapt into English poetry with an exclamation mark’, according to Jeremy Noel-Todd, and he fills the Print Room with a similar exuberance. He is currently Poet in Residence for Radio 4, and it is easy to imagine his chatty, natural style working well on the airwaves. His reading of ‘Vox Populi, Vox Dei’ – ‘I don’t know any Latin – just popular Latin!’, Daljit notes – is assured, and he punctuates his speech with hand gestures, gazing levelly at the audience. ‘I’m going to read a poem about going to the tip’, Daljit says next. And with a comic’s timing: ‘Being lower-middle class now, we have lots of things to get rid of. Our Ikea products don’t work anymore’. He speaks of listening to a T. S. Eliot CD on these trips to the tip, and being caught by the poet’s ‘anxious voice’. Equally interesting to him is the way that Eliot was ‘recorded and shipped over to India, during the troubled colonial times, as a way of winning over the intellectuals in Calcutta’. His poem ‘He Do the Foreign Voices’ plays on Eliot’s original title for The Waste Land, which was He Do the Police in Different Voices, a line taken from Dickens’ last completed novel:

. . . ah Weialalaah! you say in time with Eliot
as you head for the rubbish dump on Sunday morning
listening to your CD of those free rhythms
for Mistah Kurtz – he dead, for stranded Tiresias
and Lil, for Krishna, for the Datta
and Da Da Da.

Where he grew up also influenced Daljit’s writing, and he states that he ‘wanted to write about childhood and being a British person’. Watching cartoons as a child, with Punjabi as his first language, he would sometimes miss subtleties of language. ‘Ode to England’ plays on this, and is a complex love song to Daljit’s country of birth, as well his way of ‘talking to England’. ‘That’s part of the strain of the Englishness of this British Museum collection’, Daljit explains after reading the poem. He also reads a personal poem, ‘Father of Only Daughters’, written when his youngest daughter was turning two. The poem is the first one to appear in the book, and Daljit expresses his thanks to Matthew Hollis, his editor at Faber, for suggesting that he open the book in this way. ‘When you write a really personal thing you want to hide it away, and editors don’t do that – they make you bold’. The evening ends with a sense of privilege at having shared poetry with strangers and friends, heightened by the intimate red surroundings of the Print Room.

By Suzannah V. Evans


Poetry at the Print Room: Kayo Chingonyi, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Daljit Nagra
Print Room
6th June 2017

The First Time They Lowered The Flags by Peter Ainsworth

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Photo by Patrick Nouhailler

The first time they lowered the flags
The President bowed his head.

The next time they placed flowers
To mourn the dead.

The time after that they held
A two minute peace.

Then they got worried
That it wouldn’t cease –

The silences were harder
To achieve by now

As it was commonplace.
There was some row

About lowering flags
All the time and condolences

And messages of sympathy
And endless silences

To record the photo grief
And remember the dead.

“Enough is enough”
So the President said.

But it wasn’t enough
For those whose thrill

Came from the heavenly
Urge to kill.

So the drooping flags
Hung at half mast

Forever; flopping emblems
Of a vanished past.

 

 

Rain When it Falls on Bracken

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Rain when it falls
on bracken silkily
is like a sea of sounds
and you are deep among them
so deep you cannot
fathom how you came
to be here far out
and given wholly up
to these sensations no
meaning offers itself
like a rule for reading
what is everywhere
and here you are in rain
cloaked in rain and breathing
it as in your first home


Fiona Sampson MBE is a poet and writer, published in thirty-seven languages, who has received international prizes in the US, India, Macedonia and Bosnia. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, she’s published twenty-seven books, received the Newdigate Prize, a Cholmondeley Award and numerous awards from the Arts Councils of England and Wales, the Society of Authors and Poetry Book Society, and twice been shortlisted for both T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes. Her new books are Lyric Cousins: musical form in poetry (EUP), the poetry collection The Catch (Penguin) (both 2016) and Limestone Country (Little Toller, May 2017)

Internet Poetry by Paul Gittins

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Stewart Butterfield

In the seventh of his twelve lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, the late Geoffrey Hill took issue with the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, over her assertion in a Guardian interview that poetry was a form of texting. Hill, who was ‘policing his patch’, retorted that texting was no more than a truncated form of communication.  In view of the internet’s increasing influence and capacity for mass communication, he could also have commented on the Poet Laureate’s opinion that ‘the Facebook generation is the future’…. and that ‘poetry is the perfect form for them.’

In America now, the Academy of American Poets attracts more than three hundred and fifty thousand readers daily with its digital Poem-a-Day series, boasting the most comprehensive and robust website in the world for poets, readers and educators,  reaching more than twenty million Americans each year.  Membership of the Academy is rewarded with a card, rather like a credit card, which authorises various benefits as well as serving as a reminder of the critical role you play in nurturing the art of poetry.’  In England, the Poetry Society which has its own website and operates on Facebook and Twitter, uses the internet to publicise poetry events, features poetry by contemporary and past poets and covers poetry news in general.

There is, however, an essential difference between poetry (ancient and modern) that is accessible on the internet and poetry that is written specifically for the internet. The latter marks a complete break with what has gone before in relation to subject-matter and technique and uses the web as the basis for its work. The more light-hearted practitioners, such as exponents of Flarf, gather strange bits of language from Google searches and stick them together as poetry, while Spam poetry is composed primarily from the content of spam email messages. Alt Lit, another manifestation of internet poetry, has been described as ‘a kind of pointedly botched poetry whose writers cultivate bad spelling, weird punctuation and sincere statements of the obvious.’ More serious are the apologists for internet poetry, who believe that by abandoning anything that resembles traditional poetry, they are gaining freedom for poetry to be expressed in new ways, such as being allied to other art forms. But their use of  screenshots (selected images of what can be seen on a computer screen) and image macros (pictures with overlaid texts) is just computer wizardry rather than original thought – a skill rather than a creative process and is one step away from programming a computer to ‘write poetry’, or what might be called robotic poetry.  At the very least, this combining with other ‘host’ art forms in single images diminishes the nature of poetry to a fleeting impression. It is as if nothing of value is attributed to longevity or tradition, an attitude that is reflected in the use of instantaneous and simplistic ideograms as a form of criticism.

An association with another art form has, anyway, all been done before without diminishing the power of the text. William Blake’s illustrations to his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (1789) are an obvious example, where it is the text that is remembered, not the illustrations, however much they might be an attractive addition. The same goes for Edward Lear’s drawings for his nonsense poems or Stevie Smith’s sketches which accompany her poems.

It is unfortunate that the touch screen nature of computer use offers an easy platform for self-promotion in the field of poetry. But the writing of poetry is not an entitlement, although campaigns such as the Poetry Society’s 2015 National Poetry Day which featured the slogans ‘Love like a Poet, Speak like a Poet, Act like a Poet, Dream like a Poet, Live like a Poet, Think like a Poet’ might encourage one to think so.  The internet can and does play an important part in the promotion of poetry both past and present.  But what needs to be emphasised is the derivative nature of much of the poetry that is specifically written for the internet and its dependence on the web for material. Poetry should come from personal inspiration, not from an internet search engine.

