Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

‘Dark Steps’ by Martin Pond

In anthology, Short Stories on November 29, 2011 at 11:15 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Dark Steps, by Martin Pond, reviewed by Ian Chung

As a reviewer, I always find it exciting to re-encounter a writer’s work in a different context. In this case, my first introduction to Martin Pond’s work was back when I reviewed Unthank Books’ Unthology 1 back in April, which includes the subtly disquieting ‘Waiting Room’, here positioned as the first story in Pond’s Dark Steps collection. The power of this dystopian tale is primarily derived from the growing discrepancy between the knowledge possessed by the narrator and that available to the reader. When the ending comes, it is not entirely a surprise for the reader, but it still packs a punch because of that discrepant awareness. These related techniques—narrator-reader gap and ending with a twist—are exploited throughout the rest of the collection, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Instances where I think they fall short are the festive-themed stories like ‘Egg’ and ‘A Bit Christmassy’, where the reader is able to assemble the full picture too easily, and therefore anticipate the twist too early in the story. Another is ‘Dream Feed’, where the story’s denouement does not feel sufficiently rewarding. Pond mentions in the introduction to the collection that this one was ‘an exercise in writing what [he] like[s] to read – the unsettling short story with a twist ending’, and I think this was one that needed to move further away from the ‘exercise’ aspect in order to really take off as a story. There are interesting elements swirling around, to do with the baby, the Latin overheard on the baby monitor, the temperature dropping in the nursery etc. The potential for profoundly disturbing horror is there, but in the story’s current form, it has been curtailed in exchange for a moment of emotional release: ‘For the first time since our daughter had moved into her own room, the nursery was suddenly filled with crying.’

On the other hand, when the techniques succeed, the outcome is masterful. In ‘Resolution’, using a countdown to the New Year to segment the narrator’s stream of consciousness allows the story to rapidly cover a swath of emotional terrain, only for the ending to take a decidedly sinister turn. The final word, however, is given to the crowd’s cheer of ‘Happy New Year!’, which juxtaposes the normalcy of the occasion and the narrator’s deviant decision in the preceding paragraph to great effect. Or consider ‘Near-Death Experience’, where the surprise reveal of what has really been going on throughout the story comes in its very last paragraph, but this forces the reader to rethink the significance of everything that has just been read. Like ‘Dream Feed’, the twist ending does not provide complete explanations, though in the case of ‘Near-Death Experience’, I think this feeling of incompletion that the reader is left with is less frustrating than intriguing.

Dark Steps closes with two slightly longer pieces. Pond notes that ‘The Inheritance’ was ‘the first complete story [he] wrote after resuming writing in 2007’, and that he ‘had grand plans for this, once’. Reading it, one can definitely see its influence on his subsequent work, although he is right that its central twist, which is integral to the story’s logic, probably does not stand up to the plausibility test. It is also possible to see what Pond means by ‘grand plans’, as the ending of the story does feel more like the finish of an opening chapter than the last word for the character.

This in turn brings me to Pond’s ongoing online novel, the opening of which is excerpted in Dark Steps. The project began in June 2010, and the excerpt combines the first four posts he made on the blog. I found the excerpt promising, and looking at the cast of characters Pond has posted on the blog, it certainly seems like the story has expanded considerably beyond what is offered in the Dark Steps excerpt. Pond’s stated goal is to post a few hundred words every Friday, which reminds me of the way 19th century novels used to be serialised, or more recently in 2002, when The Guardian serialised Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White.


‘The New Blur Album’ by John Osborne, and ‘Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think of You’ by Molly Naylor

In Pamphlets on November 28, 2011 at 10:00 am

– An imagined interview by John McGhee

You sit in Frankie and Benny’s waiting for John and for Molly. You’re new to the city.

John arrives first: wide eyes and logger shirt.  His hair is a home for herons. He orders house red, a large one.

John’s manner is hangdog and you find this charming. He’s got “the likeability factor”. He talks enthusiastically to you about his interests – teletext, television, temping, the mundane, shame, girls (unobtainable), children (unwell), music (loud and unfamiliar), the certainty of underachievement.  You quickly warm to his generosity of vision and askew take on life.

‘I used to play chess with a boy called Michael Jackson.

He wasn’t very good at chess

but that was the least of his problems’

His words are a ramble, precisely planned.  You’re left to guess which incidents are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, and which are pure imagination.  John tells you about his birthday party – it’s a disaster, naturally:

‘When I told you once I don’t like the idea of surprise parties

this was the kind of thing I had in mind.’

As John concludes his twelfth anecdote, Molly arrives.  She takes off her red gabardine, sits down, and orders a green tea.  They’ve run out of green tea, the tie-and-waistcoat waitress apologises.

She tinkers with her blonde hair and monologues about how the big city takes your hopes and warps them.  Crap jobs are unavoidable, suddenly you’re bussing tables, your potential goes unfulfilled.  You can relate easily to her story, her exact observations.

The screenplay of her life twists sinister at the end of Act One.  She’s blown up.  Her account of surviving the 7/7 underground bombings is agonising, arresting.  Later, she tells you of how she fled the city to a drear Wales and, on a mountainside, imagined meeting her bomber, 22-year old Shezhad Tanweer.

‘You don’t look like a villain.

