Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Christmas Special: Juliet Wilson

In Seasonal/End of year on December 25, 2011 at 10:00 am

A couple of days ago, I sent a call out on twitter for Christmassy poems or flash fiction, so that I could feature a piece on Sabotage on this special day. Many entries were sent, and I had to make the difficult decision to choose just one. In the end Juliet Wilson’s poem ‘Mythology of Flight’ won out and I think you’ll find it suitably festive! However, I can’t resist including also a runner up for all of us bah humbug sorts, a haiku by Ray Scanlon:

Outdoor speakers blare
Drummer Boy once too often–
where’s my bazooka?

Juliet Wilson has reviewed for us a fair bit in the past, with a particular focus on environmental magazines, you can read them all here. Her second chapbook of poetry, Unthinkable Skies was published in 2010 by Calder Wood Press. She blogs here. Enjoy!

Mythology of Flight

Snow covered fields.
Reindeer dig for lichen,
their breath rising like steam.The ancient ones told stories
of flying with an old man,
of many roofs in foreign lands,
of boxes, brightly wrapped.

The herd eats steadily,
heads down,
ears alert in the solemn matter
of survival.

In the distance –
a faint red glow,
the sound of sleigh bells
Juliet Wilson

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Fiction Reviews: A 2011 ‘Top Ten’

In Seasonal/End of year on December 17, 2011 at 10:05 am

-Decided by Richard T. Watson

It’s the time of year for lists again: lists of things, lists of people, lists of events and occasionally, just occasionally, lists of lists. I think lists of lists are my favourite.

It’s also a time to look for Christmas presents. Sabotage’s own Claire Trévien has already provided a Top Ten list of pamphlets for the poetry-lover in your life (or soon-to-be poetry-lover, once you’ve wowed them with your poetry pamphlet selection), so now here’s a list of suggestions from Sabotage’s fiction division. A Christmas Top Ten, if you like, of prose presents for the people in your life who like a bit of short story or novella every now and then.

I say it’s a Christmas Top Ten… It’s not a Top Ten based on any sort of reader feedback, bestseller charts or in-depth critical reading on my part. [The critical thinking has mostly been done by Sabotage’s reviewers, who are a lovely and hard-working bunch – thanks, guys!] I’m basing my list roughly on our most popular reviews on Sabotage, so maybe even if you don’t get the books themselves you can enjoy the reviews while hiding away from the family over Christmas and New Year. But y’know, the books are worth getting hold of too.

It’s more of a ‘Who did well this year’ list. Oh, and there’s only three entries, not ten. So, maybe a Christmas Sabotage Fiction Top Three…

1. Armchair/Shotgun #2 (indeed, all of their issues, but we covered the second) has an admirably egalitarian attitude to authorship, claiming: ‘Good writing does not know one MFA program from another. It does not know a PhD from a high school dropout…and it does not care what you have written before. Good writing knows only story.’ Good storytelling is central to Armchair/Shotgun #2, with our reviewer (Rory O’Sullivan) saying: ‘Many of the pieces illustrate grassroots story-telling at its very best […] and there is a freshness and a spice to this collection that brings to mind the originality of the Beat generation.’

2. We’ve had a review of Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories before Sabotage had a fiction division (I’m going to keep calling it a division, until someone suggests a better word), but the follow-up publication, Steam-Powered II: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories definitely makes this list in its own right. Both collections have been popular on Sabotage, and they sound like really great reads. Certainly if our reviewer’s opinion is anything to go by (and it is). The review (by Tori Truslow) says: ‘this anthology was a marvel to read, a real magical mystery airship tour crewed by rebel mechanics and guerrilla historians. If the first Steam-Powered was daring, the second is dazzling.’

3. My third entry to this list is a bit of a cop-out. We’ve reviewed both of the anthology publications from Unthank Books this year, winningly entitled Unthologies, and both have sounded well worth the read. Ian Chung reviewed Unthology #1 back in April, and agreed that it ‘largely achieves what it sets out to do in terms of ‘showcasing unconventional, unpredictable and experimental stories’ and ‘inject[ing] fresh venom into the shorter form’.’ Then Elinor Walpole reviewed Unthology #2 in October and concluded: ‘With such a variety of styles, voices and visions of what it is to be human, I believe that this makes up a very decent and edgy selection of ‘resonant tales for anxious times’.’

I’m also going to add this one (Ian Farnell’s review of Stefan Tegenfalk’s Anger Mode) in as a consolation fourth place, mainly because it’s amusing and references Bruce Springsteen a few times.

Finally, on a deliberately Christmas-themed note: if you haven’t bought presents yet, can I ask a favour of you? It’s not a difficult one, don’t worry.

If you’re willing to shop online, please have a browse through the retailers on Sabotage’s Spend and Raise page. Spend and Raise allows not-for-profits like Sabotage to raise a bit of cash via the commission on your online Christmas shopping – most importantly, it doesn’t cost you anything extra: you pay the amount you’d pay anyway, and Sabotage is given a percentage. All you have to do is go to the retailers through our Spend and Raise page, instead of directly.

Thanks a bunch, we really appreciate it.

Happy Christmas, and merry reading!