By Paul Gittins


Paul Gittins: I was educated at Exeter College, Oxford where I read English Literature. My first book, a poetry anthology ‘Portraits in Verse’ was published in 1997 by The Perpetua Press, Oxford. In 2014, ‘Scratching Around’, a selection of my poems, was published by Editions Illador in English and bilingual English-French editions. Also in 2014, ‘On Track’, my biography of my grandfather, railway pioneer in Siam and Canada, was published by River Books (See review in Mail on Sunday 16/11/2014). Articles on poetry have been published in Oxford Today magazine (27/2/2015, 20/5/2015). I now live in Majorca, where I continue to write and give poetry recitals.

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

An interview with Fiona Sampson

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Fiona Sampson MBE is a poet and writer, published in thirty-seven languages, who has received international prizes in the US, India, Macedonia and Bosnia. A Fellow and Council member of the Royal Society of Literature, she’s published twenty-seven books, received the Newdigate Prize, a Cholmondeley Award, Hawthornden Fellowship and numerous awards from the Arts Councils of England and Wales, the Society of Authors and Poetry Book Society and twice been shortlisted for both T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes. Her new books are Lyric Cousins: musical form in poetry (EUP), the poetry collection The Catch (Penguin) (both out last year) and a prose study of Limestone Country (Little Toller, May 2017). She’s just finished In Search of Mary Shelley, a new psychological biography commissioned for the bicentenary of Frankenstein (Profile, 2018). Her website is www.fionasampson.co.uk

Congratulations on the MBE for services to literature and the literary community which you received in the New Year’s Honours! In the press release you describe 2016 as “an astonishing year”: could you tell us something about what you’ve been working on?

Thank you! To be honest it depends when the “year” starts. In 2016 I published The Catch (Penguin Random House), my latest collection. It’s a book about happiness, continuity, and wishfulness… I love poems that transform, or turn-around, their material in one way or another. I prefer myth to snapshot, and music to lecture, to put it another way! Also, the poems in The Catch are entirely in strict form: single sentence poems, in which every line has a regular number of stresses and each line must make semantic and musical sense. None of those chopped-up prose clunky line-breaks, the kind I think of as North American, with conjunctions or prepositions bulging from the ends of lines under the weight they have to bear… Oh, and not regular metre but the springiness of speech-rhythm: to put it another way, not regular feet but regular numbers of feet. I always think technique should bury itself so that it becomes incorporated, its effects subliminal rather than disciplinary.

Then Lyric Cousins: poetry and musical form came out in the autumn and was lots of hard work. It’s hard to be technical and write for a general reader at the same time. But I believe one should: it’s like teaching, even at the highest level: one should seduce in the telling! Lyric Cousins looks at musical forms (not, initially at least, at song metre but at forms prior to that, including breath, chromaticism, density) and how they work themselves out in verse as they do in music. I used to be a musician, so of course the topic interests me: but I also believe the links and similarities are highly pertinent for both poets and composers. I think, for example, that the grammar of a thought – of any thought – is limited to phrasal breath-length. These are ideas I started to develop when I was invited to give the Newcastle Lectures by what is now NCLA. Those three lectures are now expanded into a monograph. Unfortunately, this book is published by the very fine Edinburgh University Press, which means it’s rather expensive. I’m hoping the kind people who tell me they want to read it (perhaps they’re hinting that they’d like a copy – but it’s so expensive I can’t afford to give any away, which feels mortifying -) will order it from their libraries…!

Then 2016 also saw a couple of books in translation. Coleshill came out as Kolshil in Bosnia and won a prize, the Slovo Podgrmec; and The Catch came out as Volta in Romania. And then, this January, The Catch came out as Da PotopaOn the Brink – in Russian. You’ll notice that its title doesn’t tend to get translated “straight”: that’s because the multiple meanings of “the catch”, including a round-song, get lost in translation. Which is a fascinating topic I’d like to talk more about, if we have the chance.

What I’ve been busy working on this year are two prose books – and a poet-to-poet translation research project. The books are Limestone Country, published by Little Toller in May, which is about how a particular geology produces a particular ecology and so particular ways of life: my emerging interest in writing about place is definitely an interest in how humans live in and change and are changed by the natural environment. Then, next January, my new psychological biography of Mary Shelley is published by Profile for the bicentenary of Frankenstein. It’s called In Search of Mary Shelley: the girl who wrote Frankenstein and in it I am trying to take on the Romantic project itself and, without any fictionalizing, to excavate all that we can know about what sort of person Mary was, and how she experienced things, from the record which – just because she was a Romantic – she kept in letters and journals as well as in her published writing.

As well as writing and reviewing, and teaching and researching at the University of Roehampton, where you’re the Professor of Poetry and Director of the Poetry Centre, you will be Ledbury Poetry Festival’s poet-in-residence 2017. The Festival turns 21 this year – a coming-of-age of sorts. How would you describe its place in the constellation of poetry-related events and projects in this country? 

The Ledbury Festival is now one of the leading English poetry festivals: alas, a few years ago Arts Council England axed the funding to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, which was magnificently independent in spirit. Poetry International at the Southbank Centre in London has somewhat disappeared into their general fine programming; it waxes and wanes. Scotland has StAnza in St Andrews, which is truly international. But Ledbury is now consciously moving further, as I understand it, into internationalism. It’s always celebrated both national and international poets, so I think this is very exciting.

Actually I founded an international poetry festival in Aberystwyth myself, just before Ledbury was founded; from which I know that in those days festivals were not the fashion. Ledbury had tremendous vision.

There’s something very important about bringing work of real artistic excellence out of London, and particularly into the countryside. Visual artists have long moved out of London to find the space and affordability in which to make their work: think of the St Ives school, or Capel-y-ffin and Eric Gill. Musicians too: the wonderful British composers of the twentieth century and on, from Edward Elgar to Harrison Birtwistle, from Benjamin Britten to Michael Tippett, have lived and worked outside London. But publishing is very metropolitan, which means that British poetry has for too long been largely a village of Londoners (not a paradox, oddly). So festivals, which take on the European model of going out into the countryside to be festive, are a really important part of the calendar. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the wonderful new Kendal Poetry Festival which kicked off last year, and is intimate and genuinely suffused with enthusiasm, to Edinburgh Bookfest, where I’ll be later in the summer.

As the programme indicates, you’ve brought together a number of wonderful initiatives at this year’s Festival – I’m particularly excited about the spotlight on Romanian Women poets. What new spaces or conversations do you think these projects will open at the Festival?  

It’s been lovely to curate two international events. I’m so grateful to Ledbury for the chance to do so: especially without having to raise the money and do the admin, which is usually the price of such plans and dreams!