You don’t look at me but you say –

Well, why would I?’

There’s horror in the ordinary, then wit and tenderness when she talks about moving back home, in an episode where she dissects roadkill with her father.  The effect is just as otherworldly as John’s surreal fragments.

‘A deer.  It’s dead, laid out, perfect-looking with fur your fingers itch to touch.  We can’t help but wonder why he’s brought this home, scooped it off the road, lifted it into a rental van, and is now shifting it onto his Black & Decker Workmate with a disconcertingly hungry look in his eye.’

John and Molly are conversational and comical storytellers, chatty and lyrical.  They each draw on small-town roots – Scunthorpe (pop. 72,000) for John, a small fishing town on the south coast of Cornwall for Molly.  Their humour and melancholy blends as they celebrate the small victories amongst everyday absurdity and dejection: cadged fags, infatuations, one-liners, mothers and fathers, jerkwater recognitions.  There’s comfort in knowing that most people are failing just as hard as you are.  Their stories are unsentimentally poignant.

“We’ve got the same publisher” Molly says, pushes a copy of her pamphlet across the darkwood table.  “Nasty Little Press”, John adds.  You learn that John and Molly are also spoken word performers.  There’s a tension between page and stage, the accessibility needed for poetry to work in performance, and the richness and re-readability for enduring page poetry.  This is managed well in John and Molly’s pamphlets.  Both books are handsome too – the illustrations in Molly’s book, by her brother Max Naylor, are stunning.

The bill is settled.  John and Molly are extremely polite to the waitress.   Then Molly’s off to Battersea to rehearse her new show and John hustles for the Great Eastern.  You’d give him the hug he seems to need but are concerned he might come apart at the seams.  You finish your Sam Adams.  John and Molly have left you with another way to view the world, some hope but some sadness.  For all their quirky words, their goodwill, you’re still in the city, alone.

The Leeds Writers Circle Anthology 2011

In anthology on November 26, 2011 at 12:58 pm

-Reviewed by Nick Sweeney

The Leeds Writers Circle Anthology is a collection of poetry and prose, memoir, fiction and non-fiction. All of the works feature Leeds and its environs. There are obvious pitfalls in such an undertaking, and the pieces that work best show Leeds without bias, without sentimentality, and with a certain humour.

I was impressed by nearly all the memoir pieces, in particular the two that opened up a world beyond the immediacy of Leeds. Asher Drapkin’s ‘They Settled in Leeds’ takes the reader back to turn-of-twentieth-century Ukraine, Russia and Poland, where the upheavals of the times forced the author’s ancestors into a refugee trail that ended with a welcome in Leeds. Ruby Tovet’s ‘The Big City’ traces similar journeys to Leeds – sparked this time by the Second World War and the Cold War – and looks at its new population of Eastern Europeans:

‘Sunday was old home day for all the exiles in the area, who came with nameless and colourless alcoholic beverages, sat on what they could find and ate, drank and sang all afternoon.’

I like the way Tovet uses few words to show these people’s new lives. She also displays great skill in her characterisations and voices, which makes her tale appear sometimes as memoir, sometimes as fiction, both quite convincingly. I can see a lot of the one-mention characters, too – a difficult task for a writer to pull off – such as the raw-meat-eating athlete, and the miserable man who covets his goods in his secondhand shop. In these memoirs, the selection, in my opinion, was bang on: just enough information to tell the story, chosen from what must be a wealth of detail.

Dennis Clarkson’s ‘Chumping’ – about rival gangs of boys scavenging combustible stuff for Bonfire Night – is a memoir, which the author has chosen to tell as a short story. It has all the good qualities of one: convincing dialogue, believable and sympathetic characters, even the enemy gang, and a story that moves swiftly to a satisfying conclusion as it shows us a vanished world, and also how the protagonist in the story has moved on.

Leeds Writers Circle Anthology, Valley Press, reviewed by Nick Sweeney for Sabotage

‘The First Moving Picture Show’ has a very cosmopolitan feel, achieved, as in the best writing, with as few words as necessary: a foreign railway station, the mention of the US Patents Office, and of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While based on the disappearance of Louis Le Prince, considered by many to be the true inventor of motion pictures, Eric Chadwick’s story adopts the feel of a Victorian thriller. It rightly places Chadwick, and his important discoveries, in Leeds, but doesn’t hold him there. It pulls no punches when it comes to the stop-at-nothing ambitions of inventors, aided by the machinations of lawyers. There is a wonderful scene in it, centring on Le Prince’s daughter Marie. I won’t spoil it by describing it here, but it puts across, all the magic of invention and discovery, and also encapsulates the essential tragedy of Le Prince.

I can’t really describe Rob Nicholls’, ‘Fog in the Posterior of the Day’ only to say that I liked it very much. It’s an attempt at surrealism – a successful one, probably (you never can tell with surrealism) – and made me laugh out loud.

Peter R White’s ‘Best Served Cold’, while set on a train, is not about railway sandwiches. Centring on a seemingly trivial incident, it is a pure short story with no ambiguities, and no visible attempts at style; the style is assumed as the story, like a train, rattles along. Superb storytelling, as the writer brings the tale down to a last-line punchline extremely skilfully.

