The London Magazine has long been a champion of emerging writers and independent publishers, stretching back to the 1950s and 60s, when young writers like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes found a home in the pages of the then newly re-launched volumes of the magazine.
We want this tradition to continue, and given the renaissance of new independent publishers, we have decided to launch a monthly spotlight feature that promotes the best of innovative contemporary writing across the UK and beyond.
First up is Rough Trade Books, who have recently made waves with a striking series of 12 pamphlets, encapsulating poetry, photography, illustration, and more.
Who are they?
Rough Trade Books is a new venture from the independent record label Rough Trade, which can boast a strong cultural legacy of radicalism back to its roots in Ladbroke Grove in 1976. Much in the same way that the label once gave a platform to bands like The Raincoats (whose founding member Ana da Silva is among the first 12 RTB pamphlets), their new venture seeks to give a home to a number of voices and talents whose shared independent spirit ties together the disparate mediums of the artists.
Within the pages of the first 12 pamphlets can be found poetry, short fiction, photography, illustration, and an experimental novella about the occult. It’s certainly an eclectic mix so far, but despite this, each publication is tied to the next by counter-cultural ethic and DIY spirit of each artist and writer. Another obvious common ground is the sensational design and production values of the pamphlets themselves, which evoke something between literary magazines of the 1960s and 70s, and the 7 inch singles from the great era of post-punk labels (and their accompanying graphic designers) in the 1980s.
In short, much like the best record labels, there is a feeling of identity, of a club that you want to be a part of.
What are they publishing, and why are they different?
From Lorena Lohr’s photography of the forgotten corners of Southwest America, to the societal injustice exposed in the work of the poet Salena Godden, the pamphlets so far from Rough Trade Books give a platform to a number of different voices from across a global counter-culture.
There are nods to Rough Trade’s heritage in the photography of urban desolation from Jon Savage, and also to zine culture in the collected interviews of Jenny Pelly & Priests. Different viewpoints of society abound. The variety of voices and forms, along with the brevity of the pamphlets leaves open a great opportunity to publish a wide range of emerging voices. With the next wave 6 of pamphlets just announced (featuring a range of experimental fiction and photography), this is an imprint with a bright future.
What’s up next?
Just released are the aforementioned six new pamphlets, featuring (among others) short stories from James Endeacott, the photography of Japanese love hotel rooms by Laura Lewis, and new fiction from Thomas Morris, whose 2016 Faber collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing won the 2016 Wales Books of the Year, the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award, and a Somerset Maugham Prize.
Upcoming events involve a trip over to Rough Trade Bristol on the 19th September, with readings from Salena Godden, Olly Todd, Joe Dunthorne and Will Burns. Rough Trade Books will then be back in London on Wednesday 3rd at Rough Trade East for a slightly early event for National Poetry Day, in the amusingly titled Not National Poetry Day. This will feature Salena Godden and Will Burns once more, as well as others including the excellent poet Scarlett Sabet, and music from guitarist Adam Chetwood.
And judging from all this, we are presumably safe in the expectation of much more in the not-too-distant future.
Andy Armitage’s pamphlet is among a number of new releases from the poetry press Half-Moon Books, which is based in Otley, West Yorkshire, where a local group of poets have developed, and where there are a number of regular events and meetings. Half-Moon Books came into existence to support this diverse and motivated group of writers, and judging on Armitage’s pamphlet, more attention needs to be paid to the Otley writing community.
Armitage’s intriguing debut opens with a nostalgic image of first love: a hazy picture of a teenage couple in school uniform, heads tilted towards each other, and their eyes, although obscured by a blurry filter, locked in youthful infatuation. The photo encapsulates all that this accomplished pamphlet tries to illustrate: the atmosphere of adolescence, the inconstancies of time and the emotional pain brought about by loss of control in a relationship. Armitage’s poetry, for a debut writer, shows an admirable and well-developed understanding of poetic verse, but above all a finely-tuned radar to the trials and tribulations of young love. As someone recently out of university, I personally found his lines veracious and resonant.
The poems in Armitage’s debut publication form a sequence, directed towards his first love. They share a unified strand of loss, constantly supported by the retrospective narration throughout, which has undertones of regret, despair and pain. Yet, before these elements come to the forefront of the reader’s attention, Armitage depicts the familiar routines of life at school with nostalgic detail. In the poem ‘Sally’, we are told that ‘the universe was the size of a village’, which draws to mind teenage naivete, in which there is a general ambivalence and ignorance of other communities. The aesthetic qualities evoked by this poem are captured in that opening photograph. The imagery is so vivid; the ‘candyfloss air’, the ‘confusion of coloured lightbulbs’ and the introduction of Sally (?) herself, ‘dark haired with a gypsy tan, in ripped 501s and Docs’, collectively paint a colourful image. Even as he describes the ‘dread and excitement’ of hearing her, his reaction is typically boyish and juvenile: ‘as though I’d left the shop without paying’. Likewise is his attitude in the poem over the page, ‘Among school children’, when the narrator admits: ‘I made myself famous among classrooms with stunts of disobedience.’ The poet is finely aware of school-boy strategy: playing the class clown, hiding under ‘a practised nonchalance’, and ensnaring the object of his love with laughter and ‘public displays’. Skilfully switching between the narrative voice of youth and, due to retrospective narration, the background voice of present adulthood, Armitage creates a layered impression. In the atmosphere he constructs, we almost forget that he is writing retrospectively, so vividly we are immersed in his world, although we are of course reminded of Armitage’s perspective by the title of the book.