‘THE MOTH IS MOTH THIS MONEY NIGHT MOTH’ by David Berridge

In Pamphlets on December 13, 2011 at 10:00 am

-Reviewed by Rosie Breese

It’s awesome being a reviewer, because now and again, a jiffy bag comes through the letterbox containing something completely, wonderfully different. That’s exactly what happened when David Berridge’s superb collection THE MOTH IS MOTH THIS MONEY NIGHT MOTH plopped onto my doormat. A gorgeously put-together pamphlet from the Knives Forks and Spoons Press, it contains a series of poems – or word-equations – which shimmer and morph in the mind as they do on the page.

Words are dangerous things to work with. Their meanings shift. For example, the word different comes with a whole host of awkward connotations. Different can mean difficult; it can mean weird; it can mean uncategorisable. It could be construed as a lazy definition on my part; an attempt to distance myself from something I haven’t really ‘got’.

I’ll make a confession. I don’t ‘get’ this pamphlet. But I’ll make the case that ‘getting’ it might not be the be-all and end-all of this collection. Rather, it’s a space to be inhabited by both reader and writer, its meanings under constant exploration and review. Maybe this could be said of any collection of poetry, but it is especially apparent here, where there is so little conventional signposting for the reader.

The joy and beauty of these poems is that they don’t dictate to the reader how they should be approached. There’s no recourse to convention (except, perhaps, the emerging conventions of experimental poetry?), no rhyme, no metre, although there is a sense of internal cohesion, a progression of sound and meaning:

slake   night

green  snow

Here, there is a progression through the vowel sounds A/E/I/O (or A/I/E/O, depending on which way you choose to read it). The ‘U’ is missing – ‘you’ are perhaps lost or absorbed. There is a progression of ideas: ‘slake’ suggesting satisfaction, and conversely, thirst; ‘green’ and ‘snow’ forming what could be construed as a contrasting set of ideas – fertility and barrenness.

But that’s just one set of interpretations. Meaning, as Berridge’s wriggling word-strings suggest, is a mutable thing. The poems enact this through their constant movement, through the shifting of letters according to a logic imposed first by the writer, then by the reader:

feet  fashion  slake  low  mouth

t*o*n*
g*u*e*

___________

snow = star

There is a mutation, a sequence of interlocking sounds in the first line of this poem. There is a procession of ideas, each word trailing its subjective debris. The asterisks between the letters of ‘tongue’ could serve to defamiliarise, to question; equally, they could be the ‘stars’ referred to in the final statement ‘snow = star’. Then there is the sense of stars as snow on the tongue, of sensation inside and around the tongue; a glorious, unexpected physicality emanating from these isolated, decontextualised letterforms.

This tangibility was what really struck me when reading and re-reading this collection. There’s a vividness, a synaesthesia here. From the outset, the reader is plunged into a sensual world, with the body and environment in direct contact:

feet  lake  green  lake  mouth  lake  felt  lake  night  night  lake  tongue  lake

There is no direction as to how you should feel when reading this, what you should look at first, or take with you when you leave the page. This lack of overt direction brings with it a sense of immediacy, urgency even, which brings the reader into communion with the word itself and the whole sensual world inside the mind.

As for themes, maybe it’s just because it’s the Christmas shopping season, but for me, the repeated ideas of ‘money’ and ‘fashion’ suggested materialism, something which is reinforced through patterning of ‘mouth’, ‘tongue’, ‘belly’ and ‘slake’, all related to the act of consumption. There is the sense of a process throughout – the process of consumption, of mass-production of meanings, shifting and multiplying with each rearrangement and re-reading.

In this context, I found Berridge’s chosen ending devastating. A short sequence of three words with the initial consonants bracketed and brought into question. They can’t be read unless it is accepted that what you are reading here is a vast swathe of possible meanings:

(s)tar     (g)leen     (t)outh

The sequence ends with three simple and definite words, which in themselves open an abyss for further exploration – a sense of absence that persists:

money             mouth  night

This inconclusive conclusion is fitting. The whole sequence revolves around the evasion of grasp – of words, of meaning, of satiety. Intentionally or not, these poems make the case for art as context; for poetry as a negotiable space.

This is a beautiful piece of work which shifts and moves under the gaze like the living thing an artwork should be allowed to be. I don’t get it yet; I might never ‘get’ it, and I’m fine with that. But I am sure of two things about it: that I will come back to it again and again, and that every time I do, it will be different, in the best and most valuable sense of the word.

Poetry Pamphlets: A 2011 Top Ten

In Seasonal/End of year on December 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm

-Assembled by Claire Trevien

Pamphlets make the perfect Christmas present or stocking filler. For one, they’re usually gorgeously produced objects, for another there’s something manageable and enticing about their small size. So, if you’re trying to convert a loved one to poetry, you could do worse than spring one of these chapbooks on them. This list is a mixture of favourite pamphlets reviewed on Sabotage, suggestions from others after issuing a call-out on twitter and facebook (democracy in action!) and my own subjective taste. You will find below pamphlets for wrestlers and nature-lovers, for burlesque dancers and do-gooders, for neuroscientists and performers, something for everyone then.