The non-fiction pieces are, mostly, well-written (though I thought one, with its wealth of detail, was going to be a parody of a Christmas round robin letter) but I wasn’t quite so engaged with them. I think this is possibly because of their local interest, which, no matter the writers’ intentions, cannot be globalised in the same way as good fiction or poetry.

I’m no expert on poetry, I confess, and rely on what grabs me immediately. So I enjoyed the melancholy in Anne Watson’s ‘Travelling to the LGI’ – about a visit to a mother in hospital. Why? Is enjoy the right word? I don’t know: good poetry allows you to get a glimpse at a feeling you may not know you had. Similarly, Ian Harker’s ‘Mary’ tells a sad story, of Mary Bateman, the ‘Yorkshire Witch’. The macabre details make it cartoonish, but at the same time make it come alive, and visible – an admirable talent, to be able to show this panoramic view of a historical incident in seven short verses. Deidre McGarry’s two poems focusing on the psychiatric unit are social comment – the two words would normally put me off a poem – but are confident, drily detached, and expertly managed. A comparison of the unit’s cases with politicians and bankers could have been obvious and groan-inducing, but the poet pulls it off in fine, discreet style. I was obviously impressed by Anne Watson; her ‘In Town Tonight’ complements the psychiatric unit poems in its own way. It’s another picture of contrasts in night-time Leeds, and features the clever device of a recurring character. I didn’t quite understand what Diane Myers’ ‘Beating the Bounds’ was about, exactly, but that didn’t take away the sheer pleasure of the words. It opens:

‘Where armies gathered at Shire Oak

Now, once a year, the residents of Leeds

Assert their ancient rights and carry sticks

As in the past, they caned protesting boys

To fix their memories of the parish bounds.’

It’s an exciting view of traditions, and of the people of Leeds and their beliefs, with images of sticks and stones, animals and trees, streets and gardens, and, in the boundaries, a firm sense of place. As such, it’s representative of the Leeds Writers Circle Anthology as a whole.

[Ed: The Leeds Writers Circle Anthology 2011 is available now from the Valley Press website]

Five Dials #21

In Magazine, online magazine on November 25, 2011 at 1:48 pm

-Reviewed by Barry Tench

Five dials is a downloadable PDF literary journal from Hamish Hamilton and your first impression of this worthy publication will probably be that it is beautifully presented. Let me warn you, however, that if you intend to print it out it’s a good idea to get an extra black ink cartridge in as your printer will be sorely tested on issue 21, especially on Kid Koala’s graphic project extract ‘Space Cadet’. Issue 21 is also decorated with poetic illustrations by Lizzy Steward. Editor Craig Taylor hopes that the issue will be printed up and placed on a bar alongside bowls of peanuts, a sentiment I echo.

Craig Taylor’s bouncy and irreverent editorial sets the tone “the sound of people trying to pull the metal shutters from the front of the Brixton Foot Locker.” That spirit of the blitz he conveys is reflected in a series of essays with London post codes as titles. Under its remit of ‘currentish events’ we have  London/riots related pieces from Helen Conford and Bojana Gajski that read like videos shot on a mobile phone, slightly out of focus and grainy but with the personal insight that takes the reader directly onto the streets, be they in Whitechapel or Montenegro. These essays lead to Daniel Smith’s traumatic walk through a wartime London with an emotionally distressed Virginia Woolf, there is something uniquely disturbing about what Woolf calls ‘street haunting’.

Five Dials often has a theme and issue 21 is subtitled ‘Rock School’ which made me half expect the appearance of Jack Black from the pages hollering “If You are Hardcore”. I was disappointed, but that was the one and only time as I flipped through the ezine. Under the moniker of ‘The Best Bits of the Best Books’ various “rockers, rappers and folkies”  select some of their favourite books;  most of them  read whilst  in the back of the tour bus or in some cheap and nasty motel. It is an intriguing selection – Vonnegut, Bolano and Herman Hesse among others. I loved Adam Green’s description of William S Burroughs as “a gay R Kelly”. These contributions not only made me want to dig out my copy of The Naked Lunch again but also listen to the music of some of the witty and insightful reviewers.

Then there are the three short stories of Jonas Hassen Khemiri- the Danish novelist. Hassen  Khemiri references jazz quite a lot, but his stories feel more like the blues. They have a rhythm of the blues with a strong refrain especially in ‘An Attempt at Nuclear Physics’ with its repetition of “you’ll” that gives it the effect of an I-woke-up-this-morning and my wife and dog  have left me kinda blues. ‘Control Alt. Delete’ has four uneasy compositions and ‘Unchanged Unending’ displays that same elliptical style of a writer who shows great control over his narrative.

Other ephemera include a shopping list of knitting titles that neatly references Neil Young, a Raymond Chandler story/anecdote and a poem by Heathcote Williams ‘Being Kept by a Jackdaw’: a folkloric tale that reads more like a short story.

However, my personal highlight was Alexander Larman’s review of J. K. Huysmans 1884 novel ‘Against Nature’, an observation on “dandyism, decadence and debauchery.” His highly entertaining review made me want to go and find some musty independent bookshop hidden away down a dark alley somewhere in Shoreditch dressed in a big collar and floppy hat. So with Issue 21 tucked under my arm I’m off to a dive populated by bleary-eyed journos and yet-to-be-discovered artists to sip absinth and wallow in melancholia.