I’m a huge fan of internationalism. I simply think it teaches one that there are other ways of going on… You might think that’s obvious in a culturally diverse country such as the UK, but I think that even our most culturally diversified individual poets get co-opted into the little-London mentality. And that’s such a shame. It’s surely provincial to think anywhere is the centre of the world, in our global society.

Also, to be frank, I just plain have literary and cultural curiosity. And I’m a wee bit suspicious of people who don’t. So I’ve invited six poets whose work I love, but under two specific rubrics (otherwise, there would have been nowhere for me to stop – so many marvellous poets I’d love to invite…). There’s a group of Romanian women poets, because there’s such a concentration of excellence there and because they are terrific, bold role-models for our still rather over-policed British women poets. Working with the wonderful Gabriela Mocan at the Romanian Cultural Institute, we are lucky to have secured Ana Blandiana, Magda Carneci and Liliana Ursu: three major, and incredibly diverse, voices in South-East Europe. And then there’s an event looking at the different ways poets live their poetry lives in different countries. For example, a mix of editing, reviewing and writing which I rather fancy myself – the poet as writer and intellectual – has long been regarded with (ahem) suspicion here in the UK. But elsewhere in the world it’s normal to the point of cliché. So we have European poet-editor Maria Galina, a Ukrainian working in Moscow at the great Novy Mir, Christopher Merrill, the North American poet who directs the Iowa Writing Workshop, that towering pioneer among university creative writing programmes, and Patrick Dubost, French musician/experimental performer, who really does experiment and really does perform…

You’ll be judging the Ledbury Poetry Festival’s Poetry Competition. Could you shed a little light on what you look for when judging competitions and prizes? 

I think that competition judging is like editing: you have to do it in a spirit of utmost integrity and enthusiasm. You have to be looking for the best work, and to feel a leap of enthusiasm when you discover it. You have, also, to feel that you are opening a door rather than closing one; and you have above all to make your selections bearing in mind, and against the grain of, your own prejudices. You have to have a thick skin and just know that even if you make mistakes, you did so by accident, and in good faith.

I’ve done quite a lot of judging, and have come to the conclusion that prizes are a necessary evil. They’re not what poetry is about; but they can help poets thrive. At the moment I Chair the annual European Lyric Atlas award in Bosnia, and this year I’ll also chair the annual Roehampton Prize: it’s for the best single collection published by someone of any nationality who is living and working in the UK at the time of publication. An attempt not to close down our reading borders but to support on-the-ground British poetry practice when the main prizes tend to get won by foreign “stars” who come in, grab the goods and disappear… In recent years I’ve found myself judging a number of prizes, of course always with different combinations of co-judges (the Eliot, the Forwards, the Independent Foreign Fiction, the Ondaatje, the Griffin, the Irish Times Impac, etc). It’s a form of service to the poetry community, it seems to me. To do it properly and actually read all the submissions, I mean: which too many, to my astonishment, don’t. It is a lot of reading, judging a book prize: but you shouldn’t do it unless your attitude is Wow, I get to read all the books published this year for free rather than Oh no, all these books to read.

This all sounds like a form of outreach. Do you see a relationship between community work and art practice?

My own relationship to poetry was forged by community work. I was an early developer of poetry in health and social care; a practice in which you work constantly with people in tough places, sometimes in extremis. It’s a huge privilege and fascinating as well as moving. It taught me how people with absolutely no background interest in poetry are moved by the Real Thing, and understand its relevance at the great moments in life: indeed, need it then. That has shaped my writing, editing, and promotional practice ever since. It’s also why I was a mature student – I wanted to articulate what was going on and why I thought this was the real deal in the same way as high art. It was why I did a doctorate in applied philosophy of language. I ended up writing numerous papers and chapters and eventually books about it.

Poetry isn’t for a game of competition and ego. It’s for being the Real Thing.

Have you, then, found your style or process changing as a result of working with others, or on similar projects? 

I love collaborating! The poet-to-poet translation project I’m working on right now with the poet Bill Herbert and the translator Francis Jones is a two-year AHRC-funded research project into what happens when poets co-translate. In the project we’re using intermediary, literal translators too, and working in trios. As well as measuring and examining, we want to mark out and celebrate this practice, which tends to spring up organically – indeed, chiefly at international festivals and fellowships. Poets meet each other, love each other’s work, and decide to collaborate.

I’ve also worked a lot with composers, naturally; and with visual artists. At the moment I’m working with a Swedish landscape photographer, Jan Peter Lahall, on a project about our environment – it will be an exhibition and an artists’ book. I think some poets and artists really love collaborating: Jan Peter for example has already worked with a Swedish and with a Ukrainian poet.

So to sum up, if poetry is to have a place in our communities and our lives, how can we best bring it into the limelight? 

We have to keep the faith. We have to remember the real reasons for doing it, and return to them over and over. In the long run, that is what will ensure we have something good and real to hand on when the culture shifts again, and shifts towards more poetry (the way it is in many other countries right now).

And I think we have to keep the circle widening, so to speak. Not contract into defensiveness, lack of interest in international or new poets, and a refusal to engage with the wider community. We have to keep doing it over and over… in tiny local libraries in the UK as well as on prime time TV abroad, to kids in schools as well as on Radio 4 audience.

 

By Theophilus Kwek


The full festival programme will be available from Wednesday 26th April on the Ledbury website here.

Acrostic by Sudeep Sen

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Derek Walcott & Sudeep Sen

(R.I.P. Derek Walcott: January 23, 1930 – March 17, 2017)

Deep seas of yesteryears wash new froth on your home shores.
Egrets, sea gulls, circle the ruddy skies waiting for perfect thermals to
Rise — ripe air-currents — wingspans larger than civilizational memory.
East tries to meet West, North tries to meet South, Poles magnetize in a
Kaleidoscopic churning — saturating the sea-sky’s azure, a brighter blue.

What is it with an Antillean story that makes ‘the other’ so pale,
And its art so grand, epical — under the Caribbean’s sharp, lucent light?
Lot remains to be unearthed, much remains unspoken, unwritten —
Cotyledons unraveling without nature’s aid or human touch.
Om mani pad me hum — O the jewel in the lotus — that Himalayan echo,
That primal sound — chant from a mother’s womb, a uterus scream —
That life-force balancing points — trying to find an elusive fulcrum.


Sudeep Sen’s prize-winning books include Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Rain, Aria (A. K. Ramanujan Translation Award), The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions) and EroText (Vintage: Penguin Random House). Blue Nude: New Poems & Ekphrasis (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Prize) is forthcoming.

The Hurt

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These days are sadness at its most vivid.
You have, at dawn, at dusk, the prayer call,
the Ezan , the Takbir and the Shahada sung
like smoke caught in the heat of the throat,
a prayer-wisp, a delicate meandering.

Then the bells from St. Sophia will start.
Their self regard rattling the valley
with sudden gusts, a pressure change
of sounds hanging at their temperatures,
the clatter of a looming summer squall.