As the collection progresses, the adult voice gets louder, and increasingly pervades the narrative. The poem ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ — which was highly commended in the York Literature Festival Poetry Competition 2018 — marks a significant shift in the collection. With the uneasy final lines: ‘Do not let go my hand just yet’, Armitage begins to explore the darker aspects of his relationship, and the growing anxiety surrounding his loss of control. One of the things I find so effective in Armitage’s pamphlet is the depiction of his protagonist’s inner conflicts. We are first shown both his ideal, and, for a while, his reality: the euphoria of his early relationship, the sentimental head-tilts and the success of winning his love’s laughter. Yet this is in conflict with his older retrospection, which is still desperately seeking a return to his unattainable fantasy. While this can at times bring an unsettling air to the writer’s depiction of past romance, it does bring a depth of emotion and mood that goes beyond the nostalgia that characterises the early poems in the collection.
Although the poems retain their unified strand, this conflict precipitates the protagonist’s lack of control over his relationship, as well as the collection’s loss of control over its poems, which seems to amble in various directions, as their titles demonstrate: ‘Midas’, ‘Eurydice’ and ‘Eucharist’. These clearly contrast with the collection’s earlier, simpler titles: ‘Snapshot’, ‘Among school children’ and ‘The snare’. As infatuation and obsession seizes the collection’s protagonist, causing irreparable damage to the relationship, the language of feeling used in the book reaches a peak of poignancy and originality. This is the collection when it is at its most effective: when its emotions are truly let loose.
Above all, in Letters To A First Love From The Future, the theme of time is Armitage’s principal investment. Throughout, we have a merging of past, present and future, but not in a conventionally linear structure. Time is loose. Although the collection acknowledges the immense power of time, the protagonist largely ignores this sad truth. He maintains that ‘even your own face is only half-remembered’, and yet just a page later he claims that ‘your eyes look back at me from the faces of other women’. This is not to say that Armitage is showing inconsistencies however, rather that the speaker of these poems has been fully transported to the time of young love, and the internal confusion of the emotions that surround this are reflected in the narrator’s voice. A strange but captivating journey.
Letters To A First Love From The Future, Andy Armitage, Half-Moon Books, 2018, £6.00 (paperback).
Peter Bland, the New Zealand writer and actor, has written extensively over his long career, and has been lauded with many accolades, among them the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2011. He wrote two poems for The London Magazine in 1978, here transcribed in full from our archive for the first time.
First published in the February 1978 edition of The London Magazine (Vol. 17, No. 8)
I’m tired of living in old houses with their sense of left-over lives. I’m allergic to their dust. The stuff suffocates me, gets in my eyes, drifts through the open pores of my skin. ‘It’s been well lived in,’ the man said. At that we should have turned away. Instead we’re choking… on what?… life-droppings?…bits of what must have happened here a thousand times before? We cough up our own dust with this older muck. It bloats the vacuum bag and brings us wheezing down to our married knees. All this from simple day to day living ground down finer than air. Time to be moving on. I want what’s left of our lives to have a planetary feel; an earth- sway where dust won’t settle; an undertow to every passing sneeze.
CORRIDORS OF POWER
You stumble on them looking for the gents in Stately Homes or old hotels and it’s always the same tired faces that look up, mildly surprised to see you again. Only the decor changes – an Edwardian railway carriage, a Ruritanian lodge, or a long Ops Room from the last war still smelling of cigars and TNT. It’s best to get out quick before the gathering crowds of plainclothes men identify themselves. (Later, at home, the phone will ring. Refuse all calls.) What’s worrying is when, after many years, your own rooms begin to look like these.
Ben Aleshire makes his living as a travelling poet, writing poems on his typewriter for whatever his readers can spare as a donation, a venture which has seen him travel all over Europe and America, and with his most recent tour taking in a performance at London’s legendary venue The Troubadour, and a stay at Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris. When he is not on tour, he does the same in the city of New Orleans, where he lives between increasingly frequent bouts of nomadism.
His work has been featured in publications such as The Boston Review, El Mundo (Spain) and The Times (UK), who recently broke with 233 years of history by publishing one of his poems as a lead article. He is Assistant Editor for the Green Mountains Review, is a co-founder of the letterpress publishing collective Honeybee Press, and we were very excited to get to speak to him for The London Magazine.