Bang Said the Gun @ The Roebuck 03/11/11

In Performance Poetry on November 21, 2011 at 10:59 pm

-Reviewed by James Webster

I had pretty high expectations for Bang Said the Gun. I’d heard nothing but good about the event and the Bang team had only just won the ‘Page Match’ championship belt and I’m happy to say it exceeded even my high expectations.

What’s so special about it?

  • Well, as host Dan Cockrill says: it’s poetry for people who don’t like poetry, an event with a focus on entertainment and a raucous party atmosphere. The audience are provided with plastic milk bottles filled with chickpeas that you rattle to show your appreciation (or just rattle in time with the music before the show starts).
  • They make it look special too; their anarchic black and white branding up all over the place on posters, signs, table cloths, and projected onto the stage in a really entertaining animated video. They also provide everyone with a glowstick, a lovely gesture making the night feel half poetry/half rave.
  • Another interesting feature is the Cata-list: the audience member who’s given the duty of starting all cheering and applause. They list their name and responsibilities and record them for the audience on the projector screen. On the night we had:
  •  Name: Bree
  • Responsibilities: A few
  • Relationship: Kind of
  • Kids: No
  • Job: No

Another catchphrase is ‘poetry without the ponce’, which is a cool maxim, making poetry accessible and unpretentious.

The Raw Meat Stew is an intriguing feature; their slam/open mic, judged by one randomly selected audience member. The winner then gets a 10 minute slot at the next event, which is an excellent way to encourage and unearth new poetic talent (the only catch is that it seems the funniest/most entertaining poet usually wins, but then that fits their mission statement).


Hosting duties were split down the middle between Bang! founder Dan Cockrill and the newest member of the Bang! team Peter Hayhoe (a regular from Sage and Time and The Tea Box).

  • Dan’s a winning host, getting the audience all riled up; he’s got a real talent for getting the most out of an audience. He ably explains what Bang!’s all about and helps the show hit the ground running.
  • Peter Hayhoe is just lovely. He’s very engaging and his first poem about a Sainsbury’s Self-Checkout machine is very funny and gets you to feel sorry for the machine.
  • His other poem was pure smut that he could only read at Bang Said the Gun! On the new Countdown girl and how he wants to ‘Clity-fuck’ her. It was ridiculous, filthy and so much fun.

The rest of the Bang! team.

  • Martin Galton gave us a mixture of puerile entertainment, amusing hate (from his black book) and touching love (from his red book).
  • From a sweet poem on his son’s hands warming his bald head, to an amusing poem all the people he considers “Rude Bastards”, the only downside for me was a poem on how tiring it is to be middle class and I was never sure if I was listening to razor sharp satire or reinforcement of class stereotypes.
  • Rob Auton starts every gig in a big booming voice with the line: “Ladies and Gentlemen … these are the names that we give to the toilets.”
  • He’s the platonic ideal of Bang!’s style of ‘stand-up poetry’: great banter, stage presence and always funny. Lines like “There’ll be a theme tonight, which is that I will be the one saying the things” and poems playing off “my room” and “maroon” sounding similar, or on naming his son “dad”, are well executed and funny, but might not scratch the itch for those of us who look to poetry for depth.
  • Of course he’s also capable of surprising beauty like his piece on David Attenborough and wanting to live a life worthy of his voiceover.
  • Emma Jones won me over with ‘Shoreditch House’, a glitteringly witty caricature of meeting the private sector pretentious “twaterrati”. A hilarious take on modern-yuppyism.
  • And her ‘Yorkshire Schoolgirls on Night Out’ was a terrifically performed character piece that meanders from amusing to transcendent encounters in this delicious slice of northern teen-hood

The Raw Meat Stew

  • Kieren King. ‘Metal’er than Thou’ was on being judged for not looking metal enough, by metalheads knowing nothing about the music. The substance over style message is basic, but well expressed and delivered.
  • Edward Unique I’ve seen ‘To My Darling IPod’ before and Edward’s delivery’s improved, but he sorely needs a redraft to better distill the humour.
  • Dave Viney ‘Prambush’ was an amusing poetic anecdote on being the only couple at a bbq ‘yet to conceive’. The line: ‘can I carve not barren jut babyless into a string of sausages’ stuck with me.
  • Benny Jo Zahl‘s ‘Something’s Missing’ had a nice way with words that enlivened the ordinariness of a character who’d never had an imaginary friend.
  • Monkey Poet. His acrostic on politicians that spelled out “fucking wankers” was well put together, felt very natural and his energised delivery and anti-establishment feel won over the crowd.
  • Rod Iame on his inner drag queen Baby Love who he never quite has the confidence to release was equally emotive, fun and adorable. Could’ve done without the singing though.
  • Lettie McKey does a good job of sexualising chefs through their food. But I found said sexualisation a little weird and think suggesting all women want to be spoiled by a chef and that they “love choccie more than men” is sadly stereotypical.

Winner: Monkey Poet.