That’s the hurt calling you across the valley.
There’s nothing to do but drink it in;
it will or won’t be waiting, but you, you
for the very first time You, have wet skin
and drying eyes, the glitter-kiss of first rain
dancing on the pavement, the roll of thunder

like laughter, coming when you least expect it.


Matthew Henley’s first collection, Beetle, was published in 2014 by Templar. He currently lives in Sarajevo.

Ha Ha Ha

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I didn’t like their album cover
This was long before we met
He teetered to his digs after the gig
Tiptoe boots and a bottom
I’d’ve Traversed Leeds for. Ha Ha Ha
A jeer on the back of his jacket
In red sticky tape. Is that what
Attracted them?
He must have been a fan.
They stopped their van
Promised they’d see him home
But swept him over the moors
To Burnley. More beers, then it goes vague
The clown punks slurring off, one by one
Strange possibilities, shunned
And in the morning, breakfast brought
By Duncan Disorderly’s mum.
Never cross the Pennines accidentally.
Our dark mills will metamorphose you.
Aged 18, kidnapped by the Notsensibles.
And they never brought him back.

 

Cold Case

Seal off the bar with tape.
Bag the wine glasses, take notes.
Caucasian, six foot, 170 pounds
Discoloured tooth. She was his mark.
The table’s processed for fingerprints.

He’s not on any database, but
very comfortable around dead relationships.
Looking closer, the loving couple
Had a dark side unknown to friends.
Stumped police have their work cut out.

They drink each other like Scotch
Wind up at the African joint after
His lunch hit the kitchen wall,
Red spatter revealed by Luminol.
An attempt was made to clean up.

His alibis don’t make sense
His signals bounce off masts
Miles from his place of work. He fails
A polygraph. The investigation
takes another bizarre turn.

He’s on the psych ward, folded
Like origami. She’s gone back to him.
He never opens his eyes, talks baby.
What they’re about to learn
Will blow the whole case wide open.

The weapon was a mobile phone.
Spent messages were retrieved.
Eyewitnesses saw them rowing.
Riddled with lies, she makes it to the
washroom. He’s already fled the scene.

How many victims has he claimed?
This cold case is about to get colder,
The evidence purely circumstantial.
Detectives must wait until daylight
Before they can search for the body.


Suzi Feay was literary editor of the Independent on Sunday for eleven years and has judged many literary prizes. She has been a writer, broadcaster and critic on a wide range of literary and cultural topics in the UK media.

Competence by Anna Kahn

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Yukata Seki

There is nothing in this room
for those who have not learned to
sing without thinking, who don’t know
where the music fits in their bodies, how
to smash it open and live it without tearing
the neighbouring muscles. We have nothing
for those startled by their own tone, who can’t
feel it before they breathe in. We stand in a circle,
the only audience a sparrow outside the back door.
We close our eyes and know ourselves by the intake
of our breath and the whisper of our steps on the carpet.
Four voices, four notes, we become bigger than ourselves
the sound bigger than this back room and its watching sparrow.
We are small and empty and it fills us and covers us, our corneas
and the webbing between our fingers all sound, even our toe bones
employed, knowing how it goes. We couldn’t make this if we were thinking.
How could our chests fill if we were trying to fit this wild thing around our ribs
as it pulsed and shifted and swelled, if it had not already made home inside them?

The silence aches. We find
ourselves small and empty
all cartilage and gristle
where before there
was resonance.
When I open
my eyes

the sparrow is gone.


Anna Kahn is a member of the Roundhouse Collective and is in her second year as a Barbican Young Poet. She lives in London with two cats and one human. By day she works in tech doing something largely inexplicable. She blogs at scribblingbadger.wordpress.com and tweets at @AnnaCarlaKahn.

Poetry Prize 2017

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As of midnight tonight (30th June 2017) this competition will be closed.

 

The London Magazine has been home to some of the most prestigious poets in its long publishing history, from John Keats to Sylvia Plath. Our annual Poetry Prize seeks out new voices in poetry, providing a platform for publication in the UK’s oldest literary journal.

All poems submitted must be previously unpublished and no longer than 40 lines. We have no criteria as to theme, form or style but are looking for diverse work which is not afraid to innovate and startle. This competition is open to international entries.


Information:

Entry fee: £10 per poem | Subsequent entries: £5 per poem
(there is no limit to the number of entries you can submit)

Opening date: 1st May 2017
Closing Date: 30th June 2017

First Prize: £500
Second Prize: £300
Third Prize: £200

The winning poems will be published in future issues of The London Magazine and there will be an award ceremony held in London for the winners.

Everyone that submits to the Poetry Prize 2017 will also be emailed a discount code to use on our website.


Judges:

Born in London in 1960, Frieda Hughes is a poet and painter.  She was the Times Poetry columnist from 2006 – 2008, and has also written a number of children’s books, and numerous articles for magazines and newspapers over the years. Her poetry collections to date include Wooroloo, Stonepicker, Waxworks, Forty-Five, The Book of Mirrors, and Alternative Values. Alternative Values became her first illustrated collection when Frieda used the subject of her poems to inform the accompanying abstract images.

Frieda’s next exhibition is in Chichester Cathedral from 14th June to 17th August, and will include paintings from Alternative Values, and a recently completed mammoth project, ‘400 DAYS’, an abstract visual diary of 400 consecutive days painted in oils on 400 canvases.  The finished work is approximately 13 feet high and 29 feet long. Frieda’s next poetry collection, Out of the Ashes, will be published in Autumn 2017 by Bloodaxe Books.

 

Patricia McCarthy, winner of The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2013, is the editor of the national/international poetry journal, Agenda.

She is half Irish and half English. A small collection, Survival, was published in the US and A Second Skin came out from Peterloo Poets in 1985. A translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours was published in 2007, translated by both Patricia McCarthy and Christine McNeill.

A substantial collection, Rodin’s Shadow (Clutag Press/Agenda Editions) came out in October 2012, Horses Between Our Legs came out in 2013 (poems inspired by World War I headed by her national poetry competition winner) and Letters to Akhmatova, 2015. Shot Silks is due from Waterloo Press 2017, as well as another collection, Rockabye from Worple Press (September 2017). Her work has appeared in many journals and she has been widely anthologised. In 2012 she was elected a Fellow of the English Association.


Submission:

As of 1st May, you’ll be able to apply via Submittable (see link below).

Please note: the category ‘Poetry Prize 2017’ will not be open to submissions until 1st May.

submit

 

Alternatively, as of 1st May, you can download the Poetry Prize entry form 2017 to fill in and post with your entry. (N.B. There is no need to complete an entry form if entering via Submittable)


Important:

  • Please read our competition rules carefully before entering.
  • Make sure to include your completed entry form with your submission if submitting by any means other than Submittable. This can be downloaded from our website and sent to us by email or post.
  • If you have any questions, please contact Abi at competition@thelondonmagazine.org.

To receive competition updates and all the latest news and offers, sign up for The London Magazine‘s Official Newsletter. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates!