In no particular order:

  1. Megan Fernandes, Organ Speech, Corrupt Press. This ‘unnervingly good’ debut pamphlet is the perfect present for those dragons who ‘read / they were dinosaurs and became / conservative’. Technically rigorous stuff that handles neuroscience with learned ease and is still generous enough to let you in. Read the review here.
  2. Jon Mitchell, March and After: poems from Tsunami Country, Printed Matter Press. Christmas is all about giving, so what could be better than to offer a limited-edition pamphlet with proceeds going towards Peace Boat operations in Tohoku?
  3. Emily Hasler, Natural Histories, Tim Cockburn, Appearances in the Bentick Hotel, and Mark Burnhope, The Snowboy, all from the Salt Modern Voices pamphlet series. A special mention goes out to JT Welsch’s Orchids and Amy De’Ath’s Eric & Enide whose pamphlets, published in December of last year, narrowly miss out from the narrow criteria of a year-by-year list, but are also excellent. The whole series is worth investigating and I am cheating a little by mentioning so many as a single offering but this is in part because they look wonderful together (as well as separately).
  4. Sarah Dawson, Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals . For those people out there who can only read on their Kindle, Dawson’s short collection is the perfect present. Created especially for electronic consumption, the usual hindrances of reading poetry on a screen are avoided.
  5. Angus Sinclair, Another Use of Canvas, Gatehouse Press. Who said poetry can’t be butch? When the world of wrestling and poetry combine, the reader is treated to a glimpse into a new exciting world. Read the review here.
  6. Deborah Tyler-Bennett , Mytton…Dyer…Sweet Billy Gibson, Nine Arches Press. Nine Arches produce beautiful pamphlets too and the content of this one, with its larger than life personalities, is sure to be the perfect present. Hand it out, read it out loud and enjoy.
  7. Luke Kennard, Planet-Shaped HorseNine Arches Press. Many have tried to imitate Kennard’s wonderful mixture of absurdist, acerbic wit and seeming off-handedness, but very few have succeeded (a trend that’s perhaps worse than Bukowski imitations). This poem-play is a gift you should give at all times of the year. Read the review here.
  8. Kirsten Irving, What To Do, Happenstance Press. Irving needs no introduction to regular readers of Sabotage, we loved her numerous collaborative projects with Jon Stone, while this pamphlet got an excellent review from Chris Emslie here. Buy this while stocks still last because Irving is a poet to watch.
  9. James McGonigal, Cloud Pibroch, Mariscat Press. McGonigal’s pamphlet was the winner of the Michael Marks award and was also a PBS choice. Don’t let the accolades put you off, this pamphlet is a quietly impressive work that’ll make you look at nature afresh. Read the review here.
  10. Wayne Holloway-Smith, Beloved in Case You’ve Been Wondering, Donut Press. If aesthetics are your primary concerns then Donut Press should be one of your first points of call – they make thick, well-crafted objects with beautifully designed covers. Holloway-Smith’s is no exception, but the content is decadently wonderful too. Holloway-Smith gives us a world full of masks, sleeze and burlesque dancers, but of strange beauty too. It must sound like someone you know, give it to them.

A Pamphlet that I Have Not Read but Which I Am Told is Excellent

I have not read Roisin Tierney, Dream Endings (Rack Press) but it has been nominated several times so I put it forward as a Wild Card Bonus. According to the internet, it begins with the poet’s dying sister and ends with an exuberant funeral. Having read Tierney’s poetry in The Art of Wiring I can only expect this pamphlet to be an excellent & well-crafted pamphlet.

‘This Line Is Not For Turning’, ed. by Jane Monson (Cinnamon Press)

In anthology on December 12, 2011 at 9:50 am

-Reviewed by John McGhee 

Kindles still garble poetry.  Line breaks are a crapshoot and poets who attempt exotic formatting are thwarted.  So, as poetry moves slowly into this post-paper age, perhaps now is a pivotal time for prose poetry, as it is the only poetic structure that is utterly resilient to e-reader distortion.  Sentences.  Paragraphs.  Right-justified.  Simple.

From Cinnamon Press, This Line Is Not For Turning is a timely and rousing anthology of 91 prose poems from 36 contemporary British poets.  In this selection, the editor, Jane Monson, openly favours conversational and pithy examples of the genre, poems with ‘a good story’, ‘surprising detail’ and ‘a sharp ear’.

Consequently, memorable narratives abound, some charming, many alarming.  Snowbound siblings exchange body parts, a halophilic lunatic runs amok, there’s stepson-lobster bonding and an eight-year-old Kierkegaard hides under the dining table (in, respectively, Carrie Etter’s ‘Sisters’, Richard Gwyn’s ‘More About Salt’, David Gilbert’s ‘Lobsters feel pain the same way humans do’, and Jane Monson’s ‘Kierkegaard’s Chairs’).  These narratives work successfully both as flash fictions and as poetry.

There are a handful of longer pieces and these have more elbow room to layer detail upon detail.  George Szirtes does this expertly in his ‘Two of Four Houses’; the first house he describes is filled with music:

‘comprised of creaks, whispers and snuffles; rain on glass, branches on windows, someone yawning, someone singing in a kitchen, someone listening to radio in a distant room, a music always elsewhere.’

His second house, of course, turns out to be ‘much smaller and much more specific’.

More than half of the poems are related by first person narrators, typically offering up personal and often surreal incidents.  Andy Brown uses dialogue subtly to unwrap his characters.  The small girl, the bird and the clown in ‘Clown Alley’ are rendered particularly effectively, with just a few well-chosen snippets of speech.  A dry humour pervades: from Luke Kennard’s profound, and seemingly effortless, drollery, to Rebecca Perry’s elaborate apocalypsing, to Robert Vas Dias’ elegant daydreams.