The Feature

  • Jem Rolls (a Brit over fromCanada) started with a nice philosophical number that encapsulated his view of the divine into his interaction with the audience. As he put it: “industrial strength sycophancy, but it’s not every day you’re deified is it?”
  • ‘The New English History Syllabus’ was biting satire, English view of history summed up as “we won, we won … ‘cos we’re the best and Johnny Foreigner was rubbish!”
  • ‘’e ain’t called Porky no more’ was a found poem and breathless snapshot, bouncing around the scene ofLondon.
  • The next ‘A Bit Shattered’ was a poem entirely made out of rhyming couplets of spoonerisms. It’s a really entertaining way to tell a story of a drunken night out and incredibly skilled wordplay.
  • His last ‘The Day Died Very Old’ on British tourism/“spectator queuing”. He details days spent ticking off lists of “must-do’s”, while outside is “life, teaming and local” that the tourists never get to see. Some wonderful phraseology, and a performance where the frustration dripped off him, made this an enthralling poem from an impressive performer.

Conclusion: Superbly entertaining poetry on almost all fronts, and only occasionally at the expense of depth. A fantastic raucous party of a poetry night.

‘The Art of Wiring’

In anthology on November 21, 2011 at 11:19 am

-Reviewed by Rosie Breese

The Art of Wiring is published by Costa-prize-winning poet Christopher Reid’s imprint Ondt & Gracehoper. Inside, elegantly laid out, is the work of six poets, including Reid himself, whose work is as varied as it is hard-hitting. Life’s ‘wiring’ is exposed by each poet’s intense focus on the connections between the everyday and the surreal – but, as we will discover, in very different ways.

The most apt way to tackle a volume like this seems to be by way of a series of ‘mini-reviews’ covering each artist’s work. So, here goes:

SIMON BARRACLOUGH’s work toys with a sense of place – known and imaginary. The language is sharp; his images are fresh and to the point. ‘Tuning Out’ exemplifies both his wordplay and the sense of movement, the crackle of a far-off radio station mirroring the speaker’s drift in and out of consciousness:

“my thin line of wakefulness

bushes like a cat’s tail

slotting into the groove

of Greenwich and passes through

to the final day’s play in Kandy.”

Barraclough plays with distance and sharp focus, zooming in on details which are thrown into poignant relief against vast, shifting backdrops of time and place: “But we’ll always have Paris, / although our eye lines never matched”. There is the occasional sense that a poem is taking a while to ‘wind up’ to these big moments – but then, these long, panoramic opening shots are what contributes to the cinematic effect of his poems.

ISOBEL DIXON’s poems have an intense, exploratory feel, chipping away at an idea long enough for it to show its bones. ‘Upopa Epops’ is one such poem, aiming its intense gaze on a bird which, for all its smart “cinnamon-cum-chestnut raiment” is armed with an arsenal of weapons to ensure its survival, including the ability to aim streams of shit at predators. Dixon’s wordplay is joyful here, exposing these “sins” hidden in the sounds of the bird’s own name: “Oop-oop-oops indeed.”

But it is ‘Pinball Electra’ and ‘Grasshopper’ where her relentless attention to detail really comes into its own. With the weight of grief behind every word almost crushing, these two poems, with their unwavering focus on details – such as the apparent discovery of a grasshopper in the house of a dying man – are stand-out poems within the collection. I’m not going to spoil it for readers by going over them in detail, and besides, there are four more poets to get through. You’ll have to seek them out and read them for yourself.

LUKE HEELEY also likes to focus on the incidentals, switching from the interior to the exterior, exposing the ‘wiring’ that lies within. His seven poems focus on objects – a concrete slab, a phone box – that shift under the gaze of the poet from mere ‘things’ into emotional artefacts, for example here, in ‘To a Phone Box’: “The tone is warm as blood, my own. /Someone picks up. Who’s there? / It’s the boy crouched beneath the stairs..”

There are also characters such as ‘The Imperfectionist’ and ‘The Contrarian’ who question and disrupt the continuum of accepted ideas: “For his party trick he demonstrates / how much white paint it takes / to put a doubt in the mind of black”. However, it is in stand-out poem ‘The Decorator’ where the synthesis between interior and exterior, past and present, character and action, is most perfectly realised. The decorator, through his work, is disrupting time and space, dragging memory from objects: “..shakes out his sheet, snaps free / a cloud of dust, as if the cloth / has severed its ghost.”

CHRISTOPHER REID’s take on the wiring of objects seems to focus on their relationship with the humans who use – or are restricted by – them. An intriguing sequence, each, I’ve just noticed, beginning with the letter ‘C’, takes us from Ancient Greece to the modern day, with desire as the common thread, or ‘clew’, leading us from one poem to the next.

The selection is certainly varied – it begins with the voice of an academic cajoling us to accept a square of chocolate, leads us to the centre of the labyrinth and back again at the behest of a wilful ball of string, then presents us with a “fur coat and no knickers” cougar led around by his mistress on a leash, who, paradoxically, is led unwittingly into fame by the very animal she controls. These poems question our relationship with the objects with which we accessorise our lives and desires, with Reid’s characteristic coolness maintaining just enough distance for clarity.

‘Everything is Black and White’, according to LIANE STRAUSS’s second poem:

“The colour

of blood is cleaner and starker in black

and white, the colour of tears, of love..”.

Like others in her selection, this poem sequences hard, pixellated images until they blur, revealing and questioning life’s grey areas.