A question most writers are asked is “What led you to writing?”, and while I am also interested in hearing about that – I have a sneaking suspicion that you have something of a multi-discipline background – I must ask how you found your form as a travelling troubadour poet? (note: perhaps here you could describe the process a little for a reader who knows nothing about you
I sit in the street with a small folding table and chair and a sign that says POET FOR HIRE—then I smoke a cigarette and wait for some stranger to approach me with a poetic desire they need fulfilled. Maybe their girlfriend broke up with them, and they want a poem that will be an apologia to make them reconsider. Maybe they were raped last night, and want me to tell them why. Maybe it’s their friend’s birthday, and her favourite word is petrichor, the smell of the earth after it rains. Whatever it is, I write a poem about that subject, and then they come back in 10 minutes or so, and read it, and pay me whatever they think it’s worth. In that sense, it’s a quasi-Marxist system—rich bankers have given me hundred pound notes, and homeless people give me nothing but good karma, which I desperately need—it all works out in the end.
How did I start doing this? My story is that I’ve been writing poetry on a typewriter since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t till about 7 years ago, when I met Robert McKay, that I started taking it into the street to write poems for strangers and make my living that way. Robert is my miglior fabbro, the better craftsman—the original being Arnaut Daniel, the rakish troubadour who Dante immortalizes in the Divine Comedy, which is where T.S. Eliot gets his dedication for Pound, etc. A purer heart than I, Robert wasn’t trying to make money from it—he saw it as just another linguistic experiment, like Burrough’s cut-ups or Dadaist games, etc. Maybe because I had already been making part of my living from busking as a musician, I put 2 and 2 together very quickly and got a booth at the Farmers’ Market in Burlington, Vermont, where I was based at the time. So there’d be stalls of vegetables, cheese, flowers, and then poetry. People loved it—the newspaper did a feature on me, I published a book of the poems, Currency, in conjunction with an art residency, quit my weird night-watchman job, re-potted myself to New Orleans, and started touring.
Where did Robert get the idea? Probably from someone in the Bay Area scene like Zach Houston, or someone in New Orleans, which were the epicenters at the time. There was a guy in the 80’s in NYC who published a novel about working this way, Dan Hurley—but a literary scholar in New Orleans tells me she saw people doing it down here even before that. Ultimately I’m not sure if there’s a way to trace it back to—especially since putting a typewriter in the street has been a profession ever since typewriters were invented. I’ve seen people in Guatemala who are still doing it, typing up official documents and letters.
I have come across quite a few ‘Poet for Hire’ style writers on the street with typewriters in various cities across Europe, but a lot of them sadly aren’t very good. How do you keep up your inspiration and discipline? And do you ever feel a rivalry with other writers who try to do a similar thing?
Yes, I agree—the charlatans are multiplying like flies, probably due to the hyper-fast mimesis of the internet, particularly Instagram. There are a few noble souls out there writing excellent poems (Tania Panés and Gennarose Nethercott are my favorites) but most are trafficking a cringingly hideous stew of cliché and gibberish. In New Orleans there are so many cheap xeroxes churning out treacly pet poetry for tourists that it’s become difficult to find a place to literally sit down, and some of them are real pricks—I actually had to smash someone’s typewriter once.
It’s gotten so bad in New Orleans that by now, I’m already moving on—my novel is what I’m focusing on. The phenomenon of all these douchenozzles clogging the streets with their doggerel is actually fascinating as far as the research I’m doing on the troubadours is concerned—because the original troubadours faced a similar problem. Guiraut Riquier, the so-called “Last Troubadour”, wrote these fantastic letters to courts, lamenting their inability to distinguish any longer between troubadours (poets fiercely dedicated to their craft) and jongleurs (jugglers, literally—but a catch-all term for entertainers, who watered down the tradition and ultimately destroyed it).
Most contemporary jongleurs just want beer-money, but on the other end of the spectrum, there are equally ill-intentioned people with grander vision, trying to commercialize typewriter-poetry, mostly for wealthy weddings or corporate events. I do take private gigs now and then, but ultimately, I think it’s a slippery slope that changes the fundamental structure of the art-form, from something that’s radically egalitarian, to something that’s a privilege of the very rich. J’accuse! Je refuse. Simultaneously, the commercial business thing is about transforming one’s poet-self to conform to a standard bourgeoise fantasy—i.e. if you do twelve corporate gigs a month, you can afford a nicer apartment in a nicer part of a town, a nicer car in order to drive to more gigs, etc—and suddenly the idea of writing poems for strangers mystically in the street becomes a threat to your living situation, you know? I’d rather be going bald from constant financial panic, but be writing the poems I want to write, which is pretty much where I’m at right now.
You travel all across the world with your work, often staying with people you barely know. What are some of the memorable and strangest moments from the last few years?
Living at Shakespeare and Company in Paris fits both strange and memorable—and to that I would add, magical—which puts me in danger of being considered corny, but hear me out. I think there’s actual magic ingrained in the 500-year-old bones of the building, in the shards of the tombstones stolen from the Pere Lachaise cemetery which the floors are paved with. So much of my life in the past couple years stems from the summer of 2016, when I stayed at the bookstore for several months as a Tumbleweed—that is, as one of the transient writers who roost among the stacks of books in exchange for working a few hours a day, and slaking wine and reading books at the same table where Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch. Writing poems on a typewriter in front of the shop everyday rejuvenated my poetry practice, because so many of the passersby there are such fascinating pilgrims, of a sort, paying homage to the literary history of the building, which spans from the Lost Generation through the Beats to today’s living history of visiting writers like Zadie Smith. Fascinating pilgrims usually come bearing fascinating poetic desires, which is key to my emotional homeostasis—writing the same anniversary poems for the same bourgeois tourists in every city I come to makes me want to bash my brains in.