As each selected poem is relatively short, there are many strong first lines to hook the reader.  There are daring opening moves, offered like wagers – can the poem deliver on the promise of the openings, the underlying premise?  Amongst the opening lines here, there are zingers:

‘By feeding me earth for a week you earned my belligerence.’ (Nathan Thompson)

‘My father had six fingers, a hooked nose and one eye.’ (Linda Black)

‘The oldest man in the world has just died.’ (Anthony Rudolf)

‘The boy built the bridge with just his hands.’ (Lamorna Elmer)

‘This morning she bonded with a biscuit.’ (Joyce Goldstein)

and the especially wonderful:

‘She put the plate down six inches out of his reach.’ (Diana Fairfax)

By including so many short poems, there is a risk that this selection could feel a little choppy – you’ve only just digested one poem when you’re on to the next one, which may be quite different in content and texture.  Actually, that’s fine by me.  One of many favourites in this anthology is the perfectly succinct ‘Unavailable’ by Sylvia Fairclough which, in three sentences, condenses how travellers have to surrender control over their personal surroundings.

As a summary and a signpost, This Line Is Not For Turning is close to essential for anyone with an interest in contemporary British prose poetry.  The book’s introduction raises the question: is prose poetry still a ‘hidden’ form’?  Well, there aren’t many examples of prose poetry in recent state-of-the-nation anthologies like The Best British Poetry 2011, or The Forward Book of Poetry 2011.  But, to me, prose poetry does seem to have increasing relevance and visibility.  The journals and presses from which these poems were drawn continue to show commitment to the form: Shearsman, Salt, Templar, to name just a few.  And, as more poetry is read online and with e-readers, the imperviousness of the form to inconsiderate electronic reformatting can only help.  But I should mention that this anthology is not (currently) available on Kindle.

Hammer and Tongue Camden vs Oxford: Part 2, Oxford

In Performance Poetry on December 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm

11/10/11

@ Oxford Hub above Turl Street Kitchen

– by James Webster –

I have a fondness for Hammer and Tongue, their events were my first taste of performance poetry. Their slams running in 6 different locations provide a lot of people with similarly excellent introductions to poetry slams. So in October I was very happy to attend two H&T slams in two days in two different cities.

They were quite different, but drawn together by H&T`s core values: poetry, politics and an open and supportive atmosphere. It’s poetry opened up for (and often involving) the audience.

I thought it fitting given I saw them on successive days to compare the two. Second: Oxford.

Venue: Turl Street Kitchen vs. Green Note Cafe

  • The Turl Street Kitchen was a lovely place. The upstairs events space doubles as the firstUKcentre dedicated to volunteering and activism: it features a notice board updating you to all the activism and collective projects they’re working on, and a lovely bar/restaurant downstairs. The performance space could’ve used more tables, but was a very intimate little room with good atmosphere.

Comparison: Good atmosphere in a seat of genuine activism. Just gets the nod over Camden’s hipster haven, the Green Note.

Hosts: Steve and Lucy vs Sam and Michelle

  • The hosting was just a bit special at this month’s Hammer and Tongue, as H&T founder and Oxford host Steve Larkin handed over the torch to new hosts Lucy Ayrton and Tina Sederholm. Giving a brief history of H&T from its beginnings (originally inspired by the B52 Two) rooted in politics, activism and the belief poetry can be a medium for change, it was a rousing reminder of where H&T came from and the reason we perform poetry.
  • He followed up by later taking a turn as the ‘Sacrifical Poet’ (used to calibrate judges’ scores for the slam) with a raucous poem ‘Fat Sex in D Minor’ ripping into the content of women’s magazines obsessed with body size and how to have better sex. Consummate delivery, matched with expert use of repetition, it build his aggravation to a frantic peak as he savaged magazines’ cynical recycling of sex, fat and the appropriated idea of the ‘new woman’. 24.2.
  • Lucy Ayrton took over hosting duties (Tina was sadly absent) and she made for a charming host. Friendly, funny and with a bit of a twinkle in her eye, she and Steve combined to keep the evening ticking nicely.
  • Like Steve her first foray into performance poetry was political and her poem ‘I Don’t Hate Men, I Just Hate You’ was overflowing with fluid rhythm and quick-footed rhymes. She packs a lot into the poem, rattling it out in righteous fashion as she dismantles the fiction that, as a feminist, she hates men. Her faux-patronising was especially entertaining.

The comparison: Tough. Sam and Michelle of Camden are excellent, butOxford’s touching handover of hosting from Steve Larkin to Lucy Ayrton distilled the essence of H&T and sneaked a victory.