Strauss’s work is gutsy and eclectic; she moves between voices and personas, each one examining life’s wiring from a different viewpoint. There’s the nostalgic, almost archaic voice of ‘Coals in the Grate’, the sudden switch to love, architecture and a US dialect in ‘Gentrify My Love’, and the subtle cynicism of ‘We’re All Fine’. Strauss’s focus is wide and the variation, questioning and reiteration of images never lets up. It’s bold, expansive, and worth spending more time with.

Last but not least, ROISIN TIERNEY’s poetry communes with both art and language. ‘Gothic’, ‘In an Empty Alcove in the Prado’ and ‘The Panzemashorn’ reverberate with the products of artists’ fevered imaginations, the protagonists locked in conversation with these, or against their backdrop, as in this moment, where:

“ was as if

all the characters of the paintings in the Prado

were crowded in that bar in Lavapiés”.

Although rich, there is a danger that these artistic references could lose weight for the reader who is unfamiliar with the works themselves.

That said, it was inside knowledge that led me to enjoy her poem ‘Learning the Language’ so much. As an English teacher myself, I can empathise with the speaker’s frustration at the difficulty that lies in describing and teaching a constantly moving, growing and changing language. The simplicity of Tierney’s  “O fuck it” in the face of the huge questions language presents is wittily satisfying, putting one in mind of Frost’s characterisation of poetry as “serious play”.

In summary, serious play is what this pamphlet does. There is a sense of weight throughout The Art of Wiring, from the classy, unpretentious layout to the scale and variety of themes tackled by the writers themselves. It hums with a heavy current, yet in each piece, language is alive and crackling with unexpected connections.

8 Cuts – Lyrical Badlads @ Modern Art Oxford 12/11/11

In Performance Poetry on November 20, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Reviewed by Alex Campbell-

The Objective

A collaboration between Adventures Close to Home and Eight Cuts, the stated aim of Lyrical Badlads was to blur the boundaries between words and music; an ambitious goal, and one that I think was only partially achieved, however, the attempt was certainly worth watching.

Venue – Oxford Modern Art (downstairs)

  • It was a cozy kind of place, and managed to accommodate a sizeable crowd comfortably, though the red lighting was perhaps a little distracting at first. I also made the mistake of sitting right at the back, on the comfy seats under the stairs, which meant that my view of the projector screen behind the staging area was obscured by a pillar; a decision I later came to regret during the musical acts, and in particular the performance by Grey Children. I think I missed a considerable amount by not being able to fully see the pictures, or the occasional captions, which accompanied the interlinked, eerie stories they performed. From the fragments I could see, and the odd, disjointed sounds which accompanied the monotone performance, I came away with a rather unsettled feeling of having missed something – though from the tone it is entirely possible that this was the aim of the performance.


  • Anjan Saha’s tabla playing was fantastic, and the introduction to the language of the tabla, either as poetry in and of itself, or merely as an interesting form of notation for percussion, was fascinating. His poetry, on the other hand, was a little more mixed. His first selection was perhaps too conversational in tone for the medium. Occasional flashes of brilliance and lyricism seemed to punctuate short vignettes, which felt much more like they ought to have been prose-poems, or flash fiction. His second poem, later in the evening, showed much more awareness of form, and of the tricks that can be played with sound and rhythm. Perhaps the subject matter – jazz – lent itself better to that kind of improvisation and playing with language, but for whatever reason, it felt a much more confident performance, and I would have liked to have seen the same experimentation and risk taking with his other work.
  • Lucy Ayrton. The poetry in general was of a pleasantly high standard. But Lucy; obviously a seasoned performer (she’s one of the hosts of Oxford’s Hammer & Tongue); stood out in particular, with her fantastic delivery and awareness of her audience. Her comic timing in The Ark in Battersea Park, and Fuck You Corporate Land was spot on, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a particularly erudite rhyming stand-up act. My particular favourite though, was Bonfire Juice. Ayrton has an entrancing sense of whimsy, as already demonstrated in The Ark in Battersea Park, but in Bonfire Juice, she harnesses it to a picture of the perfect summer in a way that manages to be, not trite nostalgia, but instead an enthralling distillation of memory that in its specificity manages to become universal. I never had a perfect childhood or adolescent summer, but I still felt like I could remember one through Ayrton’s description.
  • Claire Trévien was another highlight of the evening, in particular her poem Singbird, which is the first poem with audience participation that I have heard which actually works. The gradual encroachment of the audience’s lines on the poet’s is a brilliant and effective metaphor for the stealing and silencing of women’s voices, and one which came across loud and clear, without being patronising. The use of the tabla against Belleville and Listening to Charles Ives was also more effective than with the earlier, impromptu, poems; perhaps because the performers were more experienced, perhaps because the tone of the poems was more reflective, and the drum provided a quiet heart-beat counterpoint.
  • Dan Holloway’s poetry appears to be emulating the style of beat poets like Ginsberg, and does it better than most, but his finale, to the accompaniment of To The Moon’s musical stylings, was perhaps a bit overly long for a performance. I would have much preferred to read it at leisure, rather than have to take it in all at once. Especially with the addition of the accompaniment. Whilst the idea of blending the two, and blurring the boundaries between music and spoken word was clearly the idea, I think there is perhaps a problem in this aim, especially with Beat poetry, when the aim is usually that the poem is its own music, it’s own beat and rhythm, its own melodies of the voice. When you put music to that, it’s not that you have to focus on two conflicting stimuli, it’s more that their similarities tend to cancel each other out.
  • Perhaps a good comparison would be to the bedding music in film and television. While dialogue is happening, the music needs to be unobtrusive; it can definitely enhance the mood of a scene, but it can’t dominate, or even be particularly noticeable. It’s there to fill up the silence between words with emotion. The big musical numbers that people remember take place where there is no dialogue, and thus take their turn in the spotlight unencumbered by words. In this case, however, the music was given an equal priority to the poem, which did both of them a disservice. You were assailed by a wave of sound and speech; not an unpleasant experience, but one which left you unable to give either the attention it deserves.