Also, the people I met in Paris have had an inordinate effect on my life—I met Terry Craven there, a former bookseller who started a new bookshop in Madrid, Desperate Literature, where I stayed the following year—that’s where I met a journalist who featured me in El Mundo, and later on Spanish television as well. When the Prostíbulo Poético (PoetryBrothel) of Barcelona was in town and one of their poets fell ill before the show, naturally it was Desperate Literature who they called looking for a replacement poet—that’s why I was stripped down and covered in silks and amulets and a lace choker and became El Trovador, (the Troubadour), my stage nom-de-guerre—I’m already making plans to go back to Barcelona to perform with them again—who knows?
It just goes on and on. The poem I wrote for the owner, Sylvia Whitman, was recently published in the Iowa Review, one of the more prestigious American literary magazines, which is opening doors for me, especially as someone without an academic background (I still don’t have a degree, and no one in my family does either). The poem I wrote for one of the booksellers there, Rose, is the one the Times chose to break with 233 years of history and publish as a lead article for the first time. Which, I assume, is partly why I’m being asked for this very interview, and also the reason why I was invited to come back to the U.K. next summer to perform at a festival in Wales. And half the reason the Times journalist contacted me in the first place is because she, too, lived as a Tumbleweed in that literal monastery of books. I met Scarlett Sabet there, who I read with at the Troubadour itself, the legendary venue in Earl’s Court, where I’m hoping to return next summer as a poet-in-residence—the ripples just keep moving outwards, and that’s what I mean when I say the place is magic.
And what about the more difficult moments? I imagine it isn’t always glamorous.
Difficult moments—my recent U.K. tour was certainly the most difficult so far, mostly for financial reasons that are no one’s fault but my own. I had bought a ’93 Capri convertible in Slidell for $1600 and a case of beer (a case of beer being a standard currency in Louisiana), to tour up the East coast of the U.S. in, while filming a documentary with a mysterious Chilean filmmaker named Jordi Goya, another Shakespeare & Co connection (don’t google him, by the way, he’s an internet ghost). By the time we got to New York the thing was smoking, and I had to spend all the money I had to repair it. I make money in the street as I go along, of course, but usually I have more than a single-digit bank account while I do it. By the time I got to Manchester, I was flat broke. I had some contacts there but none of them could find me a place to stay, and I almost ended up sleeping in the street. I was working in Piccadilly Gardens among all the zombie Spice addicts and every day I’d make about 20 quid, just enough to eat a 6” Sub of the Day at Subway, and a bed in an unsavoury but very cheap hostel nearby.
The life I lead is romantic, for sure—but there’s always this other side to the coin. Mainly the constant fear of the fear of being asked to leave where you’re staying. Hitch-hiking through the Lake District in a neon-pink woman’s blazer is romantic, but there was also the time I got dropped off outside Wigton where there was nowhere for anyone to pull over, so I had to walk for miles carrying my table and chair and backpack of filthy clothes and typewriter, my books getting heavier and heavier, a literal box of my own vanity, as cars scream by, their drivers hurling curses at me.
Do you spend much time writing when not on the street with your typewriter? If so, how does the writing differ? Are you working on any non-poetic writings for example?
Yes—I’m 70,000 words into an autobiographical novel, ‘Poet for Hire: Kismet of a 21st Century Troubadour’. That’s my main project, especially now that I’m home from tour. Writing prose is so difficult—such different muscles—and so much more demanding than poetry. A novel is physically enormous, but mostly what I mean is that poets aren’t burdened (sadly, I so often think!) by the obligation to make any sense. At all. Look at Ashbery! The most universally-lauded poet ever, and none of it makes one goddamn lick of sense.
I’ve also written plays occasionally, although I haven’t had one produced since I won a playwriting contest years ago, and haven’t really tried—I think it’s one of those things where the theatre world is so small, the only way I can get something produced is if I happen to meet the right people at the right time, or if the other aspects of my career go well enough that they start attracting interest (bites bottom lip, swirls whiskey provocatively).
When not on tour, you normally live and work in New Orleans. Can you tell me about how you first came to New Orleans, and what inspires you about the city?