Slam: Oxford vs Camden

  • Peter Whitton. His poem on Savonarola (complete with audience call and response) was full of amusing rhyme and benefited from an enthused audience. A rollicking rhythm buoys the poem of monks, papal decadence and doom along. Gerald Manley Hopkins meets Tom Lehrer. 23.2
  • James Webster. I had a lot of fun, it was a lovely crowd, they seemed to like my poem ‘What Are You Thinking’ (on a woman asking her partner for his thoughts, late at night and his reluctance to share) and gave me a very kind 25.7.
  • Joe Hughes had a couple of nicely nostalgic poems. One on walking in on his parents en flagrante that’s very funny, becomes kind of idyllic and ends with him in hospital, and another ‘Dolly Mixture’ on the different ways he and his sister used to eat sweets. Appropriately sweet. 25.2
  • Darrell Moore’s ‘Bankers Wrath’ was very funny and impressively full of jargon that kept the poem rolling, his banker character is appropriately awful and creepy (threatens the narrator with being ‘processed like a chicken nugget’). 25.7
  • Paul Askew’s three short poems were fabulous. The first on an Oxford Tube journey that was a well-expressed example of public transport imaginings on seeing a pretty girl. ‘Sex in the City’ used the title as the central refrain about his ex-girlfriend, changing the words slightly each time that created a superbly embarrassed humour. And ‘Potatoes’ was on a poor family for whom potatoes are not only their sustenance, but their toys and in extreme (-ly embarrassing) cases their pornography. All very funny and exceptionally performed. 27.1

Winner: Paul Askew and rightfully so.

Comparison: Some very good poets at both events, butOxford were just a little more consistently excellent (and the score seem to reflect this).

Feature

  • Anna McCrory is utterly charming. The president of Oxford University Poetry Society (pronounced ‘oops’) her poems were erudite, funny and charismatically performed.
  • Her first ‘To Man who Splashed in Puddle’, inspired by a puddle inManchester, was a good character piece with some light parody of herself, it was self aware and very amusing.
  • ‘Geeks United’ was by far my favourite. An incredibly sweet, geek-hip take on the socially awkward adapting to university life (“I’m going to listen to some of that ‘emu’ music …”). Her performance, complete with actions, was very accomplished and the whole things was endearingly loser-ish. When she said “We’re geeks who high-five … high-five?” I wanted to get up and high-five her.
  • Her next ‘The Von Ratts’ was a reimagining of the singing family from The Sound of Music; Anna outlined her plan to get her singing and rapping family on Britain’s Got Talent/X-Factor. Hilarity ensued, and it was quite a nice commentary on the inherent problems on grooming children for stardom.
  • Finally ‘The Wizard of Argos’ gave us some incredible lyricism onArgos, all dressed up as film and fairytale. Very nice satire.

Comparison: As charming and funny and erudite as Anna is, Paula and Richard over at Camden just edged it with the double team.

The final feature (both here and in Camden) was Henry Bowers, Swedish poet extraordinaire, who will soon receive his own Spotlight feature, as he is just that good.

Overall comparison: In the end there was not much between the two fantastic nights, I think I enjoyed Oxford a touch more thanks to Steve Larkin’s potted history of H&T and his moving handover to the new team. But both nights gave a great account of what makes Hammer & Tongue nights so fun and makes their brand so unique.

Hammer & Tongue Camden vs Oxford: Part 1, Camden

In Performance Poetry on December 10, 2011 at 4:04 pm

10/10/11

@The Green Note Cafe

– Reviewed by James Webster (with help from Dana Bubulj) –

I have a fondness for Hammer and Tongue; their events were my first taste of performance poetry. Their slams running in 6 different locations provide a lot of people with similarly excellent introductions to poetry slams. So in October I was very happy to attend two H&T slams in two days in two different cities.

They were quite different, but drawn together by H&T`s core values: poetry, politics and an open and supportive atmosphere. It’s poetry opened up for (and often involving) the audience.

I thought it fitting given I saw them on successive days to compare the two. First: Camden.

The Venues – Green Note Cafe vs Turl Street Kitchen

The Green Note seems like a bit of a creative hub, also hosting music, comedy and the Utter: Spoken Word poetry night. It has a nice bohemian feel and a nice atmosphere for poetry, very intimate and communal.

The comparison: Sadly, the Green Note and its hipster haven doesn’t quite have the Turl Street Kitchen’s sense of community and activism: Oxford edges it.

The Hosts: Michelle and Sam vs. Lucy and Steve

  • Michelle Madsen and ‘Angry’ Sam Berkson make a great team. Both equally quick with a welcome as with a wisecrack, they’re encouraging, they get the crowd involved, make the rules of the slam clear, and summon the same boundless enthusiasm for their poets every month. They are especially good at making newcomers feel welcome, as Michelle said ‘if you’re a slam virgin we will take your cherry with grace’.
  • Sam’s poem on road safety from the government was biting, funny (if slightly marred for me by a minor rape joke) and filled with amusingly random anecdote breaks, including such lines as ‘’cos you’ve kept your distance to two chevrons you can join me in the kingdom of Heaven’ and ‘we only kill people if they’re inferior culturally, signed: The Government’. It was good stuff.

The comparison: Tough. Sam and Michelle are excellent, but Oxford featured a touching handover of hosting from Steve Larkin to Lucy Ayrton that distilled the essence of H&T and sneaked a victory.