Overall though, it was a good evening, and well worth attending. Even if the attempt at blending music and poetry didn’t quite succeed, it was still a worthwhile experiment, and there was a lot of fun to be had in being proved wrong.

‘Talismanic Contact’ by Andrew Nightingale

In Pamphlets on November 17, 2011 at 12:34 pm

-Reviewed by Claire Trevien

When handing out various The Knives Forks and Spoons Press pamphlets to reviewers there was one that everyone automatically had a negative reaction to: Andrew Nightingale’s Talismanic Contact. It’s not a surprising reaction, the pamphlet consists of six figures that, at first glance appear to be gibberish. Beautiful gibberish of course: these are visual poems that look to me like blood clots, or a city viewed through its paths, or some sort of microscopic body made out of letters. I expect a scientist could pinpoint much more accurately than me what it could be, but even without knowing, one gets a sense of a small organism blown up to such a large scale that it seems other.

The titles, kept on a separate page, each add to the strange beauty of the poems: ‘fig. 4: Talisman for communing with lightning conductors’ or ‘fig. 2: Talisman for contacting a presence’. They hover between the illusion of scientific remoteness and the daredevilry of poetry. By daredevilry I mean the wonderful insolence with which we poets assume that we can communicate with uncommunicative objects or concepts.

There are several ways of approaching the poems they describe, one can simply relish the titles and look upon the figures with detached amusement, picking out the words, or half-words, that hover at the end of the stems. Or, one can plunge in there, forgetting that one isn’t ‘into’ experimental poetry (whatever that means) and try to decipher what is happening. The dive is thrilling in itself, a process of rescuing words from various part, adding letters where necessary, and scribbling the findings on a piece of paper with Indiana Jonesish panache. In essence, each figure consists of about three or four lines of poetry (there is no punctuation so it is up to you to decide if it is one long sentence, or two, etc) which eventually loop around themselves. For figure 2 (‘Talisman for contacting a presence’) for instance, I found the following:

‘sliding through locked doors hovering like a strange smell and melting without reason these ancestors sliding’,… etc

The words aren’t particularly exciting or unusual for the subject matter (though ‘strange smell’ is of course immediately effective) there is a lack of specificity. However, the subject of ancestors haunting a house is particularly appropriate for the format chosen: as we see the words sliding, hovering, disappearing, with letters erased or cut-off, the looping phrase really does seem like a talismanic chant.

The contrast between the ‘experimental’ presentation, and the prejudices that come with it, and the actually rather mundane text is part of the pleasure of this pamphlet. The poem ‘Fig. 3: Talisman for contacting Mars’ is a particularly extreme example of that juxtaposition:

‘we have heard you on the radio it’s getting late there’s fresh tea in the pot we are waiting are you coming we’,… etc

Though the phrase itself seems simple, the format in which it occurs forces the reader to re-examine it. Here the repetition sounds eerily robotic, frightening at turns, with an edge of desperation. The pot of fresh tea is a reassuring reminder of domesticity in a garbled communication with an unknown entity. Tea is a cliché in stressful situations of course, but that is just a reminder that clichés are yet another form of talisman: a well-set stereotype block that one can press when other words seem out of reach.

Talismanic Contact is not an elitist work, but it does reward those who take the trouble to take a closer look at the dabs of paint. By forcing the reader to experience different readings of the work, Talismanic Contact is a useful reminder that poetry shouldn’t always have to be digestible ‘on the go’ or in performance.

‘Sullom Hill’ by Christopher Kenworthy

In Pamphlets, Short Stories on November 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Sullom Hill is another discomforting tale from Nightjar Press (this one written by Christopher Kenworthy) featuring a young and impressionable narrator who reveals the pecking order in the social structure of small-town teenagers’ friendship. With vivid description that is almost grotesque at times, and a tangible sense of guilt and responsibility, our narrator tells of his time as the friend-in-common and mediator between the school bully and a boy with special needs.

Nightjar Press's Sullom Hill, by Christopher Kenworthy, reviewed for Sabotage by Elinor Walpole

The use of first person narration gives us a direct insight into the reasoning and motivations of our narrator as he attempts to establish himself as a friend of John Stack, the school bully, and simultaneously distance himself from Neil Kingsley, a local boy with mental disabilities whom he is keen not to associate with as a friend any more. We see the sense of guilt that our protagonist has from the start – the story is framed by the image of him hiding from Neil, and trying to reason with himself that ‘it’s to protect Neil from John’.