I first came to New Orleans in 2007 for a gig at the Dragon’s Den, while touring with my old band. It took me till Twelfth Night, 2013, to come back—I was living in the dressing room of a puppet theater, and had to push my mattress up against the wall whenever they had shows. My only plan was to write, but then all these bizarre things started happening to me—I was suddenly asked to write the score for a show at the Marigny Opera House, a venue created in an old cathedral that still had vines growing on the inside—a neo-Beatnik guy hired me to digitally archive a bunch of never-before-seen poems and letters by Kerouac, Ginsberg, DiPrima, Corso—he had found a treasure trove of submissions to an early 1950’s magazine in New Orleans that went bust before all their submitters got famous. And I fell in love a few times, joined a hallucinatory marching band, bartended at a high-volume club—the city just sucked me right in. I didn’t have any plans to stay, but did—I went back north for a book tour that summer, bought a ’83 jalopy that ran off fry-grease just like my band’s bus, stuffed my few possessions inside, and drove back down.
There’s a lot more I could say, but it’s all in the book I’m working on—
Can you tell me about the Honeybee Press?
Honeybee Press is a traditional book arts cooperative based in Burlington, VT—that is, it’s a group of poets who got together to use letterpress, block printing, papermaking and hand-binding, both to keep those traditional methods alive and also to make small press publishing financially viable. By that I mean, if you do all the printing yourself, while drinking beer and listening to Bonnie Raitt records in a moldy art studio, then you can price the books low enough so that people will actually buy them. We also hosted some raucous readings and ran a magazine, The Salon. A few of our titles got excellent reviews, and their authors have gone on to do some really fascinating stuff—Gennarose Nethercott, another typewriter poet from Vermont, recently won the National Poetry Series, one of the bigger prizes in the U.S.—Estefania Puerta went to Yale for graduate school and is making some fascinating visual art as well as writing—Julia Shipley won a book prize, and I think Nicholas Spengler’s non-fiction book on Melville will be published soon. Robert McKay is at work on a Seattle-noir novel when he’s not fighting Capitalism.
These days the press is in a bit of a holding pattern—our Vandercook (that’s the giant machine the covers are printed on) had to be relocated, and I spend less time in VT than I’d like to. I still dream of expanding the press to New Orleans, and establishing a north-south poetic trade-route, but it will require slightly more resources and time than I have at the moment.
Finally, who or what is inspiring you at the moment?
The Futilitarians, by Anne Gisleson—it’s a non-fiction book about the Existential Crisis Reading Group, a hard-drinking batch of New Orleanians who use readings of philosophy as a method of processing grief. Also, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee—which is so exquisite that I never want it to end, and it’s also a bit of textbook for the book I’m trying to write. Also: Break.up, by Joanna Walsh is excellent, an experimental novel about love and travel. There’s a group of poets in America I find very inspiring as well—Danez Smith, sam sax, Franny Choi, Hieu Minh Nguyen—also Major Jackson, Solmaz Sharif, and Airea Matthews, among so many others.
These days I’m also inspired by the broadening of poetry in general—visual poetry is becoming more accepted these days, and I recently got the opportunity to record an audio-chapbook, with sound-collage by a musician/engineer named Kamikaze Funtime. This year I’m hoping to make a video-poem or two, if all goes well.
‘We are no longer quite here and not yet there at all’, writes Anna Freud in 1938. Nazi troops have arrived in her home town of Vienna, and she is soon to leave the city, along with her father, Sigmund Freud. Despite her father’s ill health, Anna will flee to London with her family, where they will live in exile during the war: ‘no longer quite here’, their home has become estranged under occupation, ‘and not yet there at all’, since their escape remains uncertain.
For New Zealand poet Alice Miller, living in Vienna eighty years on, Anna’s words echo throughout the city to form the epigraph to her second collection. Published by Pavilion Poetry, Nowhere Nearer begins in ‘Freud’s town’ and moves through a series of cities, often returning to Vienna, as it pulls between feelings of displacement and belonging, at things that are ‘no longer quite here and not yet there at all.’
Haunted by apparitions of the past, Miller has written a curious and searching book that elegantly balances themes of love, loss and remembrance. This slim volume of poetry is incredibly ambitious in scope, claiming to tackle the circularity of thought, the company of the dead and ‘the futures we never let happen.’ In her debut The Limits,Miller took to exploring the edges of the natural world. Her new book attempts to reach beyond those limits.
Prior to winning the Katherine Mansfield prize for fiction in 2009, Miller received the Louis Johnson Writer’s Bursary for her poetry manuscript Farflungness, prone to. Often prone to farflungness herself, Miller’s poetry travels across borders and between countries. In Nowhere Nearer she takes us to ‘an art academy in America,’ along the canals of Amsterdam, before finally settling in Berlin. She has even spent time living in Antarctica – a place so vast and indescribable, she told Radio New Zealand, that the ‘constant silence [of it] . . . becomes like a sound.’
As with many of the locations in the collection – train stations, observatories, graveyards – Miller’s poems are in-between places that regularly look elsewhere, to distant times and locales, for those ‘likewise or elsewise universes’ that uncannily reflect our own. ‘Like Anna’s father, Sigmund, it is Miller’s who ‘in 1947 . . . is always traveling’ to escape ‘with his father from their bombed-out London / life to a pinprick on the map called / Norfolk Island.’ Both families sought refuge abroad, before eventually calling another nation home.
