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Spotlight on: Rough Trade Books

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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.

For more information, head to Rough Trade Books.

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Review | Letters To A First Love From The Future by Andy Armitage

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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).

For more information, visit Half Moon Books.

Words by Ronan Gerrard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Suzannah V. Evans

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