Book and Kitchen: An Evening of Drinks and Poetry

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On 28th February, The London Magazine hosted an evening of drinks and poetry at Book and Kitchen, Notting Hill. There were readings from several of our contributors, including the following:

Stanley Moss, a critically acclaimed American author and poet. Moss founded Sheep Meadow Press, a non-profit press devoted to poetry and on international poets in translation.

Angela Kirby grew up in rural Lancashire, but now lives in London. The author of five books on cooking, gardening and related subjects, her poems are widely published and broadcast. Much of her work has been translated into Romanian. In 1996 and 2001 she was the BBC’s Wildlife Poet of the Year. Shoestring Press published her four collections: Mr. Irresistible, 2005, Dirty Work, 2008, A Scent of Winter, 2013, and The Days After Always, New and Selected Poems, 2015. A fifth collection is under way.

Theophilus Kwek was born in Singapore and has published three collections of poetry, most recently Giving Ground (Ethos Books, 2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets’ Prize in 2016, and has been published in The North, Southword, The Interpreter’s House, Eastlit, and other journals. He works at The Oxford Writers’ House and Asymptote, the journal of world literature.

Phoebe L. Corbett is a poet and writer from West London. Before graduating in Creative & Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth she produced a collection of poetry, Saudade: A Recollection, as her dissertation. A thesis followed on saudade and nostalgia within poetry and Portuguese Fado, and she went on to win the university’s 2016 Creative Writing Award. Her main interests lie in poetry and travel writing, as well as in activism, and she has penned opinion pieces for various online magazines.

Róisín Tierney is an Irish poet who taught for several years in Spain (Valladolid and Grana­da). Her pamphlet, Dream Endings (Rack Press) won the 2012 Michael Marks Pamphlet Award. A more recent pamphlet Five Poems is published by Clutag Press. She featured as one of Ireland’s ‘Rising Poets’ in Poetry Ireland Review #118 in the spring of this year. Her debut collection, The Spanish-Italian Border is published by Arc.

Grey Gowrie, published poet, Former Minister for the Arts and Special Editorial Advisor to The London Magazine.

Thanks to all that attended and celebrated this lovely evening with us!

Poetry and the Public by Paul Gittins

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The prestigious T.S. Eliot Award in January that kicked off the poetry establishment’s crowded calendar of poetry competitions served to highlight the ever widening gap between the poetry featured in the competitions and the poetry reading public.  Any doubt on this matter can be dispelled by figures from The Bookseller.  They show that the small publishers who specialize in publishing  the experimental poetry that is so prevalent in the competitions actually make up a comparatively small part of poetry sales and that it is the traditional titles that drive the market.

The reasons for this estrangement are obvious.  With so many competitions throughout the year – the Aldeburgh First Collection Award, Costa Poetry Award, T.S.Eliot Award, Faber New Poets, Forward Prize, Ted Hughes Award, Dylan Thomas Prize, to name just a few of them – it is no wonder that the pressure mounts on the judges to find yet another ‘breathtaking, bracing, boundary-bending, genre-defying debut’ and not surprising if the entrants reciprocate in kind.  This attitude, one might say requirement, was well illustrated last year by the chair of the Forward Poetry Prizes, Malika Booker, who declared that the shortlist displayed ‘a breaking down of barriers within and around poetry.’  Her comment was echoed by Ruth Padel, chair of the recent T.S.Eliot Award, who stated that the small publishers are ‘radically altering the landscape of contemporary poetry.’

It is not too imaginative at this point to make a sporting analogy.  If the goal-posts in football are being constantly moved or removed altogether, it begs the question as to how the game is to be judged or even refereed and would certainly encourage indiscriminate commentary.  The same is  true of poetry.  As a result of the open playing field for composition encouraged by the judges, a whole profession of journalistic interpreters is deemed necessary to explain the meaning of much of the poetry in the written poetry competitions.  But having to rely on someone to explain the meaning of a piece does not necessarily make anything clearer.  An article in The Guardian last year on the poem ‘Too Solid Flesh’ in Vahni Capildeo’s winning entry (‘Measures of Expatriation’) in the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection, explained the appearance of the skeletal ghost of an Arawak woman as ‘contextualized within an interrogation of corporeality.’ Sometimes, the compositions selected for prizes would challenge even the ingenuity of an interpreter, as in the opening lines of Tiphanie Yanique’s  ‘Last Yanique Nation’ from her Collection ‘Wife’  (winner of the same Forward Prize for Best First Collection): ‘The pit in my womb where the doctor lover/ says is my self, is not a nation/ My soul is called Che, as in Guevara,/ but my body has not died for the nation/ I told my enemy I loved her, as/ I love my nation Guevara,/ was no coward which means he tended towards/ fool I want to be a fool in love and thus/ a fool for this nation ….’

This interpretive requirement for so much of the baffling poetry put forward for competitions is also actively encouraged by many of the poets themselves.  Amongst the poets on the T.S. Eliot Award shortlist, Ian Duhig makes no bones about the abstruseness of much of his poetry, asserting in an interview on Writers Aloud in March 2016 that if anyone is having a problem understanding his work or references, they should make the effort to look them up for themselves. Rachel Boast adds her own version of complexity when seeing poetry ‘as a way of training ourselves to be able to access what we don’t know we know, through language.’ While Bernard O’Donaghue is even more dogmatic, stating that ‘Poetry has to be the product of thought and stand up to cross-examination.’ But should poetry be like a crossword puzzle, requiring the services of lexicon and interpreter?

It is perhaps not surprising that many people, especially younger people, are more attracted to poetry festivals, where rap and performance poetry are seen as more entertaining.  But entertainment and popularity are not necessarily yardsticks of quality in spite of Simon Armitage’s recommendation of the performance artist, Kate Tempest, in his first lecture as the Oxford Professor of Poetry in October 2015.  In a bizarre comment to justify his opinion, he cited one of her poems ‘On Clapham Pond at Dawn’ in which the word ‘you’ is used as a line ending nine times in just twenty-four lines, together with similar sounding line endings such as ‘new, true, through, view, do.’  Anticipating the obvious criticism that this does not exactly give credit to her rhyming skills, he went on to say that ‘the visual printed manifestations of the work fail to convey that winning combination of verbal dynamism and disarming innocence.’  But poetry should surely stand up in its own right on the page.

In contrast to the high profile nature of the written poetry competitions and the razzmatazz of the performance poetry productions, a less publicized but arguably more influential project in the long term is now in its fifth year.  The Poetry Archive’s  Poetry by Heart contests  involved nearly four hundred secondary schools last year across the country in a series of poetry recitation contests. No interpreters are needed here as it is the  pupils who choose from a prescribed list of one poem pre-1914 and one post-1914.  There are no pecuniary awards.  Prizes are trophies and book presents.  So successful has the project been that it is now branching out to include primary schools.  In this way, pupils are taught a far more balanced approach to the appreciation of poetry that encourages a love and respect for five hundred years of literary tradition as well as an interest in contemporary poetry.  One has to contrast this approach with the frenzied encouragement of experimentation that is so characteristic of the written poetry competitions and which only serves to alienate the reading public.  No doubt, the organizers have their sponsors in mind (especially the Arts Council England) and want to appear innovative and exciting.  But at what cost to poetry?