Perhaps, as one poem worries, ‘false similes’ like these are merely a way of ‘fooling foreignness into feeling familiar.’ (As Miller remembers it, Norfolk Island is always a point of departure, ‘always the year I leave.’). And yet, Nowhere Nearer is a triumph in grappling with foreign quantities. Her poems are ‘simile soft’ and ‘anachronistic’ – they look beyond borders, striving to articulate those undiscovered countries barely visible to the eye. What is ‘home’ for those who have left it behind? Where do we go once ‘the gradual unravel of a brain’ has run its course?
There are no straightforward answers to these questions. To either, we might say, as Miller does of the previous century, that our understanding comes ‘nowhere near.’ It is difficult, for example, to comprehend what happens to us after death. More difficult still is the task of writing about such possibilities. We often think of death as a farflung place, similar to Miller’s Antarctica – a kind of ‘nowhere’ or no man’s land – best defined by what it lacks. For many, its geography consists of ‘constant silence’ and may be heard ‘like a sound’ by those who have lived close by.
If nowhere is a place we can get closer to (and the blurb suggests it is), we might imagine something along these lines. However, the landscape Miller presents us with is altogether more urbane when compared to the silent wasteland of Antarctica. With its talk of unreal cities, winters and fogged up windowpanes, Nowhere Nearer instead recalls the half-deserted streets of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Moreover, the collection feels bare and tensed at times, almost post-war in temperament.
Off the Ringstrasse, in Leopoldstadt by the station, or down in the crypt of Diocletian’s Palace, Miller creates a memory theatre of locations, reminding us that ‘violence / can be gentle’ and that hope lies in uncertainty. A narrative slowly reveals itself with each poem, at once defiant and wryly candid about our future. There are poems on ‘How to Remember’ and ‘How to Forget’ – they ask, ‘Are you there,’ like the man in ‘Observatory’ who speaks ‘into his phone’ and receives no answer. In the silence that follows, you can almost hear the dial tone: ‘A magnificent storm is coming.’
Miller is sensitive enough to leave room for silence in her poetry. She offers us a ‘language of gaps’ and begins her collection by telling us that ‘what I am failing to say’ may be the thing that matters most. In ‘Boy’ children glue feathers to their arms, not long after hearing of the death of Icarus, hoping that one day they too might test their wings. In ‘Out of this World’ a woman kicks a nearby fence, then attempts ‘to catch a train out of the world’ by jumping onto the tracks. The poem ends with the narrator beginning to do the same.
What Miller fails to say is often deafening. Her troubling euphemism ‘to catch a train out of the world’ brazenly swaps suicide for the stars, though neither poem goes so far as to articulate the tragedies they tease. As each poem stumbles into the next, the reader is left to grapple with the last: ‘Observatory’ follows ‘Out of this World’ (to continue the interstellar metaphor), which also directs our gaze heavenwards. The silence that follows the man’s question (‘Are you there’) coyly prompts us to wonder who ‘you’ might be, and whether ‘heavenwards’ is an appropriate term. By this point, ‘Clouds pull in more clouds’ and whatever lies beyond them is obscured.
Writing about unknown quantities, Miller’s poetry can be evasive. Euphemism, for example, is itself a failure to say something, an escape into metaphor – and there are none so many as those about death, whether it’s pushing up daisies or meeting our makers. Where a neat metaphysical poem such as ‘The Lever’ successfully pulls off some tricky twists and turns, rather like a modern-day John Donne, ‘Europe’ gropes for a secure handle on the subject: ‘Today,’ Miller writes (italics gesturing intently at something generally felt), ‘we’ll push past . . . / beyond our shifting grain of skin and eyes’ to a place where we ‘cannot take our ruins.’
Reading a poem like ‘Europe’ – with its great beyonds and ‘unsolved’ selves – it is hard to feel as though we have come any closer to asking the right sort of questions about where we go when we die. For the most part, Miller prevents her poems from escaping into metaphor (‘When metaphors eat the real’ is one of her euphemisms for death), rather she acknowledges that this comes with the territory. If cliché is where poetry goes to die, Miller manages to breathe new life into ‘exhausted words’ and phrases that have become shorthand for topics we would rather be euphemistic about.
Putting pressure on words such as ‘love’ and ‘death’ to surprising effect (often interchangeably), Miller finds humour and vitality alongside moments of consolation. ‘No one’s here for much,’ Miller shrugs, ‘except / perhaps these high windows boasting sky.’ The line balances throw-away candour with an elegant, even wistful image. One of Miller’s favourites, windows often double as mirrors, and are mentioned eight times throughout the collection, although there are many instances in which the speaker is reflected figuratively in the landscape.
Much of Miller’s poetry is about sewing together moments of similarity and difference. The thought of ‘high windows’ is probably borrowed from Larkin’s poem ‘High Windows’ in which he looks past the windowpane to ‘the deep blue air’ beyond it, ‘that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.’ Leading us to the title of the collection, Nowhere Nearer might have ended up neither here nor there, chasing after shadows, which are nothing, and are nowhere, and are endless.