The Slam: Camden vs Oxford

  • 3 minutes, 5 judges, 30 points up for grabs, winner goes through to the November final. Let’s go!
  • David Lee Morgan was this month’s sacrifice (used to calibrate judge scoring), and his poem seemed to sum up all the fight and struggle of western history in three minutes. Impressive imagery, but a little unfocused. Sam Berkson describes him best as ‘Blake fucking Ginsberg’. 22.3
  • James Webster’s ‘Taken For’ was described by my co-reviewer as ‘fluid, rather smooth, but you should be worried that he manages to explain that character in a sympathetic way’ and by Michelle as a ‘John Donne persuasive poem’. 20.8
  • Stephanie Dogfoot ‘Queen of Singapore Slam’ and her letter to her 12-year-old self was well written, but needed to be more smoothly and confidently performed. 20.4
  • Gilbert Francois’s ‘I Did It for the Bees’ a poem of cockney rhyming slang, complete with translation, was certainly skilful, but I didn’t think the content of the poem was strong enough to back it up, and lines like ‘at least I didn’t have to pay for the abortion’ made me cringe. 22.3
  • Alan Wolfson is a man with the kind of moustache any hipster would want to grow up to be. His ‘Kissing Application Form’ is amusing, and his poem on Gaddaffi (we should catch him and demote him to sergeant) was took a savage delight in humiliating the former dictator. Well crafted poems, honed delivery, but I sometimes fail to grasp the point. 22
  • John Paul O’Neil, the man behind Farrago, gave a strong performance that emphasised the fond nostalgia of an early caper involving his sister painting a light switch on a wall (he took the blame) and hovered over the heart-wrenching images of her in hospital, years later. 22.1

Winner: Gilbert Francois, but or my money John Paul was more deserving.

Comparison: Some very good poets at both events, but Oxford were just a little more consistently excellent (and the score seem to reflect this).

The Features: Richard Marsh and Paula Varjack vs. Anna McCrory

First up was Richard Marsh. One of the hosts of Sage and Time (a top event), he’s a poet I admire greatly. His show ‘Skittles’ has recently garnered him a string of superb reviews (and is on this coming week at the BAC in London), and with an engaging manner and some uniquely entertaining poems, you can see why. These were my favourites:

  • His poem for fools is immense. It’s a rallying cry for those who tilt at life’s windmills, for the bruised and ever enthusiastic ‘mucky-faced adventurers’. He demonstrates a knack for turning phrases that flow into his litany for the ‘stirrers of the future’s cauldron’.
  •  ‘Glamorous Tesco’s’ was fantastic. A story where Richard gets a crush on a check-out girl and a self-checkout machine (ably played by Michelle Madsen) gets a crush on him (‘love-notes will be dispensed below the scanner’). Absurdly touching humour.
  • ‘Pub’ described a post-breakup hook-up in a pub. It’s self-deprecating and deft, blending setting and theme; the characters sharing a ‘salt and vinegar kiss’ before humorously describing their drunken sex. Then it suddenly shifting into a more fluid and sweet style (‘We’re Michelangelo’s chisel, we’re Snoop Dogg’s shizzle’) and ends with the two finding each other while trying to forget the past. Awwww.

Next was Paula Varjack who has come over fromBerlin to tour theUK. An entertaining poet,

  • She started strong with ‘Why You Should Never Date an Artist’, a list of all the artists you shouldn’t date and why not. Equally cutting on conceptual artists, poets and musicians, it’s very funny and often lovely.
  •  ‘My Country’ was a role-swap, inspired by a guy who once said ‘I don’t like the term ex-pat, I prefer migrant’. It’s effectively done, imagining the US and UK as countries no-one had heard of, and wittily describing pub culture and prom as quaint cultural rituals. But it didn’t feel like she quite fulfilled the idea’s potential.
  •  ‘Not Even Worth Stealing’, on why no-one looted any books in the recent riots, started as a really insightful take on why people looted. Then it got somewhat simplistic, dubbing the riots ‘not revolution, but consumerist warfare’, which didn’t seem to live up to its earlier astute originality.

The comparison: Richard and Paula’s different styles and entertaining material mean that, no matter how charming Oxford’s Anna McCrory is, Camden takes home the victory in this category.

The final feature (both here and in Oxford) was Henry Bowers, Swedish poet extraordinaire, who will soon receive his own Spotlight feature, as he is just that good.

Please check out the next review for the Oxford event and final comparison!

Also, the next Hammer & Tongue Camden event is this coming Monday 12th if you’re interested.

‘Zimzalla Object 005’ by Derek Beaulieu

In Object, Pamphlets on December 9, 2011 at 10:08 am

-Reviewed by Suzannah Evans

Derek Beaulieu has stated himself that ‘there is still no accepted critical vocabulary for concrete poetry‘, and I can agree with this; reviewing his work presents some challenges. He is the editor of the visual poetry section of UBUWEB and the author of five poetry collections, three volumes of fiction and 150 chapbooks / pamphlets. There is no doubt that this man  is a linchpin of contemporary radical visual and concrete poetry.

Having said that, I had not heard of him before I received ZimZalla 005 through the post, an unusual item consisting of a cotton bag containing a magnifying glass and a miniature booklet not much bigger than a postage stamp. The whole thing was delightfully novel for my first ever Sabotage review, and challenged any pre-conceptions I might have had about reviewing poetry in print.

In this collection Beaulieu constructs images which use letters, rather than whole words (as with some concrete poems). The letters are combined with line drawings and this results in tiny intricate graphics, many of which are reminiscent of visual images that already exist in our day-to-day lives; staircases, map contours, chains of molecules, pieces of machinery. There is a great breadth of style in the graphics. In some the letters are easily recognisable, some are abstract and too tiny to read. The visual styles range from dot-matrix to calligraphy.

The collection presents some problems of understanding, however. I say ‘understanding’ instead of ‘reading’ because an attempt to read this as words or letters, from top left to bottom right, would, I think, result in some disappointment and a lack of meaning.