By Paul Gittins

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

Bright Celestial Objects by Rebecca Goss

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After Alison Watt, ‘Venus’ (2015)

Their backs against the grass,
she felt a pull, as if the leaves

on the trees were lodestones,
the hairs on her skin rising at once.

They reached for each other’s fingers,
succumbing to the lift

that took them above crowns of oak,
all the way to the cumulus.

How lost they got, inside the billow,
reaching through white –

their arms slippery with moisture.
Then out, soaring

towards bright celestial objects,
their skins coupling, lucent,

as she looked at him to say
I told you it would be like this.

By Rebecca Goss

Madness by Patrick Cash

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There’s a stream by the Avon ward
Where I stand to watch the water flow
And unwind the whirlpools of my mind
When it’s dark I let its rhythms
Strum me to an unquiet peace
Away from the shouts and rips
The banging on locked doors
By day I watch the water flow
I think about your beauty’s mind
Because to me you seem fine
Though they tell me you’re mad

But I forgot to stop by the stream yesterday
4pm, a sunlit Tuesday in Edgware
I didn’t catch the jewels of light in its water
For I was replaying the tribunal
Where you requested your freedom
And they spoke to you words
Medical words you hadn’t really heard

‘Why are you here?’ they asked
‘Because I’m mentally unwell,’ you said
‘So you admit you have problems?’ they said
‘Of course I do,’ you said. ‘You told me I do.’

And the doctor said violence
As the waters filled the room
And the key worker said danger
As the waters began to bubble
And the solicitor said nothing
As the waves soared and raged

Then they said: speak

And you spoke and you slurred and were slow
You’d once darted like a flame’s shadowplay
But the pills had robbed you of your light
I heard the water in the room stop listening
I saw your boat pitch in a lashing storm
Your words half-formed you stopped

So I said: can I speak?

I said ‘I’ve known this boy, this man
His gentleness and belief in love
His big shovel hands
And his fingers’ twitch
I’ve stood opposite him in boxing gloves
And never felt danger
I would trust him to save me
From drowning’

And they thanked me
And thanked you
And told you you may not leave
You nodded and thanked them
Though in the morning
You thought you’d be walking
Out of that ward

They told me I had to leave
For it was not visiting hours

You said ‘don’t forget me’
I said ‘I won’t forget you’
And you asked for my book
I knew you would not read it
But I gave it to you freely
And you gave me two CD cases
Without discs inside them

I forgot to look at the stream that night
I forgot to listen to its rhythms
I took a train back into the city
I walked across London Bridge
And thought how I was free to do so
I gazed at the Tower’s reflection
Sparkle on the wide waters’ darkness
I thought ‘what is madness?’

Madness is clutching two CD cases
With no discs inside
And not wanting to let them go

By Patrick Cash


 

In The Split Screen of the Heart

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What do you say when both here and two hundred
———and twenty latitude degrees away

no one lines up on the bottom of the sea
———to rescue coral reefs, the coasts full of

people driving, windows up and music on.
———Once you ran to the waves the moment you

arrived, squealing with pure delight below the
———sharp cries of excited gulls, the tide out.

The past now overlays or underlies,
———never equal in the split screen of the

heart. For who were you then, and who was I, off
———in separate universes, still on

our distinct planets but somehow revolving
———around one another like electrons

circling a greater force. I stroke your hand, you
———touch my face, a billion galaxies of

invisible dust in between, common as
———dander. Waves lap, the sound of construction

somewhere always in the background, average
———as a taxi’s horn or a barking dog.


Sandra Kolankiewicz has had over 300 poems and stories appear in reviews and anthologies, most recently in New World Writing, BlazeVox, Prairie Schooner, Bellingham Review, Gargoyle, Prairie Schooner, Fifth Wednesday, ArGiLo, Per Contra, and Pif. Turning Inside Out won the 2008 fall Black River contest at Black Lawrence Press. Finishing Line Press published The Way You Will Go and will soon release Lost in Transition. When I Fell, a novel about aging and time travel, with 76 colour illustrations by Kathy Skerritt, is available from Web-e-Books and will be coming out in book format.

A Different Kind of Prison & Philomel

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They were always there at the window
when I awoke, nostrils squashed

against the pane, gnarled fingers
tap-tap-tapping: macaques, threatening
entry. As if they were the gaolers,

myself in the cage of a foreign zoo.
‘Never look a rhesus monkey in the eye’,

it was said. But I caught a stare
that the Brahmin priests and sadhus
warned was a dervish’s glare.

Though a mosquito net hung over me
like an outworn bridal veil, holed

by paddies, threats, rages, it offered
no protection from the wizened faces
of these temple primates that overheard

my thoughts and climbed my nightmares.
Swinging from my fears, they fisted

the only nuggets of light I managed to save
in solitary confinement even by
my husband’s side. From some cave

in Pashupatinath I presumed they had come..
There, on stone linga, they masturbated

at teenage girls gliding by, wrapped
in smoke from burning pyres on ghats –
while the Bagmati’s brown waters lapped

against worn feet of washer-women
wringing out kurtas and saris, bodies curved

towards the Ganges for a new incarnation.
They were always there at the window,
older than time, as if I was their creation..

 

Philomel

 

Philomel –

was it so terrible what you underwent
that you were unable to recover your song
stolen by the male that did you wrong?

No sharp, flat or natural, no decibel
to borrow from the winds in the woods
of your perches, no note to swell –

Philomel.

Hushed forever, how can you bear
to listen to arias from the virtuosos
of your kind, piercing, pure, and know –

from the thicket where your shyness hides –
your talent far surpasses what you hear,
yet stays day and night unannounced inside?

Philomel –

forget how you were raped and torn
in yellowed deserts, spiked downland dells;
how, never out of tune, you were accused

of croaking in a choir, the conductor’s baton
against your throat as blackcaps and warblers
whistled your name. Even when gone –

Philomel –

in your plain brown body, a laide-belle,
may you find cellos, tongues, feathered flutes
for the undertones winged on your spell.


Patricia McCarthy is half Irish and half English. Her collection, Rodin’s Shadow, was published in 2012 by Clutag Press/Agenda Editions. Horses Between Our Legs, headed by her poem which won the National Poetry Competition, 2013, was published in 2014; Letters to Akhmatova came out last year. Rockabye, a new collection will be published by Worple Press this year (2017) and Shot Silks by Waterloo Press. She is the editor of Agenda poetry journal www.agendapoetry.co.uk

Puddocks by John Greening

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Photo by David Rickard

for SECH

 

Clare would have called
these five red kites

circling above dead
or stag’s-headed oaks

like iambs broken from
a line of English pastoral

by a name that signifies
a deed without a name

by a call that only says
and you too soon

as they spin and entertain
us, then our chances

 


John Greening received a Cholmondeley award in 2008. His latest collections are Heath (Nine Arches, with Penelope Shuttle), To the War Poets (Carcanet), Knot (Worple) and Poetry Masterclass (Greenwich Exchange). His edition of Edmund Blunden appeared from OUP in Spring 2015 along with the classical music anthology Accompanied Voices.