Neil Kingsley is introduced by our narrator as pathetic, seen by others as ‘stupid’ and ‘slow’, however our narrator seems to feel that there is more beneath the surface. His grotesque description of Neil, with nauseating detail about the state of his lips, reveals not only the way that Neil is viewed as distinctly odd, but also hints at racism in the community, as he is considered by others to be a genetic ‘throwback’. Again, our narrator is sensitive enough to question this – and he is told by his mother that Neil is ‘Not black, but blue’ due to his having been starved of oxygen when he was born, the cause of his learning difficulties. Our narrator sees this blueness more than the supposed blackness as a defining characteristic of Neil, someone is perpetually cold, outside and looking for a friend.

Our protagonist realises that he is not as nice to Neil as he should be, and acknowledges his unease about this, yet goes on to express the stronger pull of being friends with the bully. The narrator looks back on friendship politics, recognising John Stack as a kind serial monogamist in terms of friendship, but our narrator is naïve enough to feel ‘honoured’ to have been chosen as his friend. There is an unbearable and moving tension in the narrative as our protagonist feels his loyalty and morals tested between his friends, knowing that John’s friendship is potentially dangerous but allowing himself to be seduced by it, even when John sets his sights on Neil as a source of fun: ‘Let’s burn the spaz’. Even as John manipulates Neil for fun our narrator is painfully aware of Neil’s perilous position, watching his reactions to John’s teasing closely, trying to second-guess the situation and make sure it doesn’t go too far.

However John is also a somewhat sympathetic figure. John is set up by our narrator as an unpredictable, violent presence, and witnessing him withstand abuse from a teacher leads them to their unlikely friendship. John is shown to have no respect for authority – he smirks in the face of discipline, is manipulative and smart-mouthed, and even leads our narrator astray to threateningly tease an old man down by the canal. They use Neil as a shield to look like ‘good kids’ to others while they are plotting trouble. However John is himself a victim of domestic abuse, and when he allows his new friend an insight into the horror of his home life it is not without a price – and unfortunately it is Neil that has to pay it.

Kenworthy’s storytelling is fraught with the unease of negotiating one’s place in the world and pushing the boundaries of wrong and right. A moving coming of age story about friendship, bullying, disability and domestic abuse through the eyes of a naïve narrator who struggles to take in the significance of what he has seen, and reacts by desperately trying to do whatever it takes to salvage a friendship without acknowledging what he’s seen.

‘Remains’ by G. A. Pickin

In Pamphlets, Short Stories on November 15, 2011 at 2:01 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Pickin’s Remains is a tale of a walker (and a very particular type of walker at that- the protagonist is keen not to be associated with the middle class ‘Walking Business’) who, to his shame, loses his way. Opening with the warning from the third person narrator ‘He had set out too late, and now the light was dying’ the tone is neatly set for the rest of the story as the protagonist faces the challenge of finding his way back to the holiday cottage where he is meeting his friends.

Distinguishing himself from others is important to our protagonist, and his failure to return at a sensible hour is ‘a deviation from his self-image as a seasoned traveller’. The friends to whom he is meant to be returning he met on a gap year, but again he is keen to self-justify that his gap year hadn’t been the cliché of overprivileged students ‘windsurfing, white-water rafting, and bungee jumping with a few days of slumming it watching other people work in the host country’. Rather ‘He had chosen to do something real, something that called for hard graft but was satisfying… that would be of lasting benefit to his own country’.

Remains by GA Pickin, Nightjar Press, reviewed by Elinor Walpole

With the initial rational challenges of a rough and tricky-to-navigate terrain providing a sense of hard-won achievement for our protagonist, as his discomfort grows – he feels the ‘rhythmic nip of a blister’ and has set out without gloves as it is ‘not meant to be gloves weather’. The tone is introspective as our protagonist walks and reflects, his daydreaming the cause of his late return journey. He takes delight in playing out fantasies, channelling the spirit of a long-gone organist as he attempts ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’ on a broken instrument discovered at a ruin of a church and its surrounding hamlet, and ruminates on the roles of the past inhabitants, feeling the pastoral history.

The sense connection to nature comes out in the writing as it sensuously describes the elements and increasingly personifies the surroundings as our narrator becomes less aware of his position in relation to civilisation. The wind speaks in ‘chinese whispers’ that become ‘malicious gossip’ escalating to ‘plotting…a secret that concerned him’. The threatening mood is implied from the first page’s mention of ‘the day’s demise’ and as our traveller becomes more disoriented the narrative becomes punctuated with short, dramatic, statements such as ‘the torch went out’. Our protagonist tries to find comfort from reasoning through possibilities of finding his way back to the others in the dark, fighting his physical reactions to the fear that is setting in, and we shiver along with the narrator as his confidence starts to fail. The ruins he has taken pleasure in earlier become the eponymous ‘Remains’, left behind by the dead.

Pickin’s tale is an atmospheric, sensuous and eerie tale with a touch of tongue-in-cheek humour that doesn’t prevent you from being drawn into the panic as our protagonist’s rationality becomes distorted as the landscape that he has taken such pleasure from turns cruel.

[Remains, by G. A. Pickin, is a chapbook published by Nightjar Press, who produce limited edition, signed copies of works. This one was released at the same time as Sullom Hill, by Chrisopher Kenworthy, which we’ve reviewed here]