Instead, Miller melds memories of real locations with historical fact to produce standout poems – most notably ‘Eva Braun in Linz’ – that test our sympathies and connect us with the past. ‘Are we sorry they set her up with him?’ asks Miller. Probably not. However, the very existence of Eva Braun, as the lover to whom many consider the poster boy of evil, should give us pause for thought.
Perhaps a good definition of memory, to mend Anna’s phrase a little, is the ability to imagine things that are ‘no longer quite here, and yet not there at all.’ As either Freud would tell us, history, like psychoanalysis, is as much about ‘the futures we never let happen’ as the ones that did. Similarly, Miller’s best poetry lies in the collision of personal and national histories, between her own private hopes and fears and what we know to be publicly recorded.
Nowhere Nearer by Alice Miller is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.
Grey and greying sky reflected in choppy body, as our matching heron performs his balancing act for all to see.
The Donegal hills, patient, waiting; barren, call a siren song, lost and piercing- on the wind. Ours is a past seeped in rust. A history bathed in thick, black squelch; M U D L A R K I N G, always, for our sense of self. Waiting for that ancient bogland to spit and spew and remould our memory of last Winter, in all its terrifying beauty.
The years that have passed are like a body now lost to the sea: already long gone many moons before that dark body of water swallowed it up -claiming-maiming; tossed -out and in along a coastline that will not claim ownership, in the harsh grey spell of morning.
Things hidden under the surface that cannot cannot Memories that are washed up all along the tideline- obscuring the not yet solid; the future not yet in seed.
I gather spat up objects, broken things and leftover parts of the storm and begin to see them, clearly, in all that fragile, unstoppable beauty; under a thundering, Island-Thick sky.
The Multiverse ( or theermvsuitle as it says on the cover) is the first poetry collection by Andrew Wynn Owen, a fellow of All Souls College. It is published by Caranet and praised by the poets of likes of Simon Armitage. Each poem exuberates life as Owen crafts each and every word with the authority of a laureate. If there is another universe where he has not written this book, then it is a darker place indeed.
Owen’s collection is expansive and varied with sixty poems exploring themes such as science, philosophy and human nature. He tests our perceptions on reality, and ourselves too, both elegantly and rhythmically. His piece Mirrors and Windows is just one example of a piece which does this in Multiverse:
‘A window, though Shows more than any mirror. Pervasive happening opens space And lets free landscape flow.’
Multiverse is more than just a collection of writing. Like a song or a dance, his poetry resonates and inspires the inner creative. His words seem to take on a form and start to waltz with the reader – dipping and twirling them to each step of the iambic pentameter.
This is a book to savour as, with most great poetry, you cannot rush over the lines. If you do, you will miss out on the chemistry. There will be some phrases that, when you read them, will give you a sensation of a first skin – that pulse of electricity. For me, it was a line in The Door:
‘I’d never loved the room. It is the door That I adore.’
Owens zips between various styles throughout his book from pieces resembling Shakespearean sonnets such as The Scientist (using an abab structure and rhyming couplets) to Stonehenge which feels almost like an epic. Yet even with their historic roots, his poems feel fresh and contemporary. Where Shakespeare would focus on love and marriage, Owens explores scientific discovery and alternate realities. Like epics, Owens also sings of legends and folklore, but in relation to modern society, ‘beyond the power plants, main roads’ and ‘churning cars.’
Owen has the skill to take something and subvert it, scrutinise it under his creative eye and turn it into something else. Take April Shower for example. In this piece, he simply writes about rain. It may not be much to us British but Owen changes this and turns it into something fantastical, stunning:
‘But now let fall In plosive drops, Startling the land and pulling out the stops. Torrential fuel. A shapeless rush Of see-through resin beads.’
Yet, although breathtaking, some of his poetry is not the most accessible. It darts around like a hummingbird you so desperately want to get a glimpse of. You can chase it around, and try to predict its moves, but you will tire yourself out. Or, at least, modern audiences and those who don’t like poetry will. But to enjoy poetry, as these people fail to realise, you have to get lost in it. Explore the words. Reread lines. Question what you are reading and soak it all in.
Of course, if it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing and I doubt there’s much I can say to convince you. But, keep in mind, there is a universe out there where you are reading Multiverse and loving it.
The London Review Bookshop, Bloomsbury, 7pm. Wine glasses clatter as they are placed on the floor, animated conversation fills the air, friends are greeted, coats shrugged off. Michael Schmidt, the founder and managing director of Carcanet, steps before the audience to introduce the four poets who will be reading tonight as part of the launch of New Poetries VII, an anthology that brings together what Michael, in the Introduction to the book, calls ‘a chine, a prickle, a surfeit, a blessing – a group – of new poets’. He is delighted to be in the London Review Bookshop, one of his ‘favourite’ bookshops in the city, and to be introducing the seventh New Poetries, a series that is also one of his ‘favourites’. Many Carcanet poets, he notes, began their writing careers in the anthology, and have gone on to ‘star on our list’, including Sinéad Morrissey, Kei Miller, and Vahni Capildeo. These poets, Michael affirms, ‘help me forward’.