Hammer and Tongue Poetry Slam Finals at the Royal Albert Hall

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Photo by Nikki Marrone

I had watched countless videos on YouTube, attended other poetry slams and kept abreast of the ‘scene’ on social media, but nothing quite prepared me for the electricity in the air when I arrived at the Royal Festival Hall for the hotly-anticipated National Finals of Hammer and Tongue’s annual spoken word circuit. The tension, after all, had built over several months as teams selected in the gruelling regional stages made their way to the national qualifiers, and nothing – neither the drizzly January afternoon, nor an imminent city-wide Tube strike – would dampen anyone’s spirits.

Some poets spoke to the politics of the moment, finding broad currency for their observations on divisive issues. In the quarter-finals, A.P. Staunton’s ballad about an unravelling relationship astutely plotted the fault-lines between young and old on the far left – and took him through to the semi-finals where he redeployed his winning poem from the Brighton slam, a rip-roaring confessional about urinating in a posh house-owner’s sink. Taking the opposite tack, David Macpherson’s witty quarter-final performance satirized himself as the quintessential ‘Facebook-friendable’ millennial, while Alison Absolute tempered her long lament against political folly with memorable barbs about how, for instance, pro-life campaigners believed that ‘a woman’s right to choose is just / her right to get it wrong’.

Others capitalized on the sheer force of personality. Cambridge’s unashamedly geeky champion, Robin Lamboll, breezed through the quarter-finals with his poem (previously performed at TEDx Cambridge) on the causes and consequences of irritable bowel syndrome, ruminating on its many similarities with the creative process. Not to be outdone, Oxford’s runner-up, Dave Allen, offered a mirthful take on the metaphysics of missed opportunities behind his own existence, and also swept through to the semi-finals. Neither drew quite the same reaction from the audience at this stage, however, as Anna Beecher’s inventive tale of grief-stricken honey bees after their beloved beekeeper’s death – ‘though nobody likes telling the little ones’, she said wryly, ‘the little ones always know’.

But the poems which resonated most with the crowd, and also found most success with the judges, were those which channelled their poets’ deepest fears and hurts: proving again the principle that there is something universal in pain, and our attempts to pull a brave face at it. Sez Thomasin’s heartbreaking poem about losing her child – which compared the struggle of reconciling herself with the loss to finding meaning in ‘stars that aren’t even close to each other’ – came close second in the semi-final to Theresa Lola’s poem about her grandfather’s dementia (‘this pompous disease’), a piece she previously described as ‘the most honest poem’ she had ever written. This correspondent found himself most grateful for the dimmed lighting in the Elgar Room as Sven Stears narrated, with searing honesty, the grief and rage of caring for a gravely ill loved one: for both of them, ‘every day was Everest’.

Photo by Rose Condo
Photo by Rose Condo

Founder and President Steve Larkin took the stage himself just before the grand finals to look back at Hammer and Tongue’s thirteen years on the scene, celebrating how the network had established itself at the heart of a thriving circuit, and birthed communities in Brighton, Bristol and Cambridge, among other cities. His own poems, to everyone’s delight, championed the place of ‘living, breathing’ poets in the limelight over dead ones, and raised a proverbial fist against a poetry establishment where ‘they’re scared of an artist around here / who can speak his mind back without fear’. These were the perfect introduction to the 2016 champion, Solomon O.B., whose powerful guest performance did just that: fearlessly retracing the fresh wounds of words used carelessly – how a racial slur, even when used by a well-intentioned foster-parent, was still ‘less than’, still meant ‘three-fifths of a man’.

The final slam, a fitting conclusion to the afternoon of diversity and daring, was pure gold. All five poets – gamely ushered in by Cambridge’s Fay Roberts – were clearly masters of their art, and represented such different styles and approaches to the form that each, as Solomon pointed out, would have been a worthy winner. Macpherson urged the audience to join him in ‘standing bare, clothed only in dreams’, Allen thrilled the crowd with a titillating take on a chance encounter at a slam evening, Lamboll performed an encyclopaedic pastiche-poem on science and religion, while Tom Denbigh delivered a humane anthem on why ‘Gay People are Apparently a lot like X-Men’. But the star of the afternoon was Lola, who returned to the stage to weave politics, personality, and pain into a devastating poem about sexual assault. By the time she arrived at her penultimate line – ‘no-one can see a body in a dark room unless they hear a voice’ – there could not have been a dry eye in the room.

There are few better validations today of Coleridge’s quip about poetry’s definition as ‘best words in their best order’ than the ever-expanding horizons of Britain’s spoken word artists. Besides reviving a genre in the public eye, they have brought together – and continue to celebrate – an unprecedented range of different ways of living, and are steadily, courageously, re-shaping our common language in the process. It’s time we accorded the stage the same careful attention and support that we offer the page. There’s too much we stand to lose if we don’t.

By Theophilus Kwek


Hammer and Tongue National Slam Final 2017
Royal Albert Hall
7 – 8 January 2017

Chan by Hannah Lowe

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Hannah Lowe’s latest collection of poetry Chan (Bloodaxe, 2016) revisits the characters and stories from her first collection, Chick (Bloodaxe, 2013), which won the Michaels Murphy memorial Award for Best First Collection, and was short-listed for the Forward, Aldeburgh and Seamus Heaney Best First Collection Prizes. Named one of the 20 Next Generation poets, the bar variably has been set for her second collection. With remarkable ease Chan surpasses all expectations. Dealing directly with the issues of poverty, (im)migration and marginalisation, Lowe braids the experiences of famous jazz musicians, her own family and newly arrived British immigrants of the 1950s throughout this musically accomplished narrative that spans continents and generations.

The collection is divided into three parts. The first, What I Play is Out the Window, pays homage to the lives of  jazz musicians Joe Harriott, Charles Mingus, Shake Keane and Phil Seamen. Lowe opens the book with the personification of her mother, who had once been Joe Harriott’s girlfriend. By introducing the connection between her family and the world of jazz in this way, Lowe achieves a subtle tone of nostalgia while also painting the backdrop against which the life of Joe Harriott, and his cousin, nick-named ‘Chan’, plays:

Those days decades in history
when men like Joe and my father were shadows
on English streets…

Yet, instead of simply imagining the part of her mother or father in events that predate her, Lowe also introduces her own, lived experience in ‘Partita, 1968’, not only exploring the relationship between music and memory, but also excavating the layers of family narrative left behind by each generation—material that features predominantly in her work.