Having looked at other examples of Beaulieu’s work with letters on his website , such as this beautiful piece,  swarms, I think that this collection loses something from its small size. It is condensed and delicate but at the same time it is not as visually appealing as something like swarms and I would be unlikely to go back to it repeatedly just for the pleasure of the images.

This collection sits somewhere between poetry and visual art, a depiction of familiar shapes weirdly altered. It forces the reader to look at letters not just for the sound given to them or the words that they form but for their visual properties. By positioning these letters inside half-familiar settings and arrangements Beaulieu asks the reader to examine language as a construction. This is enhanced by focusing on the smallest possible unit of language, the individual letter outside of the word, potentially somewhat meaningless on a first reading but becoming more significant in an investigation of shape and sound.

Night and Day #3

In Magazine, online magazine on December 8, 2011 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by Chris Emslie

This magazine, an offshoot of Vintage Books (they’re the ones who affix pretty, minimalist red-and-white covers to all the books you feel like you should have read by now), is interesting because it strays from the conventional literary magazine model. Yes, it offers a variety of prose and poetry, set alongside disarmingly old-fashioned illustration and decoration. Yes, its target market is unabashedly literary – Philip Birch’s article on escaping the drear of administrative work at a publishing house reflects this. However, this is not the lit mag many readers may expect. Night and Day are indeed delivering new literature, but their vehicle is distinctly journalistic. Eley Williams’s ‘Synaesthete, Would Like To Meet’ is a charming opening piece, though its cerebral first-person often blurs the line between short fiction and human interest column. The story is certainly warm and engaging, and its deliberately personal account of neurological synaesthesia is a sensitive progression from the fascination writers like Meaghan Delahunt have previously had with the condition.

The issue’s subtitle, ‘States of Mind’, flits in and out of the pieces. Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz recounts a professional encounter in which a patient mistakes nostalgia for her child’s dependence on her for sexual dissatisfaction. To attribute these misidentified yearnings – both innately physical – to states of mind teeters on the edge of patronising. That’s not to mention the nonchalance with which defunct Freudian overtones are evoked and then dismissed. The “misread[ing]” of a state of mind that Grosz hands down to the reader in this article is perhaps more distressing than his revelatory tone suggests.

The next piece concerns a different Freud altogether – the late, great painter Lucian Freud. In his interview with one of Freud’s last sitters, Ria Kirby, Rob Sharp explores more of the ageing artist’s relationship with his model(s) than either his or Kirby’s state of mind. Freud’s old reputation of course surfaces, but what Sharp gleans is more a retrospective on how posing nude for the canvas affected Kirby’s daily routine and which social engagements Freud invited her to. This article feels more like fond gossip than any sort of psychic interrogation of the artist-sitter dynamic.

‘The Lives of Others’, an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by Neel Mukherjee, is stark and affecting. Despite becoming bogged down in its own language, this snapshot of absolute hopelessness is undeniably harrowing. Its detachment from reality is what gives the matter-of-fact prose its force: the protagonist’s “practised farmer’s hand” bringing a sickle down on his wife’s neck is chilling because it is so calm. Mukherjee details three murders without flinch or hysteria. He gives his character no alternative. What this excerpt distils into is the horrid but inescapable logic that comes when agency is wholly stripped away.

I am sure this will reveal tremendous bias on my part, but there is not enough poetry in this third issue of Night and Day. We are offered two poems by Toby Martinez De Las Rivas and two by Rachael Allen. The former are set alongside a three-line excerpt from a longer poem by Lisa Jarnot – an excerpt which is strong enough to be called insufficient in this context. De Las Rivas gives us two incredibly dense texts. The first is ‘Untitled’, a ten-line breeze block of cultural sniping. De Las Rivas disparages “these heaving galleries, / rats in tortoiseshell nerd-glasses” with a surprising amount of venom, foreseeing “hell as it really is” in “Purcell’s death chants piped over the duct-taped rubble”. By the end of the poem its strongest idea – the “tenacity of loss” – is almost buried under De Las Rivas’s vented spleen.

His second poem, ‘Singsong’, is more welcoming, though a little uncertain of its own shape. Images like “the spectral disk of each iris” are perhaps too inflated for their subject matter, but De Las Rivas recovers his charm in the poem’s more grounded moments: “Lá, d’you remember how the rain stumbled down on us, / and we dumped the others and scuttled home through it.” The poem then veers off again into a high, almost scriptural register, and only settles again in its final moments, having passed through Gateshead, Massachusetts and Northumberland to rest on the “arc of winter, deathbell, apostle of pine trees and snow”. This final trio of images cools De Las Rivas’s linguistic fever and recalls the Norwegian poet Tarjei Vesaas, which seems all too appropriate at this time of year.

Rachael Allen’s poems are much more direct. In this case, their openness and immediacy is refreshing. ‘Milestones’ gives an account of a stillbirth that is arresting because of Allen’s clever manipulation of the narrative space. The truth of the lines is not realised until around the third stanza, in one of those rare (and usually heartbreaking) moments that the reader is prompted to stop and re-read the line in an awful surge of understanding. The baby enters the poem “half-done, swollen and shining” and “dark as petrified wood”. Allen’s invocation of the mythical ferryman Charon is slightly heavy-handed but the images here are generally thoughtful and delicately expressed. The poem ends soberly and without much ado, “before we’d even begun / to let you go.”