The poets performing tonight – Mary Jean Chan, Helen Charman, Lisa Kelly, and Toby Litt – read in the order that they appear in the book. Michael introduces Mary Jean first, recounting how he was struck by three sonnets that the poet sent in to PN Review. Alluding to Mary Jean’s Hong Kong background, and mentioning his own Mexican American origins, he notes that Carcanet is ‘very much an Anglophone, rather than an English, operation’, and that it is ‘wonderful to find poets from outside of England’. Mary Jean begins by reading the sonnets, describing them as ‘a slightly subversive take on the classical Confucius text’ about how you should honour your parents. Her voice is silky, clear, as she speaks. Next, she reads a bilingual poem. ‘I thought it would be interesting to try to rhyme my mother tongue with English – I speak Cantonese at home’, she explains. ‘speaking in tongues’ is a striking poem, weaving together repetitions of ‘mother says’ and ‘poet says’, as well as the two languages:
mother says: separation of voice poet says: behave, moonbeam mother says: the way you ask the moon to behave is transgressive, not Chinese poet says: my voice is a splinter
‘It’s wonderful to hear poems read that one’s read to oneself several times, and the way the poet inflects them’, Michael observes, after Mary Jean’s reading. Helen Charman is the next poet to read, and Michael notes that when he first read her poems, he ‘couldn’t put them down’. Helen launches straight into a reading of ‘Horse whispering’, rocking slightly with the rhythm of the poem as she reads, hovering over the words she wishes to emphasise. Her head is tilted up to the microphone, and she smiles occasionally at the audience. ‘Agony in the Garden’ is a poem that requires some context, Helen says, and she reads from her explanation at the front of her section of the anthology. The poem centres on John Ruskin and a statement he made in 1854, during the annulment proceedings of his marriage to Effie Gray: ‘It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion.’ Part of the latter phrase appears in the poem, which Helen reads playfully, with full attention from the audience. ‘Tampon Panic Attack’ is my favourite poem of the ones she performs. Flicking through teenage magazines, Helen notes, tongue-in-cheek, left her with ‘a crippling fear of tampons’, which the poem transforms:
. . . Waking up in bloodied underwear once felt like shame but now is gorgeous, a victory: red sheets are like flirting.
‘One thing you’ll have noticed is how humorous the poems are’, says Michael, at the close of Helen’s reading. He then introduces Toby Litt, noting that it was Toby’s sequence Life Cycle that really ‘got to’ him. Michael is also pleased to welcome ‘a novelist who’s come over, as it were’, referencing the ten novels that Toby has published. Toby himself, taking the stage, questions, ‘Come over, or come out?’, explaining that he started as a poet, but initially wasn’t sure if his poetry would be published. He begins his reading with ‘Politics / 9.11.16, p.m.’, written on the eve of Trump’s election. ‘I tried to be hyper eloquent, but I also tried to be extremely angry and political’, Toby says of the poem. His voice is level as he reads, and he stands comfortably, feet in a relaxed ballet-esque position. The poems in Life Cycle ‘had a long pre-history before they hit the page’, and were written for two friends who had lost a baby. ‘Not just milk’ features a build-up of repetitions that sound very different in the air to their appearance on the page, where the words seem to tiptoe across the white space:
There used to be a woman in this body not just milk
There used to be a woman in this body not just milk and carrying
There used to be a woman in this body not just milk and carrying and saying hush
Toby finishes with ‘an even tireder lullaby’ entitled ‘Hushaby Twinkle’, before Michael introduces Lisa Kelly. Like Mary Jean, Lisa ‘seems to exist between languages’, Michael notes, noting that she once described herself as ‘half-Danish, half-Deaf’. He is drawn to the gaps in her poems, ‘where language has been missed’, and was ‘astonished’ to find himself reading her poems aloud. Lisa begins her reading with ‘Anonymous’, a poem based on a 1993 New Yorker cartoon featuring two dogs at a computer screen, and recites the poem with gusto. The line ‘Once bitten, twice bitcoin’ provokes laughter from the audience, and another poem, on Ikea furniture, is equally witty. ‘A Map Towards Fluency’ is the stand-out poem of the reading, however, and Lisa puts down her book to perform the poem, which requires signing some of the letters of the alphabet using British Sign Language:
I map a——————————————————————to my left thumb Alex maps a————————————————————to his right thumb e——————————————————————————to my left forefinger poor Alex, the teacher can’t map sinistral——————to dextral
The reading ends with thanks to the London Review Bookshop, a clinking of wine glasses, and the steady rise of conversation in the air.
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.
Ila Colley is currently in her second year studying Architecture at the University of Edinburgh. Her work has been published in Magma and Polyphony HS. She is also a winner of the Foyle Young Poets Award in 2013 and 2014.
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
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.
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.
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 Potopa – On 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.
(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.
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 Kahnis 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
On 28th February, The London Magazinehosted 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!
Editor Steven OBrien
Grey Gowrie, Poet Phoebe L. Corbett and Stanley Moss
Guests enjoying the The London Magazines December/January 17 issue
Poets Phoebe L. Corbett and Theophilus Kwek amongst guests
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?
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.
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