With the help of Alan Robertson’s biography, Fire in His Soul: The Joe Harriott Story, Lowe re-imagines, the conditions of both Harriot’s life:

…Joe, eyes closed, [his] throat wide open,
walking alone, the gold road to heaven.

and his painful death, during which time ‘he couldn’t even stand up straight to play,/…his broken body shuffling down the streets/…those last morphine days’.

However, Lowe doesn’t let the tragedy of Harriott’s early death overwhelm her depiction of his character, or more accurately his music. The accomplished Shakespearean sonnet ‘Alpha Boys’, depicts the birthplace of this musician’s love for music, the Alpha Boy’s Orphanage in Kingston, Jamaica, using language that remains faithful to the music it inspired. Guided by slant-rhyme and embedded consonantal sounds, she writes:

…Horn raised
to below-blow, or cuddled low to make
the brass cry, sweet-sad din that made you good
at something. Lying in the cloistered cells
the Sisters knew their Alpha boy could swing.

However, the real gem in this first section, without doubt, is the final poem  ‘If You Believe: One Pale Eye’, which is written from the perspective, we assume, of Lowe’s father, and recreates the moment he meets the Polish émigré television magician, Chan Canasta,  who inspired his nick name:

Chan pulling his cards from his pocket
and holding each one up to his lighter
until the flame spread and the symbols
and faces cindered, and he flung them out
across the dark still water, like firebirds.

The final image offers a visually arresting segue into the second section, Ormonde. In its original chapbook form, published by Hercules Editions, 2014, Ormonde incorporated visual archival material of the troopship by the same name, built in 1917, that served the UK-Suez-Australia line between the wars. After returning to commercial service in 1947 the ship transported people from Kingston Town and Port of Spain to Liverpool. With stunning lyricism, Lowe recounts its voyage:

Rewind, rewind the Windrush! Raise the anchor
and sail her back, three weeks across the water
let the travellers disembark, return them
to their silent beds at dawn, before the mayhem
of the docks at Kingston Town and Port of Spain—
they’ll wake to see their islands’ sun again.

In these poems Lowe explores her father’s experience as a passenger on the Ormonde, and conjectures about the lives of his fellow travellers. She characterises these individuals according to their declared occupation in the ship’s log. With arresting specificity of detail, the voices of the ‘Boxer’, ‘Dressmaker’, ‘Schoolboy’ and ‘Stowaway’ emerge, painting the historical context in which these poems are set.

Lowe’s talent for capturing drama is highlighted by her monologic poems. The speaker in ‘What I Know’ stands out in this section for the honesty and lyricism with which he or she regards the conditions of his or her life:

…I pass dead horses
in the field, dead mules. Men sag like suits
in the square. Talk of leaving starts like rain,
slow and spare, a rattle in a can. My tears
aren’t for the ship, new places, strange people,
but the loss of my always faces—I mean,
my people, who I know, my places.

Here Lowe employs musical techniques such as repetition and internal rhyme to assuage the reader of the character’s precarious and uncertain future. At the end of each stanza, Lowe mimics the famous words of Theodore Roethke in ‘The Waking’:

I guess I’m learning what I need to know
I learn by going where I have to go.

In this way, the characters come to express the greater themes at work within the collection. However, Lowe is too skilled a writer to allow these unique voices to become simple tools of representation. Rather, her characters perform.

‘Mishra’s Blues’, exemplifies this technique. Echoing the form of a stage play, this poem recalls a game of cards between Chan, and his companion, Mishra. Written in a parabolic tone, Lowe reveals a rare moment when two men from different backgrounds, both living in an alien country, bond over the nostalgia for their homeland:

We are all sad men, with our one-pan meals—
my turmeric-sardines, your scotch-bonnet sardines!
Even the saffron stains on my counter
are a gasp for home. Chan do you ever—
 
                                                                        think to go back?

During their dialogue, Chan, Lowe’s father, identifies the narrative heart  of these characters’ stories: ‘…the big ship [that] sail in all directions/dragging poor folk from one place to another’. This comment leads him to question the effects of (im)migration on his own life: ‘how we end up here man?//me thinking your chai taste/like the sweet tea my own granny made me’.

Another element at play within the collection is Lowe’s experimentation with form. Each poem seems to have its own unique fingerprint: all the ‘ins’ in the poem ‘In’ are left-justified, for example, and the whole width of the page is used in poems such as ‘Ethology’ and ‘Mishra’s Blues’. However, the experimentation that interests me most is Lowe’s treatment of found poetry.

The found poem, ‘My Father’s Notebook’, arguably the strongest poem in this collection, derives from ‘a derogatory term for someone from a mixed-race background’. Since Lowe’s father was of Chinese-Jamaican descent, naturally this part of the book is punctuated by personal reflections on her family history. In particular, the above poem offers the reader insight into Chan’s childhood and upbringing. With searing precision, Lowe recounts the details lifted from her father’s notebook:

He lost all his money three times, burnt down
                                    our shop, the dogs trapped
below the galvanised roof.
                                    He gave me an orange, and we drove off.

In addition, Lowe demonstrates remarkable ingenuity with form in the eight interlocking poems, ‘Borderliner’, ‘Scott Joplin Rag’, ‘Mitchell/Mingus’, ‘Genealogy’, ‘High Yellow’, ‘Honey,’ ‘Brown Eyes Blue’, and ‘Yellow River, Milk River’ which populate the books final section. Comprised of two independent poems, they are designed in such a way that when the lines of these two poems are read together, they complete the sense of the entire poem. Formally, they seem to represent the duality of the lived experience of a ‘Borderliner’, which perhaps directly relates to the multifaceted character of the man her father once was, along with Lowe’s own complicated relationship with the inheritance of his legacy.

Indeed, her story forms a strong undercurrent to this section. As a child, Lowe ‘was never half of anything /just running the asphalt with [her] friends’. However, the issue of race and the condition of intolerance were never far from her consciousness, particularly when she discovered that what her grandfather used to call Chan, ‘ship yit tiam/ eleven o’clock child//…[was] another way/ to say unclean’. Indeed, at a certain point in Lowe’s development she became aware of the fact that ‘some faces have no borders/[and] There were times when these borders had no fixed abode’.

As an artefact of not only a specific historical framework, but also its own contemporary context, Lowe’s work makes an important observation about (im)migration as a long standing—sometimes elected, sometimes compulsory—and culturally enriching exchange. While life at the border is not always easy, Lowe celebrates the importance of cultural diversity in her poems, challenging ‘What Charlie Said’ about ‘different species, different civilisations,…not [being] meant to mate’, by demonstrating that diversity is natural to the development of all societies, and indeed, a beautiful thing. As a woman with a diverse heritage herself, this message occupies a crucial role in the undercurrent of Lowe’s poetry, specifically in the face of the world’s current, culturally protectionist attitudes. Indeed, what is most compelling about Chan is that through the personal Lowe’s work reaches the universal by inviting us ‘to look both ways’.

By Amanda Merritt


Chan

Chan by Hannah Lowe, Bloodaxe Books, 2016