Allen’s second offering is thankfully lighter. The almost-caricature of a waiter “opening up his grinning arms / to the erect pepper grinder, as large / as his leg” fuels an incisive exploration of the (presumably male) speaker’s sexual anxiety. The poem, candidly titled ‘Impotence’, is insightful without descending into mockery or humour for humour’s own sake. This awareness of the absurd and its intersection with real life gives the poem a credibility that is harder to achieve than it might appear. Allen’s final lines rescue the poem from its own comic trap:

“[…]Glancing around, I chew
in questions, everyone around us has taken
everything to talk about so that suddenly, after
years, we have nothing to say.”

The third issue of Night and Day presents an intriguing intersection of literature and journalism, one that poses questions about how we define the term ‘literary magazine’. Its aesthetic is consistent and appealing, but often proves distracting from the content itself. While the mix of poetry, prose and nonfiction here is healthy, anecdotal articles and photographic peeks into creative workspaces seem to water it down.  Ultimately, there is a feeling of art taking the back seat in this issue. I welcome a communal forum for literature and journalism, but it should be on even ground – the space afforded to the arts is shrinking fast enough as it is.

‘Organ Speech’ by Megan Fernandes

In Pamphlets on December 7, 2011 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by Charles Whalley

From the Paris-based Corrupt Press, the unremarkable cover of Megan Fernandes’ Organ Speech hides a remarkable collection of poems that are mature, intelligent and bold, ranging over family, memory, desire, botany, neuroscience, Anglo-Saxon poetry, The Troubles, and Alice in Wonderland . The best description of her surreal style is perhaps (to borrow something else) ‘cognitive poetics’, as she exploits the synaesthetic and associatory possibilities of language. The best poems in Organ Speech, such as ‘Here is earnest’, are those in which language itself seems to dictate the content. It takes a poet with a very keen and free awareness of words, the “recipes for moods” – the objective correlative? – , to produce tremendous lines which seem to produce considerable effects entirely out of themselves, like “Teach me about / ghosts and abstractions, / and the caffeine of wrecked space.” (‘Here is earnest’)

For Fernandes, language and thought map on top of each other, and so in many of the poems, and in her dominant mode, she dramatises or allegorises thought to create fantastic (in the proper sense of the word) landscapes and uncanny images where language is the primary logic. So, for instance, in the opening ‘Synaptic Space’, suicide by a gun becomes a way to project “your synapses” across (or on to) the universe, making the mind a microcosm of space (or space a macrocosm of the mind) where you can “[f]ollow the scent / of your childhood pajamas, they smelled something sweet and / deranged: measles, beetles, and boxed apple juice”. The individual becomes an explorer within their own thoughts, which have been stretched out and rendered tangible or spatial. In ‘THE BRAINHOOD ADVENTURE!’, Fernandes starts this exploration by opening the poem with “Eyes turn inwards”, to use the idea that we could look at our own brains to introduce an allegory of thought, desire and memory, mixing the literal morphology of the brain with a dream-like fantasy journey; for example:

‘Beside the swing, on the spongy terrain,
I take you to meet Ida in the Cannibale café,

in the parietal northwest corner of the brain.’

We are simultaneously in the spongy brain and in Paris, and not really in either. Because the events are fantastic the reader can’t create a mental picture independent of the text, and so almost complete agency is given to language. This gives a sense of freedom and of infinite possibility.

The surreal brainhood adventures provide an effective training ground for when Fernandes attempts more concrete topics. A poet who knows that violet “makes grief / but never quaintness or purposeful”(‘Here is earnest’) can produce lines as perfect as “give me / dead lavender and raw milk”(‘Corinne on Bodies of Water’). In the sinister and unnerving ‘Queens’, for instance, which is about hijra in Mumbai, the heart of the poem is provided by a sudden flash of the surreal:

‘They stir me through female nightmares: ash-heaps, fields of limbs, everything in
twos.’

The “nightmares” give a pretext for the uncanny images that follow. (Although the more I read that line the more “stir” seems like the cleverest part of it.) In ‘Archives’ and ‘Hallways’ Fernandes writes about her family, and the mental richness that these subjects provide a landscape in which she can invigorate concrete topics with little flashes of the surreal (often, again, with the pretext of ‘imagining’ or ‘dreams’).

On the other end of this, the poems sometimes falter when they become fixed in the concrete, as is the case with ‘Grendel’, for instance, which is about a murder, and the victim’s sympathy for the culprit. (The ‘pretty murder victim’ theme is a bit LiveJournal.) Fernandes is perhaps a bit too insistent upon the strength of the reality of the moment, and doesn’t seem to want to let language get in the way. As a result, the poem is like the dragons in ‘Here is earnest’ who “read / they were dinosaurs and became / conservative”, and is somewhat dry and thin. However, we expect a pamphlet to be varied, and it’s quite possible readers other than myself will enjoy the more serious poems. (If I have been talking a lot about personal preference in this review, it is because the sort of poetry that is so dazzling in this pamphlet is the poetry most exposed to the idiolect fringes of words.)

It is exciting to discover a new poet and a new press. Megan Fernandes is a sophisticated and sensitive writer, and her poems are, by turn, surprising, vivid and affecting. Organ Speech is unnervingly good.